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Buildings and Legends: The Colourful History of Puppet Theatre


In 2024, the Latvian Puppet Theatre will celebrate its 80th anniversary, marking an important cultural and artistic tradition through the ages. The cute puppet characters are loved by children and adults alike, not only in Latvia, but also in other parts of the world. Last year, the reconstruction and energy efficiency improvement of the building at 16/18 K.Barona Street, managed by SJSC “State Real Estate”, was successfully completed, so the Puppet Theatre will celebrate its anniversary in new, modern premises.

The building at 16/18 K. Barona Street, which houses the Latvian Puppet Theatre, was not built for the theatre. During the first Latvian Free State, the rather specific position of a puppet theatre was not planned. But some attempts to establish such a theatre were unsuccessful.

The Puppet Theatre took up residence here after World War II. At that time, Arnolds Burovs, a director and one of the most prominent shop window decorators in Riga, walked around the city centre several times, looking for spaces for puppet shows. It is not known exactly why the building at 16/18 K. Barona Street attracted Burovs' attention, but it can be assumed that the director appreciated both the proportions of the building and the Art Nouveau features of the facade. It was probably the large and wide oval windows facing K.Barona Street.

Designed by the architect Ernests Pole and built in 1911, the history of the bulding is as colourful as a woodpecker's belly, starting with the squabbling between the co-owners during its construction. For a while, even animals lived here. There are very few facts available about the organisation "Small Latvian Zoo - Winter Home for Animals". Aldis Linē shares the facts discovered during his historical research with us, having just found an honour card – an invitation to the writer Aspazija, dated 1928. He has collected the history of Theatre and its development in several collections of articles. It should be mentioned that the Small Latvian Zoo has no connection with the Riga Zoo, which was founded during tsar times in the 19th century.

Shortly before the Second World War, the building was once again rebuilt and adapted for a cinema. The inhabitants of Riga liked to come to the cinema house called Radio Modern, which also remained there after the Second World War. The entrance to the cinema was from K. Barona Street, but as the horseshoe-shaped block continued along Elizabetes Street, it housed small workshops – carpenters, tailors, shoemakers.

The Puppet Theatre company also dates back to the Second World War. At that time, far behind the front line in the Russian city of Ivanovo, the Latvian SSR State Art Ensemble was working, and the writer Mirdza Ķempe and the writer and translator Jānis Žīgurs, who had dreamt of creating a puppet theatre while working together in a radio station during the First Free State, were also living there. Thanks to the favourable situation, the combination of creative forces and ideas, a small “group of puppeteers” was founded, which eventually grew into an important ensemble, winning prizes at various inter-republican shows.

The first performance of the Puppet Theatre in 1944 in Daugavpils in the cinema "Kolizejs" was watched by all the leading representatives of the government of the time, and the very next day, on 4 October 1944, it was decided to establish the Puppet Theatre of the Latvian SSR. There was still no chance to return to Riga, but active guest performances began in Latgale. The Puppet Theatre moved to Riga in November 1944 and settled in the Polygraphics’ Culture House on Alunāna Street, after which it moved to the former cinema “Aina” on Vaļņu Street. But the question of own premises was very relevant. Therefore, Arnolds Burovs' “find” – the building at 16/18 K.Barona Street – came just on time.

However, the depth of the Radio Modern stage was insufficient for the performances. However, the decision was made, a stage and an orchestra pit were constructed in the building relatively quickly. At that time, the Latvian Puppet Theatre was the only theatre in the world where performances were accompanied by live music. Marģers Zariņš, who composed the musical accompaniment for the performances until 1948, also helped at first. Puppet Theatre finally had a home.

Theatre's cornerstone – creative personalities

Puppetry is not a simple art; the road to the stage is long and full of professional skills to obtain. The first to start is the artist, who sketches, draws the doll's image and sets the mood. The sketches go to the puppeteers, who, depending on the type of puppet (marionette, glove or other) and its operating principles, make a sculpture of the puppet's head. The prop masters dress the puppet and suit it to the action in the theatre performance. And then the actors come and start to stage the play with the puppets under the direction of the director.

