When Osh’s Uzbek Music and Drama Theater opened its 94th season last month, the actors looked nervously into the audience. They had not celebrated an opening night for three years, since before the theater was partially burned amid 2010’s ethnic violence in southern Kyrgyzstan. From behind the curtains, they saw something unfamiliar: a full house, including prominent local officials in attendance to show their support.
Theater crowds these days are often thin. Thespians say the local community is too down-and-out to pay much attention to the arts. And the computer age is changing what people expect of entertainment. But the Uzbek Music and Drama Theater, the only Uzbek-language theater in Kyrgyzstan, still has its die-hard fans.
The theater first opened with government support in October 1919. Local communist authorities funded the theater – as well as a Kyrgyz-language theater that opened in 1972 – as part of their efforts to use the arts to promote Bolshevik ideology. The funds aren’t as abundant today as in earlier decades, but there’s also less ideological pressure.
“In Soviet times, this theater was well-known across the Central Asian region,” said Erkin Bainazarov, a local playwright and former director of the theater, still located in a white, marble-covered building on Lenin Street in central Osh. “Famous actors from other parts of the Soviet Union visited, and the Soviet government provided funds for the staff to travel to other cities in the region, as well as to Moscow and Leningrad.”
Matluba Mavlyanova, who describes herself as a “lady of the arts,” has dedicated her life to the theater, where she has worked for 36 years.
“I am an actor, a choreographer and a dancer. As soon as I graduated from high school, I started my dancing career. Later on, I started acting,” Mavlyanova, 53, recalled. “In the past, in Soviet times, great actors and teachers used to visit our theater, and I learned a lot from them.”
This season, Mavlyanova is choreographing four dance performances, including, at the opening, a classic love story cherished across Central Asia and the Middle East. “Recently, we staged Layla and Majnun, Alisher Navoi’s [version of the] epic love poem, in a new, updated style,” said Mavlyanova. “We expressed ideas and emotions through dance moves rather than words.”
The in-house company stages eight or nine works each season, including – as is fitting in the multi-ethnic Ferghana Valley – pieces by Uzbek, Kyrgyz and Tajik playwrights. Mavlyanova says she likes to choreograph and perform comedies as an escape. But reality for the theater is not so funny, she says.
“Do I go to the theater? You must be joking,” said 55-year-old Malik, an ethnic Uzbek taxi-driver, who says he has four children to feed. “It is not the best time to enjoy the theater. Nowadays, you can’t find many people here who are in the mood for theater.”
Life is difficult for southern Kyrgyzstan’s Uzbeks, who suffered disproportionately when the four days of ethnic violence in June 2010 left over 400 Kyrgyz and Uzbeks dead.
Despite an ailing economy and a community feeling besieged, the theater continues to find financial support. After the June violence and fire in part of the building, the Japanese government provided a grant to purchase and install new sound equipment. A Kazakhstani grant equipped the stage with new lighting. Authorities subsidize the salaries of about 100 full-time staff, including 30 technical support staff, according to Deputy Mayor Dastan Khodzhaev.
“The only problem we have is low attendance,” Nabijon Sabr, the theater’s chief director, said. “We wish we had more people coming to our performances. The number of people is not enough.”
Though tickets are relatively inexpensive [50-200 som ($1-$4), or roughly the price of a bottle of vodka of varying quality], the theater’s performances do not sell out. “I believe that people do not go to the theater because most of them are doing their best just to survive,” said Sabr.
Sabr and others say the fall of the Soviet Union created a spiritual and ideological vacuum. “The theater cannot exist without an audience,” said Bainazarov, the former director. “Tickets are not expensive, and still attendance is low. People’s spiritual needs have changed.”
“People are not interested in arts, theater, literature like they used to be a couple of decades ago,” Bainazarov continued. "Nowadays people in our region don't read books much anymore, they don't talk about arts. They feel entertaining movies available on cheap DVDs are enough to satisfy their aesthetic, spiritual and intellectual needs.”
Though the hall is rarely full, the packed season opening on November 5 provided actors with welcome moral support. That evening, one face in particular surprised the performers. There, in the 470-seat auditorium sat Osh Mayor Melisbek Myrzakmatov, who is often criticized for his strongly pro-Kyrgyz nationalist views.
In opening remarks, Myrzakmatov said the theater serves as a bridge to strengthen the friendship between the two ethnic groups. "Through art, this theater unites people no matter what," he said.
Yet despite the heavyweight support, along with a 94-year history, the future for the theater remains uncertain. As theater-goers age, so do the performers and directors.
“Today, there is no facility in the region to train a new generation of theater specialists,” said Bainazarov. “In Soviet times, Uzbek theater actors and directors from Kyrgyzstan were trained in Tashkent and Moscow. After the former Soviet republics became independent, studying at the Tashkent State Institute of Theatre and Arts [across an international border] and similar facilities in Moscow became problematic.”
According to Bainazarov, the main destination for Uzbek actors from Osh is the Kyrgyz State Institute of Arts in Bishkek. Several performers said, however, that since the violence, they do not feel comfortable studying in Kyrgyzstan’s capital as minority Uzbeks.