“Parallel Space for Reflection”: Interview with Zala Dobovšek

by Tjaša Bertoncelj*

Throughout its history, theatre for children and young audiences in Slovenia has been kept on the margins and treated only from the viewpoint of entertainment or pedagogy. It has always been marked by a lack of professional discourse and approaches, and thus a lack of theory and analysis. In the current Slovenian media landscape, journalistic theatre criticismis disappearing. Its value is marginalized and the space for it in published media is being vastly reduced. Needless to say, critics of children’s theatre are even more overlooked by the media.

This is causing the disappearance of the most important companion and record keeper of the productions of children’s theatre. The situation is even more problematic for independent, non-institutional creators. In the context of journalistic criticism, it remains a challenge for these forms of performance to make their presence felt. The (already reduced) space for reviews is primarily reserved for theatre for adult audiences, leaving little room for professionals who explore theatre for children and young audiences to publish and develop their work.

At the institutional and non-institutional level, plans are being established that seek solutions and show shifts in the quality and attention of the professional public. The Gleda(l)išče project[1] of the Slovenian Theatre Institute, for example, proceeding from the biennial festival of the performing arts for children and young audiences Zlata paličica[2] (Golden Stick), is based on the creative partnership between educational and cultural institutions as well as theatremakers.

In addition to embracing informal, creative approaches to increase knowledge about the theatre, the institute has established an online platform, also called Zlata paličica. An array of recommended performances is gathered in one place, selected by a three-member expert jury consisting of a theatre expert, a pedagogue and a developmental psychologist. The platform provides a systematic and continuous exploration of theatre institutions and artists from all over Slovenia, as well as quality theatre productions for youth.

The status of criticism also corresponds to the absence of a new generations of critics. Due to the precarious position of the profession, ever fewer young people are opting for it. Without the possibility of continuous practice, young writers, as Gregor Butala said at the Conference of Theatre Criticism in 2016, cannot possibly develop. Nevertheless, new writers are starting to participate in the field of theatre criticism. However, they rarely focus on evaluating productions for children and young audiences. The latter is also a consequence of the general incomprehension of this theatre industry and unawareness of its artistic and theatrical substance. The question of how to attract young people to such content and engage them in theatrology is therefore an important one.

Zala Dobovšek, mentor of the seminar SOC and the editor of the blog. Photo courtesy: Zala Dobovšek

Mala šola kritike (School of Criticism, hereafter referred to as SOC) is an informal seminar on criticism, which has been held since 2016 under the auspices of the Ljubljana Puppet Theatre, in cooperation with the Association of Theatre Critics and Researchers of Slovenia. It is intended to stimulate interest in puppet theatre among younger generations, to train young people in critical and reflective expression and, at the same time, to provide criticism of puppet theatre productions for young and adult readers. It focuses on puppet, youth and (post)dramatic performances in various theatres. Because of the parallels between youth theatre and puppet theatre (the largest producer of content for children and young audiences in Slovenia), special attention is paid to criticism of productions for children and young audiences.

The program is divided into a theoretical and a practical part. In the former, the participants get acquainted with the basic concepts and theories of criticism and various theatre fields. On a practical level, the seminar equips young people with the skills of reviewing and interpreting a theatrical work of art. After participants and their mentor attend performances and festivals, they discuss them and their creators. Participants then write individual critiques. These are published on the SOC blog: https://malasolakritike2016.wordpress.com/. By reflecting on actual performances, participants deepen their knowledge of the theoretical field, while developing an understanding of artistic contexts and strengthening their own analytical capabilities.

The mentor of the seminar and the editor of the blog is Zala Dobovšek, a dramaturg and critic, with whom we spoke about the seminar. She holds a PhD from the Academy of Theatre, Radio, Film and Television (AGRFT), where she is assistant professor of dramaturgy and performing art. Since 2005, she has worked as a theatre reviewer and critic, and her contributions are published in professional and daily magazines. She was a member of various expert juries and a programme selector.

