The Cabbage Field Opera (Lithuania)


From 9 to 15 June 2018, I was at Kaunas in Lithuania, for a Community Arts Training School organised by Ed Carroll and Vita Gelūnienė. My role was to give some lectures on community art, lead the visual art element of a community opera project, and support the wider development of the Šančiai project. This page brings together a series of blog posts I wrote during the week documenting the experience of a single, short project from first meetings to performance. The focus of the week was on discovering the ideas and practice of community art, with the opera itself a focus for learning. But there is a hope, perhaps a commitment, that this exploration will become a fully-realised community show in the coming months with a performance at midwinter. 


Day Zero – First impressions

The Cabbage Field is part of a former barracks in Šančiai, a suburb of Kaunas. The site was established by the Imperial Russian army in 1899, used by Soviet, German and Lithuanian troops during the 20th century and abandoned in 1991, after Lithuania became the first republic to declare independence from the USSR. Much  was then dismantled for building materials, but substantial parts remain, including some derelict buildings and some that have converted into private flats. and new industrial units have also been built. There is also public housing and industrial units, old and new. The site is edged by the small, traditional houses built during the course of the 20th century as Šančiai slowly grew.


The future of such unwanted, but potentially valuable sites is always a matter of debate. Governments change, factories close, mines are exhausted: it is the people who live nearby who have to make a new way of life among the vestiges of the past. The cabbage field – so called because of the cellars in which fermented cabbage and other army stores were kept – is a rare piece of open, public space in Šančiai. It matters to local people who are working to save the site as a community asset. And community art is at the centre of their activity, as a way of coming together, exploring the traditions and history of their home, and creating events that make the spirit of the place visible. One of those events was written about on this blog by Ed Carroll and Vita Gelūnienė a few months ago.

Cabbage Field signs

All this is new to me — it’s my first time in Lithuania — and yet very familiar. I’ve worked in community art with groups who are engaged in a similar process of shared ownership and renewal in many European countries. But everywhere is different, and community art reflects that difference. It is a global phenomenon, true, but only because it always speaks in local accents.

So I’m here for a week, to talk about community art, facilitate some art workshops, and contribute to the development of a community opera which will be performed on the Cabbage Field at midwinter. All I’ve done so far is take a walk around the site: later today, I’m going to the library and sports centre where we – other artists and local people – will work together for the next five days. If I have the stamina, I’m going to post some thoughts and photos here each day, to give a sense of what a project feels like as it develops, and you don’t really know what is happening or if it will work. The posts will be less polished than what I usually try to do here, but I hope that it will be lively and worth seeing, if only because of the immediacy of following an unfolding project.

Day One: First steps in the cabbage field

The five day community arts summer school in Kaunas got off to a prompt start at 9am this morning. Twenty five people had gathered in a summer cabin on the site (the result of an earlier project) and we spent the first hour introducing ourselves.

We’re a diverse group, mostly local to the neighbourhood, but some from farther afield. There were teachers, mothers, musicians, students, artists and others who spoke about their memories of the area – the river, the sound of trains, bells, the army that was so long a presence and the people who make Šančiai a community.

After that, we walked the ground, alone or in pairs, looking for places that might feel associated with solitude, violence, hope, rest or reconciliation — the themes of the community opera. The markers were placed on maps and then gathered into a mosaic of impressions. After coffee, I gave a talk about community art, which was difficult partly because of the range of knowledge people had about the subject, but also because, with consecutive translation, the pace slows right down. Sometimes that can be a good thing, but today I found it hard to keep my thread.

The afternoon was divided between a drama workshop – in the boxing hall of the sports centre were using for the workshops –  and an art workshop, which I was responsible for. I rested while the drama workshop was happening (I couldn’t follow it anyway because it was in naturally Lithuanian) and set up the materials and equipment for a handmade slide workshop.

