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Dr Zoran Đerić, Director of the Serbian National Theatre in Novi Sad

Tradition & Modernity Under One Roof

Judging by his interests, he seemingly lives multiple lives simultaneously. Managing the oldest professional theatre in Serbia isn’t the only “life” he’s completely dedicated to, one which has seen him join the list of greats who’ve managed this theatre over its enduring existence that includes the likes of Jovan Đorđević, Antonije Hadžić, Pera Dobrinović, Branislav Nušić, Miloš Hadžić and other lovers of the performing arts. Each of his predecessors left their own mark, just as Dr Đerić is now inscribing his own. Apart from being a top theatre administrator, he is also a writer, primarily a poet, author, theatrologist, translator, writer of scientific studies in the fields of literature, film theatre etc., it is almost impossible to list all of his areas of activity. The description of his work comes across as being almost unbelievable; it seems as though we encountered him at the same time in the theatre, at the Sterijino Pozorje festival, at the Academy, at the Matica Srpska cultural centre etc., and he finds time for everything…

Although he also works as a visiting professor in Banja Luka, his life revolves around the theatre and writing. It is there that he moves, as though in an enchanted circle, spinning with energy to launch things in a better way, for the Serbian National Theatre to stride – with its repertoire and skills – even further into the world. And for it to be thus valued in the right way. That is the mission of this tireless artist, because, judging by everything he does, he can rightly be referred to as an artist!

We all have those mental images that we carry with us from childhood, from our homeland and wherever else our life paths have led us; those images are our hallmark, though we’re usually unaware of that. What kind of world, memories, inspirations and incentives did you take away from your native Bačko Dobro Polje, a beautiful Vojvodina village near Vrbas that’s home to post-war ‘colonists’ who arrived from Montenegro and Bosnia-Herzegovina back in 1945?

Unfortunately, I took little with me from my hometown – including impressions, memories and knowledge. My parents arrived in Bačko Dobro Polje as children (my mother was seven and began attending primary school when she arrived; my father was 15 and started learning a trade). They met at a village dance. The maternity ward where I was born was located in the centre of the village, in a park, and has now been turned into an apartment. My mother lives nearby, because we sold the family house that no one had inhabited for years, except mice and insects, and everything was covered by dust and fell into oblivion.

Bačko Dobro Polje isn’t far from Novi Sad. Do you go there often? As a child, living in the environment of your native area, you dreamt of one day becoming a pilot or a parachutist. Did you later ponder that unfulfilled desire, or was it just childish fantasy?

I was compelled to return to my homeland by the archaeological discovery of Čarnok, a Celtic tribal settlement from the first century AD, which sits alongside today’s Bačko Dobro Polje, which was actually called Kišker prior to World War II and used to be mainly inhabited by ethnic Germans. Whenever I can and whenever the weather permits, I go to Čarnok, where the oppidum of the main settlement is barely visible, with earthen ramparts, in a massive circular shape, which was accessed via a moat. From the first century onwards, these territories, which had formed part of Barbaricum, belonged to the Roman Empire. It was inhabited by the Sarmatae, then later came the Avars and other tribes. There was also a medieval settlement there, with a church, but nothing has remained of that.

As for my childhood desires, I still adore flying. Clouds are my eternal fascination.

As for my childhood desires, I still adore flying. Clouds are my eternal fascination

You are – as you yourself state – an artist and creator with multiple biographies. That is confirmed by your past work, in different periods of your life and different areas of activity, sometimes in parallel. That’s not common, and even less so for someone to achieve high quality in all fields. When you started publishing your writings, you first published poems? Apart from poetry, you also write essays, prose, scientific studies in the fields of literature, theatre and film etc.?

I started out as a poet and, I believe, have remained that way until the end. I published my first poems quite early on, in Dečji novine [Yugoslavia’s former biggest publisher of comics], back in the ‘60s. As a secondary school pupil, I published in the high school publication Mladim danima [Young Days], but also in youth periodicals around Serbia. Duško Trifunović published my poems in Sarajevo daily Oslobođenje in 1975. Then came poetry festivals, and even awards. I published my first book in 1983, in Matica Srpska. I’ve published a large number of books to date, covering all sorts of fields.

As a public figure, you are also determined – in addition to your administrative work – by your literary work. How did you feel when you held your first book in your hands? And what does your literary oeuvre actually comprise; and what about your equally rich administerial career?

My first book was a collection of poems, Talog [Sediment], and it defined me as a poet.

