Magic Behind Curtains: Kazakhstan’s Theater Guide Offers Insightful Backstage Tours

ASTANA – A glimpse behind the scenes of a theater revealing the craft that goes into bringing any performance to the stage is what makes the Theater Guide project a unique tour that allows one to experience theater in a different way.

Astana Ballet theater. Photo credit: The Astana Times

Established in 2021, the Theater Guide aims to popularize theater through informative tours and behind-the-scenes looks.

The tour

An hour before the curtain call, theatergoers can take an interior tour led by an art historian, followed by a lecture about the history and significance of each performance.

The tour to see “Cinderella” backstage gathered children and adults alike. Photo credit: The Astana Times

The colorful history of an opera or ballet, its key characters, and the peculiarities of this specific production are all covered in the lecture part. But the best thing about the tour is that visitors get to spend some time backstage.

Across the hidden hallways, dressing rooms and dark backstage spaces at the Astana Ballet, preparation is well underway for “Cinderella” as the Astana Times correspondent joins the tour an hour before the staging.

Stepping behind the set for “Cinderella,” one can see huge decorations that take up a large portion of the Astana Ballet’s hangar-like space. The guide smoothly delivers functions of the items the group sees on their way across the dark backstage hall.

Astana Ballet artists in their make-up room. Photo credit: The Astana Times

“We are now in the back of the stage complex, which is called the ‘arriere-stage.’ This is where sets are often stored. As you can see, some of them are even preparations for future performances. The theater can simultaneously be ready for three upcoming ballets. What you see here is a very important set piece of today’s stage action. It is a book,” said the tour guide Sofia.

Sitting in the stalls, it is easy to forget the amount of behind-the-scenes labor that goes into a ballet.

“Here, alongside the performers, you’ll find lighting technicians, workshop workers, namely costume designers,” said Sofia as she continued the behind-the-scenes tour.

The tour group for “Cinderella” was mainly made up of schoolchildren, who talked in delight about the experience afterward.

Theater culture in Kazakhstan

The founder behind the project, Amina Belgibayeva, believes passionately in the power of art education to transform people. Through the Theater Guide project, she has been leading a fight to combat such a deep-rooted prejudice about theater art and misunderstanding of the subject matter. 

The founder Amina Belgibayeva. Photo credit: The Astana Times

“The idea to launch the project came to me with the understanding that the audience often visits a theater not fully understanding what they are watching, unfortunately. I feel that this form of art is treated with a kind of carelessness and perhaps superficial attitude,” said Belgibayeva.

Her words have an element of truth as viewers might regard themselves as consumers who absorb rather than agents who think, embrace and participate. 

“While entertainment is anticipated by all, there seems to be a tendency for a passive stance. Ideally, viewers should be in an active, accepting, acting, reflecting position. Of course, entertainment is one of the key parts of a theater, but besides that, the theater has many other functions, including educational, developmental, and so on,” said Belgibayeva.

According to her, passive consumption and lack of understanding eventually result in disappointment and a decision to quit going to the theater. 

Belgibayeva wants theater visits to become more than a bucket-list experience.

Photo credit: The Astana Times

“Nowadays, many people view going to the theater as a rare or even once-in-a-lifetime occurrence. It’s often seen as a nod to current trends, a box to tick off on one’s list. However, attending the theater should ideally be integrated into our daily lives, perhaps as a weekly tradition. Because it is a true feast, feast of the soul!” added Belgibayeva.

Rising theater attendance undoubtedly reflects an interest from audiences and Belgibayeva believes that joining forces with theaters can make a huge difference. 

“I think that interest in theater is growing, yet it requires joint efforts from theaters and projects like ours to attract and educate the viewer. This should evolve into a positive light trend, in my view,” she said.

“I always say that theater resides between heaven and earth. It occupies a unique realm akin to temples. Upon entering the theater, people shift their conversation away from materialism. This is such a synthesis and unity of both material and spiritual,” added Belgibayeva.

Educating young generation

To encourage the next generation of theatergoers, one needs to let kids enter behind the scenes into the real world of theater. The project sought to pique children’s curiosity by inviting pupils to join the tours, given that many theaters present performances suitable for kids. They offer free tickets for teachers who accompany them.

Children are especially mesmerized by vast backstage decorations. Photo credit: The Astana Times

“It is very important to encourage visits to theaters, exhibitions, galleries, and, in general, the craving for art and culture from a very young age. It should start in the family,” said Belgibayeva.

“If initially our focus was primarily on children, now we’ve come to understand the equal importance of catering to adults as well. We support family visits because it is important that at the dining table when parents and children come together, there is something to talk about. Children often imitate what they observe so it is very important for parents to lead by example, and the children will pick up on it,” she added.

Supporting art historians

The Theater Guide project also takes on a mission to create conditions in which art historians could thrive.

According to her, often, art history graduates do not pursue employment in their field. Some will become curators at museums and galleries, but very few seem to be able to share their knowledge with the general public in the way Theater Guide allows.

“Unfortunately, many art historians in our country do not find employment in their specialty after receiving higher education. For us, balletologists, specialists in such a narrow field, there was also the question of where and how we will earn our daily bread, and will we be able to stay in the business we have grown to love?” said Belgibayeva.

This project could serve as a gateway to a variety of well-paid careers in art.

“I also realized that the project, despite its social orientation, should generate income for art historians. Currently, it provides only an additional source of income, but as the project expands, I would like to provide our art historians with a steady income, enabling them to fully engage in the project without financial concerns holding them back,” said Belgibayeva.

Which theaters can you visit?

Since its inception two and a half years ago, the project has brought joy to thousands of visitors. 

“There are viewers who have come to our program 20 times, can you imagine that?” said Belgibayeva.

The Theater Guide offers tours to Astana Ballet, Astana Opera and several musical theaters in Astana. Last year, they started giving tours in Almaty’s Kazakh National Opera and Ballet Theater named after Abai.

Guides are offered in Kazakh, Russian and English.

Speaking of plans, Belgibayeva said they want to expand art lectures beyond theater and offer visiting lectures and children’s lectures.

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