Day 1, slide workshop (1)

This is a bit archaic – we used to do tape-slide shows in  the days before PowerPoint – but there can be strength in slowing things down. Painting slides is a nice way to open colour and light to people who aren’t familiar with making art. It’s easy to work in such a tiny frame and the results can be spectacular, especially if people paint rather than draw. We explored how to represent love and war in colour, and began talking about the narrative possibilities of sequential art. It was a very nice end to the day, with everybody relaxing and enjoying the playfulness of the technique. We ended with a sharing of each person’s favourite slide in the changing rooms, where we could get a really dark space. We’re still a long way from developing a visual language from the production, but we’ve made a good start.

Tonight, we’re invited to supper at Ed and Vita’s, which will help everyone get to know each other more informally.

Day Two: Community art is a high wire act

This is often the trickiest stage of a workshop – somewhere towards the end of the first half.  The novelty has gone. People, places and situations you barely knew before start to seem familiar. The group is acquiring patterns. It’s less about discovery now, more making something worthwhile with what’s been discovered. You find yourself wondering whether anything is really happening. Are we making progress? Confidence can flag with energy.

Experience tells me to recognise those feelings, but not to heed them. It’s just part of the process. You have to sink a lot of foundations to lay a bridge.  Still, a point comes when, somehow, almost miraculously, the threads knit together and unconnected ideas gel. We’re at the point now, I think, where we all have to trust in the foundations that have been poured and the effectiveness of the co-creation process. It will set when it’s ready. For the professionals in the group, it’s a time to give confidence. It is not always comfortable to carry other people’s trust, but it’s part of the job.

Happily, today we had the first dance workshops by Antonio Bukhar, from Uganda via Berlin, and everyone got to move. It was a joyous morning and gave the group a chance to express themselves differently.

Most of the rest of the day was practical too—sound work with U. Narauskas and music with Gediminas Zujus. In the afternoon, Antonio gave a talk about his work in community dance, and I spoke about performance using Streetwise Opera and Graeae as examples of good practice. And we returned to slide-making, taking inspiration from the woodcuts of Kathe Köllwitz and Frans Masereel to work only in monochrome.

But it might be the lunchtime conversation between all the artists that turns out to be the day’s key moment. We’d met on Sunday night (in the convivial photo below), but hadn’t really know much about each other’s’ ideas or experience. It was only now, with the programme well underway, that we were in a position to consider where we might be going together. What will be performed on the Cabbage Field on Friday morning. I still don’t know. Community art is a high wire act.

Day Three: Finding our voice

The last post was about trusting the process. I didn’t expect things to happen so quickly, but a morning’s work was enough to clear the mists. Working with actor and director, Ramūnas Šimukauskas, the group literally found its voice.

The opening scene happens in a market and strong performance ideas are starting to emerge from the group’s shared creative work. The dance and drama workshops have helped the group to move and know one another better. But it was hearing three great singers, all with very different kinds of voice, that suddenly made the words community opera more than an aspiration. And in the afternoon, we had a visit from Egidjus Sipavičius, the Lithuanian pop star, who grew up in Šančiai. His engagement brought new energy and his session on singing was greatly appreciated.

While that was happening, the visual art group went back to the field to begin looking for material: spaces, colours and textures. A lot of ideas emerged. Some will become stronger as they’re tested, while others will naturally fall away. We have two tasks for Thursday: to plan a way of working on them during the months after the school, and to develop something visual for Friday’s performance. That is not so obvious since the opera will happen at night in midwinter and many of our visual ideas depend on the use of light. Our contribution to this pilot performance will therefore be somewhat symbolic.

Wednesday was a good day though. I think we all felt a new shared and confidence in what we’re trying to do. It’s still a sketch, but it’s a sketch of something. The promise that we will perform on the Cabbage Feld in 48 hours’ time is starting to seem real.