It was only this year that I published my first book of stories, Portret pesnika kao umirućeg lava [Portrait of a Poet as a Dying Lion], and it is dedicated entirely to poets, or to their tragic destinies. I’ve so far published 15 poetry books and two poetry selections, while several of my books have been translated into foreign languages.

An extensive book, Pesme produženog trajanja [Songs of an Extended Duration], was recently published (Cultural Centre of Vojvodina Miloš Crnjanski, Novi Sad, 2021), which represents a selection of my poems dating from 1981 to this year. So, a cross-section of my 40-year presence in poetry. I’ve published multiple literary studies on Slavic emigration poetry and several studies on theatre and film.

Next comes translation. You’ve translated works from almost all other Slavic languages, while your poetry has also been translated in Russia, Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, Slovakia and Macedonia. How satisfying do you find that; and which translations give you a particular sense of pride?

I compiled an extensive anthology of my essays and translations of Slavic literature, which is also how it is entitled: Slovenska čitanka [Slavic reader/textbook]. I’ve translated poetry primarily, and plays and prose, by Russian, Polish, Czech, Bulgarian, Ukrainian and Belarusian authors, published in periodicals, but also in special books.

My favourite authors are Vladimir Nabokov, Zbigniew Herbert, Joseph Brodsky and Czesław Miłosz. It was a major challenge for me to translate theoretical books from theatre studies, or from puppetry. I’m proud of my translations of Henryk Jurkowski’s two-volume Aspects of Puppet Theatre, as well as The Art of Puppet Directing by Wiesław Heino.

You’ve also amassed a rich teaching career. You have a special relationship with students and are among their ‘favourites’. Is that due to part of your character, the way you work, or everything combined?

I started my professorship relatively late, in my 40s, and perhaps that’s why I was totally devoted to that job, working together with students and learning myself. I still have great curiosity, a need to learn, gain new experiences and acquire knowledge. I don’t hide that and I don’t haughtily put myself above the students, but rather relate like one of them. That’s always been part of me. Maybe that’s also what’s recognised and appreciated by others.

I still have great curiosity, a need to learn, gain new experiences and acquire knowledge. I don’t hide that and I don’t haughtily put myself above the students, but rather relate like one of them. That’s always been part of me

You spent five years as a Serbian language lecturer at the University of Łódź in Poland, and have also taught as a visiting professor of Slavic studies in Prague, Gdańsk, Krakow and Novi Sad. You also taught at the Academy of Arts in Banja Luka, covering all callings. How did you enjoy working abroad, but first and foremost in Poland and Czechia, which are countries with a wealth of culture?

Lecturing in Poland was a very valuable experience for me in multiple ways. It was at Polish universities that I began my scientific work, participating in scientific conferences and drafting my doctorate. My Polish students are now successful businesspeople, not only in Poland, but elsewhere in Europe. Some of them remained at the colleges, earned their doctorates and now lecture, some took jobs in schools, in various companies, as translators etc. I spent lots of time with my students. We created plays, travelled, and I’m still in contact with some of them today. I travelled all over Poland and believe I got to know it. I went back later to attend theatre festivals, and I’m still in contact with several theatre directors, puppeteers and theorists. Prague occupies a special place in my memories; I wrote features, poems and a story about it. Over recent years I’ve been particularly attached to Bratislava, where they translated and published two of my books of poetry. I’ve travelled to Russia. Siberia is, for me, a very special experience. I’ve been there twice: once by myself; and the second time with the Youth Theatre from Novi Sad. I’m planning to go to attend a theatre festival next year, for which I’ve been invited to be a member of the jury. And that’s without mentioning other cities I’ve been to in recent years, as a guest, as a theatrologist and theatre manager.

Your interest, and engagement, in puppetry is insufficiently known and worthy of note. Although this form of performance art has been present in our country for more than eight decades, it has somehow remained at the periphery… Those who are familiar with your work know that you pay puppetry its due attention. Do you believe that our other artists will become more interested in puppetry and that this genre will gain the kind of place it deserves on the stage?

I became interested in puppetry back in 1988, when I took on the position of director of the Youth Theatre in Novi Sad. I read everything that could be found on the subject. Those were mainly Russian and Bulgarian books. I later came across Polish, Czech and Slovak books. I watched puppet shows.

