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Branko Cvejić, Actor

Our Choices are Dangerously Limited

I believe we live in a country that has an opposition that will be a barrier to any attempt of absolute power. No democratic society can function without an opposition. I think everyone should have a choice of where they want to live and work. The most important thing in life is for a person to have a choice, that they don’t do something just because they can’t do anything else. I’m afraid that those choices are dangerously limited for us. Not for me, but for the upcoming younger generations.

Branko Cvejić is a child from a good home, the son of renowned opera singer Žarko Cvejić, husband of Vesna, a former Professor of the Faculty of Medicine, a father of two very successful children, grandfather of Zora and an actor who played close to 150 theatres, film and television roles. After spending ten years as the director of the Yugoslav Drama Theatre (JDP) and a few previous years in which he was an assistant director to Jovan Ćirilov, it is easy to prove that Branko Cvejić, after founder Bojan Stupica, has been the most successful administrator in the 69-year history of this theatre.

During his tenure, a new building was erected on the site of the old one, which was destroyed by fire in 1997, and JDP was admitted into the European Union of Theatres as the only theatre from the territory of the former Yugoslavia, and during his mandate this theatre was the first to make a guest appearance in Croatia after the wars of the 1990s.

BRANKO CVEJIĆTo the general public, the popular Cveja, who will turn 70 this August, will remain eternally known as Bane Bumbar from the unrivalled sentimental series of Srđan Karanović called Grlom u jagode (Throat full of strawberries). It is realistic to expect that he has had his fill of stories about how that figure marked his career, but today he explains simply:

“The more the years pass, the easier it is for me to answer that question. For the past few decades, it turned out that that was a very important job the success of which was contributed to by all those who participated in it. That’s also how it was with my lead role. You can’t be the protagonist of such a large and positive enterprise without having yourself contributed to that success. When you consider how much popularity and positive critiques that the series received, I can say that it was my biggest success. My second success was what I did at the Yugoslav Drama Theatre during the years when I was the director. TO put it simply – if I had just played Bane Bumbar and did what I did for fifteen years at the JDP, I would have reason to be happy.”

While he was a director of the Yugoslav Drama Theatre he vowed to himself that he would not accept new roles. Since he has not been director, he has played more roles than ever. He has even stepped in to perform in the place of a colleague, which has never represented a problem for him. Particularly interesting and valuable is Cvejić’s work with young and very successful theatre director Andrej Nosov on the plays the Distorted, Hunger and Ghosts:

“I have a habit of saying that in my first life, and that was before I became JDP director, I played so many roles in theatre, shot so many films and TV series. Then I became the assistant to a brilliant man and director of JDP Jovan Ćirilov, and I did some acting here and there. And then I spent ten years leading the theatre myself and there were no more new roles. In my second life, this one after my managerial mandate, I became a novice actor. However, whichever way you look at it, whichever way I functioned, it’s wonderful to be anything in the theatre. And the most beautiful thing to be in a theatre is an actor. It is particularly satisfying for me now, as a pensioner, to perform in my former theatre, JDP, but also to walk on stage in other theatres. I’ve never chased roles, but I’ve tended to accept what I received. Now I performed for the first time in a musical, Sweet Charity, which is being shown successfully on the stage of Terazije Theatre. That really feels good for me, like everything else I play, because I feel I will perform for as long as I can move. It would be very boring for me without the theatre.”

For me as an administrator, it was very important and significant for JDP to perform again in Zagreb and Ljubljana, and for plays from Zagreb and Ljubljana to once again be performed on the stage at the JDP. I remembered that as an actor, because that was a regular exchange of guest performances at least once a year

It is well known how hard you fought for the Yugoslav Drama Theatre to retain its name because there were those who were very vocal in their intention that it should be changed. Therefore, it is worth asking how much you can be credited with the JDP name being kept.

– I would not discuss my credit, but it’s true that there was a lot of pressure, especially before the opening of the new building. I don’t remember who started that campaign, but there were great names from the world of culture, academia, and those who commented with disgust on the fact that the act on the establishment of JDP was signed by Josip Broz Tito. I asked anyone who defamed that name, and who I was able to speak with, how they proposed it be called. Mostly they answered that it is best to be the Serbian Theatre, and I responded to them by saying that in Novi Sad there is already the Serbian National Theatre.

BRANKO CVEJIĆThere were those who suggested that the theatre be named after an individual, but it was hard to agree on which name. Some individuals were bothered by that being the name of the first director, Bojan Stupica, but one stage already carried his name, while others wanted someone else, but for me, it was incomprehensible why we would kill a name that had for so many years, you must admit, been successful. I don’t even think that’s just a term of the post-war Yugoslavism, but rather an expression of Yugoslavia created as a country in the Balkans, a place with a rich history.

