As a performance of Mikhail Bulgakov's Heart Of A Dog drew to a thundering close at Tashkent's Ilkhom Theater recently, a line of people stood up from the applauding crowd to unfurl a banner that read, "We Are With You, Ilkhom."
The banner was part of a wave of support that has included statements from foreign embassies and ambassadors as well as a tweet from Saida Mirziyoeva -- the daughter of Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev -- after reports that the Ilkhom Theater group was about to be forced out of the building it had performed in for 44 years.
The central Tashkent building was recently sold to a property-development company, Ofelos Plaza, and on February 7 the company sent a letter to Ilkhom's management requesting the theater troupe vacate the premises.
The entrance to the Ilkhom Theater in central Tashkent. Ilkhom uses the property rent-free and has no apparent legal basis to challenge Ofelos Plaza's decisions to renovate the building.
Ilkhom -- which means "inspiration" -- was founded in 1976 by director Mark Weil and became known for performances that spoke, often with subtle political zing, about issues affecting ordinary Uzbeks. Weil said he wanted to create "unedited life and real people on our stage" -- a rare feat in the tightly edited world of Soviet art.
Ilkhom's founder, Mark Weil (left), speaks with performers in Tashkent in 1988. Ilkhom is the Uzbek word for "inspiration."
Irina Bharat, who was hired by Weil 16 years ago and is the theater's deputy director, told RFE/RL that Weil was "absolutely a Tashkent guy, he loved this place and used to say [Ilkhom] could only happen here. In the Soviet time it was too far from Moscow, so they couldn't control everything."
By the time the Kremlin took notice of the free-speaking performances taking place on a subterranean stage in Tashkent, Ilkhom was known around the world and it was, Bharat says, "already too late" for the authorities to close it down.
Theatergoers walk past a portrait of Mark Weil, who was murdered in 2007.
After the Soviet Union collapsed, Ilkhom played on under independent Uzbekistan's authoritarian leadership of Islam Karimov, and Weil cemented his reputation for fearlessness when he produced a play about Islam called Imitations Of The Koran.
In September 2007, two men outside Weil's apartment rushed at the 55-year old director and stabbed him to death. At their murder trial, the men said the killing was in response to the play's depiction of the Prophet Muhammad.
An actor walks past the hundreds of messages left by performers and fans that have been scrawled on the theater's walls.
Despite Weil's murder, the theater has continued running nearly nightly shows under the management of the young team he built. But nearly three weeks after the letter from Ofelos Plaza management, there is confusion over what the future holds.
Bharat says, "In the beginning [the new property owners] told us they want to reconstruct this place, now we understand that they want to remove everything and put a six-story business complex here."
Young fans of the theater photograph a sign saying, "Tashkent Needs The Ilkhom Theater."
But at a press conference on February 12, a representative from Ofelos Plaza said the theater would be allowed to move back into its historic basement after renovations, but that work could take up to two years. That period of time for Ilkhom -- which operates on a shoestring budget and without any state support -- would probably force it to shut down.
Bharat believes such a hiatus would be "a death sentence" for the theater and the exhibition space that Ilkhom created. And despite the show of support from the president's daughter, Bharat says, "so far we don't know how she will help us. She made this tweet but we haven't received anything official."
A performance of Heart Of A Dog, directed by Artyom Kim and based on a novella by Russian author Mikhail Bulgakov, plays to a packed crowd in the Ilkhom Theater on February 19.
Backstage after the Heart Of A Dog performance, actress Yulia Plakida holds a hand to her chest as she describes standing on stage and watching the row of fans unfurl their message of support.
"It shows that what we do matters because we are giving performances that touch people here in Tashkent, that are important to exactly this audience."
Bharat agrees, and echoes what she says has been the sentiment of young fans of the theater who came to a February 12 press conference, that "Tashkent already has hundreds of business centers, we don't need another one. And there is only one Ilkhom."