In search of fog: the story of a displaced theater from Shushi

I met the actors of the Puppet Theater of Shushi in a quiet corner of Gyumri, Armenia’s second-largest city, three years after they fled the war in Artsakh. It was their first attempt to get out of forced inactivity. For four months, their colleagues, fellow actors in the theater, had been under blockade in Artsakh, or Nagorno-Karabakh. The only road that was meant to reunite them is still closed today.

Those who remained in Armenia decided to continue their work. Yet the staff of the theater changes. In contrast to their earlier, large team, only two enthusiastic women, Ashken and Lilith, were left in charge of arranging performances.

Since the war, the theater has not charged for tickets, providing free entry to all. The performers work other jobs to earn money, such as hairdressing, working abroad and performing at private events. 

They call themselves a “wandering theater,” but emphasize that they still belong to Shushi. They described Shushi as a city of white-walled buildings and constant fog, reminiscent of Eden. One of these women said that without fog, she feels like she can’t breathe. I recalled cities in Armenia that are also foggy, like Sevan and Dilijan, but she was indifferent.

Father and daughter watching their mother’s performance with Mt. Ararat in the background.
Preparing to perform “The Three Little Pigs.” Ironically, the story of the pigs is similar to the story of the actors themselves – in both, they lose their homes.
Ashken keeps the puppets in the closet of her new home, leaving little room for clothes. The entire theater fits into different corners of her house.
A view from the window of one of the kindergartens, where the theater had a touring performance.
Performing in this hall reminded the actors of their theater in Shushi. Every time they remember Shushi, they do so with smiles and bliss. “Look! These walls! Shushi was like this!” they said. (First spectators and magical walls)
Lilith is a poet who used to write scripts for the theater. Since half of the theater’s actors are under blockade in Artsakh, she has taken on an acting role, playing the wolf. (Anxiety before the play)
Magic beyond the curtains
David smokes a cigarette and exhales the smoke to “burn” one of the houses of the little pigs. David is not a member of the theater anymore, but he voluntarily assists the theater during its performances. The theater achieves its big desires through humble means.
Gayane has been involved in theater from a young age. Since the war, she has practiced carpet weaving. She is not a member of the Puppet Theater anymore, but she volunteers as an actor to support her colleagues. (Waiting for her part)
Children go through different reactions while watching the performance: surprise, fear of the wolf, sympathy for the pigs, uncontrollable laughter and desire to warn the pigs to beware of the wolf.
Lilith puts on a tough, masculine voice to perform as the wolf.
Children applaud the actors.
Argine is a professional actress. She wears a t-shirt featuring the “tatik-papik” (or grandma-grandpa) sculpture, one of the primary symbols of the Armenian heritage of Artsakh. Her husband and daughter are her devoted audience.
Since the property of the theater remained in Shushi, the performers made new puppets from dough and pieces of cloth.
“The theater does not have a home. It is a wandering one, but the property is located in Gyumri,” the actors say, remaining loyal to their former place of residence, from which they were displaced. Vahagn, a former member of the theater, works as a hairdresser to take care of his family while voluntarily assisting the theater.
Diana Hovhannisyan

Diana Hovhannisyan

Diana Hovhannisyan is a cultural anthropologist, documentary photographer and filmmaker based in Armenia. She has worked as a research assistant for different anthropology programs concerning war, refugee studies and informal education. Her interests include trauma and memory studies, visual anthropology and everyday culture.
Diana Hovhannisyan

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