The Underground Battle For Freedom

Down In A Small Tashkent Basement, You’ll Find A Bastion Of Hope and Liberty.
Matteo Fagotto
Tashkent (Uzbekistan) – The cosy underground stage is immersed in total darkness; the seats are filled to capacity. The theatre is so tiny that the first row of spectators shares the squeaky, wooden floor with the performers.

Suddenly, the spotlights dazzle a couple of young actors, battered and dressed in rags, lying among old barrels and plastic garbage. They impersonate two desperate young addicts from a poor neighbourhood.

A side door opens, and a couple of police officers walk menacingly towards them.

Tonight’s play is titled Rain Behind The Wall. The drama takes place in an unspecified post-Soviet country plagued by police violence, corruption and lack of perspectives for poor urban classes. Beside the stage, a rock band dressed in Soviet militia uniforms accompanies each scene with a skilful mix of rock pieces and more solemn tracks to mark the shifting atmospheres.

The audience follows intently as the play escalates amid police abuses and retaliatory attacks by the neighbourhood inhabitants. At the end of two breathtaking hours, the public erupts in loud applause.

A dozen actors bow respectfully to hundreds of clapping hands, then run back to their dressing rooms. The spectators leave the low-ceiling-hall in a matter of minutes, inebriated by yet another masterful performance of the Ilkhom theatre company.

“The final applause marks the border between the play and the real world, but actors don’t like this strict separation,” explains 48-year-old Boris Gafurov, the theatre’s artistic director.

“We would like the spectators to absorb the atmosphere we created on stage and bring it home with them.”

A musician wearing a soviet militia uniform stands before the theatre entrance.

Located in the capital Tashkent, Ilkhom (“inspiration” in the Uzbek language) was created in 1976 by Mark Weil, an incredibly talented and visionary local director of Alsatian-Jewish origins.

At that time, Uzbekistan was still part of the Soviet Union, and Ilkhom was the first independent theatre in the whole USSR. Despite its controversial, provocative plays and uncensored approach to reality – and much to the surprise of its own founders and supporters – the theatre managed to survive the fall of Communism and the subsequent iron-fisted dictatorship of Islam Karimov, a former Soviet apparatchik who took over Uzbekistan after the collapse of the Soviet Union and ruled it until his death in 2016.

The theatre is hosted in the basement of a semi-abandoned complex in the city centre, in the same former potato warehouse where Weil, who was just 24 at the time, founded it. Despite its dilapidated interiors and worn-down floors, the place exudes a unique atmosphere that permeates anyone entering it.

“I call this place the Vatican of Uzbekistan because it has its spirit and rules,” explains 50-year-old Irina Bharat, Ilkhom’s deputy general manager. “We learnt from our founder to be brave and to do whatever we deemed right, no matter the consequences. That’s how we managed to survive for so many years.”

The story of Ilkhom is an incredible tale of how a bastion of freedom could thrive in the harshest of dictatorships.

When Weil opened the theatre together with a bunch of theatre students, Soviet authorities barely took notice. Tashkent is geographically far from Moscow, the then-seat of executive power, and the seeds of sedition were unlikely to travel that far. Weil was skilled and brave enough to exploit this unexpected opening: in such a conformist dictatorship, people were hungry for space to express themselves freely.

After the success stirred by Ilkhom’s first Moscow tour in 1982, the theatre started attracting the unwanted attention of the central government. Despite continuous friction with the authorities and repeated closure threats, Weil assured the survival of Ilkhom, exploiting the complex and at times strained relationships between Moscow and Tashkent and playing one against the other if necessary.

Ilkhom quickly became a cultural point of reference for the whole USSR, where theatre was one of the most important means of artistic communication. “We acted recklessly, working on plays that had not been examined by the censorship. We could have been criminally charged for anti-Soviet activities,” narrates Weil in The Unknown Infamous Ilkhom, a book chronicling the theatre’s creation. “We were not a political theatre. We just wanted to reproduce unedited life and real people on stage”.

When the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991 Ilkhom had become strong enough to withstand the haemorrhage of actors who fled newly-independent Uzbekistan for a better future. The new President, Islam Karimov, installed a brutal and paranoid dictatorship; jailing political opponents, imposing travel bans on its people and sending hundreds of thousands of students and state workers to harvest cotton forcibly every autumn.

Uzbekistan became a one-party-country with no independent media, yet Karimov did not dare to touch this little island of freedom.

