Elmin Badalov: Theater is Freedom

The Story of “One Cluttered Room” or What’s the Matter with Street Performance in Azerbaijan

For years, people have been talking about what theatre should be like, they’ve been discussing everything, but nobody wants to tackle the issue of theatre’s independence. It is as if this matter is being ignored. But first and foremost, theatre should be given freedom” says Elmin Badalov – actor and director, creator of the first and so far the only independent theater in Azerbaijan.

ADO Theater was created on July 15, 2013, exactly nine years ago. Elmin gathered around himself young, talented, and brave people who were not afraid to challenge the traditional values of Azerbaijani society. Originally, the theater was called ODA, which means “room” in Azerbaijani language. It was in one small and modest room that the theater group revealed its not so modest performances.

“They put a toilet bowl on the stage.”

In the theater’s first production, which was called “MimODa,” in 2015, the main character appeared on stage half-naked. French actress Elsa Furtado agreed to play this role and share the stage with Elmin Badalov. The performance the performance left the audience uneasy.

Elmin himself believes that his productions not only excite the imagination, but also heal it.

“A psychologist sent almost all her patients to watch our play “Three Bananas Fell from the Sky”. It depicted a man’s life, his problems, and his unwillingness to live because of difficulties he faced. In this play we portrayed how one can avoid suicidal thoughts, how you can get out of it. It is true that some nuances in this play displeased some people, especially workers in State theatres. They said: “There is a toilet bowl on the stage, ADO is vandalizing theatre, the art. What is the Ministry of Culture looking at? This theatre should be closed”. That’s what People’s artists used to say”. 

The theater changed its name a few years later. ADO (Azərbaycan Dağınıq Oda Teatrı, Azerbaijan Scattered Room Theater) sounds like “one messy room” in Russian.

Even under this name, this modern theater group, which expands the boundaries of classical theater, as it is often characterized in the local media, could not exist for a long time. The group, however, did not disappear, but lost its “one cluttered room”.

During the pandemic, the theater had financial problems, and there was no money to pay the rent. For a while, actors themselves and their friends tried to collect the rent through donations, but it was not enough.

“The policeman said: you can’t dance.”

Elmin was asked the question of whether the closing of the theater room was painful for the group. He answers that they don’t understand why journalists keep asking him that question.

“Some people think that a theatre consists of a room. If there is a room, the theatre is open, if not, it is closed. But we must look more broadly at theatre. I don’t think theatre is made up of premises. And so, the room – yes, it’s closed. There is no room. But not the theatre, the theatre is open.” says Elmin.

Having lost its premises, the theater group decided to perform on the streets. But that was no easy task in the streets of the Azerbaijani capital.

Knowing that they would not be allowed to just go to the streets and perform, the actors decided to get official permission to do so.

Photo from the personal archive of Elmin Badalov

“We wrote to the mayor’s office, but at the same time we decided to write to the Ministry of Culture. We assumed that the mayor’s office would say that the Ministry of Culture was considering it, so we decided to write a letter to the Ministry of Culture in advance and see what the answer would be. Both answers came back, the Ministry of Culture wrote that the mayor’s office was considering the issue, and the mayor’s office said that the Ministry of Culture was. That’s how it all started,” says Elmin.

The solution found by the group was to start a lawsuit to decide who should give permission to hold street performances. The court’s first judgment decided that the Baku municipality should be the responsible for it. The appeal decided otherwise and simply reversed the decision.

“And again, the question was left open, then who to turn to? – Elmin continues his story. – And then I said, I will decide. I will go out and speak, and we will see what happens. So, I went out and did it”.

He chose to perform in front of the Heydar Aliyev Palace.

-A security guard came and said you can’t, that is, you can’t dance. And the same happened in the Winter Park. The police came and said you can’t, they took me to the police station. And even one spectator was taken to the police station. The next day I was called to the Baku City Police Department, and they said: ‘Well, you can’t [perform]. You can’t”.

So, no explanation was given?

