Evolution of art in Riga: from a weird, rare species,
into a presence in your parking lot

Sandra Lapkovska has worked at the New Theatre Institute of Latvia (NTIL) for a number of years as a producer, project coordinator, project assistant and now – as an emerging curator who has recently joined our MagiC Carpets team. In this interview, Sandra tells us about her career’s path, the potential of art and theatre to change the lives of communities, and how NTIL has given her an opportunity to do what she has always wanted to do: make her own contribution for the world to become a nicer place to live in, starting from one’s own environment. 

Sandra Lapkovska
Sandra Lapkovska, emerging curator of MagiC Carpets

When did you start working in the theatre field and NTIL in particular? How did your career path lead you to this institution?
As a youngster, I was actively involved with different youth NGOs. I really wanted to do something for the society around me. Together with active, enthusiastic and idealistic youngsters, I was involved in different activities related to non-formal education / youth policy law implementations, etc. At some point, I even thought of studying political sciences, but somehow, after spending a short period of time abroad, I decided that arts & culture is also something that really interests me, so I entered the Latvian Academy of Culture to study the theory of culture and culture management. The years in the Academy gave me a lot of contacts and overall insight of what is going on in the field of arts and culture in Latvia, and I got really interested in theatre.

After graduation, I joined the local performance art scene as a volunteer for the international festivals “Homo Alibi” and “Homo Novus” organised by NTIL. Although I had been following the work of NTIL for a couple of years back then, this was my first real encounter with the organisation and the festival. At that time, I did not think that over the following years, I will be more and more involved in the activities of NTIL as an assistant and producer of different projects (Latvian Showcase, festivals “Homo Novus” and “Homo Alibi” among others). In 2012, I was invited to join the team of the NTIL as a full time producer.

The experience I have gained working at NTIL for the past 7 years, has most definitely given me a lot of new skills and knowledge on the performing arts scene (visible and non-visible elements) and has been my main training ground as a producer. Obtaining this knowledge and skills, is the main reason why I have been invited or have involved myself also in other culture activities with other individual partners or organisations in Riga and Latvia.

What were the most interesting projects you have worked with?
Each project I have been involved in, has given me something to think about, reconsider, and, many times, helped me find new elements / approaches on how to work with people. Hopefully, I have given something to those who have been involved in these projects as well.

Among the projects that really left some strong memories in me and my work, I would mention an invitation to be the technical producer of the performance / light installation “I really would like to come back home” by Italian artist Anna Rispoli, produced by NTIL.

This was my first, real encounter with an artist, whose one of the main goals is not only to make a “beautiful, live, very present art work”, but to bring together people, who live in a certain environment, work on a shared, social idea and realise this idea together. This was the first, very socially active art project that I was involved in, and which gave me this particular vision of what kind of art I am interested in, what I would like to work on and develop.

In 2013, as part of an EU network “Festivals in Transition”, NTIL was part of a project “Global City – Local City”, were after a number of City labs, NTIL invited a German artist Christina Umpfenbach to develop a documentary performance “Lost Gardens” for the “Homo Novus” 2013. The main idea of the performance was to bring “into the daylight” the stories of several garden owners, who owned their gardens for 20–30 years, which then were torn down due to the newly approved city development plans.

In 2014, during the year of Riga – European Capital of Culture, as part of one of NTIL projects, I had the chance to work with the globally renowned documentary theatre company “Rimini Protokoll” on the performance “100%Riga”. Interviewing more than 50 people, assisting in all the production phases and helping to tell the local stories and show the local statistics of the city, through the eyes of 100 people on stage, was an amazing experience not to forget.

You have been working with NTIL for quite a while. How has this institution evolved and how did it influence the development of theatre in Latvia?
“Homo Novus” festival and NTIL have been part of the Latvian theatre scene for more than 20 years. When I got interested in theatre, for me it seemed that NTIL is one of the only organisations actively working to promote and introduce the local audience with international, contemporary theatre performance. Later, as I got to know the organisation a bit more, I understood that this project-based organisation not only invites contemporary performances to be shown to the local audience, but through different EU networks and projects, tries to promote and involve local artists in different international projects. By doing so, also promoting their work to the international theatre world.

I have always thought (and still believe so) that the work that NTIL and “Homo Novus” festival does is the core element in the development process of contemporary theatre in Latvia. I think several chapters of theatre books or theatre journals could be written (and some has been already) about different projects that NTIL has implemented.

I think there is a certain generation of theatre directors and theatre makers in general (dancers, actors, set-designers, producers etc.), including myself, for whom “Homo Novus” festival and NTIL activities and projects have been a key element through which to look into the outside contemporary performance world, also a place where to experiment with different ideas that would not be possible to create anywhere else, but would be an important part of their artistical development. For some theatre makers NTIL projects have also opened new possibilities for their projects and ideas to be involved and shown internationally.