The theatre also served a more subtle political purpose: despite widespread human rights abuses, Uzbekistan was officially a democracy, and the regime could use Ilkhom as proof of it.

At times, even Karimov’s daughters came and enjoyed the shows.

People were hungry for space to express themselves freely

Ilkhom’s approach has remained the same since its creation: don’t openly criticise authorities, but never surrender your artistic freedom. The topics it touches – be that violence, religious fanaticism, the lust of power or the fear of tomorrow – are universal, but they always find references to local events.

“In a place like this, it is very easy to make connections to lots of different stories,” explains Bharat. “People want to find those connections, but it has never been something that we tried to do, not consciously at least.”

Ilkhom’s plays can be extremely provocative or derisory. In Airport, which premiered one week after the death of Karimov in 2016, several speeches of the defunct President were collaged and read backwards to create a monologue that made no sense. “State theatres cannot produce anything without the previous approval of state censorship, but it doesn’t happen here”, continues Bharat.

When an unofficial ban on rock music was imposed in 2011, Ilkhom was the only place in town where rock bands kept on playing.

Ilkhom is nowadays Uzbekistan’s main complex for independent culture. It hosts a drama school, music festivals, art exhibitions and innovative laboratories combining theatre with music and poetry. The performances attract spectators from Central Asia, Russia, Europe and the US – and its theatre company has taken part in countless festivals and shows worldwide.

The company still follows Weil’s guidelines and unique approach. Plays are not based on the execution of a rigid script but instead developed from small pieces born out of the performers’ creativity and imagination. These are then slowly refined and put together into a coherent ensemble to create a play. “It takes much longer to prepare a show this way, but the result is well worth it. Everyone who participated put a little piece of himself into the project and the amount of pride you take from it is priceless,” explains Durin Cazac, a 38-year-old American actor who moved from Seattle to Tashkent in 2006 to join Ilkhom. “The play isn’t fixed but keeps on developing performance after performance. That’s what organic theatre is about.”

The theatre prefers to work with raw talents rather than with established artists, whose basics are much harder to change. The same happened to Gafurov – one of the theatre’s most experienced actors nowadays – when he joined Ilkhom in 1991. “I didn’t understand anything about theatre at that time, but I felt the energy of this place. It felt like hypnosis, and it just started to rock and roll me,” he recounts. “I didn’t get what the shows were about, but I felt the mystery of this energy.”

Boris Gafurov (left), is one of the theatre’s leading actors and Ilkhom’s Artistic Director. He was appointed immediately after Marc Weil’s assassination in 2007.

This special force everyone at Ilkhom refers to is palpable. As soon as you enter the theatre, you feel projected into a parallel dimension with a different concept of time and space. The lack of physical barriers between the stage and the public make spectators feel part of the play. Shows are incredibly captivating, a perfect balance
of closely intertwined acting, live music and innovative scenography. Most of them are in Russian – Tashkent’s lingua franca – but the layers of physical and behavioural communication performers use render them accessible to everyone. Ilkhom’s versatile repertoire includes classic tragedies, modern pieces and plays based on Uzbek, Russian or European poems and novels, making it a unique bridge between Eastern and Western culture.

In September 2007 Ilkhom was to pay the ultimate price for the fearless and uncompromising attitude of its founder. Weil was stabbed to death in front of his apartment by a group of disgruntled young Muslims, who had reportedly been offended by the way the director had portrayed Prophet Mohammed in one of his plays. The murderers received harsh sentences, but for many at Ilkhom, the government was the real mastermind behind the attack. “They couldn’t do anything to us officially, so they killed Mark,” explains Bharat.

“They thought that, once the founder was murdered, the theatre company would die.”

The killing occurred one day before the start of Ilkhom’s new season. Few hours before the attack – and perhaps sensing the imminent danger – Weil had made clear that he wanted the opening to go on as planned, no matter what. The following night, in a surreal atmosphere, the season was inaugurated with Oresteia, the Greek trilogy by Aeschylus. “I’ll never forget that performance. I remember having goosebumps for three hours straight,” recounts Cazac, who was a student at
the Ilkhom school of drama at that time.

“Everyone was exhausted at the end, but just seeing that first round of ‘ok, we are still doing this’, was incredibly inspiring. We had taken a first step. From then on, it was a little bit easier to keep going.”

