A musician wearing a Soviet militia uniform stands before the entrance of the Ilkhom Theatre in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, on March 13.
A musician wearing a Soviet militia uniform stands before the entrance of the Ilkhom Theatre in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, on March 13.

Dispatch

Tashkent Underground

The Ilkhom Theatre Company has kept freedom alive in Uzbekistan since before the fall of the Soviet Union.

TASHKENT, Uzbekistan—The cozy underground stage is immersed in total darkness, its seats filled to capacity. The theater is so tiny that the first row of spectators shares the squeaky, wooden floor with the performers. Suddenly, the spotlights dazzle a couple of young actors, battered and dressed in rags, lying among old barrels and plastic garbage. They impersonate two desperate young people from a poor neighborhood who are addicted to drugs. A side door opens, and a couple of police officers walk toward them.

Tonight’s play is titled Rain Behind the Wall. The drama is set in an unspecified post-Soviet country plagued by police violence, corruption, and urban poverty. Beside the stage, a rock band dressed in Soviet militia uniforms scores each scene with a skillful mix of rock pieces and more solemn tracks.

The audience follows escalating police abuses and retaliatory attacks by neighborhood inhabitants. At the end of two hours, the dozen actors bow respectfully to hundreds of clapping hands, then run back to their dressing rooms. The spectators leave the low-ceilinged hall in a matter of minutes, having taken in another performance from the Ilkhom Theatre Company.

“The final applause marks the border between the play and the real world, but actors don’t like this strict separation,” said Boris Gafurov, the theater’s 46-year-old artistic director. “We would like the spectators to absorb the atmosphere we created on stage and bring it home with them.”

Located in the capital, Tashkent, Ilkhom (meaning “Inspiration” in the Uzbek language) was created in 1976 by Mark Weil, a visionary local director of Ukranian Jewish origins. At that time, Uzbekistan was still part of the Soviet Union, and Ilkhom was the first independent theater in the whole USSR. Despite its controversial, provocative plays—and much to the surprise of its own founders and supporters—the theater managed to survive the fall of communism and the subsequent iron-fisted dictatorship of Islam Karimov, a former Soviet apparatchik who took over Uzbekistan after the collapse of the Soviet Union and ruled until his death in 2016. To this day, it still operates out of the same basement—a semi-abandoned former potato warehouse—where Weil started it.

Actors gather backstage at the Ilkhom Theatre before the play on Feb. 27.

The story of Ilkhom shows how a bastion of freedom can thrive in the harshest of dictatorships. When Weil opened the theater 43 years ago with a bunch of theater students, Soviet authorities barely took notice. Tashkent is geographically far from Moscow, and small acts of sedition usually didn’t travel that far. Weil was skilled and brave enough to make use of this unexpected opening even after the success stirred by Ilkhom’s first Moscow tour in 1982, which attracted the unwanted attention of the central government. Despite continuous friction with the authorities and repeated threats to close the theater, Weil kept going by exploiting the complex relationships between Moscow and Tashkent, sometimes playing them against each other.

Ilkhom quickly became a cultural point of reference for the whole Soviet Union, where theater was one of the most important means of artistic communication. “We acted recklessly, working on plays that had not been examined by the censorship. We could have been criminally charged for anti-Soviet activities,” explains Weil in The Unknown Infamous Ilkhom, a book chronicling the theater’s creation. “We were not a political theater. We just wanted to reproduce unedited life and real people on stage.”

A scene from “Rain Behind the Wall,” a 2013 play depicting the harsh street life of a group of outcasts, at the Ilkhom Theatre on March 13. Although it is set in a dystopian world, the play contains plenty of references to the Soviet Union and the issues facing modern day Russia and Uzbekistan, including corruption and abuse of power from authorities.

Members of the band wait for the audience to take their seats before performing “Rain Behind the Wall” at the Ilkhom Theatre on March 13. 

When the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, Ilkhom withstood a hemorrhage of actors who fled newly independent Uzbekistan for a better future, mainly in Russia. The new president, Karimov, installed a brutal and paranoid dictatorship, jailing political opponents, imposing travel bans on its people, and sending hundreds of thousands of students and state workers to harvest cotton forcibly every autumn. Uzbekistan became a one-party country with no independent media, yet Karimov did not dare to touch the little theater. After all, Ilkhom served a political purpose: Despite widespread human rights abuses, Uzbekistan was still officially a democracy, and the regime could use Ilkhom as proof of it. At times, Karimov’s daughters even came and enjoyed the shows.

Ilkhom’s approach has remained the same since its creation: Don’t openly criticize authorities, but never surrender your artistic freedom. The topics it touches on—violence, religious fanaticism, power, and fear, among others—are universal, but they always echo local events. For example, in Airport, which premiered one week after Karimov’s death in 2016, several of the president’s speeches were collaged and read backward to create a monologue that made no sense.

An actress prepares to go on stage at the Ilkhom Theatre on March 1. Ilkhom—meaning “inspiration” in Uzbek—was created in 1976 as the only independent theater in the Soviet Union and has remained the only non-state theater since the independence of Uzbekistan. 

In shows like this, the company still follows Weil’s guidelines and unique approach. New plays are not based on the execution of a rigid script but instead developed from small pieces born out of the performers’ own imaginations. These are then slowly refined and put together into a coherent play. “It takes much longer to prepare a show this way, but the result is well worth it. Everyone who participated put a little piece of himself into the project, and the amount of pride you take from it is priceless,” Durin Cazac, a 36-year-old American actor who moved from Seattle to Tashkent in 2006 to join Ilkhom, told me. “The play isn’t fixed but keeps on developing performance after performance. That’s what organic theater is about.”

