Interviewed by Nelko Nelkovski
Srdjan Janićijević (born in 1970) is a Macedonian theatre director from the middle generation who, with his fresh way of thinking and his innovative approaches, plays an important role in late postmodern theatre in the Republic of Macedonia.
To understand the breadth and the versatility of his work, the following roundup breaks down his creative contributions to recent major productions:
2011 — Scheherazade: A Black Comedy in 1001 Minutes — Writer, Director, Set Design & Video
2010 — Don’t You Faust Me — Writer, Director, Video & Set Design
2008 — Dracula by Dejan Murkowski — Director, Set Design & Co-composer with Pogan Pagan
2005 — Cupidona: Punk Opera — Writer, Director & Composer
2004 — The People Next Door by Henry Adam foe the Albanian Theatre in Skopje — Director & Video
2001 — Pavilions by Milena Markova — Translator & Director
1999 — Shopping & F*** by Mark Ravenhill for the Macedonian National Theatre in Skopje — Translator & Director
1993 — Pea Grain and the Princess, a puppet performance — Director
Videos of Janićijević’s directing work can be viewed on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/srgian.
As a child, Janićijević began his education in Skopje, where he attended what was at the time the only state-owned institution, the Faculty of Dramatic Arts of Ss. Ciryle and Methodius University, where he took classes in intermedial directing (which includes theatre, film, television and radio). He showed a special interest in painting in high school and studied the fine arts for two years.
Janićijević’s interests are many, and he has since become an important representative of recent Macedonian art scene. Janićijević is a fixture in the music scene as the composer and band leader of Pogan Pagan. Working in film and television, he creates original cartoons that reflect his sense of adventure and fresh spirit; those cartoons can be viewed online at http://srgian.w.com.mk/. Recently Janićijević has recently turned his attention to writing plays, and he regularly writes for films, commercials, campaigns and other events.
Still, Janićijević’s primary artistic activity is directing. The wide-ranging aspects he has displayed in various fields of artistic endeavors form part of a signature, a language and a habit. His presences in Macedonia’s particularly bright contemporary art scene, music scene and theatre scene mark him as one of the most important theatrical directors of our time.
In the following interview, Srdjan Janićijević responded to a wide range of issues. His views, attitudes and approaches accurately describe the current theatrical moment in the Republic Macedonia. And it is from this perspective that he builds an extremely interesting and authentic theatrical language.
1. In your country / city, is there a problem (e.g. contemporary social problem) artists fail or neglect to show on the scene? Why? Whether this is due to censorship, or is it a blind spot in the common perception of the world community – and community-conscious or consciously avoided it?
Macedonia has long been a fairly closed boundary, politically (the European Union’s so-called Schengen wall) and economically. Its isolation has confined its citizens in a fairly small space, and occasionally tendencies of self-isolation appear as a counter-reaction to this situation. The modern world suffocates in its own political, economic and ethical absurdities, like a fish quivering on dry soil, and we, Balkans, enter this modern world with a rather reluctant spirit, exhausted from our own (Balkan) problems, and with a different mindset.
This leads to the self-isolation. We suddenly woke up out of our nightmares to enter another nightmarish reality. This makes us a little autistic toward the global zeitgeist. It is a pretty unhealthy environment for any attempt of vital art. On the one hand, we frequently see so-called “art” maintained by local political principles still contaminated with “Balkan mindset.” But this “art” which massively occupies the cultural scene is nothing more than a clumsy and vulgarly assembled political pamphlet. This “art” leaves a narrow space for critical and independent viewpoints on real problems. On the other hand, there exist fully autistic forms of “dead” art, which essentially nobody touches. Of course, there are wonderful exceptions to this, but unfortunately they have proven to be either too late or short-lived. Frequently I wonder why most of my performances, even though they are popular, have been taken off the repertoire. Perhaps the answer lies here somewhere.
2. What is difficult or complicated for you in communicating with the designers/actors/ playwrights/directors? And why?
I believe in synergy, a theatre that lives and breathes like a rock ‘n’ roll band. The energy, passion, intellect and diversity of each member of my team are very important for the vibrancy of my performances. Therefore, with the artistic and technical part of the team for most of my projects, I rarely have a problem. I have had creative and aesthetic differences at certain moments with various individuals, but for me they all are part of that synergy.
