Uzbekistan’s liberal Ilkhom Theatre survived decades of dictatorship. Now real estate developers could spell its downfall

The Ilkhom Theatre was an oasis of unbridled creativity in Uzbekistan under decades of totalitarian censorship. Now, a rapid wave of development designed to liberalise and modernise the nation could spell its demise.
17 February 2020
Text: Sarah Heywood-Rakhimova
Images: Courtesy of Ilkhom Theatre

To enter the Ilkhom playhouse, visitors must descend a narrow corridor lined with four heavily-inscribed marble pillars. A mingling of dust and cigarette smoke hangs in the air: the atmosphere is dense, alive with posters and props from more than four decades worth of performances lining the well-trodden path.

The vivid gaze of the theatre’s founder, Mark Weil, emanating from two giant portraits in the upstairs’ lobby and downstairs’ foyer, ushers the audience towards the auditorium. As if in tandem with the stride of each passerby, the writing carved into the pillars comes to life; letters and phrases from a collage of languages — Russian to French to Japanese — intermingle in bold strokes. One phrase in particular catches the eye: Ilkhom, the place my heart calls home.

Based in Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, the Ilkhom Theatre has long been a sanctuary of free speech in a land best known for political oppression. Since its founding in 1976 — when Ilkom became the Soviet Union’s first independent theatre — Uzbeks have flocked here for a taste of artistic expression usually unavailable in Uzbekistan’s tightly-censored state institutions. Which is why on 7 February, 2020, when a letter arrived for the Ilkhom administrators, asking them to vacate the premises, Uzbekistan’s cultural elite was left reeling.

Actors work on the Ilkhom stage.

The basement which houses Ilkhom — as well as the building above it — had long been owned by the proprietors of the nearby Shodlik Palace Hotel. An agreement between the theatre and Shodlik’s previous director ensured that the cultural centre would remain untouchable until 2023, and that that deadline would be automatically extended for another ten years. But when the hoteliers decided to sell the parcel of land which housed Ilkhom to a new company, Ofelos Plaza, neither the theatre nor the general public were informed. Theatre staff only became aware of the deal after receiving notice to leave the space.

“Not Soviet censorship, not authoritarianism, or totalitarianism could be the downfall of this theatre, but simply naked commerce”

The news has shaken many. “The city needs this theatre, its audience needs its theatre, people need this theatre, “ says Ilkhom actress and drama teacher Marina Turpisheva. “It’s a very scary thought to lose the school.”

But the Ilkhom Theatre is not the only group in Tashkent to see the ground sold out from underneath them. The government of Uzbekistan’s current leader, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, has painted itself as one of reform. Official censorship across the arts has begun to soften, although leaves much to be desired. Their drive for a new Uzbekistan has sparked a wave of rapid development: shopping malls, apartment blocks and office space. But if Mirziyoyev’s intention is one of modernisation, then the vision is smothered by hasty execution. Entire neighborhoods, including the historic Olmazor district, have already been bulldozed, with thousands of people forcibly evicted to make way for cookie-cutter condos, squeezed amid Soviet apartment blocks. The Ilkhom’s fate is to be buried under a six-storey business centre.

“I am profoundly struck by the fact that, not Soviet censorship, not authoritarianism, or totalitarianism could be the downfall of this theatre, but simply naked commerce,” one former Ilkhom graduate, American actor Tyler Polumsky, wrote.

Ilkhom performers take a bow

The Ilkhom does not openly criticise authorities. Instead, it provokes heady questions on wider social themes. The theatre’s catalogue of plays — ranging from classical Russian and modern American dramas, to Uzbek poetry and commedia dell’arte — would explore universal (and sometimes controversial) themes, interwoven with echoes of local events.

“The exchange we made reveals that our plays are relevant, timely, and hold resonance — the theatre is very alive and keeps growing,” says Turpisheva. She says that under the regime of the late Islam Karimov, who ruled Uzbekistan for 27 years with totalitarian vigour, the theatre was often spared scrutiny. “Nobody cared about our little theatre”, she says. But when Uzbek diplomats or officials wished to showcase the country’s contemporary culture to foreign guests, they would point them towards the Ilkhom: a showpiece and a sticking plaster over the country’s wider cultural censorship.

