Synetic Theater: A Love Story
The epic tale of how two performers from Tbilisi came to open an avant-garde theater in Arlington.
Their backstory features all the trappings of an epic drama: civil war, love, fear, separation and reunion in a foreign land. Now, after a lifetime of struggle and sacrifice, (spoiler alert) Paata and Irina Tsikurishvili have achieved something every audience can’t help rooting for—a happy ending.
Their tale begins back in 1989, when two starry-eyed performers in Soviet-ruled Tbilisi, Georgia, met at an audition and fell in love. Paata was already working as an actor at a pantomime theater when Irina, a trained ballerina, turned up one day to try out for a spot in the company. By the time Irina was 18 they were married, with the idea that they would join a theater troupe and travel the world. Then Irina got pregnant.
At the time, a proliferation of street gangs had made Tbilisi especially dangerous for men. Paata left to tour as an actor and director with a theater troupe in Germany while Irina stayed behind in a war-torn city with their baby boy, Vato. “We promised each other, One day we will go to the U.S. and we will have our own theater company,” Paata says of those early years. “But it was just a dream. We never realized it was going to happen.”
Before anything could happen, Irina needed to get out of Tbilisi. Her parents were already living in the United States, but conditions in their homeland were worsening as the Soviet Union crumbled. “We basically had no light, no electricity, no gas,” Irina recalls. “I had money because my father was sending me money [from America], but when you go to buy kerosene—that’s how we had light in the house—I couldn’t find kerosene. I couldn’t cook because we were using a little kerosene stove. My father did everything so I could get out of Georgia.”
In 1995, Irina and Vato finally made their way to the U.S., where Irina took a job teaching ballet to young gymnasts. Paata soon followed, leaving behind a budding film career in Germany. “I had to make a choice,” he says. “Work or family.” Together, they found a place to live in Maryland.
The following year, they conceived the idea for the performing arts company that would eventually become Synetic Theater, making the painful decision to send Vato (who was then 7) to live with Irina’s parents in Ohio while the young couple got their fledgling venture off the ground. In 2001, they welcomed a daughter, Ana.
Known for its “silent” (wordless) productions, Synetic isn’t like other theater companies. Paata’s sensibilities were shaped by the physical style of acting he learned in Georgia, along with his admiration for silent film stars like Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. As a dancer, Irina also had a natural affinity for storytelling through movement.
They decided to use that unique perspective to differentiate Synetic (the name is a combination of “synthesis” and “kinetic”) from other theater companies, starting with a wordless production of Hamlet that won three Helen Hayes Awards in 2003.
Since then, they have staged some 70 productions, garnering more than 100 awards. The silent plays are usually based on Shakespearean works (Twelfth Night, The Tempest) or other classic tales that audiences are familiar with, such as Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame or Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.