Monday, September 28, 2015


Belgrade’s International Theatre Festival (BITEF) fortuitously coincided with my first full week here, which meant that every day last week was spent at a theatre and/or cinema. I couldn’t have asked for a better welcome to this new home. Not only did it give me a chance to scope out the major theatres, it led me to meet actors, writers, producers, and directors from Belgrade to Brussels to Berlin.  In the beginning of these conversations, people inevitably asked some variation of “What are you doing here?” This forced me to practice explaining my project both in English and Serbian and to hear initial feedback from European theatre-artists who are much closer to this issue than people I’ve spoken with about it in the states. And, owing to the current crisis, how/when/if to accept and integrate migrants are questions on everyone’s minds. These conversations led me to realize the exemplarity of the state of the European migrant right now. It is undeniably a unique time is to be at the center of it all, and I think my project should capture elements of this unusual, if unfortunate, situation.

Back to Bitef. As one of oldest theatre festivals in Europe and the foremost theatre festival in the Balkans, Bitef brings in theatre companies from across Europe, and international audiences follow. The shows I attended came from the Croatian National Theatre, Amsterdam’s DasArts, Berlin’s Maxim Gorki Theater, and Moscow’s Gogol Centre. The films included Philip Glass’ Einstein on the Beach, Pina Bausch’s The Rite of Spring and Café Müeller, and a documentary about the elderly community in Croatia. I was delighted by the wide range of selection and I was lucky to have snatched some of the last tickets left for most of the stage shows. The absolute best production, in my mind, was devised by Berlin’s Maxim Gorki Theater and entitled Common Ground. I first learned about this production when I visited Berlin in June, but unfortunately my itinerary didn’t overlap with the performances. Needless to say I was thrilled when I realized the company brought it to Belgrade.

As the title suggests, the show explores the common ground among former Yugoslavians. The ensemble was comprised of seven actors whose lives were directly impacted by the Yugoslav Wars of the ‘90s all of whom ended up in Berlin. As the actors explained in a talk-back, this devised piece took many months, many arguments, and many tears to create since, while scripted, the actors told their own incredibly personal narratives. And because the ‘90s was such a confusing, absurd, and violent decade in the Balkans, the actors remember opposing truths on which they would swear their lives.

I felt fortunate to see this particular production because it was the company’s first time performing it in the area of the world that motivated it all. After opening in Berlin and touring to France, the company brought it to the Balkans. During the talk-back, one of the actors tried to describe the difference between this performance and the previous ones on an emotional level and an intellectual level. Emotionally, many actors claimed to feel more deeply all of the typical emotions that come out in the course of the show, including sorrow, guilt, shame, and confusion. Intellectually, the actor pointed out this show’s intention was finally realized; it attempts to capture artistically the hurt and absurdity they felt rather than explain it. The audience I was part of did not register the play as a history lesson, as it was received elsewhere. Instead, this Belgradian audience saw it as an interpretation of what they knew all too well.

The Yugoslav Wars were central to most everyone’s collective memory in that audience. This production demonstrated how we all see war through our own personal story, which creates several truths. As one of the characters says in the play, the war never left; it moved from the streets to their heads. This performance clarified so much for me, someone who only knows about the wars mostly from anecdotes written decades after. Representing all parties involved in the Yugoslav wars, the actors were united in tragedy and divided by "truth."

In one particularly moving moment, a woman stormed off-stage after she and her friend had an argument about their contrary accounts of the wars. Wracked with equal parts guilt, confusion, and frustration the friend asked the audience, “Was I wrong?” No, she wasn’t. And neither was her friend, the scene implied. The Yugoslav Wars were as chaotic and absurd from the inside as they were from the outside. Layered with nostalgia for Tito and ex-Yugoslavia, the collective memory of those wars continues to impact the lives, thoughts, and hopes of people in the Balkans.

Production photos from Common Ground

This play brought out a rich assortment of emotions that had been simmering for more than a decade in both the audience and the actors. This weekend it is playing in Sarajevo, so I suspect as many if not more emotions will surge through the seats in that theatre.

Bitef, founded in 1967 during Yugoslavia’s heyday, brings former Yugoslavians to the theatre to confront their continued political strife amenably (for the most part) on the stage. The theatre companies that produced shows at the festival recognized the need for catharsis to relieve the audience of the burden and tension that would build over the course of a production. Talk-backs after each show provided an outlet for audiences to air their grievances. If you’ve met people from the Balkans, you know that they are – generally speaking – not afraid to speak their mind. Both strong and strong-willed, audience members made these talk-backs the most contentious I’d ever witnessed, which was brilliant! Theatre incited visceral responses, sparked dialogue, and – after much discussion – led some people to appreciate their differences! Huzzah! These reminded me of the importance of incorporating catharsis and reflection in plays especially when dealing with controversial topics as I will be doing in my project. Now that I know more about Belgrade’s theatre scene, I look forward to being an active spectator and, eventually, a participant!

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