Excellent theatre always causes waves, and bad swimmers are afraid of waves and prefer soaking their feet in a swamp
Although Šabac was ‘a little Avignon’ for seven days in April, the Serbian Ministry of Culture still decided to halve the budget for the Spring Theatre event that takes place in this town. We talked to the playwright Milena Bogavac about her new role as the head of the Šabac Theatre, experiences with managing a theatre in Central Serbia and whether theatre would indeed change the world.
In April this year, Šabac was the theatrical epicentre thanks to its 4th Spring Theatre that this year took place under the title “Unadjusted in Classics”. Are you satisfied with the achieved results?
— We have no reason to be dissatisfied. The figures from our box office show that this edition of the Spring Theatre had the biggest attendance so far. Apart from selling out all tickets for plays that competed for an award, it is encouraging to see that 80% of the tickets were sold as soon as they went on sale. This speaks volumes about how people in Šabac love their festival, and the sight of them forming long queues in front of the theatre’s box office are the only kind of queues that I actually like. Apart from the popularity of the plays from the main repertoire, this year, we had many people seeing sideshows too. For the first time ever, the Spring Theatre had a children repertoire. During the festival weekend, close to 200 children and adults saw plays and attended our workshops on our Lasta stage. We had five public readings of the most successful plays from Sterijino Pozorje, a choreographed performance at the official opening with young people from Šabac as dancers, two exhibitions, seven round table discussions, three episodes of festival chronicles on TV and three debate shows with jury members and festival guests. During the seven days of the Spring Theatre, Šabac resembled “a little Avignon”. We had plays staged in all cultural institutions in the town, and everything was fantastically organized primarily thanks to the members of the Šabac Theatre Youth Club. The Youth Club, with whom we have been working since August last year, proved what I have been claiming all along and that is that investing in young people is the best and safest investment that a cultural institution can make. As it turns out, we are the youngest and best-organized festival team in Serbia not because we have a huge budget at our disposal, but because we believe in community, in each other and in our power. Immediately after we found out that we have set a record in terms of attendance, we had a rude awakening. The Serbian Ministry of Culture has decided to halve our budget. So, instead of the amount that this festival has been receiving since its inception, we now have a 50% smaller amount that is not enough to cover the costs of our main activities. For the past few days, I have been wondering why we had been ‘punished’. Was this year’s festival worse or of lower quality so that the Ministry has decided to demote us to the event of lower rank?! Since I was appointed the director of the Šabac Theatre last year and bearing in mind that this year’s Spring Theatre was the first such event that I am responsible for, various questions have been running around in my mind. Where did we go wrong? How come that the Ministry is not happy with our repertoire?
What do you think of your decision to accept the position of the director of the Šabac Theatre from today’s perspective? What did you know about the Theatre beforehand, and what during your time as the director?
— A year ago, when I started negotiating with the local authorities, it was clear to me that I was facing the biggest challenge of my professional career so far. I was cautious and very suspicious when it comes to my managerial skills because I knew that working in an institution of culture is not the same as working on an independent scene. Soon, however, I became aware of the fact that the independent scene and eighteen years of cooperation with Bitef are my best school, not only in the artistic but also in every other way. With enormous relief, I came to realize that I am familiar with every segment of theatre production. I knew that I would be working for a theatre that has a huge and impressive tradition. I also knew that the Šabac Theatre was one of the most successful theatres apart from those in Belgrade and Novi Sad. I knew that the Šabac Theatre had serious actors who worked with the great names in theatre direction such as Kokan Mladenović and Nikita Milivojević who staged some of their most successful plays in this theatre. However, I had no idea what kind of town I was coming to. I was afraid of experiencing ‘short circuit’ between the tradition in the drama that the Šabac Theatre has been nurturing and my constant yearning for innovative, different, brave and sometimes even radical approaches to theatre. I wondered how to find a balance between these two directions. And then I discovered this phenomenal town, its people, and the atmosphere they create. I realized that although Šabac is a small town, it is not narrow-minded. People here are open, curious, witty. They invest in themselves. They like when they are first in something, when they are different when they are alternative. I became aware of the fact that that was the reason why they called me. They did not call me because they had no other candidates, but because they recognized something in my rebellious, free and naughty performances, in my work with young people, and in my attempt to equalize theatrical art and social activism. From today’s perspective, and at the end of the season that was dedicated to local patriotism, I have realized that Šabac is the right town to live in Serbia today. I understand that the Šabac Theatre should reflect the modern spirit of this town because a part of this freedom that we have here should be disseminated across Serbia. The decision to accept the offer from the Šabac Theatre now seems to be the best decision of my life. I pushed myself past my comfort zone, and for an artist and activist in me, there’s no more worthwhile thing than that. We have to move around, learn, search, everything needs to be changed and reconsidered. I think that’s exactly the point in which I and the people in Šabac agree on. I also believe that the Šabac Theatre will soon become synonymous with freedom and progress in theatrical reflections.