How has your perception of art and theatre changed? What do you think its purpose is?
Although I know that different people perceive art and theatre differently, and look for different things in it, but for me, from the very beginning, it has always been about the conversations between the art work and the audience. The theatre that I like (and like to be involved in) gives food for thoughts, ideas, tells real stories about the current matters, and sometimes brings to the light or tries to solve issues that need to be solved. For me, it is about this live process and somewhat about the truth as well. I get irritated, when I see that someone is lying to me on stage, playing fake, imitating.

These things have been important for me from the very beginning, and still are, and thanks to “Homo Novus” festival and NTIL, I was able to see the kind of performances, that really struck me and I wanted to be involved in creating that kind of art work as well.

You have mentioned site-specific documentary theatre as your biggest challenge and greatest passion. Why does this process fascinate you and why do you find it difficult?
Documentary performances have always interested me because of the social aspect, the “real time” aspect and communication with people. I think it is a great medium to tell stories of people around us, stories that matter, issues that matter, issues that need to be addressed, discussed or at least brought into the daylight (and possibly given a chance to be solved, or even be solved). For me, documentary theatre is definitely a way to combine my former activism and willingness to help people and make the environment around us a better place to live, and my passion for theatre and art in general.

If I think of the challenges – every time I am part of a documentary theatre project, the question of “using people” arises. Because most of the time, when people are approached asking them to participate (be it related to a personal story, presence in the performance or just a feedback about the topic), they are not always keen to do so. Questions like: “Why me, I have nothing to tell?”, “What for?”, “Who is interested in it?” or “It is too fragile, too painful to be talked about”. Sometimes you really need to convince people that their stories are important, their life is important. Thus, the challenge is – not to use people for the sake of art, but really to show them why and how important it is that they take part in this somewhat “crazy artistic idea”, but more importantly (at least for me), not to harm them in the process, but help them see – what their stories or particular things they might need to do on stage, can bring to the bigger picture.

Once there was a 65-year-old lady, whom we wanted to tell her own story during the performance, yet she really did not see the point of it, but several months and a lot of conversations later, she opened to us and was really willing to be part. The best thing is that after the last performance, one could really see that this experience also gave her something, some new friends and a possibility to share something that she would not have shared otherwise.

The problem is, people do not think that art happening around them actually concerns them. One time, a colleague of mine was producing a contemporary dance piece presented in one of the remote neighbourhoods in the middle of a parking lot, between block houses. We knocked on almost all the doors of people’s apartments in the block houses, in order to inform them and invite them to see the performance. Very few doors were opened to us, we had to do it several times; at the end, someone from the locals called the police anyway. Even though it was an official, public, open, free of charge event for everyone to see.

In this case, it was really important for us to talk to as many people as we could meet from the block houses, several weeks before the performance took place, in order to explain to them – what is this contemporary dance piece about, why we chose this neighbourhood, etc. And I really find it very important that these kind of “warming up” discussions and information-sharing sessions take place not only before, but after the event as well. And although it is almost never easy, but I think it is very necessary to bring contemporary art closer to people through such projects.

One more thing I wanted to mention as sometimes challenging: when implementing documentary type projects, for me, it is always important to follow up on communication with the people involved after the project has ended. Of course, it is not a must for some people, and you cannot create the communication artificially, but I try to do it nonetheless.

How would you describe the situation of culture in Riga? Does it differ from the situation in the rest of Latvia?
Speaking of Riga, there have always been discussions how all the events are very centralised, taking place mostly in the city centre and not the suburbs of Riga. But for the past years, it is very nice to see that some initiatives that have mainly appeared during the Riga – European Capital of Culture year, are still going on. At the same time, I have always believed, that even though some inputs might come from artists, organisations or enthusiasts who do not live in the particular suburb or have no relation to it, only initiatives that come from the local inhabitants (or the ones that really involve the local inhabitants), stand a chance to last longer than just one time, and be more sustainable.

Another thing that I am really happy about – more and more contemporary art events are being produced or brought to other cities of Latvia. Sometimes it is related to the infrastructure that has recently been built or renovated, but mostly to the people in the regions who are willing to show and organise contemporary art events. I think it takes much longer to make some particular initiatives sustainable in other cities of Latvia, but at the same time – it is not impossible. I think the same as I have mentioned in relation to Riga: it is important to de-centralise art and bring / create it outside the centre, in order to show that contemporary art is not some “rare, weird species”. Although, sometimes we also do need to realise that, of course, not all people are interested in art and contemporary art, and that is totally OK as well.

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