Photo: Jelena Janković
Photo: Jelena Janković

"Topical" and "political"


You have once said that our performances, no matter what they do, always represent a “struggle for the survival of theatre”, so that we do not have a problem with the lack of directors, writers and good actors, but with “terrible circumstances”. Do you think that Bitef is a festival which manages to fight the circumstances which “bury culture live”?

Absolutely. Yes, I still think that, although the pandemic has worsened the circumstances even further. Each performance is not only a struggle to survive but a struggle to keep culture alive. I must admit that I am astonished to see what big productions Bitef has managed to bring this year. On the other hand, I must also admit that the culture seems at risk, not only in Europe but possibly round the world. So, what I once said about Belgrade can now be applied in a wider context. There are many surroundings whose theatre tradition is much longer than the Serbian, and which also do not have institutions strong enough to preserve culture. Everything comes down to a new or the old American capitalist model: culture must be self-sufficient. That is why musicals and comedies will always be successful because that is the only way theatre can survive (through ticket sales). Germany still makes huge investments in theatre that can be non-communicative. A theatre which has a function to maintain culture on a certain level and to spread it. It is important to note that we are not talking about elitist culture, on the contrary, there is a great number of theatregoers who are acquainted with more radical and more avant-garde directing approaches. Here, however, although Bitef does have an important social and cultural status, it has not, I’m afraid, managed to exert some major influence over the audience. It has been successful when it comes to theatre artists:  a lot of directors of my generation have expanded their views purely by being aware of Bitef. As for the audience, however, I don’t think they have ever fully accepted the fact that our theatre produces something that can be slightly more difficult to understand.

You said that you’ve found this text inspiring ever since you read it for the first time as a student, but that we in Serbia rarely have an opportunity to see “radically avant-garde” texts. How important do you find the fact that you have managed, through your performances, to bring a whiff of avant-garde? Is it possible, and how, to offer the audience non-topical plays and theatre approaches more often?

I do find it important, of course. Unfortunately, I had to wait a while before getting an opportunity to do avant-garde here: which would be linked to my previous answer. That is exactly why a director cannot always demand to do something like that, audience might not be interested in it. Theatres are often not interested in things of that sort (regardless of whether managements or teams of dramaturges like the texts). My point of view is different. I think that theatre, even when the audience is not big, still releases a message into the public sphere, so to have a Kaspar in its repertoire is far from insignificant. That fact that you can give the audience an opportunity to experience something extraordinary. And I am not talking about our performance only, but about that kind of writing in general. If a city wants to call itself a relevant cultural environment, that is an inevitable premise: regardless of whether it is profitable and how big an audience it can bring.

You find the insistence on the notion “current issues” in theatre as something often imposed by the media. Can the “imposed thought” push the author towards grotesque solutions which are often quite basic? How important is it to you to create a performance which raises existential questions and encourages thinking instead of being topical at all costs?

I think that is another thing in which I am somewhat different, since I recognize politics in theatre in details. I believe a theatre performance can be political whether it is linked to a certain political moment or insists on politics simply by its form and content. Most interviews I have given seem to begin with the sentence “why this today”. That is, I think, something that castrates us as theatre artists, that we cannot do whatever we want but only what newspapers consider topical. Theatre must not be a slave to topical issues. Even if it does tackle them, it brings so much more on stage: it is a wider phenomenon of understanding a model of the world, of one focus on the world itself. Therefore, each person in the audience has the right to understand political dimension and to read into it. So, I should give two answers to your question: on the one hand, I am not interested in current issues per se, but I think that those issues and political dimension can easily be found in every performance. I don’t think that avoiding the world around us is even possible nowadays.

You are one of the rare directors who have been on the European scene for a long time. Still, Serbian audience, too, has an opportunity to see your performances here. What would be the “European element” that our theatre lacks? And to which extent does your poetic ascetism bring something different in comparison with the usual, topical performances we normally see?

That is an excellent question, because I notice so many things when I compare the surroundings in which I work. I find differences even within Europe: theatre in Hamburg is different from theatre in Munich. Theatre in Switzerland is different than the Austrian one, let alone ours or the Middle European one. We lack a lot, not only the budget. One favourable circumstance is that Belgrade prides a long theatre tradition, so artists and audience love making theatre. On the other hand, we lack faith that theatre can change and challenge things. I think that here, we often create theatre because we love it, but I would like to see something else happen, apart from love: I wish we didn’t lack the faith. And yet, back there, they lack it too. That system is strictly capitalist: schedules are clear, the time I spend with actors, four hours between two rehearsals, when an actor is legally protected to work, which creates an impression that theatre is a form of industry, that it produces because it should and must. Naturally, people do their best and everyone truly wants to make something good and relevant but that, back there, seems like a mechanism that generates culture. I notice that they don’t always have this spark that here does exist.

You mentioned that German theatre is decentralized and that a performance which might change the way you “discuss certain topics” can still happen. Has it ever been possible in Serbia and is it possible now?

I have heard that many performances by Ljubiša Ristić changed the perspective of theatre and the discourse in the culture. So, I think that it was possible. Even during my studies, I may have had a chance to see performances that resonated. Oliver Frljić’s performances, for example, which are quite aggressive in their desire to reach everyone, even the ones who do not follow theatre, they also have the power to upset. To stir emotions in people. I think that theatre has always had that power, regardless of what we are going to do with it. But these times in which we live and create, it humiliates culture. New generations are less interested in culture since it cannot be scrolled and is not enough for making selfies. Come to think of it, I am not sure whether it is possible. Still, I have seen Romeo Castellucci’s performances, without words, that cause commotion among people of all generations. I think that we must keep adjusting to times we live in, and I don’t mean adapt ourselves, but adapt the way of making what we do inevitable. So that society cannot push it aside.

The point is in getting together and discussing things. However, we have been in the pandemic for over a year and a half. How does freedom in theatre look now, and what has shifted in the audience’s or the artists’ perspective?

I know that some performances are happening on screen or are VR. Maybe it would have happened even without the pandemic, as a form of adapting to the times that I have just mentioned. But I am not into such direct steps. I do enjoy seeing and experiencing something like that but what interests me in theatre would not be found in that direction. As for how things have shifted, I had an opening in Munich between two waves of their lockdown and we had to apply the measures which meant that actors couldn’t approach one another if they spoke up, they had to stay five meters or more apart. That did lead to significant changes in how the performance looked like. I suggest that everyone gets vaccinated so we can overcome this planetary crisis together, but not by going back to the old normal, but by the possibility to create theatre we like, not the theatre that depends on the pandemic.

Thank you for the talk.

Thank you for opening such topics.