The general problem is always the production. Normally it needs funds, and funds are not easily obtained, especially if the projects greatly differ from the norm in terms of aesthetics and from an ethical standpoint. My performances have no problem with audience attendance. There are audiences who are eager for a different theatre attitude. That in itself should facilitate my production — but it doesn’t happen. Instead, too often, when I finish the project and the performance has its premiere, those who ought to be the most responsible for the production’s life after its opening relate entirely contrary to the logic of production — they show no interest in managing it. This attitude is probably a leftover of the extensive transition of Macedonian society. I do not think our government takes modest actions for culture, on the contrary, but there is a problem with the management of those cultural assets. So the answer is: I have very complicated communication with producers or managers, because routinely they are unconcerned with their own productions, which I find very odd.
How early and how often do you exchange thoughts with them for your next show?
It depends. I’m a director who attends almost all my performances after the opening night. Normally it binds me more with the team, but sometimes I’m very selfish in a way of keeping ideas for future projects. I do not want to burden anyone with my own possible plans for something that I did not exploit entirely. But even when my theatrical ideas are full-blown, I want sometimes to live alone and self-seeking within that world.
Have you worked a designer of your performance yourself and if so, does it facilitate the preparation of the play?
I am rarely interested in realistic set-design. It is a part of the whole concept and context that bring the performances I work on to a deeper aesthetic and essential intensity. For me, the stage is also an actor, a partner of the actors. I see the set-design as a part of the game where space plays along with the actors; it is not just a space where actors perform in. In the last three projects I worked alone on the set-design. It is very handy for the production, because in the very early phase of staging the performance you know the space you have to occupy.
In most other cases, however, you are limited to what someone else can bring as a part of the team, as a bright idea. Without a set designer you’re restricting yourself from opening perspectives you would not have noticed. And this affects the work not only from a design point of view, but on a level that might be more essential, more captivating, for the perception and potency of a performance.
Please briefly describe your directing method.
Lately I insist on not having one. I try to work so that my method is informed or created by the project I am working on. The methods of the last three performances I did were completely different, for example. In the first one (Dracula: Philosophic Pornby Dejan Dukovski), instead of first offering an explanation to the actors, I presented them with an entirely surrealistic video art. In the second project (Don‘t You Faust Me), the method I used closely followed the so-called “school rules and with artisan approach” way; as a result, the actors made fun of me, because it’s not what they had expected of me as a working method. In the third production (Scheherazade: A Black Comedy in 1001 Minutes), I worked with actors at the desk for an extremely long time; I’ve never worked so long at desk; we were endlessly rechecking and exploring the context, and the subtext of the lines of dialogue — and I was the person who wrote that play! I could not believe it myself. Why was I was doing that? But this approach was extremely precious for the performance and for me as an experience. So as my actor enter into a new role, I try to enter with a new working method for the next performance.
How do you see the director within the context of late post-modern theatre? What are a director’s place, meaning and function in this new context?
I have a degree in directing. But I’ve worked on many different theatre and non-theatre projects not only as a director. Usually we don’t see directors on stage as actors. But I have appeared as an actor playing main roles in several performances and movies. That was an enormous help for my work as a director. I’ve directed three performances which were I wrote. I’ve worked on set design, as stated above. I’ve directed and animated short movies just for fun. I had a photographic exhibition. I’ve been designing for more than four years theatre posters, and so on and on…
So the question you are asking is fairly complicated for me, because I have seen the signature of major directors in certain conceptual artists, as well as of painters in those who are considered “professional” theatre directors. A concert of “The Residents” was one of my deepest theatre experiences, no less than a Robert Wilson’s performance. I cannot give you a correct answer. It is like asking, What is a painter today? A composer? I’ve seen painters in the works of those who are considered professional theatre directors. I cannot give you a precise answer. For me, Michel Houellebecq (after reading his last book) is right now the biggest visual artist of the 21st century (I see him as a painter, an installation artists, a conceptual artist), and yet, he is a literary writer (he is one of the greatest contemporary authors) — who, on the other hand, directed the stupidest film in the world. Finally, this question is only important when I sign the contract for a fee, and for the Internal Revenue Service.
Describe briefly the process of choosing the topic/play/work, and the process of preparation from the first idea to the first performance?
Probably my works chose me. Some things smolder in me for years, but I have not been mature enough for them. Until the first rehearsal, I am not a very systematic person. I think that each process should be completely different from any other until then. What would be the point otherwise? I do not work the same performance.
How much does working with a permanent team affect the quality of the future scenic art?