Day four: Things get tough

Well. Today was a challenging day. First of all, I had to dance, or at least move in roughly the same direction as everyone else, at roughly the same time. I’d managed to avoid Antonio’s workshops up to now, even though they are fantastic as the delight expressed by everyone who does them testifies. But I have two left feet and any attempt at physical coordination makes my brain hurt. I feel like the boy at the back of the class who can’t give the answer everyone else learned last term. But today, we began with presentations from group members about their work and one took the form or a traditional Lithuanian circle dance as an embodiment of community: there’s no good reason for not joining in. So I did my best, generally landing on the opposite foot to everyone else and half a beat behind.

The other presentations were less participative but equally memorable, especially those on the Faro Convention by Prosper (from France) and Tatiana (from Ukraine). I’d looked into it when it was signed in 2005, but had largely forgotten about it until last year, when a friend brought it to my attention. It’s a key Council of Europe document that promotes ‘a wider understanding of heritage and its relationship to communities and society’. The presentations – including one about Hotel du Nord in Marseilles – helped me see connections I’d not previously recognised.

The afternoon did not go as I had anticipated. It was scheduled for ‘co-creation’ and the design group had planned to be making for tomorrow’s performance. However, it turned out that the idea was to have a structured a discussion to reach a shared understanding of the work’s aim, values and tasks. It was a principled approach with interesting potential, but I wasn’t sure this was  the right time for it. But trusting other people’s judgment is intrinsic to this work and though the experience was challenging for me, it  has given me lots to think about. More importantly, we got to a good place by the end of the afternoon. We have a common vision of what we’ll do tomorrow afternoon, and why. Tomorrow, at 3pm, a sketch of a community opera will be performed for an invited audience on the Cabbage Field. Sadly, I’ll be on my way to the airport by then, but I hope to see the dress rehearsal. Not everything happens as you plan in community art, fortunately: that’s what makes it so valuable.

Day Five: Curtain

When we met on Friday morning, there was a cheerful determination to get on with what was still to be done. For the performers, that was fairly straightforward, because it meant rehearsing the opening scenes of the community opera they’d been developing. We’d talked about commitment in performance, looking at a film by Streetwise Opera for inspiration. In a very short time the group had gained confidence and authority through their work with some excellent professional artists. There were also experienced dancers and gifted singers to anchor the piece and I was sure that they would present a convincing show.

The visual side was more tricky, largely because it was midsummer and we’d been working on ideas for midwinter. There was nothing we could do with light on a hot afternoon in June. We’d also had little time to assemble materials or work on costumes and props. On Friday, we had about 90 minutes to create some kind of staging, so we had to be simple. The solution was to create four large scarecrows to define the performance space on the cabbage field. Some old curtains were transformed into figures by nimble hands. Cardboard seats were used for heads; bamboo, wire and gaffer tape did the rest. They represented a kind of chorus of citizens protecting the cabbage field. Not great, but like the performance itself, a statement of intent, like putting a flag down to claim the territory.

At noon, we trooped from the sports hall to the cabbage field for a first run through. The weather was kind – warm, but with some cloud cover (the temperature has been in the high 20s all week). Choosing the site, installation, setting up a PA was done quickly, without fuss: the common purpose in a community in formation. By the time pizzas were delivered for lunch, everything was in place and a first run through complete.

After the break, we did two more rehearsals and I found myself in the dance again, more comfortably this time. Lithuanian national TV came to record interviews and film the rehearsal for the evening news. There was time only for a group photo and then goodbyes. By the time the show as presented to the invited audience, I was going through security at the airport.

It’s been a wonderful week of effort, laughter, creativity and challenge, defined by new meetings and friendships. I feel nourished by the experienced and have a lot to reflect on. This will be the last of these daily blogs about the cabbage field opera, but I’ll come back to this with a more considered piece when my ideas have settled. In the meantime, thanks to anyone who’s followed this story over the past few days.

Vita's cake

Postscript, 2 July 2018

And this is a glimpse of what I missed…