If you wanted to present yourself as a director using three terms, what would they be?
I don’t limit myself to being just a director, even though that is my first calling and it is what I invest the most time in. When officially signing myself, I do use three terms, and those being that I am a director, an educator and a researcher.
I am a researcher because I enjoy theory and, in general, its power in art and artistic development. Practice and theory can intertwine and support each other. Basically, as a director, I do things that I find challenging in a sense that they are phenomena I want to explore through a theatrical experience. Reading the theory about this phenomenon is my greatest inspiration. Theory gives me the tools with the help of which I approach this phenomenon - whether to analyse it, or reconstruct it or to look for an adequate representation that would be communicative for the audience. My goal is to package a scientific or theoretical discourse in a way that it is understandable to everyone in the audience, on other words, that it does not require viewers to do a whole lot of preparation in which they would struggle to interpret the signs I am offering on stage.
As for my educational work, I often feel insecure about presenting myself this way since I do not have much serious experience as an educator. Of course I had some pedagogy subjects, primarily in World Literature, but what interests me in education is the use of dramatic and theatre techniques that help children understand certain phenomena and relationships. I love working in theatre, as I love my research habit and focus on theory, but I believe the thing that gives me the most pleasure is working with children and young people through programmes for the development of children and youth audiences - Little Theatre Experts and Young Theatre Experts. I learn a great deal when working with young people. They often help me question some things and repeatedly see them from a different perspective.
Since you emphasised your love for research, can you tell me about the process of making Ways of Being - is there a phenomenon or a theory that was your starting point, or did the idea come first and only then the theoretical support?
It is often a case by case process. When something is my project and I have a finished concept, then I put together a team I will work with, usually the process starts off with something from real life that had inspired me. It also often happens that the authors call me and show me the material they have, and then actually my role is to help them shape that material in the most communicative way for the audience. That was the case with Ways of Being, and with authors Danka and Tjaž. There is often prejudice against us as directors, maybe it’s not even prejudice, maybe it’s actually true but I don’t recognize myself in it, that the director is this great author who is the most important part of the theatre process. I feel more comfortable in processes in which I am in the service of the authors, and where I actually put things in an order, arrange them in a way readable to everyone in the audience. When I say everyone I mean everyone, literally - you have probably noticed that.
Yes, it was very inviting and I like it that the children could also understand it, but the adults as well. There were different age groups there who liked different things. I think that, in the end, we all arrive at the essence that is adequate for us at a certain point in time. At the performance I sat behind a girl that had come with her mother and who kept asking her what is happening on stage, and then the two of them together tried to interpret it.
It’s a form that has different names in different cultures. In Germany it’s called Theater für alle, in French it’s spectacles pour tous, and in English it’s for all generations or all family shows...And indeed, this form is my favourite and most of the things produced by Tri groša (Threepenny) are actually for all generations. Even when we primarily focus on art for children, as was the case with the Christmas Story, which is supposedly children’s literature, it was important to us to also make it a fun experience for the parents bringing their children to these shows. And, in addition to the puppet aesthetics, the fairy-tale moments and the kind of narration used, precisely in the Christmas Story we threw in some anti-capitalist slogans and messages that the parents adored - that was completely understandable to them. Precisely what you’re saying, that kind of excitement in the audience, from the parents getting to know their children by seeing how they react, to the children who also have an opportunity to get to know their parents better the same way.
At what level did you and the MismoNismo circus group connect? Was there something that you had in common, some similarities in your work?
Danka Senkulović of Cirkusfera and I are a well-oiled tandem. We were reminiscing not long ago and realized that the two of us started building our professional careers together, and that we have been working together to this day. She is probably a performer I have worked with the most. In addition to that we are also very close friends and we love each other very much, in 2018 we spent a few months in Paris at the famous Cité Internationale des Arts, where we worked together on our most successful project to date - Not the Right Leg. Whatever the two of us do separately, without each other, we are always somewhere close and support each other.