It depends. Normally, it’s a nice and pleasant feeling when you’re in a familiar environment. Sometimes, this leads to remarkable solutions, and after that you should stop. When you feel like you are at the peak of the cooperation with this team, you should put at ease of one another. Make love with others. After a certain period of time, you can collaborate again but free of the common dust.
What is essential for the success of a theatre director?
It depends on what you mean by success. For me it is sincerity (being ingenuously truthful, straightforward, and accurate). This may sound clichéd, but, believe me, it is very difficult as a director to execute that onstage. There are many conductors, half-conductors and insulators who block your way to address directly. What does the director work with? What is the organ (όργανον) or instrument he works with? It so happened that today I had a press conference marking the 200th performance of my first show The Pea Grain and the Princess, which opened 18 years ago and which is for children. [Author’s Note: In the Republic of Macedonia, a country with two million inhabitants, few plays have had this many performances.] On the same day, I opened a new show, Don’t You Faust Me, my nihilistic version of Faustfilled with deconstruction of all our myths and decadence. A journalist asked me how it is possible to work on so many different plays. My answer was the same. I have managed for a good part of my plays to present something with full clarity, directness and honesty of thought and emotion — to bare everything on stage and allow the audience to see it clearly. That, to me is success. I have seen many “good” performances that did not mean anything or that did not say something. You simply leave empty.
3. In your creative process, which part do you enjoy least? Why? How do you deal with it?
When I have to reconcile the different rhythms and beats of the work with the crew. As I mature more as an artist, I see that my work is actually about the enchantment of directing — to manage the creation of a composition with a different rhythm and beat so that it sounds as a composition, and not as an unpleasant noise. The noise in the theatre should be composed or directed.
4. During your career, have you ever gotten a particular insightful part of the criticism? When and what was that? What was it that made that an especially important critique for you?
That’s funny. I’ve read various reviews, with complete theatre illiteracy. For example: The Liberation of Skopje by Dushan Jovanovic, which is considered now as one of the masterpieces of former Yugoslavia playwrights, was evaluated by the theatrically educated critic reviewer as a “properly written play.” But I have seen some journalists whose task was only to provide information about the performance, and yet I was surprised by the extremely precise and substantial nature of the critical thinking in their articles. Sometimes I don’t want to rationally label my obsession about certain phenomenon in my performances. I just want to leave it with some surreal affection. But these journalists have managed to define very accurately what’s behind that surrealism. I find this relationship very ardent.
5. How would you rate the development of the theatre in Macedonia since its independence till today?
I think it had a very strong momentum in the 1990s of the last century, which later slackened. I would like to avoid the impression that the strong artistic energy in the 1990s has disappeared with the ethnic conflict in Macedonia in 2001 between the Albanians and the Macedonians, but I can’t. Since then, it was as if suddenly the gates were opened for kitsch to come in. All the criteria were knocked down and became extremely low. The whole energy was drained in a blink of an eye.
6. How do you see the level and development of theatre in the Balkans?
Honestly, I think it is far less advanced than it was before. The ex-Yugoslavian theatre has a cult status — for good reason, given everything that has happened.
7. What is your current occupation and what are you working on?
Lately I’ve been writing plays. I plan on writing more, because I feel such a need for it. It just happens that, over the last few years, I have started to feel an attack from different worlds and universes, from which I seek to be liberated.
8. Can the theatre change the world?
Can the world change the theatre?
 Nelko Nelkovski (born in 1970) has an M.A. in theatre studies. He is a theatre director, critic, writer, musicians and Secretary for International Cooperation at the Macedonian National Theatre. He serves as President of the Theatre Youth of Macedonia, the IATC Center for the Republic of Macedonia. Theatre Youth of Macedonia is a Macedonian center for such international organizations as ASSITEJ, AITA/IATA, IATU, AMATEO and IDEA. Nelkovski is a doctoral student of theatre students at the Institute for Sociological Political and Juridical Research in Skopje, where he is working on his doctoral dissertation “Theatrical football, a comparative method for treating mutual catharsis phenomena of “theatre” and “football.” He is chief editor of the newspaper and electronic portal www.teatar.com.mk. He writes and publishes plays, essays, theatre analysis, poetry and fiction. He has directed 25 plays, five television series and more than 300 hours of television programs. An active member of numerous international theatrical organizations and associations, he has participated in more than 80 international congresses, conferences, symposia and festivals in the world. His website is www.nelko.mk.