This year, Polyphony celebrates its 20th anniversary. Is the task of preparing it getting easier or is it, like when a young person is growing up, getting more demanding? How does Bitef affect the development of Polyphony? We know that the slogans of the two programmes communicate, establishing an inspirational relationship year after year.
It’s getting more difficult. Polyphony develops a concept and it doesn’t rely of routine. The programme of Polyphony is always an exploration which keeps unfolding, which is getting more profound and more meaningful, and it represents a challenge of its own. From the first Polyphony on, we have been closely connected with the main programme. Polyphony became a part of Bitef in 2000, as one of its side programmes. Owing to a large project that lasted for a couple of years - “Art for Social Changes - Play against Violence”, supported by the European Foundation for Culture and Soros Foundation for Southeast Europe, which had 12 participating countries - first Polyphony was born. The key element was the cooperation between the people who were involved, for example, Milan Lučić, who worked for CENPI at the time, and the people from the European Foundation who saw Bitef as the right place for the first meeting to happen. The project consisted of three segments - a seminar for artists and cultural managers “Towards New Theatre”, led by the professor Milena Dragićević-Šešić, and a presentation of project which was carried out in Serbia; the said “Art for Social Changes - Play against Violence”, titles “Play for Life”. All of it was linked to the story by Ivo Andrić, “Aska and the Wolf”, a story about a little sheep which overpowered a big bad wolf through art - by her dance by a play, which was inspired by the title, but also by the project. The third segment was an evaluation of the project. Back then, it was interesting to see how a project can be carried out, and it was about the role of artists in work with the young in the times of crisis, at times of conflict and warfare. As the idea was to create a community of artists, creators, experts from various fields, and the young from different categories, i.e. not only the talented ones interested in theatre and the creation of performances. We entertained a wider scope of work on methodology based on processes, interactivity, participation, and creating things together through processes. From the materials created through the processes in which the young are some kind of co-authors of the creative act - to a certain performance, a presentation or a performing event. For some of them, it was very new and interesting. We entered this process in 1992. That was a year of great changes - refugees came, and we did some of the projects with them. All the things we did in from 1992 till 1999 represented a great change for us, because that was a moment when one couldn’t be excluded from the current events. The aim was no longer to simply create a good performance and offer young people a chance to have fun, but to have it felt, since life had changed, and to find the ways to overcome the things that put a huge pressure on all of us. That pressing need to do things differently proved how powerful art was to empower and make life and important things meaningful again.
How do you feel about the society nowadays - have the young people who were with you since the beginning changed, have they become mature, and have they managed to create a new society? Maybe not in the widest possible sense but in the context of sensibility towards theatre practice, art or any other discipline, since Polyphony also gathers pedagogues, psychologists…
That’s the thing. This kind of work opens your eyes and makes you more sensible not only to yourself but also to the others, for the world and for activism, which is more important than anything else. Their action is very visible, everyone who has been linked to Polyphony has created a large impact. At Polyphony, they would go through processes which meant a lot to them back them, and the influence of which is still felt today. All of them are adults now, a lot of them are creating theatres, but even if they don’t, even if they are in a different line of work, I think that they still do se things in a very different way. Polyphony has opened possibilities for action, for activism, for a way to see things without falling into traps which have been cropping up over the years. As the main programme of this year’s Bitef mentions, we have reached a destructive thought - how to preserve reason and a grain of life worth living. I think that art and theatre are a powerful tool in that struggle. Although, I say tool with a pause, since I see it as a dangerous word which can be used in various ways. It has become very clear. Something is happening and that can have two faces - if it’s a tool. Art is valuable and the most important things is to remain aim in itself. Art makes it possible to feel compassion in a different way and it has all the characteristics which, if lost, make a life not worthy of man.
One of the newspaper articles published on the occasion of the first Polyphony states that the performances that belonged to the programme of Polyphony were not intended to be performances but resulted from processes. Is “not chasing an objective” one of the specific features of Polyphony?
The aim is to emphasise the process which leads to the creation of a performance. Everything is a process, of course, but when you make this type of theatre, then it is a mutual creation. Everyone who participates in a process becomes a co-author. The creation of material in a group is now done in institutional theatres as well. It only proves that those processes, when allowed to enter institutions, brought relevance along. Changes are taking place and we can see it in the main programme.
This year, the main programme impresses by the fact that, for example, one of the performances has been created through collective dramaturgy and the combination of documents and fiction/drama (“Orestes in Mosul”), while another is an immersive performance “Invited”, and in particular “Remote Belgrade”. Is it safe to say that the performances in the main programme are generally based on “polyphony” approach?
It makes me truly happy to see that institutional theatres are no longer closed for different categories, since it inspires liveliness and a different attitude. I think that getting closer to the audience is very important. Technologies cause alienation and the theatre is, I think, the space which safeguards emotions, relationships, dialogues, communication and something which preserves something which should come to mind when we say - human.
