Photo: Nata Korenovskaia
Photo: Nata Korenovskaia

Throughout your career, you have chosen strong, topical, and political themes. A few years ago, in an interview for Radio Free Europe, you said that our audience barely knows your directorial work, which has changed a lot over the years of working abroad. What has changed and how did it reach that stage?

Spontaneously and gradually, I’d say. Working in different geographical coordinates and often in different languages (some of which I neither speak nor understand), I had to adapt the way I communicate with my collaborators and develop some, for me new, directing tools that I had not used while working in Serbia and in Serbian language. It's like discovering some new senses, which you didn't even know you had, all in an effort to get closer to your performance and the people you're making it with. I can't pinpoint the differences, but if I were to summarize, then it is definitely working with the performer's body and other non-verbal communication modalities in making a performance. I started to rely less on the information found in the text, and more on building what I call the universe of the play, within which I place certain coordinates or references that I further develop together with each team. Probably the experience gained over the years, which in my case was formed mostly outside the Serbian theatre, also plays a certain role. Although I did a lot of plays in Serbia, they always moved in more or less the same registers that were known and available to me at the time. By discovering some new possibilities and gaining new experiences, that register simply changed and expanded.

In the play A Few Messages to the Space that you did at the Bitef Theatre, you do not use direct political references that are characteristic of your work, but our reality is still strongly felt. This play brought a breath of fresh air to our theatre and, paradoxically, represents a refuge from the world in which we live. What can theatre do for us?

When you mention that play, perhaps all that theatre can and should do is best summed up in that title - it can send some messages into space and hope that they reach the recipient. That may seem like a small thing, but it all depends on how you think about it. The right performance in the right place at the right time and for the right audience can do a lot to raise collective consciousness and imagination. Theatre is always sharing and exchange, which is not always possible to quantify or translate into practical, material coordinates. Some performances that we have seen stay with us for a long time and trigger various complex processes in us, which affect our perception of reality and life. For me, that is a lot.

The play #Jeanne is a commissioned by Riksteatern, the Swedish National Touring Theatre and Dramaten, the Royal Dramatic Theatre. Ivana Sajko and you choose a female hero archetype and place her in a new story - a path that paints a landscape of inequality. What kind of world is on the verge of destruction, and do we already inhabit such a place? What are the two sides of the lake and what is the path that Jeanne must travel fighting for equality?

This text was commissioned and created over a long period of time due to the pandemic. Ivana Sajko and I talked a lot about how to approach the topic of heroism in the context of today's world and the original motif of Joan of Arc, which has had numerous film and stage adaptations. The idea of Joan, who is a religious fanatic and driven by a strong nationalist charge, seemed very distant and uninteresting, while, at the same time, we felt a great connection with her idealism, which only young people have, and her strong will to, if necessary, give her life for the ideas she believes in. We kept wondering whether today's version of Joan would even be possible and from which register it would work. Thus, the climate issue emerged as a burning political and, above all, class issue that particularly affects young people, and Ivana built her text around this with the central symbol of the lake that “got disjointed” like the moment we live in, and that leaks and disappears, leaving behind wasteland. The lake is, at the same time, a demarcation line between two worlds - a privileged minority and a far more numerous but apathetic majority that does not believe in solidarity or the possibility of revolution. Where the original story of Joan of Arc ends, ours begins. In our play, Jeanne is already dead, and the memory of her and her sacrifice is kept by the Internet, which Ivana Sajko calls the "black box for the end of the world". The whole play is, therefore, a sort of postmortem to the ideals on which Western civilization was built.

In one of the reviews of the play, I came across a comment that "true heroism exists when defeat is already a fact". Who is your Joan and why do we always need heroes? What is the fate of an individual who wants to change the system? Why is it impossible for the collective to unite?

These are all good and fundamentally important questions to which I do not have an answer. This is also the reason why I deal with them in the performance #Jeanne. It seems that we do need heroes, and why are we not able to perceive them as heroes while they are alive, but only when they are gone - for me it remains a mystery of human nature and especially the tragedy of our post-Yugoslav space.

The dynamics of relations and conflicts between the upper and lower classes followed us throughout the 20th century. Today, that conflict is shaped by the accumulation of capital. Does revolution always come from the lower class because of their discontent? Is the upper class unaware of the problem, and if so, why?

It's an old story that Marx nicely explained long time ago. The one who is privileged has no particular reason to protest. Or as Brecht would say: "First comes food and then morality." The problem today is that the trigger for revolution will not come from those who are oppressed - they are not of revolutionary potential because they are too focused on mere survival and mesmerized by the consumerist lifestyle like everyone else. Workers no longer want to change the world - they want a better material position within the world as it is. It is therefore unclear where the change may come from. Some modern economic theorists like Yannis Varoufakis talk about the end of capitalism and the transition to high-tech feudalism. It is quite certain that the existing capitalist paradigm cannot bring about changes unless the optics of looking at the problems of contemporary society change, and it does not get out of the vicious circle of thinking about class relations from a capitalist perspective.

