The Kaunas State Puppet Theatre was founded in 1958 by the drama actors Stasys Ratkevičius (1917 – 2010) and Valerija Gruodytė-Ratkevičienė (1916 – 2004). The core of the new theatreʼs troupe was drawn from graduates of the theatre section of the Juozas Gruodis Music School. The premiere of the first play, “Stebuklingasis Aladino žibintas” (Aladdinʼs Magic Lamp) (director S. Ratkevičius) took place on 18 May 1958 in Marijampolė (at that time, Kapsukas).
The present-day theatre building in Laisvės alėja (Liberty Avenue) was built in 1925 (at first, a cinema operated there). After reconstruction of the building in 1960, the Kaunas State Puppet Theatre settled there. The theatre has two performance halls: a large and a small one (226 and 47 seats, respectively).
The chronicles of the theatre are filled with a long list of noteworthy directors, artists, actors, scenographers and composers, more than 200 titles of various performances, about 2,000 puppets produced over the years, about 15,000 performances seen by about 2.5 million theatre-goers, and tens of festivals and tours abroad, including as far as Latin America.
The theatre presents as many as 300 performances each year, including four premieres. Each seasonʼs repertoire for the littlest theatre-goers offers as many as 28 performances. They include on-stage presentations of fairy tales from various countries as well as original stage productions for children. The theatreʼs troupe includes 11 actors.
From 1958 to 1994, director Stasys Ratkevičius served as the theatreʼs artistic director, and from 1995 to 2010 creative work was led by director Algimantas Stankevičius.
On display at the Valerija and Stasys Ratkevičius Puppet Museum, founded in 1994, there are puppets, masks, props and scenographic elements used in performances as well as documentary materials. At present, the museumʼs collections include more than 900 exhibits illustrating the process of aesthetic expression in the artistsʼ works. The museumʼs space is used imaginatively for theatrical hours and educational events: children are acquainted with the subtleties of puppet theatre, find out how a puppet and performance are born, meet and spend time with fairy tale characters, try for themselves to control a puppet and indeed to become actors themselves for a short while.
Several times each season, the museum holds puppet shows in various parts of Lithuania, which attract great interest and are well received. Along with the traditional forms of puppet theatre, new and attractive ways are sought to interact with the little theatre-goers. Each year, the traditional farewell-to-summer “Į Pasakų šalį – su fotoaparatu!” (To Fairy-Tale Land - With Your Camera!), enjoyed by residents and guests alike, is held near the theatre, and in the Fairy-Tale Land at the City Garden the young theatre-goers can greet their favourite performance puppets, shake hands with the actors who have become fairy-tale characters and take photos as well as have their photo taken. At the end of the celebration, the first play of the new season is performed.
The international festival “Šypsos lėlės ir vaikai” (Let Puppets and Children Smile Together) is the largest celebration of this genre in Lithuania, and has been organised by the Kaunas State Puppet Theatre together with the Union Internationale de la Marionnette of Lithuania since 1991. The festivalʼs programme includes appearances by professional Lithuanian and foreign puppet theatres and the best of the countryʼs childrenʼs puppet troupes. The traditional event provides an opportunity to review and evaluate the latest puppet performances, and at the same time obtain valuable professional experience. The 2011 festival, funded by the EU programme “Culture 2007 – 2013”, was especially significant. At that time, highly professional troupes and figures from 12 countries came to Kaunas.
Projects funded by the European Commissionʼs cultural programme, including “Jaunasis amžius” (Young Age) (2006), “Šiuolaikinis lėlių muziejus peržengia skirtingų kultūrų ribas” (A contemporary puppet museum crosses the boundaries of different cultures) (2010), and “Šeima ir vaikai šiuolaikinėje Europoje” (Family and children in contemporary Europe) (2011), provided opportunities to enter the international arena and opened the way to fruitful cooperation.