But as much as the company still hews to the ideas of its founder, it no longer has the man himself to lean on. In September 2007, Weil was stabbed to death in front of his apartment by two disgruntled young Muslims, who had reportedly been offended by the way the director had portrayed the Prophet Mohammed in one of his plays. The men who planned and carried out the murder received harsh sentences, but many in the Ilkhom community believe that the government was the real mastermind behind the attack, charges Tashkent has dismissed.

The killing occurred one day before the start of Ilkhom’s new season. A few hours before the attack, Weil, perhaps sensing the imminent danger, had made clear that he wanted the opening to go on as planned, no matter what. And so, the following night, the season was inaugurated with Oresteia, the Greek trilogy by Aeschylus. “I’ll never forget that performance. I remember having goosebumps for three hours straight,” recounted Cazac, who was a student at the Ilkhom Theatre School of Drama at the time. “Everyone was exhausted at the end, but just seeing that first round of, ‘Ok, we are still doing this,’ was incredibly inspiring. We had taken a first step.”

In the aftermath of the killing, Gafurov was chosen as the new artistic director. “My first instinct was to run away as far as possible,” he recounted, laughing. “I still feel it sometimes. I still struggle with my fears.” So did some of the actors: In the period after Weil’s death, some left, and the quality of shows dropped dramatically for a few years. Then, in 2010, Ilkhom premiered Seven Moons, a parable chronicling the rise and dramatic fall of the Shah of Persia based on a poem by the 15th-century Turkic poet Alisher Navoi, Uzbekistan’s national author.

An actress adjusts her costume backstage at Tashkent’s Ilkhom Theatre on Feb. 27.

An actor silently rehearses his scene before taking the stage at the Ilkhom Theatre on Feb. 27. 

Backstage at the Ilkhom Theatre, housed in a former potato warehouse in the center of Tashkent, on Feb. 27. 

It was Ilkhom’s first masterpiece since Weil’s death. “It was a groundbreaking point,” Gafurov said. “From then on we started to believe in ourselves again, and we got off a new start.” Nearly 12 years after its founder’s death, Ilkhom keeps on struggling as it has done since its creation: Tickets and school tuitions are not enough to cover the roughly $200,000 of annual costs, so the theater has to rely on grants and donations to stay afloat. The company’s 15 main actors are paid a meager salary of $60 to $150 a month. All of them work secondary jobs to make ends meet.

Despite all its difficulties, the theater keeps churning out new talents. The youngest one is Gimal Gafiyatullin, a 20-year-old with a penetrating gaze and a contagious smile who joined the company two years ago. Gafiyatullin was discovered while working as a waiter in an art cafe, where he would occasionally perform on a small indoor stage. He enrolled at Ilkhom’s school of drama and was later invited to join the company. “I don’t consider myself as an actor yet. I still have a lot to learn,” he said. Gafiyatullin already takes part in six of the theater’s plays. While he was on stage a few weeks ago, for the first time in his career, he had the distinct feeling of having really embodied his character. “It only lasted a few seconds, but it was an incredibly intense sensation. When I went back to the dressing room I just sat down and cried,” he said. “My teachers say that we do this profession for those few precious seconds.”

Around Ilkhom, Uzbekistan is changing. The new president, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, has freed political and religious prisoners and scrapped some of his predecessor’s most odious rules. This change of attitude is having some positive effects on the theater. “In Karimov time, authorities tried to hide our existence. They never invited us to festivals or included us in guidebooks,” explained Nikita Makarenko, 31, a prominent local journalist and the organizer of Ilkhom’s rock festival. “Now they put our names on subway signs, feature us on TV, and even review our plays in the official press!”

The audience applauds the cast after “White White Black Stork” at Ilkhom Theatre on Feb. 27. Set in Tashkent in the early 20th century during the city’s occupation by the Russian Empire, the play tells the story of a disoriented young couple and its impossibility fitting into traditional Uzbek society. First staged in 1998 by founder Marc Weil, it remains a signature play at Ilkhom.

An actress stands on the empty stage of the Ilkhom Theatre before a performance on Feb. 27. Many of the theater’s plays are said to prod Uzbekistan authorities by including references to issues facing the country. “We are brave people,” explains deputy general manager Irina Bharat. “We know how to behave and how to say things.” 

Yet the future of Ilkhom is far from guaranteed. The theater might soon have to face another existential threat, as severe as the ones posed by religious extremists or abusive authorities. Uzbekistan’s new spring has brought economic opportunities, but also unrestrained capitalism. Entire neighborhoods in Tashkent are being razed to make space for high-rise luxury apartments. Developers and investors covet the central area where the theater is located and have already approached people in nearby buildings. “We don’t bring any profit, and for some people, this is just a commercial space in the middle of town,” Irina Bharat, the theater’s deputy general manager, said.

Two giant pictures of Weil still dominate the marble stairs leading down to the stage. His piercing eyes seem to inspect you carefully as if he wanted to connect with your soul. Nearly 12 years after his death, his artistic genius is alive in Ilkhom’s narrow corridors, graffitied walls, and smoky dressing rooms.

In countries where dissent is not tolerated, challenging the official narrative becomes a revolutionary act that nurtures hope and sows the seeds of freedom. Uzbekistan’s recent opening is a timid step in that direction and owes something to the spirit of Ilkhom.

Matteo Fagotto is a Milan-based journalist focused on human rights and climate change issues. He is the co-founder with photographer Matilde Gattoni (@matildegattoni on Instagram) of Tandem Reportages. On Facebook: https://m.facebook.com/matteojournalist/