Monday, April 4, 2016

The Serbian theatre scene

A number of surprises have greeted me throughout this return to Serbia, one of which was Belgrade's rich and active theatre scene. There are more than a dozen theatres in this city of 2 million, most of which have a show every day of the week. Unlike in the states, their annual seasons don't consist of a set number of shows each of which runs for a set number of consecutive performances. Instead there are different productions every night of the week, and every month or two, a theatre will add a new show to its repertoire. Some of these shows have been running (twice a month) for more than a decade! As an audience member this delights me -- so much to choose from! As a performer, however, it seems like a huge burden as you must remember lines and blocking for multiple shows at once. From the technical side it also seems like a pain because sets and costumes must constantly be stored and resurrected. When I was in Austria and Germany in June the theatres had a similar program, though I believe there was a bit more repetition, especially as theatre companies churned out new shows.

Besides this alternative method of scheduling, theatre in Belgrade has much more at stake than those playing in most US community, regional, or even Broadway theatres. Part of this has to do with Serbia's history; during Tito's Yugoslavia and Milosevic's rule it was forbidden to speak against the state, so some artists turned to the theatre to criticize and lampoon their political regime. Over the past decade and a half of Serbia's fledgling democracy riddled with corruption, people have continued to use this performative space to address their grievances as they lose hope in their government's ability or desire to do so. With politics so intertwined with theatre, it's no wonder nearly every production I've seen has made an implicit or explicit effort to integrate contemporary tensions in the country and region into the production.

As I get older I see the theatre less as a venue for escapist entertainment -- there's an abundance of films/tv shows for that -- and more as a unique space in society that engages audience in some kind of public process, which has some meaning and function in the society we live in. Nearly all the work I've seen in Belgrade -- and I've seen a few dozen shows at this point -- tries to connect to politics, broadly speaking. They might fall down but at least they weren't scared to climb as shows in the states often are. These productions do not play it safe as they engage with the public sphere, and for that alone I admire them. To me, this is theatre at its best and most impactful.

The theatre has the potential to be a place to address social tension and contradictions. Naturally I'm biased as the theatre feels like a second home, but I think it ought to be as important as parliament or schools, that it could be one of the key institutions of a functioning democratic society. And though Serbia's democracy may be feeble, its theatres are feisty and dynamic.

Theatre at its roots, after all, served a vital, social function. Ancient Greek theatre was seen and envisaged as entirely part of life, as a ritual expression of the existence of the community that was deeply engaged with it. Attendance was mandatory for men, and those who were worse off would have their daily earnings reimbursed by the state for a day spent at the theatre.

The lesser cited Indian theatre also erupted from a sacred, political venue. People started to mimic nature and play out scenarios of other human beings or animals, and then, legend has it, demons attacked the performance, so the people built walls and created a theatre to keep the demons out. In this privileged, protected space, they played out what it is to be human, what their relationship to nature was, what their relationship with gods might be.

What these abridged histories go to show is that performance art is necessary human act, not just about passing time and not just to reflect society, but in some ways to constitute society. The Greeks and Indians knew they had a society because they had this space in which society's tensions, its contradictions, its desires, its aspirations, its hatreds, its loves were presented in some kind of objectified way. This is what much of theatre here still does, and for that I am very proud of Serbia and gratified to be living in a city that respects this art form and harnesses it to challenge society.

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