If someone had told the theatre professionals in Serbia that conditions for their work today would be worse than during the rule of Slobodan Milosevic, they would all have laughed. It was a time of “undeclared” regional wars, of international sanctions on Serbia, of arbitrary removals of those in charge of cultural institutions, of street happenings taking place under the surveillance of heavily armed police and, in 1990, of matinee shows during the air bombardment of Serbia. Faced with such conditions, artists believed that things would improve once the isolation ended.
Furthermore, during the 1990s the theatre in Serbia experienced the hardships of the highest inflation in modern European history, of economic disaster and the rise of criminality. So, once Milosevic was gone, theatre was not high on the list of priorities of the new rulers. To tell the truth, most of the Belgrade theatres were renovated; but, strange as it may sound, that is where the care for theatre arts stopped. The new, democratic Serbia’s commitments to theatre turned out to be empty promises.
With the new populist government in Serbia today, there are no more promises, but there is work on destroying cultural life, in general, and theatre, in particular. With arts and culture marginalized in this ongoing global project, Serbian rulers do have an excuse to severely cut the budgets for theatre productions and to appoint as theatre managers individuals who are loyal to the party, but not qualified for the task in front of them. They employ those similar to themselves irrespective of quality and professionalism. The authorities want theatres to earn more money from tickets, to compensate for the cuts in public funding, totally indifferent to the fact that much of the new dramaturgy on the contemporary Serbian stage does not interest a large, popular contemporary audience.
It would be wrong to blame the present government for all the ills suffered by the theatre in Serbia. For decades, there has been a discussion in Serbia about the role and importance of culture and theatre in modern society, and how big a role the state should play in cultural life. The opinions were polarized between those who believed that cultural institutions should be turned over to market forces and those who believed in their total funding by the state. Nobody who was in charge cared to look around for some successful examples from other European countries or asked for advice.
As a result, theatre life in Serbia continues to be anarchic. There is no regulatory system and the position of the theatre, in all areas, such as financing and definition of work-related responsibilities, is in limbo. We have an absurd situation where it is not possible to employ young actors even when their colleagues from the ensemble retire or die. Another anomaly is that in ballet ensembles there are dancers who are over fifty years of age. In order to swim rather than die, theatre managers are forced to break laws on a daily basis.
Theatre in Serbia can be divided into three regions: Belgrade, Vojvodina, to the north of Belgrade, and so-called “Serbia-proper,“ which is south of Belgrade. Belgrade enjoys a higher living standard, has better infrastructure, and better educated, more numerous audiences and, historically, has had more public money to be shared among its theatres.
Vojvodina has long had a rich theatrical tradition, dating back to the time (before 1918) when it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. South of Belgrade, the situation is worse. However, due to the enthusiasm of its theatre managers, two theatres (both of which host regional theatre festivals) should be mentioned and praised: namely,the National Theatre in Uzice and the theatre in Sabac.
There are two small theatres in Vojvodina that are well managed and organized: Ujvidekiszinhaz from Novi Sad and Kosztolányi Dezső from Subotica. The first one has excellent actors and a courageous repertoire, while the second has as its leader an uncompromising director, Andraš Urban. Both theatres address a national Hungarian minority, so the focus of the authorities is not so much on them. The National Theatre in Sombor also has an impressive output, safeguarding its high standards, despite having a smaller number of productions due to budget cuts.
In spite of the lack of money, Belgrade theatres are quite stable. The Yugoslav Drama Theatre, for example, deserves acclaim. It is a member of the European Theatre Union, has a rich tradition, enjoys a significant international reputation and tours abroad and at home, almost always to full houses.
Atelje 212 is the theatre where the Belgrade International Theatre Festival (BITEF) was founded in 1967. It has brought to Belgrade the most significant theatre companies and personalities from all over the world, with the emphasis on “new theatrical tendencies.” For decades, Atelje 212 has been known as an avant-garde theatre. Today, it is profiled as theatre of comedy and mild social satire, which, together with a group of excellent actors, attracts big audiences. The National Theatre in Belgrade, which is generously financed by the state (rather than the municipal authorities in Belgrade), is also doing well at home and abroad.
Most of the Serbian theatres in the past had an average of four to six productions annually. Last year, some of the theatres did not have any new productions, or were limited to one or two, which did not always result in preserving quality. It is indicative that sometimes the number of productions is maintained by running inexpensive productions, with a small cast, hardly any scenery and costumes stored from previous productions.
There is less money for new productions and maintenance of the repertoire, for the engagement of actors from outside, or for repairing the scenery and costumes. Salaries for actors go from three hundred to six hundred euros per month. The average fee for directors for one production is five thousand euros. Stage designers get one third of the fee that directors get, while costume designers get one fourth. There are exceptions, but there are also instances when artists do not even ask for money. What they want is just to get the job. Writers get two or three thousand euros, some are paid five thousand, and in rare instances a sum of ten thousand has been paid.
