Chairman of the Theatre Worker’s Union of Azerbaijan, People’s Artist and professor at the University of Culture and Arts, Azer Pasha Nematov last September took on the posts of Artistic Director and Head Film Director of the National Academic Drama Theatre.

Naturally, we were keen to meet one of the country’s most respected theatre directors (see Visions passim) and learn more about the man behind the titles and the many productions he has staged. It took a while to find a slot in his busy schedule, but it wasn’t too long before we were part of a respectful Friday afternoon queue outside his unassuming office in the theatre.

With the many responsibilities they take on, theatre directors are naturally pretty strong characters themselves and Azer Pasha muellim is clear about the sources of his own successful career, including the importance of self-direction:

I know that I have to thank my God and my parents for their help, also my teachers, and no one else. The teachers include those who taught me and those that I selected myself – learning from their books and plays.

his music attracted the attention of the great Qara Qarayev

Asked about early influences, he refers first to director, writer and professor Mehdi Mammadov, but says that most important was his father Zefer Nematov, also a director, who guided him in the principles of the profession, also taking him along to rehearsals.

As we talked, an onstage rehearsal was being relayed onto a screen in the office. At one point the action increased in volume and Azer Pasha muellim took us through to his theatre box to watch a little of the play for children in progress.

From strings to stage

Returning to his story, we heard that destiny was not completely clear-cut in the early days. Indeed the young Azer Pasha attended first Baku’s Bulbul Music School, playing violin before turning to composition. Apparently with some success; his music attracted the attention of the great Qara Qarayev, who invited him to sit in on his lessons and encouraged him to stay and develop his talent for composition. But after a year there was a transfer to another school and then to the Theatre Institute (now part of the Culture and Art University) to study theatre directing. Music was the passion of his youth, he says, but theatre overtook it to become the love of his professional life.

Shakespeare sent us a message from the seventeenth century, ‘Use your head and adapt it to the times’!

This change brought with it opportunities for wider travel and experience. Based for some years in Leningrad [now St Petersburg – ed.], he developed international contacts and remembers trips as a director to the US, Australia and to a Youth Theatre Festival in the UK that featured on BBC 2 TV. London was always an attraction for Azer Pasha muellim, being in the land of   Shakespeare and Byron (as a 7th grader he read the latter’s poems in such a beautiful translation that he assumed Byron was an Azerbaijani poet).

London continues to hold its attraction for the family; Azer Pasha’s son lives there now, but is not involved in theatre:

I wouldn’t let my children go into theatre – that life is too difficult!

Teaching and learning

By no means a traditionalist in his approach to a play, he refers back to recent stagings: of Shah Qajar (Ali Amirli) and Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens and Twelfth Night and underlines the modern approach he took. World music, mobile phones, motorbikes and tattoos all entered the world that Shakespeare had created in Twelfth Night to produce fun and spectacle. The cast was a combination of students and young actors:

You know, the students wanted to play it the academic way, the classical Shakespeare way, but I asked them, “What are you doing? What did Shakespeare write after the main title? He wrote ‘or What You Will’. Shakespeare sent us a message from the seventeenth century, ‘Use your head and adapt it to the times’! Many don’t understand this…. But it’s the greatness of Shakespeare.

This reference to his own role as teacher sparks a return to the influences he has absorbed in a lengthy career. He cites books by British director Peter Brook and the Polish Jerzy Grotowski and tells of meeting Brook in Italy. The Azerbaijani director, actor and teacher Adil Isgenderov is also in a frame that enlarges with the comment:

A teacher is not the one who teaches, but one from whom you learn.

Thus the list continues to include Azerbaijani painters Sattar Bahlulzade, Mikayil Abdullayev, as well as Picasso, Van Gogh, Rembrandt, Cezanne and Dali….

So, did these artists have a direct influence on, for example, the look of his productions, on stage design?

his music attracted the attention of the great Qara Qarayev

I’ll tell you a secret. I had a longtime friend, Elchin Mammadov, who was the stage artist here at the Drama Theatre – we were friends from three or four years old…. so now I do everything, the artwork, myself. This is the way to get what I want now. Before, I told the artist everything about what I wanted…. But then I decided I could do all this anyway.

For the play You Are Always With Me, everything: music, costume, direction, was by me. The theatre told me that I couldn’t put everything by me, there had to be different names, so I wrote that direction, scenery and costume were by Azer Pasha Nemat, but the sound design was by Pasha Zefer oghlu [using his patronymic instead of family name – ed].

The sound for that play was very difficult; we needed three minutes here, five minutes there. I spent every evening for nearly four months selecting and mixing the music into the necessary slots. It was almost like composing.

The art and spirit of today

As for his aims as Head Director of the theatre, Azer Pasha muellim points out that the recently refurbished National Drama Theatre is a good, modern theatre and well suited to produce modern art, after all, he says, Theatre is the art of today.

Faced with a suggestion that it may have had its day in the face of competition from TV, computers and other technology, he underlines his objection by breaking into English. Theatre is, Not old, nor young. Back in Azerbaijani:

Theatre has been around for 3,500 years. Whatever comes along, it develops in its own way. When film began, people thought theatre would die. With television, they thought film would die, but each goes its own way and its own evolution. Once there was only one way, now here are more and only God knows what will happen in the future, but I think there will always be theatre. It is the foundation of all of them.

Everywhere I work, I try to capture the essence of today

Everywhere I work, I try to capture the essence of today. To stage classical works in a modern way, relevant to today. In the theatre where I work, you can feel the world’s pulse. I do not mean politics; the greatest thing to do now is art… We have to do our best to show the world in a more interesting way.

Azer Pasha muellim is a member of the senior generation of theatre people – born in 1947 in Baku - and there is much nostalgia here for the past greats of cinema and theatre. As he is also a teacher of the rising generation, we wondered if he saw equally talented actors and directors on the way up. He is boundlessly optimistic.

It can’t be any other way. New ones will arrive. They will come regardless of what we do. It was the same for us. We did it mainly by ourselves. We studied and developed and a new generation will come the same way. They will make their own choices: television, theatre or film….

Theatre is the art of today

Summing up his general aim in his still new post, Azer Pasha Nematov underlines that he wants the theatre to capture the spirit of the day in its productions. As we leave, he gives us a copy of the season’s programme that covers social and romantic comedies, tragedies, tragicomic mysteries and games, folk tales, historical and contemporary dramas. Surely something to tempt every theatrical tastebud.

Before going to press news came that Azer Pasha muellim had been appointed Director of the National Academic Drama Theatre. He also retains the post of Artistic Director - our congratulations to him!