I said then, as now, that no one has the right to change the name of Yugoslav Drama to any other name, because that would be a great disgrace for all. For now, that topic has been removed from the agenda. More specifically, that is no longer discussed. That is the most important thing.

Today its normal to exchange guest performances between theatres in Belgrade with theatres in Zagreb, Sarajevo, Ljubljana. After the wars of the 1990s, you were the first to go with the JDP to Zagreb. How did that look at that time?

– For me as an administrator, it was very important and significant for JDP to perform again in Zagreb and Ljubljana, and for plays from Zagreb and Ljubljana to once again be performed on the stage at the JDP. I remembered that as an actor because that was a regular exchange of guest performances at least once a year. For me, that was important, because I considered that an actor can only verify their work in another developed theatrical ambient.

We can consider ourselves fantastic here, the best, but it’s only when you go somewhere else in the world, perhaps first and foremost in the region, that you gauge your strengths in another terrain and receive, or don’t receive, confirmation that you have done something good. Our markets for the theatre were the first that could be areas where we speak the same, or similar, languages. And it was easy to go to each of those areas of the former Yugoslavia, except to Zagreb. It was the hardest to go there for the first.

And it was phenomenal?

– We were lucky that we had three plays in the repertoire by local authors – Biljana Srbljanović’s “Grasshoppers”, “Rails” by Milena Marković and Uglješe Šejtinca’s “Huddersfield”. So it happened that we presented to the public three contemporary local authors and all three plays were excellent. After that guest appearance, everything was much easier. I remember the first big post-war guest performances, with the play Powder Keg in Cankarjev Dom in Ljubljana. We played three nights in a row in a packed auditorium, and that was really a spectacle.

Formally, you were not a member of any political party. However, it was known that you supported the Democratic Party, just as it supported you in being the JDP director. How did you avoid a scandal while you were in that position?

– For me, the institution has always been important, and the theatre was the most important institution, whose interests I protected. There were attempts by some parties in power for me to rent out the hall in the JDP for some party occasion, but I did not do that. Because if I did that for parties that were close to me, then I would have to have done the same for those that are not close to me, and then I would no longer have an argument to say no. In this way, I declined both.

I can’t say that the poor cultural policy is a result of today’s authorities, because I know it started to go bad much earlier, while the same people who made some significant moves were in the government

Today it is clear that the government after 5th October 2000 did a lot for culture, but it was quickly proven that they no longer care for it. Why is that?

– I do not know why that’s so, but it is true that the government helped to elevate JDP, to renovate the Belgrade Drama Theatre and Terazije Theatres and to do some other good things. However, that government also made many bad moves.

That’s why I can’t say that the poor cultural policy is a result of today’s authorities because I know it started to go bad much earlier, while the same people who made some significant moves were in the government. And today the situation is disastrous. We have the statistic that JDP receives funds to perform only two premieres per season. That was never the case before. And that’s not only at JDP but also in all other theatres, not counting the National Theatre.

The situation’s not much better in neighbouring countries?

BRANKO CVEJIĆ– I know that there is a crisis everywhere, but when they cut 15 per cent from 100 dinars there, 85 remains. And when here they cut 15 per cent from 10 dinars, then nothing remains. Here in theatres, there is only money to pay for electricity and maintenance, and for some sort of salaries. Money for projects must be found and it all depends on how resourceful someone is. However, even that cannot be constant. From year to year, it gets worse and it becomes pointless to have a theatre that exists but has no money for its basic need – to perform new plays.

How do you view non-institutional cultural projects today?

– The same as when I was the manager of an institutional theatre. I think they are necessary and important. But society must have institutional theatres in which there will be repertoires, where they will perform classical dramas, or modern dramas, theatres in which young people and generations of viewers will be educated. Institutions are the foundation, the base, while non-institutional projects are extensions.

You must have a good base in order to have something to extend upon. You must have a firm foundation in order to have an alternative on the other side. That’s because an alternative implies that you have something stable. I’m sorry that there is no more space in which young people, and those who are not young, can practice and perform their projects. Of course, I mean a space that is actually minimally equipped to perform plays.

I have around me three Ph.D.’s, my wife, son and daughter gained their doctorates here and elsewhere in the world, and I was a witness to all the suffering which they went through to work and defend their doctoral dissertations. I am ashamed when I hear about all those who bought their diplomas, who stole the work for their doctoral dissertation and gained benefit for themselves for that

Can you predict what will appeal to the audience; does it happen that you back a play that fails and that a play endures which you did not anticipate?

– You can never be sure what will go down well and what will not. When you add Shakespeare to the repertoire you count on it playing for five or six seasons and that’s it. However, then you have the case of The Merchant of Venice that has been performed at the JDP for 12 years. Or it happens that you place on the repertoire Nušić’s melodrama “It Had To Be So” not expecting it to last and then it plays for nine years. Or when you perform the premiere of Biljana Srbljanović’s play “Grasshoppers” never dreaming that it will be performed for 11 years, each time to a packed auditorium. It’s bad when you want to perform something that needs to look like something that has already had fantastic success and ratings. Suppose, if you can set up something like the “Bug in the ear” and that it will automatically repeat its success. That is not the case; that’s the wrong way of thinking.