Every year, there are more and more theatre professionals who get their degrees and enter the job market. There are three state academies in Belgrade, Novi Sad and Pristina (the latter is being moved from the largest city in Kosovo to Gracanica). There are also some private schools educating actors, writers and directors. Very few of them can get jobs in theatres. Some will get work in TV, mostly on low quality “soaps,” an experience that deeply affects their acting style (and not for the better).
Aside from the Belgrade Terazije Theatre, which specializes in musicals, it is hard to talk about commercial theatre in Serbia. A ticket for a theatre show in Belgrade costs around five euros, while, in smaller, towns it is even less; and, that is, not taking into account group and other discounts. If they were to charge more, the theatres would lose many loyal theatregoers, who are struggling on meagre income. Like everywhere else, some people among Serbian audiences come to the theatre to see their favorite TV actors on stage. Others seek more challenging productions, such as are offered by the regional festivals. The JDP and BITEF theatres are in a far better position. The former tries to attract audiences by making high budget art projects, while the latter, which has no permanent ensemble of actors, is constantly searching for new theatrical tools and aesthetics.
A line can be drawn between those theatres that attract viewers by quality, non-commercial productions (JDP, BITEF, Ujvidekiszinhaz, Deže Kostolanji, and, to some extent, Atelje 212, Serbian National Theatre of Novi Sad, National Theatre of Beograd, and the theatres in Uzice and Sabac) and those whose repertoire mostly consists of Serbian and world classics, as well as popular, contemporary plays.
Some young and relatively young directors are the most important indication that there is hope for Serbian theatre. They know what is going on in the international theatre circuit. They do not lack imagination or courage, whether they use classical means or post-dramatic approaches. The leading directors in this generation are: Miloš Lolić (who works in Germany and Austria), Anđelka Nikolić, Iva Milošević, Ana Tomović, Andraš Urban, Boris Liješević, Kokan Mladenović, Bojana Lazić, Vlatko Ilić, Milan Nešković, Mia Knežević and Igor Vuk Torbica. These directors have knowledge, energy and experience, and they are at home in Serbia or anywhere in Europe.
What is also encouraging is the appearance of a new generation of playwrights who affirm the post-dramatic approach. They are, simultaneously, funny and subversive, and they are highly critical of the negative social and political manifestations of the transition from post-Yugoslav situation to the current democracy in Serbia. Wise and talented young authors have achieved box office success by telling the truth about our times. The plays of Vuk Bošković, Olga Dimitrijević, Maja Pelević, Milena Bogavac, Biljana Srbljanović and Milena Marković are good examples.
The most important trend is the appearance of independent small, private theatres in Belgrade in abandoned warehouses, neglected backyards and cafes (I write here of Dorćolsko narodno pozorište, Dorćol plac, Le Studio, Garaža, Baraka, Kvaka 22, Zvezda and Reflektor teatar). The founders of these theatres are young, courageous enthusiasts, writers, dramaturgs, actors and directors, who lost patience while waiting for an opportunity in institutionalized theatres. Some of these theatres will vanish, some will remain and some new ones will appear. All of which contributes to the dynamics of theatre life in Belgrade, and, perhaps, wider Serbia. Such theatres present works by young writers. Productions are developed almost out of nothing and are addressed to young people. Often, they feel the need to draw on classical avant-gardists, such as Artaud and Grotowski, in order to try out something new. At other times, they try to survive by testing alternative organizational models.
Yugoslav Drama Theater (www.jdp.rs), Belgrade, Shakespeare, Hamlet, directed by Aleksandar Popovski
What is not encouraging is that the print media is reducing space devoted to culture, and what is left is mostly devoted to gossip and scandal. Critical dialogue is becoming extinct in Serbia today. There are two theatre magazines, Scena and Teatron, which appear sporadically and print a small number of copies. Ludus, a cheaply produced magazine, which was a labour of love for a few enthusiasts, seems to have finally gone, following numerous revivals.
Serbian National Theater (www.snp.org.rs), Novi Sad, Ivo Andrić, The Bridge Over The Drina, directed by Kokan Mladenović
The Sterijino Pozorje festival in Novi Sad, which presents Serbian drama, is a bastion of hope. It has better years, and not so good years, but it is a gathering point for young and old professionals of Serbian theatre. It also has guests from abroad. Every year, at the end of May, they gather in Novi Sad to compete, complain, socialize and plan for the future. Sterijino Pozorje has its own publishing house and archive. At some point in the future, it may become a theatre institute.
*Aleksandar Milosavljević is theatre critic for many magazines and newspapers, Art Director of respectable local theatre festivals, publisher of the National Theatre Nepszinhaz Subotica and the Serbian Museum of Theatre in Belgrade, artistic Director of the Serbian National Theatre in Novi Sad and Board member of the Association of Theatre Critics and Theatrologists of Serbia.