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That does not mean that the theatre has survived without a struggle. On 7 September 2007, shortly before the opening of its 32nd season, founder Mark Weil was murdered in the entryway to his apartment building. The three men convicted for the killing in 2010 said that the murder was in response to Weil’s portrayal of the Prophet Muhammad in his play, Imitating the Koran. The theatre was renamed the Ilkhom Theatre of Mark Weil, and Boris Gafurov, an actor in the company, assumed the role of artistic director. “We survived through the death of the theatre’s creator and we keep on surviving,” says Turpisheva. The Ilkhom does not receive any federal funding, but relies on donations, grants, and fees, forming a tight-knit community of creatives.

It was this community that quickly mobilised as the news of Ilkhom’s imminent eviction began to spread, igniting the hashtag #saveilkhom. The initial response to the outpour of support was encouraging; endorsements from high political and cultural profiles in Uzbekistan flooded social media. Saida Mirziyoyeva, the president’s daughter, and Ozodbek Nazarbekov, the Minister of Culture, both pledged to keep Ilkhom alive.

The Ilkhom Theatre hosts dance and drama performances, as well as music

But a press conference held on 12 February by representatives from the theatre, Ofelos Plaza and the Uzbek Ministry of Culture painted a less certain picture. An Ofelos spokesperson confirmed that the theatre would be able to keep a space in the new building, but could not clarify whether the work to the basement would be a remodel, or a reconstruction from the ground up. The company also claimed that the Ilkhom building was unsafe, but refused to provide information on who carried out this inspection or how.

Under the company’s current terms, the Ilkhom must be temporarily moved while building work takes place: something that Ilkhom actor Durin Cazac describes as “realistically, not an option”. The theatre’s artistic director, Boris Gafurov, had been told that such a relocation would be no longer than three months. An hour and a half into the press conference, a timeline of between 18 months and two years was unveiled instead.

“The Ilkhom is years of psychological, spiritual energy swallowed up in that space, in the atmosphere of that building”

Ofelos Plaza’s representatives stress that “theatre is people; it is not a space.” But Ilkhom’s backers disagree, arguing that the Ilkhom’s repertoire of 16 plays require the stage’s unique configuration of platforms, stairs, trap doors, windowed stone walls, and risers. The loss of the space means losing a repertoire of plays designed for the Ilkhom stage, specifically those created by Mark Weil. The Ilkhom artistic process is unlike Western theatres, who create a play from a script. The Ilkhom process begins from the wish, from inspiration. The launchpad is the actor and ensemble. Through a series of devised scenes, the Ilkhom builds a dramatic format from scratch.

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“It’s hard to imagine how the theatre would continue without that space,” reflects actor Tyler Polumsky. But there is also something deeper. Actors believe that the squeaky, time-worn planks of the Ilkhom stage are as integral to the theatre as its repertoire, its audience, and its school. “The Ilkhom is years of psychological, spiritual energy swallowed up in that space, in the atmosphere of that building,” says Polumsky. “Moving it elsewhere is out of the question, something irreplaceable would be lost.”

The Ilkhom is now pursuing two possible routes forward. The first is to buyout the building and own it in its own right: although a buyout price has not yet publicly been named. The second is to pressure the government to designate the Ilkhom as a cultural site, officially protecting the theatre and its historical space. Artyom Kim, director and composer, prefers the latter. A petition has already been launched to try and save the site, a rare display of civil strength even in modern day Uzbekistan. “Can you imagine if a letter came to the Moscow Art Theatre telling them to vacate the premises?,” says Kim. He’s worried not just for the theatre itself, but for the wider trend it exposes in Tashkent’s rapid development. “That would never happen. Why? They don’t allow themselves to do that. Here, it’s a common thing. The big issue is we don’t even discuss what we are becoming.”

On Saturday, despite the crushing uncertainty that surrounds its future, the Ilkhom premiered its latest production, Tomorrow. The show drew out more than the usual crowds from Uzbekistan’s cultural scene, with celebrated national artists such as Sevara Nazarkhan descending the theatre’s stairs to the underground stage below. But for a theatre that countless call home, tomorrow may not look the same without Ilkhom.