In the aftermath of the killing Gafurov was chosen as the new artistic director. “My first instinct was to run away as far as possible,” he recounts laughing. “I still feel it sometimes. I still struggle with my fears.” The period after Weil’s death was one of the most difficult ones in the history of the theatre. Some actors left, and the quality of shows dropped dramatically for a few years. Then, in 2010, Ilkhom premiered Seven Moons, a parable chronicling the rise and dramatic fall of the Shah of Persia based on a poem by XV-century Turkic poet Alisher Navoi, Uzbekistan’s national author.

It was Ilkhom’s first masterpiece since Weil’s death: the synthesis between drama, music and choreography was spectacular and earned huge praises. “It was a groundbreaking point,” remembers Gafurov. “From then on we started to believe in ourselves again, and we got off a new start.” The seeds that Weil had sown had finally sprouted, and Ilkhom was ready to walk on its legs. “After Mark’s death, even our most staunch supporters thought we would not survive more than two years. It has been 14 so far,” points out Gafurov with undisguised pride.

Despite its recovered quality Ilkhom keeps on struggling as it has done since its creation: tickets and school tuitions are not enough to cover the roughly $200,000 of annual costs, so the theatre has to rely on grants and donations to stay afloat. The company’s 15 main actors are paid a meagre monthly salary of $60 to $150. All of them work second jobs to make ends meet. “No-one serves at Ilkhom for money,” is the mantra continually resonating within the theatre, but the frustration of the management at not being able to grant actors a decent living is evident. “At a certain point in their lives actors realise they want a family, a car and an apartment, so they quit,” explains Gafurov. “It’s a big problem that slows down our creative process. When an actor is gone, we need to replace him, so we end up spending a lot of time to save old shows instead of working on new ones.”

Despite all its difficulties, the theatre’s heart keeps on beating and churning out new talents. The youngest one is Gimal Gafiyatullin, a 22-year-old man with a penetrating gaze and a contagious smile who joined the company two years ago. Gafiyatullin was discovered while working as a waiter in an art café, where he would occasionally perform on a small indoor stage. He enrolled at Ilkhom’s school of drama and was later invited to join the company.

“I don’t consider myself as an actor yet. I still have a lot to learn,” he says modestly. Gafiyatullin already takes part in six of the theatre’s plays. While he was on stage a few weeks ago, for the first time in his career, he had the distinct sensation of having embodied his character. “It only lasted a few seconds, but it was an incredibly intense sensation. When I went back to the dressing room I just sat down and cried,” he remembers emotionally. “My teachers say that we do this profession for those few precious seconds.”

Uzbekistan has finally started to breathe since the death of Karimov. The new President, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, has freed political and religious prisoners and scrapped some of his predecessor’s most odious rules.

This change of attitude is having some positive effects on the theatre as well. “In Karimov time, authorities tried to hide our existence. They never invited us to festivals or included us in guidebooks,” explains 33-year-old Nikita Makarenko, a prominent local journalist and the organiser of Ikhom’s rock festival. “Now they put our names on subway signs, feature us on TV and even review our plays in the official press!”

Yet the future of Ilkhom is far from granted. Uzbekistan’s new spring has brought economic opportunities, but also unrestrained capitalism. Entire neighbourhoods in Tashkent are being razed to make space for high-rise luxury apartments, and developers and investors covet the central area where the theatre is located. Ilkhom rents the basement from a nearby hotel for free, but nobody knows what will happen in the future. “The hotel managers change often, and Ilkhom doesn’t mean something to all of them,” explains Bharat. “We don’t bring any profit, and for some people, this is just a commercial space in the middle of town.”

In 2020, the theatre faced eviction, and only a vibrant press campaign allowed Ilkhom to reach an unwritten, last-minute-agreement with the hotel owners for a permanent free lease.

But without official papers guaranteeing its future, the theatre is currently in a legal limbo. To relocate is not an option. Ilkhom doesn’t have the resources to build a new structure, and the magic of this theatre seems inextricable from its basement. “This place is so spiritual to us because it’s the place Mark chose,” explains Makarenko passionately. “He died for this, and we owe him for that.”

Two giant pictures of Weil still dominate the marble stairs leading down the stage. His piercing eyes seem to scrutinise you, as if he wanted to connect with your soul. His unique artistic genius is alive more than ever and still wanders within Ilkhom’s narrow corridors, graffitied walls and smoky changing rooms. His energy inspires his disciples and imbues them with the unflinching belief that tyranny, conformism and repression will never silence the human spirit.

Photos: Matilde Gattoni