In what way is this Joan of Arc adventure related to the topic of climate change? Is there even a solution to the climate crisis that we have been listening about almost (my) entire life, but only now we as a society see the consequences of our carelessness?

I explained how the play corresponds to the issue of the climate crisis. The solution certainly does exist, and I think it should be sought in the political arena. For me, ecology is, above all, a political issue, and environmental activism is a political struggle that has just begun and needs to be carefully articulated. To begin with, everyone should try to realize how they, as individuals and parts of a collective, can contribute to that struggle. I am not referring here to pseudo-activism on social networks that soothes the conscience but contributes very little to change. I like, for example, how Milo Rau thinks. Recently, during the promotion of his film The New Gospel, he said that theatre and art in general should hijack the economic narrative not by just talking about economic injustice but by finding mechanisms to solve it. This is a complex topic, and we could talk about it for a long time.

From my perspective, Sweden seems like a country with a far more organized policy of ecological systems. Am I right? What is the local context of the play #Jeanne and what local issues does it examine? What's on the other side of the lake?

Compared to Serbia, certainly. In Sweden, environmental awareness is far more developed, but we should not forget that here we are talking about a very rich society that can afford various strategies for implementing ecological projects, such as electric cars, ecological houses, etc. That's why I think that ecology is today a topic on which many key issues of economic inequality and class privilege, which exist in Sweden as well as on the other side of the lake, are refracted. Fortunately, Sweden has Greta Turnberg, who, among other things, was the inspiration for our Jeanne. I think that every place has a Greta who understands how the world works, but the problem is that young people all over the planet are often exploited so that they are not even aware of it, and that in their working day, regardless of whether it takes place in a sweat shop or in a corporation there is no time to think about the world and for rebellion. Today, time is a greater privilege than money. And unattainable to the majority of the human population. This late capitalism is very insidious and operates on frequencies that are often incomprehensible and confusing.

The music is performed live by Adde Huumonen with electronic elements and water. Is there a deeper (ecological) meaning of such a procedure?

I wouldn't say ecological. But we talked about water, which plays a big role in this text, and then Adde came up with the idea of using water as an instrument, which is one part of the fascinating soundscape he created.

You have not worked in Serbia for a long time, and you have not even lived in Serbia for the past few years. Your work at the Little Theatre "Duško Radović" and at the Bitef festival, though, has influenced generations of directors, shaping our taste, aesthetics and personal attitude towards theatre. What is your experience of the current Serbian theatre scene?

I really know too little to be able to say anything coherent on the subject. I was lucky enough to meet some theatre artists of the youngest generation, and when I see them, it's clear to me that the Serbian theatre has a bright future in the artistic sense. But they have to fight bloody. And to be incorruptible and brave, which is difficult if you want to make a living from your work.

From the perspective of a directing pedagogue in Sweden, what are the differences you see between the Swedish and Serbian education systems? How much is the growth and development of young directors supported?

Young directors in Sweden have a much better starting position. In the third year of their studies already, the faculty enables them to practice in leading theatre institutions not only in Sweden but in all of Scandinavia. Working conditions are far better and better regulated, and just because someone is a beginner doesn't mean they won't get the same conditions like everyone else. The director's education itself boils down to one programme at the Stockholm University of the Arts, where I teach, where we accept four students every other year. There are some other multidisciplinary programmes where directing is also taught, but I think there is room for more education, if you take into account that Sweden has many quality theatres in different cities, that it is very decentralized and that the need for directors is greater than the supply of educated system. On the other hand, entire Scandinavia is connected, and all countries have directing programmes, and young directors often circulate throughout that geographical area, which is great, because they are not tied to just one environment, but are in constant motion. As someone who was educated in Serbia, I think that four-year directing studies are far better than three-year ones, and I constantly miss that one year that I had, and my students don't. In Sweden, directing is increasingly perceived as a discipline within the field of performing arts and studied as part of performing arts studies - which involves a lot of collaboration with other disciplines.

You have been at Bitef in various capacities for years. The artistic management is changing, but the idea of preserving the festival as the most important international festival in this area remains. This time you are a participant in the main programme; how do you see the present and future of the festival? What is its strength?

Your tagline sums it up best. Bitef has always been a political project, since the time of Yugoslavia that founded it in 1967 with the idea of promoting progressive Yugoslav culture during the Cold War. The very fact that the festival is dependent on the state budget reduces the space for freedom because our country is as it is and there is no institutional autonomy that would prevent cultural institutions from being a training ground for party fights and power games. Here, Bitef is in the same position as every other institution in Serbia - left to the daily political will of those who know almost nothing about contemporary theatre. The hope remains that my colleagues who make this festival, and I am primarily referring to young colleagues, will not agree to manipulation and falter under threats, which are many and not all politically motivated - some belong to the domain of petite bourgeoisie folklore that has always bothered Bitef. The fact that Bitef is economically dependent on the Serbian state does not mean that it should obey it and self-censor. How possible it really is - I don't know. I left Bitef when it became impossible for me, so I understand the problem. In any case, I wish them luck and much courage and prudence.