Cirkobalkana is the one opportunity that circus artists from the Balkans have to come together, and, as an artistic collective from Ljubljana, MismoNismo has often been a guest at Cirkobalkana - that’s where we know each other from, from those festivals. Tjaž is a circus artist from Ljubljana, and Danka and Tijaž are artists of very similar sensibilities and the two of them got together quite spontaneously. They jointly came up with an idea for a performance they would do together, with a whole lot of obstacles production-wise - Tjaž is in Ljubljana, Danka is in Belgrade, so how would the work process go. Then they invited me to one of their rehearsals, we got talking and realized that I would also like to be part of their project, that it would also mean a lot to them to have a protoviewer, as I like to call my position as a director. That is how the three of us got together.
I am interested to learn what layer of meaning you brought to the show Ways of Being, because I think it was different for everyone. When watching it I got the impression of a partner relationship between a man and a woman, but also of a friendship between the two. What are your thoughts on this?
Unfortunately that gender-sex designation in experiencing our show was definitely not our intention, but we realized, through many work in progress presentations, that it is what inspires the audience to interpretation the most. Such is the fate of the biological body; when you see a male and a female body on stage, somehow the first thing that comes to mind is a melodramatic relationship between the two. We were not exactly happy that this was in the foreground, but at some point we came to terms with it being one of the ways in which this performance would be interpreted and we are kind of okay with that. I am still glad to hear from you that some ambivalence was retained and that it is possible to incorporate some other semantic potential into that narrative. I think that male-female relations are far more complex than how we experience and interpret them. In male-female relations gender roles are certainly super interchangeable and women often bear something that is seemingly part of the male principle, while men enter the model of the female principle - that is the dynamic, regardless of the type of relationship.
The element of habit that we singled out in the description of the show is what interests and provokes me the most, and precisely in the Beckettian spirit. I am a huge fan of Beckett and Threepenny did make a name for itself by directing Waiting for Godot. The motif of Beckett’s pairs is for me an endless source of inspiration, one in which absolutely everyone can recognize themselves. Precisely that dynamic of Beckett addressing this topic that we spoke about earlier is what I find the most lifelike and true, and which I will focus on for the rest of my life as someone who engages in art which is the most human in the sense that its object is man and human relations, and its medium is the human body.
When watching Tjaž and Danka, I paid attention to their clothes - Tjaž wore orange trousers and a grey T-shirt, while Danka had an orange T-shirt and grey trousers. The matching of the colours they wore reminded me of yin and yang, as did their changing dynamics. In the beginning Tijaž is very protective about his space, then Danka liberates him and he does the same thing for her.
That is the motif of otherness, which is constitutive to our identity, and we cannot understand what we are until we compare ourselves to something that we are not and that is different from us. Only in these differences can we form what is the essence of our identity. For me, it is precisely important that the couple we see on stage remains universal at the level of otherness that can absorb and take in all possible more concrete features. Every day we are in relationships where the identity of the other changes depending on the role that the former assumes at that moment. All our relationships are determined by relations of power, depending on whether we agree to being subordinate or if we fight for power. It is always about establishing balance, something we presented quite plastically through their bodies and the physical balance they achieved so as not to fall, stay in the air, etc. It is not possible to maintain this balance all the time, so the balance of power seesaws.
An important moment for the performance is what they don’t say, there is silence all the time and no conversation, so what I want to ask is whether you have used the body as a means of expression before?
Most of my shows fall in the category of physical or non-verbal theatre - that is something I have been researching for quite some time now. I am very excited by non-verbal theatre because it shows the power of the human body to communicate without the verbal, rational, cognitive elements. The emphasis is on the sensual, the bodily, on energy, on the free associations that we have to compare ourselves with the performers at a certain moment.
Not the Right Leg is Danka’s autobiographical performance. She had a big knee surgery in 2016 after which the doctors’ prognosis was that she probably wouldn’t be able to do acrobatics again. That is how the idea for the show was born. She started physical therapy, and followed by increasingly complex training, and then Danka was back on stage stronger than ever. Not the Right Leg is also a non-verbal performance, but we once had a situation where a young woman in the audience passed out, and then she refused to leave the performance hall, she wanted to stay. We of course halted the performance until she regained her consciousness.