We have mentioned the process of creating performances, and how would you describe the process of creating Polyphony?
That’s interesting, that’s 20 years of a nice play! It really is, playing with Bitef and with Bitef slogan, it’s always a considerable challenge. This year we have this inspirational, challenging and provocative slogan “Let’s Start Love Over”, a magnificent thing thought of by Ivan Medenica. On the other hand, those wonderful links always happen. We deal with the “strange loops” anyway, and according to the theory of strange loops and cause and effect, whether we like it or not, a creative process does take place, as well as thinking together, noticing things together - things get connected on their own. Experiencing that is a true pleasure and an incentive, and you realize that it’s sad that a lot of things of the sort happen and no one seems to notice. People pass by without feeling the challenges that can bring the joy of living to the full. Those challenges are brought about by small things too, not only the things that are like traps which many fall into nowadays, thus losing a lot. That is why this year’s Bitef has an enormous value. No matter how banal the slogan might sound at first, I think that it has caused a big twist. People laugh more. “Let’s Star Love Over” is a powerful comment to the reality because it supports something nice, and that’s a great idea by Ivan Medenica.
I have a feeling that the influence of the programme can be seen in the fact that the term “polyphony” has become the only one which unites the practices of applied theatre methods, for example immersive theatre, forum theatre, drama in education, etc. I must admit that I also use the term “polyphony” when I refer to a specific theatre form. Why do I do that or, rather, how did you come up with that?
Yes, it can also be called participatory. The term “polyphony” isn’t my invention. It was a project by Milan Lučić, within our project “Play for Social Changes” which was organized by the Centre for Culture “Stari Grad”, today UK Parobord, and all the organizations out of which CEDEUM has survived, and it used to deal with multiculturalism. He used to work with Roma population in the town of Karlovci and he called the project “Polyphony”. As the editor of the Bitef side programmes 2000, he then brought the entire seminar, presentation and evaluation together and called the segment Polyphony. That first year, it was just Polyphony and the next one wasn’t even planed. But, we kept developing projects, and after a year we had more contents which got better. Then we said that we’d like to stay, and so we turned, year after year, into 20th Bitef Polyphony, a regular side programme on which a more intensive Polyphony concept is being developed. Inspired by certain theories which have been a part of Centre for Culture, Školigrica, and many other important international projects since 1992, the term polyphony turned out to be the right word which opens things up. Polyphony is a musical mixture, it opens up the space for counterpoint and that small symbolism was enough to open the space for exploration of great things. Actually, we have spent these 20 years exploring what it means and how. There are polyphony authors, there is also polyphony novel developed by Bakhtin, or for example what Dostoevsky created he called polyphony in a novel, and today we talk about polyphony drama. Some of the performances that came to Bitef were announced as polyphony. What we are trying to do is to base each segment and the entire process on polyphony concept. Each segment has what the entire process should contain and in which everyone is constantly present. And so, Polyphony brings together the ones who were present its first year, the ones who were children back then and are now adults, but also the ones who were born 20 years ago and are now already serious young artists who can now see how Polyphony is created. That is what is truly valuable. For me, that is the most wonderful period in this moment when panic has set in - how to move on, and there is always something missing right before the opening of the festival, or we need a bit more time to organize things and establish the connections. In the end, it starts organizing itself and it has been so for 20 years. I would like us to make an overview of all the people who passed through Polyphony, and those are thousands of names. The ones who have been present for 20 years are Boris Čakširan, Slobodan Beštić, Ivana Despotović, Sunčica Milosavljević, Dijana Milošević, Sanja Krsmanović-Tasić, Blue Theatre, Dah Theatre, and many others, I think the entire independent scene.
Could you single out anyone from your team who has been particularly inspiring or supportive, and how do you inspire the team?
We all inspire each other. What I’m always trying to do is to develop the ability to listen and understand and then to give it back. The interaction leads to the creation of various things. Sometimes, people talk, and they don’t know what they’ve said, and I catch it as somethings that might be a moment but can turn into a great thing. I find it truly interesting.
Apart from the big anniversary, what would you single out, is there a programme you are looking forward to this year?
