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The oldest theatre building in Lithuania on Danė swamps

Gerda Prancūzevičienė „Seniausias teatro pastatas Lietuvoje ant Danės pelkių“. Almanac „Teatras“, 2000, No 2.

The precise date of the establishment of Klaipėda Drama Theatre is unknown. On the 18th century city plan there is a square building called “House of Comedy” near the moats of the castle and the Danė river, which was most likely used for military purposes. It was built on state land, taxes for which were paid by the city, which indicates that the owner of the first Klaipėda theatre was a magistrate. Some authors claim that the “House of Comedy” theatre was operating since 1777 and a Berlin troupe was performing in it a while later. Further faith of the “House of Comedy” remains unknown. In earlier centuries todays’s Theatre square was covered in swamps of the Danė river mouth. In the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th centuries in the very beginning of the square, near the river, there was an old warehouse of an infantry battalion, which was turned into a training ground. In 1803 a merchant named Vachsen built a new building for the soldiers and turned the old one into a theatre. After the death of Vachsen in 1814 the theatre building was sold and turned into a residential house.

A new chapter of theatrical life in Klaipėda began after 1818, with the arrival of a German named Ulbrich. He was given a permission by the timber trade company to use a certain temporary wooden building for free, so he set up a hall with 200 seats and opened a theatre. A stock company established at the initiative of two merchants, Rupel and Voitkovitch, purchased the land and at the end of 1818 and a new masonry building was constructed in the place of a modern theatre. It was a two-storey Classical style building with a mansard. In 1854 there was a fire in the city and the theatre burnt down. The remnants of the theatre were bought by the merchant named Mason, who in 1857 at his own expense on an old footing build a new building, three of which facades can be still seen nowadays. With the beginning of the First World War the theatre was closed.

Lithuanian theatre in pre-war Klaipėda

1935 can be considered the beginning of Klaipėda Drama Theatre, when a closed Šiauliai Theatre was transferred to Klaipėda. Up until the annexation of Klaipėda region in spring of 1939 it was operating under the name of Klaipėda State Theatre. The first troupe of Lithuanian actors was managed by Juozas Stanulis. Also, the first acting studio was established at the same time. The troupe increased when it was joined by the young actors of Kaunas theatre that broke up at the time. Performances were staged by such directors as Borisas Dauguvietis, Antanas Sutkus, Vladas Sipaitis, Ipolitas Tvirbutas, Juozas Stanulis. Pre-war theatre gave stage to such famous actors as Elena Bindokaitė, Potencija Pinkauskaitė, Valerijonas Derkintis, Stepas Jukna, Gražina Jakavičiūtė, Alfonsas Radzevičius, Galina Jackevičiūtė, Juozas Rudzinskas, Petronėlė Vosyliūtė, Henrikas Kačinskas and many more. Almost all set design for the pre-war performances was created by the artist Vytautas Palaima. After the war a whole new theatre era has started.

On October 1, 1945, Klaipėda musical comedy theatre was established. The official opening of the theatre took place on July 27, 1946 – it was the premiere of a musical play “Eglė, The Queen of Serpents” by K. Jurašūnas, directed by J. Gustaitis. For the first four years both drama and musical troupes were performing in the theatre, the repertoire consisted of dramatic productions, light operas, as well as the R. Rossini opera “Barber of Seville” by J. Gustaitis. In 1946–1949 a Russian troupe was performing in the theatre. In 1949 the name of the theatre was changed to Klaipėda musical drama theatre, in 1951 – to Klaipėda Drama Theatre. The first chief director in 1946–1949 m. was Juozas Gustaitis. Later chief directors were Romualdas Juknevičius 1949–1952, Vladas Limantas 1953–1956, Vytautas Jasinskas 1952 and 1956–1963. Some other memorable performances were staged by Kazimieras Juršis, Napoleonas Bernotas, Romualdas Grincevičius, Aleksandras Žadeikis, Stasys Čaikauskas, as well as other directors and actors.

In 1963 the troupe was joined by actors from a closed Marijampolė (former Kapsukas) theatre. The second period of development of the theatre is associated with the name of Povilas Gaidys, a long-time chief director (1963–1996), theatre manager (1998–2001) and an artistic director since 2001.

In 1980 and 1996 the troupe was joined by two cohorts of real stage professionals, graduates of P. Gaidys. We still remember the brilliant roles of unforgettable Emilija Platušaitė, Eduardas Čepulis, Mykolas Petkevičius, Romualdas Grincevičius, Laima Kerniūtė, Janina Budrikaitė, Juozas Paplauskas, Algirdas Kubilius, Henrikas Andriukonis, Gintautas Pečiūra, Vytautas Kancleris, Balys Barauskas, Algirdas Venskūnas, Elena Gaigalaitė, Valentina Leonavičiūtė, Bronius Gražys and many other late actors. Plenty of bright and vibrant characters were created by Vytautas Paukštė, Marija Černiauskaitė, Povilas Stankus, Nijolė Narijauskaitė, Jūratė Jankauskaitė, Nijolė Sabulytė, Regina Šaltenytė, Vytautas Anužis, Nelė Savičenko, Darius Meškauskas, Eglė Barauskaitė.

In terms of modern theatre, two building reconstructions must be mentioned. In 1990 reconstruction of theatre facades and the inside of the building took place. Also, an addition to the building was erected (architect Saulius Manomaitis). In 2007–2015 another significant theatre reconstruction took place (architects Kristina Jurkutė, Stanislovas Lukšas and Saulius Manomaitis). Perhaps one of the most eye-catching changes of this reconstruction – restored bright old-time colour palette, which for many years was hidden under a coat of light one-colour paint. After the latest reconstruction Klaipėda Drama Theatre has become one of the most technologically advanced theatres in Lithuania.

The new stage of life of the modern day Klaipėda Drama Theatre is marked by more and more frequent productions of well-known highly appreciated foreign directors. This tradition began with Latvian directors Mara Kimele (performances “Father”, “Antigone”), Elmars Senkovs (“Mother Courage”, “Hunting”), Laura Groza (“Children of the Sun”), Polish directors Agata Duda-Gracz (“Between Lena’s Legs, or „Death of the Virgin“ after Michelangelo Da Caravaggio”), Jan Klata („Boris Godunov“), Konrad Dworakowski (“Fables for Robots”).

An international annual theatre festival “TheATRIUM” is taking place in Klaipėda Drama Theatre since 2017, lasting from May to June.