It turned out that a scene triggered her, that it made her consciously aware of a trauma she had buried deep down inside her, and indeed, the power to reach such deep layers of someone’s being, without words, shocking images, purely by employing imagination and illusion, deserves admiration of theatre art. That non-verbality is actually one of the reasons why performances communicate so well with children - it reminds them of the aesthetics of cartoons, play.
If you were to engage in verbal theatre, are there any theoreticians or shows that have inspired you?
Certainly. It is difficult to read theatre from books, a great deal is learnt by observing. Perhaps what meant the most to me, the handful of things we managed to find on the Internet and YouTube, are the performances by Charlie Chaplin’s granddaughter Aurélia Thierrée and James Thierrée, the greatest French illusionist, and their poetics. The influence on my poetics maybe always comes from the circus arts or the arts that are in a way derivatives of the circus skills - new magic, new illusionism, a series of formats that are still developing, emerging.
How do Ways of Being fit in with this year’s Bitef slogan “Strength, Don't Let Yourself Be Anyone's”?
I think it can relate to the slogan at many levels. First of all, in deconstructing the concept of strength, because we see on stage two very strong performers whose strength and skills we fully admire. This strength is not just physical, but also a strength that they carry from the mental, emotional and psychological layers of their being. It can almost literally apply to the plot of our show. I would like to say that, for me, the most exciting idea related to Ways of Being is the moment in which we realize that real strength is sometimes about surrendering control to another.
I think that in Ways of Being you made really good calls on when to surrender control to another. I adore watching performances that easily communicate with others and I love it when room is left for the audience that is not too intrusive for interpretation - like room for freedom. See whatever you want and feel whatever you like, it’s all okay.
Well, that is part of my ideological position towards my work and I am really not someone who, as an audience, likes the first thing you think of when you hear political or engaged theatre. First of all, I believe that real engagement comes from the freedom that is offered to viewers to select from an abundance of materials whatever communicates with them, whatever establishes a relationship with them and encourages them to imagine, recognize and to draw pleasure from those activities. In that sense, theatre actually really is a form that has to rely on the viewer so as to be completed, because theatre without a viewer is not theatre, it’s just a rehearsal. The meaning alone carries no weight or value if it is not communicated with the other. We enter into a relationship of dialogue with the audience, and that is something I appreciate. Primarily because I believe the audience is capable of understanding or feeling what is happening on stage. We forget that art is not there to teach us something or help us understand something, we have to allow art to preserve its autonomy at the level of sensual stimuli. It is very important that the viewers’ senses are open, stimulated - that they arrive at some things through that sensual-bodily moment, because we are truly alienated from our bodies in general, as a society.
Is this the first time that you are officially participating in the Bitef Festival and what do you think of the role of moderator in Meeting the Authors? Are you finding it difficult, or is it easier than you had expected?
Actually, I have been cooperating with Bitef for so long that the other day we tried to reconstruct the number of years, but I have definitely been working with Bitef for over ten years and I believe there isn’t a position/sector in the organization of the festival that I haven’t worked in at some point - starting with the protocol, guests, to marketing, being an assistant director, twice for Rimini Protokoll, which are all some of the most important experiences in my professional career. Experiences that have directed me towards things for which I might have never had the courage.
This is my first time as the moderator of Meeting the Authors, and it is both difficult and easy. It is easy thanks to my vast experience, and it is challenging because this year I am trying out a format that has not yet been presented, that some authors are unprepared for, and don’t know what to expect. I cannot prepare for a meeting, some evenings are more difficult than others. Some were phenomenal, some harder than I had expected…
The round tables, as colloquially referred to, always end with that ex cathedra moment where the moderators and artists are talking, and the audience is there in a kind of semi-darkness, passive and as if still watching the performance. They don’t dare interrupt, ask a question, take initiative. I really think this kind of format is not useful for anyone. First of all, I think it is important for the authors to hear directly from the audience how their work impacts them and that is why I insist every evening on dropping the rigid theoretical framework, the difficult words, the complicated concepts. Let’s speak in ordinary human language in which everyone can feel encouraged to take part instead of backing away out of fear that they would give off the impression of being undereducated. Another thing that also means to the audience is to share what they feel with the author, because it is precisely in that that I see the opportunity for the audience to directly thank the author for the experience. This way theatre becomes a community of the people performing and those watching.