There is no recipe for a hit show?

– There isn’t. I will quote for you famous playwright Aleksandar Popović, whose plays are still performed today with equal success. Author of the dramas “Spawning Carp”, “White Coffee”, “Ljubinko & Desanka” etc., who responded to the question of how to make a hit show by saying: “You first have to have a text that is valuable, then a producer, or a theatre that wants to play it or has the means to do so, you must have at your disposal a director who knows how to choose good actors, and then – if God is willing! No matter how hard you try, whatever you do, always, in the end, it remains that – if God is willing”.

Why was it so important to have guest directors from the region at the JDP, which you insisted upon, while many local directors thought that they were thereby denied work?

BRANKO CVEJIĆ– This simply is not true. The repertoire has always been kept by people from here, Bojan Stupica, who was of Slovenian origin, but who was a Belgrader in everything he did, through Miroslav Belović and Branko Pleša, to Dejan Mijač. I thought, as I think today, it’s always good to bring a director with a slightly different sensibility, even if that did not prove to be a great success. That’s because you need to shake things up a bit, in order not to fall into a rut. And thus great plays were realised in that theatre by Slobodan Unkovski, who otherwise says that the JDP is his, or that he is a man from JDP, Haris Pašović and many others. It was often not easy for me due to these guest directors because I was criticised by various compilers of the lists of non-Serbs, who would unearth some names that sounded to them like they were Muslim, Croatian, Slovenian or Macedonian.

You did not, as a rule, react to that?

– It never occurred to me to discuss such topics. It’s stupidity to deal with someone’s origins. I stick to the belief that it’s best to remain silent when a man hears foolishness and acts like they never heard it.

What is the price of not responding to things like that?

– The price is to eat oneself up inside, but also to bang around the house. However, I always thought that evil people should not be responded to; that you do not need to talk about topics that are not topics; that should not exist as topics in a civilised world. I was always repulsed by that counting of red blood cells that people are prone to do, especially in some troubled times. And we in this region have often lived through fraught years.

How do you go to your former theatre today?

– With great pleasure. I mostly go when I have a play, but I also go when I don’t. I know how hard it is for them today when they have lost one stage, because plays are no longer performed on the Bojan Stupica Stage, when they have no money for new shows, when it is difficult to get the money for two or three premieres, and we had as many as nine. And if three of those nine succeeded, you could be satisfied. And what can you do today if both plays are not successful?

I’m neither sad nor disappointed. What I could have expected happened. However, I believe we live in a country that has an opposition that will be a barrier to any attempt at absolute power. There is no democratic society that can function without an opposition

This year you publicly gave your vote to the Democratic Party. Are you sad and disappointed by the election results?

– I’m neither sad nor disappointed. What I could have expected happened. However, I believe we live in a country that has an opposition that will be a barrier to any attempt at absolute power. There is no democratic society that can function without an opposition.

After these elections, it increasingly occurs to me to say: I was born in the city of Vračar, I’ve spent all my life in the city of Vračar, today I live in the city of Vračar … And it’s even tougher for me to say that I am from Belgrade and I live in Belgrade. It’s silly, but that’s the way it is. I am often ashamed.

Why?

– I am ashamed when I hear about all those who bought their diplomas, who stole the work for their doctoral dissertation and gained benefit for themselves for that. I have around me three PhD’s, my wife, son and daughter gained their doctorates here and elsewhere in the world, and I was a witness to all the suffering which they went through to work and defend their doctoral dissertations in places where that is seriously controlled. And we read, we hear how it is shown and proven that someone stole, copied, forged … and did so as though nothing happened. And whenever I think that I cannot hear, see and read anything worse, something new happens, something incomprehensible. It happens, for example, the overnight demolition of illegally constructed structures in Savamala, which I have nothing against, but must that be done at night, wearing ski masks? Must they induce fear in people in that way? Fortunately, I live at the top of a block of flats so it might not reach me. Or, perhaps, it will start from the top?

Still, you never wanted to go and live somewhere else?

– I started to act in my native language and language is my craft. I don’t think I could ever express myself in any other language in the way that I can on my own. That’s the way I chose, just as my children chose to study abroad. My son received his doctorate at Cornell in America and returned here to be a professor, while my daughter decided to live in Belgium, but she works in Europe and here. I think everyone should have a choice of where they want to live and work. The most important thing in life is for a person to have a choice, not to do something just because they cannot do anything else. I’m afraid our choices are dangerously limited. Not mine, but rather those of the up and coming younger generations.