Festival in Focus | GIFT Festival

Simon Mundy, in interview with the Artistic Director of the Georgian International Festival of Arts in Honour of Michail Tumanishvili , looks at GIFT’s history and current success.

The strands that weave the Georgia International Festival of Theatre together are big, bright and uncomfortable. They put theatre and dance firmly in a zone of argument that says an artistic question is always a political question, and one which will never be answered in platitudes.

There are anyway few more political countries than Georgia. Geography gives it no choice. Sandwiched between Russia and Turkey, two powers which know how to act as school bullies, and bordered by Caucasian peoples who are even more unhappy with their contemporary status. Conflict is ever present, the possibility of war is never discounted, internal feuds are deep and furious. GIFT recognises all this and uses theatre from the rest of the world to confront the problems.

2017 marks the twentieth anniversary of the festival. It emerged as a response from the turbulence of the 1990s but because Georgia has remained in one or another state of turbulence ever since, the reasons for its formation have changed little either. Those twenty years have not been unbroken and stability has never been GIFT's natural state, in terms of resources or official backing.

The starting point was a sense in the international theatre community that Georgia needed to free itself from the mess that the breakup of the Soviet Union and the ensuing civil conflict had left. GIFT was not only an acronym of the festival's name, it represented the gift of artistic solidarity from the theatrical world. Much of the impetus came from William Burdett-Coutts, the founder of Assembly (one of the main production companies of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe) and later the Director of London's Riverside Studios. He garnered the support of many of the great names of British theatre, including Peter Brook, Vanessa Redgrave, Richard Attenborough and Anthony Hopkins, and Burdett-Coutts was a major force in shaping the blueprint for the programming.

Since then GIFT has been careful to keep the artistic doors open, whatever the ups and (mostly) downs of Georgia's relations with other countries – especially to Russia, when that has seemed almost impossible. The formula works because the festival prides itself on presenting a limited but unimpeachably high quality set of productions – the quality defined by the daring, the experiment and the integrity.

All the way through, GIFT has been directed by Keti Dolidze, who has been recognised as something of a force of nature ever since, as a post-graduate student in 1974, she persuaded the then communist secretary Eduard Shevardnadze to come to her class's diploma production and then allow her teacher to form the Film Actors Theatre. That teacher was the influential director Mikhail Ivanovich Tumanishvili who was, like Brook, one of the early proponents of improvisation techniques in acting. He died in 1996 (not to be confused with the film director of similar name who died in 2010) and, since the festival was first held in the following year, it was named after him.

After that first festival, which Keti describes as “an act of true People's Diplomacy”, lack of money meant that the programme at the end of the century was very sparse but from 2000 until 2008 GIFT's activity was expanded and its reputation established. Then Russia invaded, the political temperature became even more toxic, and GIFT was closed. “I was one of those who had lost faith in Shevardnadze and supported the Rose Revolution [in 2003] but I came to be seen as anti-Saakashvili and so government support was withdrawn.” Instead, that support was given to the newly formed Tbilisi International Festival of Theatre.

The political climate changed again in 2013 and GIFT was reformed, though now branded as the Festival of the Arts, rather than just theatre (though the old and valued acronym remains). “The new government wanted to reverse the decisions of five years earlier and scrap the other festival but I argued that was wrong,” says Keti. “It is different from GIFT and there is room for both.”

However she feels the timing is unfortunate and there should be a shift to earlier in the year. “Today the government has scheduled that everything in Tbilisi happens in September and October, while the rest of the year has almost nothing. This doesn't make sense. We need much more in the spring and early summer so something should move and then we will have arts spread through the year. At the moment it is difficult for the audience. People cannot afford to go to everything at once.”

Keti Dolidze | Artistic Director Gift Festival

She takes great pride in the concentrated nature of the festival – a few carefully chosen productions playing for a short time and mostly from outside Georgia. “This is not a free for all, not a fringe,” she says, seeing herself as a bold but fastidious curator. The 2017 festival, from 18 October till 12 November, has Sacha Waltz's dance company from Germany, WHS contemporary circus and visual theatre from Finland, Baltic House Theatre from St. Petersburg (Alexander Galibin's production of Anna Karenina) and the Sankai Juku Butoh troupe from Japan.

Keti Dolidze says that, in their situation, they cannot plan so far ahead as Western European festivals, much as she would like to. There are the problems of navigating politics but the real issue is funding. “Over the next few years we must all push the government to increase and confirm what they give. In Georgia, if they don't support you, you are always just on the starting line.”

Keti Dolidze says that, in their situation, they cannot plan so far ahead as Western European festivals, much as she would like to. There are the problems of navigating politics but the real issue is funding. “Over the next few years we must all push the government to increase and confirm what they give. In Georgia, if they don't support you, you are always just on the starting line.”

Twenty years ago an unlikely combination of Georgian and international theatre makers ensured that the spirit of Edinburgh – the belief that festivals make a difference in dark times – was transported to the capital of Georgia. It was a belief too that those facing the most serious issues deserve the best the arts can offer if they are to make sense of events and re-imagine the future. GIFT has survived and, while it has not always prospered, it has shown that resilience pays off in the long run.





Further Information on GIFT

The GIFT/Georgian International Festival of Arts in Tbilisi in honour of Michael Tumanishvili is an annual celebration bringing the best of the visiting arts in Tbilisi, as well as leading the country’s unique cultural profile internationally. Since its inception the GIFT Festival hosted more than 300 international visiting groups and companies and yet remains as one of the major platform for international exchange and cooperation in Georgia. Founded in 1997, it brings to the Georgian capital national and international various art forms: contemporary theatre and dance, flamenco, classical theatre…

Contacts

Artistic Director: Keti Dolidze | General Manager: Sophie Tortladze
Contact: E: tbilisigiftfestival@gmail.com | T: 00 995 322350203 |
164, Agmashenebeli Street, 0102 Tbilisi | www.giftfestival.ge

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