On Stage at the People’s Theatre in Azerbaijan
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A desk, two chairs, heavy and blue curtains are at the back. Two men and a woman slowly move across the stage, their voices sounding crisp in the simple theatre.

Vahid Qaribov has spent most of his 60 years of life on stage - now grey-haired, the actor started acting as a schoolboy in his native Khachmaz and never stopped. Only on stage does he feel like himself.  

“Sometimes we think, our time has come, we should stop. But we cannot, it is like a disease,” he says, gazing out of the window. In the little office room the walls are covered by posters of well-known plays like “It’s a Man,” “New Year’s Adventure” and the children’s puppet show Jirtdan.

Qaribov and his fellow actors are rehearsing “Attention, we are starting,” a drama that will open the season of the People’s Theatre, the only one entertaining the 40,000 residents of Khachmaz in northern Azerbaijan.

The history of theatres in Khachmaz has been started since 1958. Registered in 1958, Khachmaz's "people's theatre" is one of the 37 so-called “people’s theatres” registered with the Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism. As the Second World War previously sparked high inflation, the Soviet government was pushed to close the state-supported theatres but actors got creative and continued performing, without a salary, in self-organized groups and mostly on stages inside the common cultural houses.

“The bigger ones would have some professional actors who would receive some kind of salary from the state,” explains Vidadi Qafarov, a Baku-based theatre critic. “Then there would be additional amateur performers who would get a share of the proceedings, from the sold tickets.”

The most famous of the then-Soviet Socialist Republic of Azerbaijan was set up in 1953 by renowned actor Lutfi Mammadayov who headed its Popular Theatre of Azerbaijan in Baku for over 40 years. In the rough-and-tumble of the 1990s acting was no longer a priority for the new independent republic engaged in a conflict with neighbouring Armenia over the region of Nagorno-Karabakh. Come the 2000s, the theatres came back to life.

Qaribov has dedicated his life to the stage but has remained a volunteer actor at the Khachmaz People’s theatre. He had to do all sorts of things to make ends meet.

“I repair furniture, I make kebab at weddings, and rent from my father’s flat brings me about 150 manat a month (USD 88). All this combined, allows me to make a living,’’ says Qaribov.

None of the 20 people working at the theatre receives a salary - at best, during the holidays they are able to share the profit from the ticket sale, says Ilham Tagiyev who has been heading the Khachmaz’ theatre since 2015. He says that during the Soviet Union, actors, theatre managers and technicians would be paid. Those times are long gone.

“We appealed to the Ministry of Culture, asking for financial support, like it happens in other cities like Astara and Masalli, but we received no response,” laments the 49-year-old. “Little money comes from the city residents, and sometimes we receive a donation from the regional tourism department, but it is inconsistent.”

Yet, these theatres are key to keep cultural life alive in the regions, away from the glitz and the buzz of the capital Baku. For Gulnara Alizade, the People’s Theatre has become a second home since she started performing in in the 1980s.

“Acting is not an easy path for a woman, and I personally do not work anywhere else, so I rely on the little we get from the tickets and TV performances I am sometimes invited to,” explains the 54-year-old while putting her eye shadow on - using the make-up set she bought with her own money. 

Vahid Qaribov, 60, and Gulnara Alizade, 54, in the office of the People’s Theatre in Khachmaz. The theatre, housed in the Cultural Centre, is the only one in the northern city of 40,000. The company laments that there is not much interest towards supporting theatres due to the difficult economic and social situation.
Qaribov and Alizade are among the longest-serving actors at the theatre. Cash-stripped, the company cannot afford to travel to the regions. The self-organized collective has appealed to the Ministry of Culture for financial support, but has yet to receive an answer.
“The best present I had for my 60th birthday was to have it here in the theatre,” says Qaribov who started acting when he was 21.
Qaribov and Alizade during the rehearsal of “Attention, we are starting!” the play opening the Khachmaz Folk’s theatre season.
Active since 1958, Khachmaz is one of the 37 so-called “people’s theatres” registered with the Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism. They are self-organized groups and do not receive financial support from the central government.
The company regularly performs on the stage inside the Khachmaz Cultural Center.
“I started performing with the Khachmaz theatre in 1982, the theatre is my second home,” says Alizade as she prepares herself for the rehearsal.
As the theatre struggles financially, actors provide for the set design, clothes and make-up using their own money.
Alizade is unemployed and make a little money with some TV appearances, but has difficulties to remain off-stage. “Actors should not think about their problems while on the stage, they must perform without hesitations.”
The main and biggest performance of the theatre happen during the New year for school students.
The theatre occasionally receives funding from the tourism department of the regional government, but it is inconsistent. Sold-out performances allow the actors to get some cash - half of the proceedings would cover the cost and the rest, varying between 150 and 200 manat ($ 88 - 117) would go to the actors.
“Even with putting adverts in the cities, people still don’t come. We ask local organizations to come,’’ says Ilham Tagiyev.

Edited by Monica Ellena


Chai Khana
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