by Tina Peric*
The Festival of International Student Theatre (FIST) is organized by students of The Department for Management and Production in Theatre, Radio and Culture at the Faculty of Dramatic Arts in Belgrade, Serbia. In fact, it is actually part of the curriculum of the final year of their degree. The Festival is a unique opportunity for the students to gain practical knowledge and experience, and to encounter new tendencies in the professional field. Each year, the festival gathers together approximately 200 participants and over 3,000 visitors.
With a year of groundwork behind it, the 15th edition of FIST was scheduled to open on March 14. However, only a week before the opening, the world as we know it began to collapse. There have been many different responses to the COVID-19 pandemic in the field of theatre and performing arts within Serbia. Whilst live events were (and still are) cancelled or postponed, significant numbers of artists and arts organizations moved to the virtual space. These artists have created a dense and diverse agenda that has included productions streamed online and a number of newborn online training projects and workshops for performers. Despite all this new, online activity, the case of Belgrade’s student festival is worth examining; not least due to the swiftness and ingenuity of it adjustments to the new situation, and on account of several interesting phenomena that have emerged from its response to the crisis. In the following interview, we discuss FIST’s reaction to the COVID-19 outbreak in Serbia with Jovana Karaulić, Teacher Assistant at the Belgrade Drama Faculty, who, as a student supervisor, was leading theatre students through this demanding and adventurous experience.
When did you realize the festival could not take place in its usual format? How did the students react to the change and what arguments prevailed in taking the decision to move the festival in a completely new direction?
As the crisis was developing, and the situation in Italy was already dramatic, our country was yet to come forward with any guidelines. However, eight days before the festival, we started getting emails from some of the theatre troupes about their flights being delayed. That is when we realized it was likely to happen with the rest of the flights, and the situation would soon be out of our control. However, at the time, none of the other cultural festivals or institutions in Serbia had cancelled their programmes.
Personally, I thought cancelling the festival would be quite problematic: for us, this festival is not only a complex cultural industry project but, above all, a practical training tool. It would mean that students were supposed to just shrug and go back home after a year of thorough work and give in to the depression of an unfinished job. Yet, taking the risk of continuing with the normal programme was in no way the responsible thing to do. So, we decided to go with plan B: a crisis management exercise, instead of a simple cancellation.
The crucial moment for a learning process at a time like this was asking ourselves: what values are we promoting with this festival? How would we, as responsible people or responsible producers, cope with even one of the students getting infected?
The content we created from that moment on shows a distinct direction towards the values we believed vital, which were solidarity and responsibility towards the community. At that point, the message and the meaning became more important than its format.
You managed to transform a challenging situation into a fertile new experience. What were the practical steps to be taken?
As a mentor, I tried to present the students with a perspective that now was the time for crisis management training. Although Serbia has had its fair share of crises [in recent decades], more than the rest of Europe has, it is not every day that you have to transform your project completely and create a plan B. When we had to make the decision, we were literally working day in and day out on what this back-up plan would be, if it came to that. As it developed, the students were convinced that, in terms of their values, it was the only possible plan. This made us, their professors, very proud.
We decided to live stream the main programme on YouTube by having the companies perform at their schools, and the two FIST productions were performed in theatres in Belgrade as planned. However, two days after we made that decision, the government issued a ban on public gatherings of over 100 people. After that, things were changing, not only on a daily basis, but hourly.
After a state of emergency had been declared, we moved the festival entirely to an online format. When the faculty building was closed down, the festival’s main programme director and the festival curator took over the equipment, broadcasting the programme from home. Consequently, we were efficient and prepared technically. We were fortunate to always be one step ahead of the formal measures as they were announced.
Interestingly, by the end of that week, all premieres and cultural events were cancelled. This made FIST the only cultural programme that was continuing at that time. Surprisingly, there was, suddenly, a media buzz around us, as we became the number one (indeed, the only) theatre event.