Director and artist Arnolds Burovs has been associated with the Latvian Puppet Theatre for more than 20 years. The Art Academy of Latvia graduate and artist Pāvels Šenhofs and sculptor Alberts Terpilovskis worked actively alongside Burovs. Paradoxically, none of these artists had studied puppetry, but personal experience, intuition and craftsmanship came in handy – the craft taught them all the subtleties over time. All in all, it was a real star shower of personalities whose established traditions have been nurtured and developed over time. The genius of Pāvels Šēnhofs was precisely in the variety – each performance was just given its own, individual artistic key. In collaboration with the sculptors, recognisable characters were created, and knowledge of the puppet's anatomy was very important for the actor to be able to work with it successfully.

Building renovation and repair works

Documents from the Theatre's archives show that by 1983 the technical situation of the building had become critical, and open letters from actors and theatre management about the crisis appeared in the press. However, extensive renovations did not begin until 1990, and the Theatre had to temporarily move to the building at 6 Skolas Street, where the Jewish Сommunity of Latvia is currently located. The times when Latvia restored its statehood were difficult, the economy was in chaos. However, the director at the time, Voldemārs Dziedātājs, performed a miracle – he led the reconstruction of the building, which involved a huge amount of construction work, even piling, and the Theatre returned home.

In 1994, on the occasion of its 50th anniversary, the Theatre received an unpleasant gift – a demand to return the building to the heirs of its pre-war owners. The legal proceedings dragged on for years, but ended in the Theatre's favour, and in 2001 the Theatre, with a sigh of relief, became the full owner of the building.

After about 20 years, the Theatre building was in need of modernisation again.

Modernisation of the premises was carried out under the supervision of SRE specialists

The representatives of all organizations involved in the modernization of the Puppet Theater building recognise that energy efficiency or retrofitting projects for historic buildings are challenging. Because the condition of the structures and the building itself was only revealed when, in the words of architect Kārlis Frīdenbergs (G. Viksna architects office), “the top layer was peeled off”. So a simple energy efficiency improvement project quickly turns into a complete building renovation project.

“During the course of construction, the originally planned energy efficiency measures grew with additional improvements to increase structural stability. But the results are convincing: The Puppet Theatre has been given a renovated, creative and functional space, making it one of the most modern theatres in Europe. Energy consumption will be reduced by approximately 50%, making the building cheaper to maintain, and the saved resources will be available for creative needs,” says Renārs Griškevičs, Chairman of the Board of SJSC “State Real Estate”. 

The facade of the building, located in the conservation area of the historic centre, has been fully preserved and the restored colour is as close as possible to the authentic colour found in the architectural research. The newly-built energy-efficient windows also almost exactly follow the historic geometry and shape. Only the plinth has been insulated externally, the rest has been done internally. Inside, the biggest change has been to the Small Hall, which has gained much more space and is now accessible for people with disabilities. A big leap forward is the completely renovated technical facilities – the sound and lighting.

The former Puppet Theatre Museum has been replaced by a small rehearsal hall for young artists and performances for toddlers – these will be unprecedented performances in the repertoire, when children themselves will become part of the performance, director Mārtiņš Eihe invites us to appreciate the new theatrical developments. The studio, which welcomes young people from the age of 16, will give them the opportunity to learn about puppet theatre, directing, acting, and the creative and technical possibilities of puppetry.

Eihe reminds that the Latvian Puppet Theatre is a unique exception in Europe, because actors know how to work with all forms of puppetry, whatever they may be. There are performances for parter puppets, which rest their feet on the floor and the actor guides the puppet by standing behind it. The marionette puppets are controlled by strings. The spoke puppets are controlled by a special system. There are several performances where the actors are on stage with puppets. And of course, we can't forget Pifs, the audience's favourite dog. Pifs has been performed for almost 40 years in a row, and the tickets sell out instantly. In the future, the theatre plans to address those who think they are adults, and those who don't.

This article was written in collaboration with Agrita Lūse (Building Design and Construction Council)

Video about the renovation of the Puppet Theatre HERE.

You can find the photo gallery HERE.