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Theatrical Landscape of Croatia

Not homeless

by Gordana Vnuk

The structure of the theatre landscape in Croatia goes back to the beginning of the 19th century when it developed under strong German influence (Split and other Adriatic towns were under Italian influence). Not only were the first theatre performances in Zagreb given by German touring companies but the theatre house with a permanent company that still today is the basis of the Croatian theatre system is modelled on German theatre.

Although there had been a permanent stage in Zagreb since the end of the 18th century it was performed on by German actors playing German texts. This was because the most important requirement to found a Croatian theatre did not exist: there were no native Croatian actors. In 1840 there were at least 4 announcements advertising for actors, but not a single person came forward. On the other hand in Novi Sad in Serbia there was a good theatre company the so-called "Flying Dilettante Theatre" ("Leteće diletantsko pozorište") and it was invited to Zagreb to play in the native language. This company became the first professional ensemble resident in the theatre. In other words one could say that Croatian acting was established by Serbians – a fact that Croatians are reluctant to remember.

With many ups and downs Croatian actors gradually stole the stage so that finally at the end of the 19th century a yellow coloured theatre building was inaugurated in Zagreb as a culmination of these endeavours. It was designed by the Viennese architects Helmer and Fellner who built more than 50 theatres from Hamburg to Sofia. It has remained until today the centre of national theatre identity: the Croatian National Theatre with drama, opera and ballet.

The actor as an employee
Why this small historical discourse? This piece of history is important: the Croatians had no theatre until a house was built for it – the Croatian theatre may not be thought of without a roof over its head, without the status and comfort of a citizen. Branko Gavella (1825 – 1962), director, theorist and Croatia's most important theatre personality once wrote: "Our actors have become civil servants before they've realised what it means to be an actor." A non-institutionalised bohemian era of Croatian theatre never existed (unlike in Serbia). Due to this unfortunate institutionalisation many problems arose which still exist today.

Modern Croatia has 4.5 million inhabitants and is served by four national theatres with drama, opera and ballet. Their salaried employees are a big financial burden and therefore there is hardly any economic support for other types of theatre organisation. Then there are also the numerous municipal theatres with the permanent ensemble of actors and a huge administrative staff. So it was in communist times and is today still the case. Although a new law has been passed which now allows time contracts to be given, in reality no-one dares to make use of them and so actors are given permanent positions regardless if they are actively working at the theatre or not.

It is no wonder that such a theatre model of financial security neither worries about artistic or box office success and is quite happy with the status quo and to remain middle of the road. The repertoire is steered in a conventional and often popular or commercial direction – innovative methods of directing are nowhere in sight. During and shortly after the war of independence foreign directors were just about forbidden, even Slovenians were regarded as undesirable guests. In the meantime it's the other way round. Directors from abroad with uninteresting artistic biographies are invited or Croatian directors from the in-between generation who are regarded to be quiet and conformist. In Zagreb there are some directors who direct in most of the municipal theatres which means that no theatre has managed to develop its own individual profile; everywhere in theatres such as the Gavella, the Kerempuh or the ZeKaeM, performances can be seen that are virtually indistinguishable from another.

Two worlds: The established and the up and coming.
Even if the theatre in Croatia has known better times, today its mainstream is still stuck in psychology, realism and illustration. Even if there are some shy tendencies towards modernism, they are epigonic, second-rate versions based on some German or French models. The readiness to break away from this state of affairs rarely exists. The young generation of graduated directors is seldom given work on big stages. The Theatre Academy in Zagreb which for a long time was the bulwark of backwardness and conservatism has now for a few years with the turn over of the professor generation produced some interesting artistic personalities. However, the directors of state theatres, who find this of little interest, for instance, never turn up to see diploma performances. In addition, a creative mixture of the independent scene and state theatres, like in Germany, does not exist; these two worlds remain clearly separated from another.

It is no easier for young playwrights. Many are recruited from the studies of dramaturgy at the Theatre Academy, but there is a lack of theatre politics to regularly promote the presentation of new Croatian texts. Apart from the juries who occasionally award a few prizes to young authors, they complain that there is noone to read their texts, not even in theatres which have full-time dramaturges. One generation that caught the public attention despite the sparse amount of stagings of their plays, at the end of the 80's beginning of the 90's, were Ivan Vidić, Asja Srnec-Todorović, Mate Matišić and Filip Šovagović. At the end of the 90's a new generation has followed, which deals with social and political realities of the transition period in Croatia. Some of them like Ivana Sajko and Tena Štivičić have become known abroad. However on stage at home in their own country their work is rarely seen.

In the performances of the joint director duo Bobo Jelčić und Nataša Rajković, one of the most outstanding teams in new Croatian theatre, the texts are produced during the rehearsals. Jelčić's and Rajković's intimate stagings and simple stories, which explore the space between theatre and everyday life are, so to say, the greatest export of Croatian theatre. They staged plays in Hannover and at the Neumarkt theatre in Zürich and their work was seen in many festivals, from the Theater der Welt, the Kunsten Festival des Arts in Brussels to the Théâtre des Ameriques in Montreal. Branko Brezovec is in a similar position as he also seldom stages productions in Croatia but his unique directing method based on opulent theatricality is known all over Europe. He is mostly interested in new interpretations of classical texts: he specialises in juxtaposing several different texts in one performance which then describe and comment on each other.

Nataša Rajković manages – this is also important to mention – a small theatre in The Student Centre in Zagreb, which stands out in the institutionalised landscape. This is because Teatar & TD is at present the only platform for young directors, playwrights or projects by the independent theatre scene. Although the independent scene seems to be lively and creative especially in dance and live arts, there is no venue to accommodate their numerous projects and initiatives. This has become a continual source of frustration and ongoing dispute with the City authorities.

Jumping and erring
The independent theatre scene is largely influenced by the theatre festival Eurokaz, which since 1987 has presented many important international artists in Zagreb. For a long period of time this has been the only place of contemporaneity. Early works from Rosas, Jan Fabre, Soc. Raffaello Sanzio, Needcompany, G.B. Corsetti, La Fura dels Baus, Saburo Teshigawara, Forced Entertainment, Hotel Pro Forma and others were shown in Zagreb and were like a shock to the Croatian theatre establishment. The aesthetic of the new theatre, which had a break-through in Europe in the 80's, has penetrated into the consciousness of Croatian theatre practitioners with a delay of 10 to 15 years – although not yet into the institutional theatres.

The independent scene is presently characterised by a surplus of iconoclasm – an almost fashionable phenomena that exports well. Unfortunately festivals like Eurokaz are unable to single-handedly put a country's theatre on the map if it isn't accompanied by relevant native productions which are capable of crossing local borders.

To quote Branko Gavella again: "I believe it's the uneven development that distinguishes the literature of small countries, not its quantitative backwardness." Thus not the quantity is decisive (there is enough of everything), but the intermittent jumping and erring along the artistic line of development. There weren't many, but there were dramatists and directors who got afraid of their own radicalism which corresponded with the developments in Europe and eventually shrank back to the norm. To paraphrase Sloterdijk: We participated in modernisation but not in liberalisation. Innovative theatre in Croatia does not have continuity that could correspond to the important developments within Europe; it is only familiar with "irregular" leaps forwards by solitary individuals, outsiders, who are little or rarely supported at home although they would give us the possibilty to cross national borders. In this manner Croatian theatre is characterized by its constant delay after world developments.

Back to the beginning

Read more about Tena Štivičić.