Theatres in Central Serbia are, for the most part, quite marginalized although many important theatre artists, directors, playwrights and actors came from smaller towns such as Kruševac, Šabac, Valjevo, Zaječar, Čačak, Leskovac, Niš, Sombor and Subotica. Why is that so? What is the situation with local culture today? Is there enough money and interest in it?
— The impression that local theatres are marginalized comes from the fact that we live in a pathologically centralized country. Decentralization, that we have been talking about for decades, is not something that culture should follow, but rather should rather be at the forefront of. The financial situation is very difficult, but this fact is often used to mask a much bigger problem, which is the lack of enthusiasm and ideas. We should not blame artists and people working in culture for that, but the system which is designed to discourage us. We are a deeply apathetic society and culture should be a means to wake us up. So, how can we explain this to ‘the soldiers’ of one party, who, for the most part, set foot into an institution of culture for the first time ever only when they began working in them? How can we explain to them that the censorship they are trying to enforce is harming everyone to a much greater extent than benefitting their party interests? The Šabac Theatre is a member of Communities of Professional Serbian Theatres and anyone who follows the work of these theatres knows that they have excellent artists, ideas and performances. However, the founders of these theatres prefer to be good, rather than excellent. Excellent theatre always causes waves, and bad swimmers are afraid of waves and prefer soaking their feet in a swamp that is dirty and stinks, but at least, it is warm and harmless. As long as the theatre is asked to be harmless, all the smaller theatres in Serbia will be in great danger: young people will leave, old people will give up and there won’t be anyone left to go to their rallies, fill up their
budget or vote for them. I believe that the solution is very simple: bring young and energetic people back into small theatres and just let them do their work, without blackmailing them, exerting political pressures and imposing restrictions. And, in a few years, you will witness the real decentralization.
You manage the Šabac Theatre and Relfektor Theatre. What do you think of the theatrical repertoire in Belgrade? What does it lack?
Last year, there was a protest at the National Theatre against the Serbian Film Centre’s choice of a competition winner. Artists raised their voice against this. Is there solidarity in theatre ranks? Is something changing for better?
— It’s good that we can still protest. The bad thing is that, when the protest is over, everything goes back to how it was.
Your plays address some of the key issues in today’s Serbia.
How important is to have activism in theatre?
— There is no theatre that is not engaged in activism. Even the escapist plays, that are written for purely entertainment purposes, have their own societal agenda. Their purpose is to sedate you so you can forget about reality, and to relax you so you can become more accepting of the bad situation in the society. The real question is do we need activism in theatre today? Come to think of it, I have realized that we all need courage, a little bit of optimism and hope today. The situation in the society is so grim that I don’t believe in theatre that dispenses proverbial slaps in the face anymore. The time has come for plays that will teach us how to ‘walk’, hold our heads high, be joyful and believe. We need theatre that will help us to regain our dignity.
In 2017, you had a strong reaction to the decision made by Sterija Pozorje’s jury not to award any plays that year. In 2018, you were the recipient of Sterija Award and your play ‘Jami Distrikt’ won a total of seven awards. On the basis of this, can we say that rebellion brings about change?
— I do want to talk about what Sterija Award means both in a wider social context and to me personally. But I am really done commenting on a stupid and rude decision made by our colleagues and the previous winners of Sterija Award who, in 2017, thought that they could outsmart us. I also think that people were talking too much about that. In regard to your question about whether rebellion changes something, I can give you a very personal answer. I don’t know if it does change anything, but I do know that I have to believe in that.