The Youth Theater, 1960s−1980s, Under the Leadership of Director Adolf Shapiro (1939)
Under director Adolf Shapiro’s artistic leadership, the Youth Theatre was one of Latvia’s major centres of culture and art in the 1960s−1980s. Over the thirty years’ period, it became known for its ever topical and innovative productions, which appealed not only to children and young people, but also older audiences with high intellectual and aesthetic standards.
Having completed his directing studies at the Theatre Institute of his hometown Kharkhiv in Ukraine, in 1962 Adolf Shapiro started working in Rīga for the V. I. Lenin National Communist Youth Theatre. In 1964, he became its chief director and remained in this position until the theatre’s closure in 1992. Shapiro headed up both the Latvian and Russian language troupes.
He launched right into implementing a well-considered and varied repertoire. Shapiro produced classics by Anton Chekhov (1860–1904), Henrik Ibsen (1828–1906), Maxim Gorky (1868–1936), Alexander Ostrovsky (1823–1886) and Bertolt Brecht (1898–1956), so the troupe could learn to apply their acting skills to different genres.
The director was also a fan of Latvian playwrights. As a foreigner, he put a different spin on the works of Rainis (1865–1929) and his own contemporaries Gunārs Priede (1928–2000), Pauls Putniņš (1937) and Māra Zālīte (1952).
Shapiro liked to mix genres. He transformed, for example, Rainis’ “The Golden Horse” (Zelta zirgs) into an idea drama for adults, while Gunārs Priede’s dramas became comedies.
Of the Latvian actors, Shapiro worked most closely with Edgars Liepiņš (1929–1995), Anda Zaice (1941), Lūcija Baumane (1905–1988), Dina Kuple (1930–2010) and Uldis Pūcītis (1937–2000, himself included in the Latvian Culture Canon). Children’s theatre actresses Vera Singajevska (1923–2014) un Velta Skurstene (1930) revealed a different side to themselves in Shapiro’s productions.
Together with actress Lūcija Baumane, Shapiro taught two groups of actors who began their professional careers in 1974 and 1985.
Shapiro liked to challenge his actors. He selected actress Anda Zaice for the male role of Antiņš in Rainis’ “The Golden Horse” (1976), chose older actors to play younger characters and vice versa in Pauls Putniņš’s “The Celebration of Waiting” (Gaidīšanas svētki, 1981). This approach only added to the overall figurativeness of his productions.
The actors were also challenged to perform in both psychological and playful pieces, apply elements of clownery and lightness to their acting.
While still under Soviet rule yet in light of the dawning awakening, Shapiro was unusually honest about and critical of existing social myths in his productions of Bertolt Brecht’s “Fear and Misery of the Third Reich” (Trešās impērijas bailes un posts, 1985), Gunārs Priede’s “Snowy Hills” (Sniegotie kalni, 1986) and Boris Vasilyev’s “Tomorrow Was the War” (Rīt bija karš, 1986).
To ensure consistently high levels of figurativeness, Shapiro worked with some of the most acclaimed scenographers such as Andris Freibergs (1938), Ilmārs Blumbergs (1943–2016) and Marts Kitajevs (1925).
Shapiro is also responsible for inviting director Pēteris Pētersons (1923−1998) to stage two productions at the Youth Theatre. These were Aleksandrs Čaks’ “Play, Player!” (Spēlē, Spēlmani!, 1972) and Vladimir Mayakovsky’s “Mystery Bouffe” (Mistērija par Cilvēku, 1974), which are both examples of the “theatre of poetry”. Pētersons himself is included in the Latvian Culture Canon, as is “Play, Player!”.
Shapiro was quick to earn acclaim at the Baltic Theatre Spring festival for his version of Maxim Gorky’s “The Last Ones” (Pēdējie, 1967). In the 1980s, the Youth Theatre developed a solid international reputation.
Once the Youth Theatre was closed, Shapiro moved to Moscow. Since then, he’s done a lot of work in Russia and elsewhere, and also teaches theatre workshops. However, he’s never returned to Latvia to produce any further plays.
In 2011, Shapiro received the “Spēlmaņu nakts” (Actors’ Night) award for outstanding lifetime contributions, as well as a third class Order of the Three Stars (Latvia’s highest civilian order awarded for meritorious service to the country).
Translated by Lelde Beņķe
Guna Zeltiņa on Ādolfs Šapiro's Youth Theatre in the Latvian Culture Canon, 2008. (in Latvian)
Youth Theatre. Ādolfs Šapiro: [brochure]. (199?). Rīga. National Library of Latvia, collection of Small Prints.
Decorated with honorary order – the Lenin Young Communist League’s National Youth Theatre of the Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic: [brochure]. (1981). Rīga. National Library of Latvia, collection of Small Prints. (in Latvian and Russian)
Guna Zeltiņa on Ādolfs Šapiro's Youth Theatre in the Latvian Culture Canon, 2008.