I was interested in the process of creating puppets: from the workshop to animating puppets on stage. I attended puppet festivals with the theatre, especially international ones, and learned by watching shows from all around the world. I wrote about puppetry production in our country, about books and festivals. And over the last ten years I’ve started translating puppetry studies and books. I’m part of the editorial department of the magazine Niti, which is published by the Theatre Museum of Vojvodina. It’s the only magazine of puppetry in our country. I this year published the book Lutkarski simulakrumi [Puppetry Simulacra], with the subtitle – contributions to the history of puppet theatres in Serbia. Within it I united my many years of research into puppetry art and practise. A monograph of the Youth Theatre in Novi Sad is currently being prepared to commemorate its 90 years of performances, which I’m working on together with my colleague, Ljiljana Dinić. My puppet show “Gulliver” was performed successfully at the Little Theatre “Duško Radović” in Belgrade. It was for that piece that I received the award for the best puppetry script at last year’s Festival of Professional Puppet Theatres in Serbia. Other directors have also expressed an interest in this show, so I believe it will have more performances on the puppet stage. I recently also received an award for puppetry in North Macedonia, in Štip.

In Subotica last year, as the selector of the 27th International Children’s Theatre Festival, you presented an interesting stance that children’s theatres should no longer deal exclusively with fairy tales, but rather should also address current global topics. Is that a striving for modernity, because neither puppet shows nor children’s plays can stand still forever?

As the director and selector of the International Children’s Theatre Festival in Subotica, I became convinced that the aesthetics of children’s theatre is changing and developing, in harmony with the movements of dramatic theatre. Both when it comes to topics and approaches – from composition dramaturgy to the directing of plays.

Puppet theatres and theatres for children and young people are diverse: there are ever fewer classical plays for children, and ever more digital and research performances.

A good play justifies all the effort exerted and money invested, and with them all the knowledge and creative potential, but also enthusiasm. Theatre must be loved in order for it to reciprocate with the same measure

You have received many significant accolades for your work. You are a recipient, among many other awards, of the prestigious Teodor Pavlović Award (named after the restorer and reformer of Matica Srpska) for the best book for Celuloidna književnost: književnost i film [Celluloid Literature: Literature and Film, published by Novi Sad’s Grafomarketing. Which of the many awards and acknowledge ments you’ve received would you single out as highlights?

The first award is always the dearest, and that was Champion of the Festival of Yugoslav Youth Poetry in Vrbas, in 1982. The following year, I received the Mlada Struga award at the Struga Poetry Evenings in Macedonia. Back then, that was one of the most important awards for young poets in Yugoslavia. I will single out another award for the poetry book “Čarnok” – “Đura Jakšić” (2015), as well as the latest one – Vuk’s Award, which I received at the beginning of this year for my literary and translation work, but also for my theatre and film studies work. Of course, the most important recognition I’ve received was the medal of merit in culture that I was decorated with by the President of Serbia.

You are now in Novi Sad, serving as the manager of our oldest theatre, the Serbian National Theatre. This appointment is, of course, undoubtedly also a great honour and recognition. Many Novi Sad locals were delighted with the choice, because you exude the impression of a calm, deep man, who knows both what he wants and what he doesn’t. Which new additions have you introduced; and which traditional values have you retained and improved?

Arriving in the position of manager of the Serbian National Theatre was a great honour and a challenge for me. I wasn’t unfamiliar with either the repertoire or the work of our oldest theatre, but it took some time for me to acquaint myself with its internal organisation, with the complex structure comprising its artistic and technical units, as well as other parts of this great institution of culture. It seems to me that the repertoire was equal challenging, as it is a stronghold of great ensembles, in ballet and opera, and especially in drama. The emphasis was on classics, domestic and world, but also on contemporary pieces. The directors we’ve engaged for our projects are new, both in drama and opera. That turned out to be a great move – we received attractive, artistically potent plays that have won numerous awards, and won over audiences generally.

FROM THE SERBIAN NATIONAL THEATRE

You spent three terms of office as the manager of the Youth Theatre in Novi Sad and served as the operative director of the Sterijino Pozorje festival. How much did that experience help you in your work at the Serbian National Theatre?

Although the Youth Theatre is a much smaller and more specific theatre than the National, the time I spent there gave me some kind of indicator of how to reach good plays and satisfied audiences. Select good scripts and even better collaborators, dedicate yourself fully to your task, and that that is – creating plays. Everything in the theatre is secondary to that aim. A good play justifies all the effort exerted and money invested, and with them all the knowledge and creative potential, but also enthusiasm. Theatre must be loved in order for it to reciprocate with the same measure.

You’ve noted repeatedly that Serbia is the only country in the region, in Europe, that doesn’t have a Theatre Institute. Is that a serious shortcoming, but also an injustice committed against both the theatre and Sterijino Pozorje, as the biggest festival of domestic drama? Is something being done to address that issue or is everything left at the level of empty words and merely mentioning the need for such an institute?

