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SICA Success Stories

USAID Provides Support for Independent Cultural Space in Kazakhstan

Transforma is an influential cultural space in Almaty, Kazakhstan, founded in 2017 to address meaningful social issues via the arts. By offering thought-provoking performances and educational programs, Transforma sparks dialogue and reflection on various societal challenges. In less than three years, the art space staged over 150 theater performances, lectures, and workshops. However, the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted Transforma’s progress, as the team was forced to cancel performances while still bearing the financial burden of maintaining the art space. In 2022, as lockdown restrictions across Kazakhstan were lifted and Transforma’s prospects appeared to be improving, building owners unexpectedly raised rent by sevenfold, posing a challenge that the Transforma management could not have foreseen.

Anna Suvorova, the director of Transforma, vividly remembers the day she confronted a difficult dilemma: to stay committed to the cash-strapped art space or accept a lucrative job offer. "Initially, the situation seemed so dire, and the future of the theater [was] so uncertain that I started searching for a stable job and stumbled upon a high-paying opportunity," she recalls. "The day I received the job offer I recorded myself on camera, tearful, as I thought this might be the end of my journey with Transforma and perhaps even the end of Transforma itself." Fortunately, this challenge turned out to be not the end but rather a turning point for Transforma and its management. Shortly after receiving the news about the rent increase, Anna discovered the USAID-funded Social Innovation in Central Asia (SICA) program. She wasted no time in applying for an Innovative Solutions Grant. Just as the job offer had made Anna contemplate her future options, an email from SICA brought everything into perspective. "I was overwhelmed to learn that we had won the grant," Anna says. "The news arrived at a moment when I was considering leaving the theater, and to me, it felt like a sign that we should forge ahead."

With newfound confidence and financial backing from SICA, the Transforma team opted to leave their original location and instead shift to a flexible model. They purchased professional theater equipment and successfully organized pop-up performances at various venues across Almaty. They also conducted workshops, staged children plays, and hosted public readings. The performances addressed important social issues, such as bride abduction in Kazakhstan, inclusivity, decolonization and identity issues, children's bullying, immigration, and domestic violence. "Through these performances, we aimed to reaffirm our commitment to sparking meaningful dialogue and providing a platform for a myriad of voices to resonate," Anna explains.

Throughout this period, the team hired additional personnel and connected with numerous people from the cultural sector and beyond. "Being without a fixed venue turned out to be a blessing for us, as we performed at unconventional locations not typically associated with theater, such as the skateboard community center, folk instruments museum, and a dance center," states Anna. “Thanks to this, we have been able to reach out to communities that did not know about us before and gain many new fans and supporters."

Finally, in June 2023, Transforma reached yet another turning point. The team conducted a performance at a former embassy building, which had been transformed into a vibrant cultural space. The show was a resounding success, and the venue administration proposed to Anna and her team that Transforma settle in one of its offices. Finally, much to the joy of its loyal fans, on July 16, 2023, Transforma launched the new performance season at their new permanent home.

"Civil society thrives when people can openly talk about important issues in society and share their thoughts through art, and I hope that Transforma will continue to be a meaningful platform for such discourse and artistic expression," Anna concludes.

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