By going digital, the festival changed not only its format, but also its character: a locally-oriented festival became a global event, with significant international visibility
Exactly. It was a whole new experience for all of us. Before, the students were dealing with an international festival in a local context. However, in this case, through academic networking and with the help of partner schools, audiences from all of the companies’ countries of origin came together to form a new, strongly united, virtual auditorium. Almost all broadcast performances had their international audience. YouTube analytics show that they were not just students. Viewers were tuning in from countries that did not even take part in the festival, which further motivated us to think of a global concept. Interestingly enough, we had sent an announcement about our work process to relevant networks such as IFTR (International Federation for Theatre Research) and EFA (European Festivals Association), and they published it on their platforms. This meant that we were suddenly doing something meaningful on a larger scale, in the global theatre context.
How did the new digital format affect the audience numbers?
Usually, FIST has no issue with audience attendance, being one of the most significant events for young people in Belgrade during that time of year. Our venues are always full, and the shows are performed in the most notable Belgrade theatres. But this time, there was a complete shift of perspective.
As everything was online, we received a remarkable amount of support from all around the world. Our Instagram follower count doubled, with often more than 100 mentions a day, and with more than 2,000 people views per show on YouTube, and at least 300 watching it from the beginning until the end.
If we take the example of one of the panels, before the festival there was a warm-up period, during which we organized a series of panel discussions. These had a great turnout; there would be 50 people in a room, with no free seats left. However, when we moved to the online FIST Society events, we had a panel with over 800 viewers who were there from beginning to end, which is a fascinating statistic. The reach that this kind of event can achieve in a digital environment definitively shows that there is a need, not only to redefine the format of side programmes, but also to rethink the future of festivals in general.
Do you think that, in light of the new global conditions, traditional performance events run the risk of being absorbed into different kinds of online presentations? Do you personally believe that a live event experience can be substituted by one in the virtual space?
Throughout its history, theatre has always faced challenges, and it always found a way to overcome them. I am confident it will do so again. I strongly believe in theatre and new tech coming together; I am a member of the Interactive Arts Laboratory at the Faculty of Dramatic Arts, where we do a lot of experimental work with that idea in mind. However, that is not the case here, and I do not think this kind of online theatre can replace the one we experience through the physical co-existence of audience and performers.
As to FIST, what was important for me as a mentor, and even more so for the students, was a clear understanding of the possibilities of live theatre and, comparatively, this specific online edition, which has a meaningful message, given the social moment, in which theatre and its infrastructure serve as a statement.
It is obvious that there is no performer-audience exchange in a digital environment, at least not the kind Erika Fischer-Lichte writes about. However, a different sort of community forms through online exchange; while watching the YouTube stream, you could join a chat room, in which students from all over the world could meet and interact and then send clapping hands emojis at the end of the show. What is more, the authors of the performances also participated in the chat; so, along with the prerecorded Q&A, the audience could talk to the directors in real-time. However, despite all the potentially positive novelties, I still think real theatre only happens in theatre venues, and that is not changing any time soon, or maybe ever.
To bring this very illuminating conversation to an end, the only show of the festival that was actually semi-live streamed was The End of the World as We Know It (TEOTWAWKI). Can you tell us something about the performance and the way in which the streaming was carried out?
The show is a progressive, immersive production from a Zürich- based school, and it is about preparing for the end of the world. So, even before the pandemic, it was already appropriate to the new format the festival adopted. When we changed to an online format, they agreed to do the piece via live stream. However, it turned out that their school building would be closing on the day that their performance was due, and they were called over to collect their things. Consequently, they performed while other students were packing up; they adapted their work for this peculiar occasion.
The original piece deals with the end of the world in a different way, but this rendition also touched on the current moment and the COVID-19 pandemic. FIST’s jury crowned TEOTWAWKI with the best performance award.
*Tina Perić has an MA in Art Theory, and a PhD in Performance Studies. She is an active researcher in performance theory as well as in performance practice, and a free-lance critic for Serbian newspapers and magazines. She is the author of a book The Way of Performer: From I to Self (Sterijino Pozorje, 2019); she publishes essays and critical articles in the areas of culture and performing arts. She is actively taking part in various projects and workshops as performer.