Site-specific Theatre as a Way of Seeing the Vilna Ghetto from Today's Perspective

By Rima Jūraitė 2020 06 30 APAC info
A sonic experience at the Vilna ghetto titled
A sonic experience at the Vilna ghetto titled "The Filler". Photo by Modestas Endriuška

Over the past two years, the topic associated with history and memory of the Holocaust and the Vilna Ghetto has finally attracted proper attention from the creators of theatre and other performing arts. Directors of diverse generations have set out to create works on the subject: Gintaras Varnas directed Ghetto by Joshua Sobol in Kaunas (2018), Oskaras Koršunovas staged Our Class by Tadeusz Słobodzianek in Klaipėda (2019), whereas Artūras Areima presented Our People based on eponymous play by Michal Walczak (2019); all of these performances were previously reviewed at

In autumn 2019, production company “Operomanija” presented a site-specific, documentary, and partially experiential piece - a sonic experience at the Vilna ghetto titled The Filler (Lith. Glaistas). The sonic performance-journey takes place at the historical quarter of the former Vilna ghetto that was ultimately liquidated by the Nazis on the 23rd of September 1943. History of the Vilnius city (often dubbed Jerusalem of the North) and the Jewish culture heritage in the country were further brutally destroyed during the years of Soviet occupation. Following the regaining of Lithuania's independence, mass renovation of Old Town architectural heritage commenced, hiding the last traces of the Jewish Vilnius under a thick layer of filler and paint. It is this ghetto, no longer present in everyday life of a modern city that the creators of The Filler are inviting us to visit; they lead the viewers around ghetto in small groups of only five people, turning them into both spectators and participants of the performance. Creative team of The Filler have embedded in the natural architecture of old and modern city (Old Town streets, yards and their ins and outs, staircases of residential houses, former ghetto theatre, etc) the authentic voices of Jews who lived in the ghetto, sharing their memories from today's perspective, testifying both from temporal and geographical distance - all of the Holocaust survivors who were approached by the creators of the performance currently live in Israel.

The Filler is a piece by four creators of the young generation - dramatist Rimantas Ribačiauskas, director Mantas Jančiauskas, composers Jūra Elena Šedytė and Andrius Šiurys, and it invites to take a modern glance at the Vilna ghetto. A small group of participants together with creators of the piece navigate a certain route around the territory of the former ghetto, listening in their headphones to a polylogue of pre-recorded voices of former residents of the Vilna ghetto - the last witnesses of the Holocaust. Supplemented by soundscapes, the fragments of their stories, childhood or youth memories of life in Vilnius and in the ghetto echo and render an image of the lost city that is unfamiliar to present day residents of Vilnius. The creators do not strive to recreate a pseudo authentic space of the ghetto (which, essentially, cannot be recreated) to act as a kind of set for the piece; to the contrary - they honestly and painfully disclose how little has left of the large Jewish community, their culture and heritage, of those who used to live and help shape the city just 75 years ago.

A member of creative team behind The Filler, young generation director Mantas Jančiauskas told in an interview about the peculiarities of performance delivered in a form of a walk or stroll: “The reality itself played an important role in The Filler, namely the spaces of the city and the direction thereof. We have faced the fact that the viewers were not roaming through fictional space, i.e. they were not watching a story told on stage at the theatre, but have found themselves on an actual street. There were some acting “characters” as well, the casual passers-by; meanwhile, the spaces were absolutely real and authentic, something that is essentially different from artificial theatre sets”.

Creators of The Filler, a sonic experience project at the Vilna ghetto, seek to inspire each viewer - participant to find his / her personal approach towards the history of the city of Vilnius, painfully struck by the horror of Holocaust. Co-author of the piece, dramatist Rimantas Ribačiauskas claims that the creative process resulted in an understanding that, in contrast to the drama stage, in this case one had to restrain from active declaration of one's personal approach: “Our position is somewhat contained in the recordings played in the headphones; in the way we have formulated the questions we asked while interviewing the survivors of the Holocaust. Our approach towards the topic has changed over the course of the creative process. When we started delving deeper into the Holocaust theme, there were moments filled with anger, where we were greatly concerned with moral positions. However, over the course of the project we realised that although we are able to penetrate the available information materials and strive to understand it better - there will always remain this layer of “smoked glass”, which does not permit to see everything sharp and clear and to provide unambiguous answers. That is why our position was left as it is: asking, trying to understand, yet sometimes unable to do so. This is how we really feel“.

Performing arts critic Rima Jūraitė ( writes about the ultimate freedom of viewer-participant to arrive to his / her own interpretation of this sonic stroll: “Here the authenticity lies in the fact that each and everyone may bring out something personal out of this experience. Emotions are induced by the streets, buildings and even sidewalks, but mostly - by “meetings”. For me it was a “meeting” with Frida Sohat I listened to in my pair of headphones: she told that she was very young before the war, but she had many friends. Including Lithuanians, Russians and many others. Because she simply did not understand that it could be different. <...> Although The Filler connects the lost Jewish Vilnius (via reminiscences of its people, architecture, etc) with a modern day version of a city, filled with cultural and barbaric layers, the piece definitely and clearly testifies in the present, not the past tense, telling about Vilnius of today, a city without the voices silenced by the Holocaust”. 

Theatrologist Dovilė Zavedskaitė (7 meno dienos) had her own personal experience of the walk around the Vilna ghetto. She emphasised how strongly the piece affects the feeling of the perceiver: “Although the created soundscape is dense and multilayered, it is also careful as human breathing; leading to sensuality, distracting from the field of meaning, also allowing the person to simply breathe”.

The voices heard in the headphones and the route carefully laid out by the creative team based on dramatic principles creates a stroll that can be seen as a journey: containing entwined storylines - micro-histories of every one of four former ghetto residents heard in the headphones; a climax (sudden arrival at the Choral Synagogue of Vilnius as its pivot) and resolution. One shall note, however, that this sonic experience - stroll does not, in any way, remind of an audio-guided tour around town. Theatre critic Rimgailė Renevytė (7 meno dienos) notes, that The Filler is an open piece with flexible dramaturgy full of plasticity: “There is a distinction in relationship between spaces and narratives of The Filler, hence, the content continually recreates its form of narration - talks and interlocutors change, along with topics and tone. However, even though the creators sought to avoid restricting the viewer with dramaturgy, they did not escape that in direction. Voices and sounds in the performance are intentionally interrupted and they do not create a uniform and at least somewhat predictable dramatic narrative”.

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