-They explain in this way – people come, gather, and watch. They also say that the audience blocked the way of a police car, there was a confrontation with the police… And I say to them, well, it happened because of you. A spectator said, this man wants to dance, why are you holding him up? That’s why the audience get nervous. I am a citizen, I want to dance in the street, and he wants to watch. And you say it’s not allowed.

This time, too, Elmin solved the problem of the ban on street performances in his own way: he performed through a display.

“There was a glass window, passers-by were watching. They said – you can’t perform outside, you have to be indoors. For some time, I performed in this way, it was also interesting, the composition was interesting. The showcase, the bride’s dress…,” recalls Elmin.

“There’s no rule about what theater should be, theater can be anything. There’s theater here now. There’s a play going on right now,” Elmin shares during the interview.

But then it turns out that there is no such thing as a scene?

–  For example, I performed in Baku, and my scenery was the building of the Academic Drama Theatre. The theatre building was my stage. 

“I gave myself the theater.”

We met Elmin in Tbilisi. He came to the Georgian capital by invitation of his Georgian colleagues and plans to stay there until October. ADO Theater has performed several times in Georgia with street performances.

“And that’s where we went to the mayor’s office. And they, in turn, wrote to the police that the actors would play, and it was necessary to ensure their independence. They came, we performed, then the audience dispersed. We packed up and left. And only after us, the police left the area. It’s different here, and it’s different for us,” Elmin adds, “Perhaps this can be improved as well. We just have to work on it. We all have to work on it”.

-This year, on July 15, the ADO theater turned 9 years old. And I also turned 33 on July 15. It turns out that I gave myself the gift of theater, laughs Elmin.

And you are celebrating this date in Tbilisi.

-For the first time. I always celebrated in Baku, in Azerbaijan. It was celebrated as ADO’s birthday as well.

But this time you chose a closed room

-Yes. The performance itself demands it. I dedicated this performance to my mother’s clothes. And this is where the birth process takes place. Since the pandemic, for the last two years I feel as if I were in my mother’s womb. And for the first time in my life, it’s like I’m being reborn.

“Have some respect for yourself.”

Elmin’s last street performance in Baku, called “Summer Poses”, was in the beginning of this summer.

“This performance was not announced. And there were no police in the streets, I didn’t see any police around,” says Elmin.

However, there was a lot of audience participation, and a lot of comments about what kind of art this was. Elmin enjoys all different reactions from the public and the several emotions displayed on the audience around him. For him, it does not matter whether these reactions are positive or negative.

“All the reactions, everything that happens on the street is very interesting. Because it’s all not planned in advance. You can plan certain things in advance, technical points, but what will happen on the spot, how events will develop, you don’t plan it all, and so it’s very interesting,” Elmin says excitedly. – There’s a lot going on, it’s a little difficult to explain… for that you have to be in my shoes, go there, experience those feelings, see how people react to you. Someone, for example, comes up to you at McDonald’s and says, ‘Have some respect for yourself’”.

“I was looking at a photo taken right in front of a McDonald’s during my performance,” Elmin continues his story. – People were standing in a semicircle, and I was in the middle. I wasn’t looking at myself, I enlarged the picture and looked at the expressions on people’s faces. Everyone has a very interesting expression on their face. This picture is the embodiment of the country, of this society, of everything.”

All of Elmin’s performances stir the imagination, surprising with their audacity and creativity. However, the question remains: is it art? After his last performance, there was a heated debated on this question among Azerbaijanis in social medias. “It’s anything but art,” some said. “Why don’t you tell us what you think art is,” others asked.

The answer of Elmin himself to this question is:

“I also follow discussions [on social media], that is, not everything, I don’t have time for that physically, because there’s a lot of writing. I cannot keep track of everything. But overall, I’m observing, it’s interesting, it is as if you’re carrying out an operation, a process, and you’re watching the reactions. And in the next process you keep that in mind. But you can’t obsess about it. When you get stuck, you cannot think and create freely. For example, people think my street performance is not art and they are right about that. It’s not art, but at the same time it’s art, and that’s the beauty of it, because it’s both art and not”.

With the support of Mediaset

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