Gathered around Sterijino Pozorje is a group of theatrologists, representatives of the Theatre Museum of Vojvodina, the Serbia National Theatre, the Faculty of Philosophy, Matica Srpska and Sterijino Pozorje itself, who have spent several years publishing a collection of works dedicated to domestic theatrology. Work is being undertaken to create the conditions to launch an Institute, where continuous studies would be conducted covering the history and theory of Serbian theatre, the most important writers and works, theatres and festivals.

Work is being undertaken to create the conditions to launch an Institute, where continuous studies would be conducted covering the history and theory of Serbian theatre, the most important writers and works, theatres and festivals

Praiseworthy activities have been implemented to revive the theatre’s publishing work. The Encyclopaedia of the Serbian National Theatre has finally been completed. Is there anything else that should be singled out among the theatre’s renewed publishing works and what plans do you have for the future?

Yes, the first volume of the Encyclopaedia will be released from the printers soon. We’ve published several monographs dedicated to our exceptional directors (Savin, Mijač, Majera) and a monograph dedicated to Radul Bošković, who spent 40 years designing the visual identity of the Serbian National Theatre, while a monograph on great opera singer Miroslav Čangalović was published recently. We published a monograph to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Serbian National Theatre Ballet. We also plan to publish a monograph dedicated to 75 years of the Serbian National Theatre Opera and, of course, to that which our Drama ensemble has done over the last 30 years. We are continuing to publish works from the history of our theatre and also plan to publish original plays that we commissioned and staged.

Is the current theatre model “outdated”, or do you think it should be improved and modernised while nurturing and preserving its positive aspects? Are you an advocate of the modern and traditional that ensures a theatre doesn’t lose sight of its fundamental mission?

Just when those theorising the death of the theatre announce that it’s done or on the brink of collapse, the theatre renews and resurrects itself, showing its authentic strength and indestructibility. Much can be changed and modernised, except for that essence, which lies in the relationship between the performer and the audience, in that live contact and exchange of energy. That relationship hasn’t changed for thousands of years. That is the meaning, but also the mission of the theatre: to convey emotions, passions, love, positive energy…

At the height of the novel coronavirus, in a world obsessed with caring for people’s health, the Serbian National Theatre showed that it thinks of its own audience, but also the audience of other countries. With the Italian conductor who led the orchestra, the director of the opera and Konstantin Blagojević, who composed the arrangement, you recorded our version of the famous song Bella ciao, as a sign of support for people around the world. With this deed, the Serbian National Theatre delighted the world. What did that feel like?

That gesture surprised everyone, both at the Serbian National Theatre and beyond. He is original and humane at the same time. That combination of resourceful and spirituality touched the entire world.

What do you think about the cultural scene in Serbia generally, and how would you assess the current situation at your theatre?

I wouldn’t want to generalise. I would only state my impression of what I know best, and that’s the theatre scene. There turned out to be great theatres beyond Belgrade, in Vojvodina, then in Šabac, Gračanica, Niš… Of course, there is also the Serbian National Theatre. We have excellent cooperation with all of them, as well as with Belgrade theatres (primarily the Belgrade Drama Theatre), and we aspire to maintain and spread the theatrical arts, in order for audiences across the country to be able to see what’s best on Serbian theatre stages. The current situation at our theatre, when it comes to art ensembles, is at its creative pinnacle: all ensembles are achieving maximum results, regardless of the conditions under which we work, aggravated by the novel Coronavirus. There is a higher goal, and that is the result of a show (drama, opera, ballet).

Which of your successes make you proud and what are your further plans, primarily with regard to the repertoire? Do you generally consider new projects?

I could list a lot. I’m proud of all three ensembles. The Drama ensemble has won dozens of awards at theatre festivals in Serbia and around the region, making notable appearances abroad.

I would remind readers only of the noted performance of our Drama ensemble with the play Bridge on the Drina at the international festival in Seoul, South Korea. Or the guest appearances of our Opera ensemble in China, and prior to that in Lebanon and Hungary. Ballet was disrupted by the Coronavirus, but it is awaited by a European tour with the great ballet spectacle Madame Butterfly. We will soon have the world premiere of Cross Opera in Modena (Italy). That is a Creative Europe project that we participate in with the one-act play Dream, by Jasmina Mitrušić. New projects are under preparation. By year’s end we’ll have several premieres in the Drama section and a major concert by the Opera Orchestra.

Do you manage to think about and plan for the future while burdened by the present? Or is it too early for that?

Each new day is the realisation of a planned future.

Author: Zorica Todorović Mirković, Photo: Branko Lučić

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