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Ivan Medenica, Artistic Director Of The Belgrade International Theatre Festival, BITEF

Comrades In Arms On Theatre Boards

The plays featured in this year’s 56th BITEF don’t treat the bleak themes of work in an angry, rageful and bitter manner; on the contrary, the dominant tones are warm and witty, even when the theme in question is the phenomenon of work in the theatre

The loss of a job, working multiple jobs in parallel just to be able to survive – these are themes that are topical in our lives, but also themes that we almost never find on the front pages of the press and in the news, in politicians’ presentations and at symposiums. But BITEF Artistic Director Ivan Medenica decided to dedicate this year’s 56th Belgrade International Theatre Festival – to be held from 23rd September to 1st October under the slogan “We, the Heroes of Our Own Labour” – to this particular topic.

Was it difficult to find nine plays to bring to BITEF, or is this a topic that’s commonly considered in artistic circles?

This topic isn’t quite a trend in world theatre, but we nonetheless succeeded in putting together a selection without difficulty. The thematic arc extends from the misery of Mexican factory workers who live on minimum earnings, through the mass exodus abroad of Serbian health workers and the fate of guards of world museums who are often overqualified for their job, to working conditions in the theatre itself, with special emphasis on the position of women. This last topic – the phenomenon of work in the theatre – forms a special subsection of the programme, because it forms the core of as many as three of the shows: the Belgian dance show ‘Any attempt will end in crushed bodies and shattered bones’, the Slovenian play ‘Solo’ and our own ‘A World Without Women’.

After two years of a depressing situation in which obituaries and ‘cancellations’ were, directly or indirectly, the news of the day in almost everyone’s life, you chose a gloomy topic. What do you think attracts audiences to these plays that delve deeply into their souls? What kind of thinking would you like them to head home with after the curtain falls?

This topic is gloomy, but I’m deeply convinced that aesthetic emancipation isn’t BITEF’s only mission, but rather it also has a social mission. In other words, BITEF is also a festival of engaged, critical, emancipatory and progressive theatre. Having that in mind, it would be logical – in the Brechtian tradition – for viewers to head home thinking about what they’ve watched, for that to prompt them to reflect critically on their own existential position – in this case, with regard to working conditions and labour rights. However, I don’t think we’re depriving the viewers of catharsis, which Brecht vehemently opposed. Many of the plays offer opportunities to feel empathy, to identify with the more or less unfortunate fates of their heroes. It is interesting that, in the selected plays, these gloomy topics are not treated in an angry, rageful and bitter manner; on the contrary, it seems to me that the dominant tones are warm and witty.

This year’s BITEF opens with a play addressing the topic of ecology. What makes this issue such a force that moves so many people today, including those protesting in our cities? How does this differ from the protests of the 1980s, when we had the same knowledge, but more time to react?

Your question itself contains the answer. This topic is today rendered urgent due to the fact that humankind has no more time to waste. Even if the necessary political decisions were taken immediately at the global level, and implemented consistently (when it comes to emissions of harmful gases, for example), it is still questionable whether there would be enough time to halt climate mutations and other serious environmental problems. Apart from the noted urgency of the problem, I don’t know exactly how things differ compared to the protests of the ‘80s.

Perhaps the tendency to elevate the environmental movement above civic actions and profile it with more ideological breadth and clarity, so that it can provide answers to all important social issues, and not just environmental ones. It would thereby become what some theorists dub “political ecology” and would become a new, different and relevant political force, which could perhaps also provide hope for humanity. During recent days, intellectual curiosity has led me to start translating from French the book by famous philosopher and sociologist Bruno Latour that he wrote in collaboration with Nikolaj Schulz and which deals with these issues in particular. Its very title is significant, programmatic – On the Emergence of an Ecological Class: A Memo.

A new topic leaps to the surface seemingly every hour in our world, from ecology, via tough and undignified work, to the war in Ukraine. As artistic director of BITEF, what makes you decide to say “this is what we need to deal with this year”? Have you considered that the issues of labour, no matter how difficult, pale in comparison to the shadow of war that’s almost at our doorstep?

The selection is formed, in the first period, by festival dramatist Filip Vujošević and myself watching very different plays, until a few of them, on the same or a similar topic, stand out – on the basis of artistic value and social importance. Then, around the middle of the selection process, that topic is “solidified” and only projects that fall within that framework are sought out until the end of the process. This means that the main theme of the 56th BITEF was chosen, and many plays already invited, at the end of last year, i.e., a few months prior the outbreak of the war in Ukraine. Though even if there hadn’t been an objective reason based on dates, I think I would have stuck to the topic of labour. Viewed from a Marxist perspective, issues of social injustice, inequality, exploitation, class oppression etc., are older than issues of war. These phenomena are less consequences of wars and more their cause.

We are reading constantly about numerous theatres, opera houses and ballet companies deciding to remove works of Russian authors from their repertoire, even if they are centuries removed from the current political juncture, as is the case with the likes of Chekhov or Tchaikovsky. What would you have done if the plays you wanted to bring to BITEF included some work by a classical or new Russian author or theatre, either Russian and Ukrainian? Where is it appropriate to combine the artistic and the political; and where does that become tasteless and grotesque?

I’ve already given statements on this topic, at the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In short, it is absolutely unacceptable to “cancel” dead Russian artists who, for obvious reasons, could not have contributed to, supported or justifies this invasion. As you say – it’s completely grotesque. The same goes for the vast majority of Russian artists alive today: namely, they consist mainly of authors who oppose Putin’s policies and suffer the resultant consequences, with some even having to emigrate.

On the other side, if I knew of someone in Russian theatre who’s like Nikita Mikhalkov, someone who openly supported the invasion of Ukraine, I would avoid his work, and maybe even support “cancelling” him. As far as BITEF is concerned, if the selection had included any Russian author or play, I certainly wouldn’t “cancel” them, because I know that would represent artistic and social discourse that wouldn’t be in any way supportive of war and imperialistic policies.

With the exception of the authors of domestic plays, all the directors and choreographers at this year’s BITEF are participating for the first time, they are essentially strangers to the local audience. What prompted you to make this choice?

That was down to circumstance; we didn’t set out from that as a set goal. However, when it became evident that the selection was moving in that direction, we liked it and it became one of the many criteria of selection towards the very end of the process. At BITEF we don’t interpret “novelty” as necessarily meaning something completely new, but certainly still radical and different theatre practises. This year that novelty is ‘devised theatre’, while the previous ones were installations, durational performances, immersive theatre etc. However, “novelty” can also be grasped in a more simplistic sense – as authors’ poetics that are new to our area. I think that has great importance, because, unfortunately, in our area, even among professionals, it is unknown who today’s most relevant theatre authors, events, companies and festivals are. In contrast to film or popular music, we find this context elusive. For instance, Katie Mitchell has been one of the world’s leading theatre directors for years, but I’m afraid that she’s not known in our country. Thus, selecting figures who are new to our area also has a certain informational and educational value.

What should those of us who are hungry for BITEF be sure not to miss that isn’t included in the main programme?

I’ll be brutally honest: you shouldn’t miss anything.