To tell you the truth, last year, after the 19th Polyphony, I didn’t think it could get any better. People talked about the end of some things which have lasted for a very long time, while Polyphony keeps growing. As a side programme, we can hardly obtain any finances, and if we come up with a project, then we have to work on that, and not on something that represents building and crating Polyphony in a different form. Naturally, finances are necessary, but we really did use to make Polyphony almost without any support for a very long time, unlike the first years when we had international projects. Today, however, there are many agencies, but Bitef is a big support because it provides a different type of support, the means for coordination. Polyphony is basically made with good will, people invest their own work, and that is one of the things ingrained into the concept. On the other hand, after the apprehension at the end of last year’s Polyphony, I thought that we would make a three-day-long evaluation this year in order to see where we stand. And then the previous Polyphony participants started expressing their wishes, for this year - it was theirs. It was announced that we would work, and that the programme will not consist only of what has been but that we are curious to see what the ones who attended the seminar for cultural managers are doing and what the ones who were in the evaluation teams. And then the Bitef slogan was announced and two performances appeared. I thought that this year’s programme wouldn’t contain any performances, just interactive performances that belong to the process, but then “White Mane” (directed by Irena Ristić, in Šabac Theatre production) appeared and in an institutional theatre no less, and “The Summer when I Learned how to Fly” (directed by Patrik Lazić, FIST production), a student performance. The “White Mane” follows the idea of Bitef and Ivan Medenica in terms that it links the audience and the performers, and how it can be accomplished in an institutional theatre, how can we empty the audience and make everything take place on stage, how to have the people go through the stories and that everyone can create their own story depending on how it begins. It’s a magnificent story which simply had to be a part of Polyphony. And the at FIST (the Festival of Student Theatre, the Faculty of Drama Arts in Belgrade) a performance appeared that should be at the end of Polyphony, as a wrap-up to what Medenica wanted - to inspire meaning, reconciliation and love. That performance epitomises that idea so, how could we not put it into the programme? And so, the programme started shaping up on its own, and the editorial team this year consists of, symbolically, twenty people - that is the highest number so far - who have suggested their programmes or who will take part in another way. They created this Polyphony. I think that it is a big change in the approach, since I was the curator for 15 years and then it started. First there were two co-curators, and then bit by bit, more. I still work a lot, but the point is in the relationship. Everyone knows to which degree they curate only their programme or if they participate in the creation of the Polyphony as a whole. It is valuable, it is yours, but the point is to introduce changes and to not think only of “our own”. Institutions work in a different manner, but I think that Polyphony has earned its right to say how the programme functions; not only as one of the side programmes but as something which offers an insight into wider relationships within a society.
I’d like to end this interview by congratulating you on your big anniversary, to thank you for the interview and to ask you what changes are in store for Polyphony?
Back when I started, workshop was an unknown word. Creative workshop, it was totally unknown, theatre of participation in particular, and today, there are many people who perform theatre practice and who have experienced what we have offered in Polyphony. Things change, everything exerts an influence and the question of shape and form remains undetermined. What I find interesting is that institutions have become interested in drama, and I see it as a great change, although nothing is new. I have to say that I see the team who organized FIST as the future of Polyphony. I hope that the performance “The Summer when I Learned how to Fly” will continue with the project and they can count on the support by Bitef Polyphony, especially in terms of book and performance promotions. The idea to turn it into a film has been set in motion, and in Croatia the preparations for a radio-drama are already underway. That will be exactly what I have always wanted to make - a good educational package linked to the book and to the play.
The programmes of Bitef Polyphony are free of charge and open to everyone. For some of the programmes it is necessary to apply on firstname.lastname@example.org - especially to book seats for an organized transport to Šabac, for the performance “White Mane”. The bus sets off on 25th September, at noon, in front of Saint Marko’s Church. After the opening an the performance “Just Following Your Game”, the Polyphony programme presents: lecture performance “Art that Connects” (ZID and POD theatres), interactive presentation “Theatre Magic”, interactive thetra performance for the community “78 Days of Closeness in Fear - 20 Years since the Bombardment” (directd by Branka Bajić, Art Academy of the University in Novi Sad / Master Programme Applied Theatre), short inclusive film “Glance“, round-table discussion “Art for Social Changes - 20 Years Later”, presentation “Inner Space 20”, discussion “Play for Life, Polyphony in Duration”, performance of theatre in education “In My Head” (directed by Tina Hofman, Tirena Theatre, Zagreb, Croatia), the presentation of the project “Under the Skies” - “Sky and Golem”, a light-circus-dance-poetic performance “Microcosm” (Nikola Zavišić, art group Radio.Nica), “White ane” (directed by Irena Ristić, the Šabac Theatre) and the workshop “White Mane Quietly Asks”, a discussion “Where Wite Mane Takes Us”, the promotion “Polyphony for Škograd”, performance-presentation by theatre of objects “Playing in the Sand” (directed by Nikola Isaković), the promotion of book “The Right ro a Voice - The Applied and the Additional”, and workshops “When I Go Towards…the Society in which Values matter”. “Young Theatre Experts - Imagine Theatre!”, and a visit to Šabac to see “Polyphony on the Spot - Šabac”, a guided tour through the story of White Mane, and the discussion “Exchange for Changes - Short but Necessary”.