Joint issue of The Journal for Puppetry Arts and Theatre of Animated Forms – Lutka and Maska – The Performing Arts Journal. Photo: Web

The practice of youth writing seminars on theatre for children and young audiences originated before SOC. One such example is the seminar of the contemporary performing arts Animirane forme (Animated Forms), which was co-organised by the Maska Institute and the Ljubljana Puppet Theatre. It was established at the 8th Biennial of Puppetry Artists of Slovenia in 2015. During all subsequent biennials in Maribor, you were the mentor of the seminar. What was the reasoning behind creating these seminars?

The primary reason for all such seminars is certainly greater recognition of puppet and object theatre, the so-called theatre of animated forms, in both contemporary and historical contexts. The presence of criticism does not only mean that a certain event is reflected upon, but also that it is at once inscribed into the history of performing arts.

Such records of theatre criticism represent an ongoing analysis, which will one day serve as an archival document. Decades ago, much more space was dedicated to the reflection and analysis of animated forms in the daily newspapers as well as in professional magazines. In the last decade, however, it has been reduced. Fortunately, we also possess digital media that offer plenty of space and freedom of expression. We must be careful with this freedom: critical reflections and analyses should remain professional and in-depth, regardless of the medium through which the publication is issued.

The seminars during the biennials in Maribor were created with the aim of marking the festival through various forms of contribution (critiques, interviews, podcasts) and to train participants with up-to-date writing.

At the same time, the festival format offers a broader context and a rich set of events that encourage contemplation of current creative tendencies. It also opens up debate on certain aesthetic or social interpretations.

The building of Ljubljana Puppet Theatre. Photo: Web

SOC has been active since 2016. How has your mentoring approach evolved over the years and what are your key insights?

I can say that the seminar was officially “formed” after 4 years. By this I mean that it has come into its own and that we perceive it as a little theatrical community.

At the very beginning, I did not have precise goals of what exactly we wanted to get from it, but it was clear to me that the seminar should be as inclusive as possible; which means that participants belonging to different generations and educational backgrounds could take part in it. Still, they have to show a fundamental interest in puppet theatre and all performing arts from the very beginning.

This interest is further developed both on a theoretical level (reading professional literature, other’s critiques) and on a practical level (intensively keeping up with current productions, writing critiques). The intertwining of theory and practice seems necessary to me, for they enrich and constantly question each other critically.

Perhaps the most essential realization after all these years (of this seminar and my other pedagogical activities) is that any in-depth education is a long-distance run and that it is always a web made of passion and discipline. This means that there can be many people who are knowledgeable but lack passion—and vice versa. Only a few have both—those are the ones that the theatre needs in all its fields: theoretical, pedagogical, practical . . .

The more we read and the more we see, the richer is the content we can store into our critical records. My key insights are also participants’ key insights: as a critic, you need a tremendous amount of writing, as well as all the necessary accompanying experiences in order to get closer to a sense of autonomy, quality, consideration, and even appreciation.

Participants of the critics’ and journalists’ seminar holding discussions on performances with artists. 10th Biennial of Puppetry Artists of Slovenia 2019. Photo: Boštjan Lah

Since participants come with different knowledge and skills—some have more of a theatrical background while others are more experienced in other humanities—how do you balance your approach?

What at first may seem exciting can turn out to be a trap—namely, everyone is invited to the seminar. It is attended by young people of various educational backgrounds (students of sociology, philosophy, dramaturgy, art students, and so on), but they are still united under the umbrella field of social sciences and humanities. Since I often associate the performing arts with other humanities, especially sociological paradigms, such a diverse cast is extremely welcome at the seminar. Different perspectives of perception, understanding and seeing of a work of art open up, even beyond purely aesthetic frameworks. But, in the end, it is still important that interest, regardless of the starting point, begins to be systematically directed to theatrology and its (direct or indirect) connection to criticism.

Media and methods of communication are rapidly changing. Information is becoming more and more condensed. Therefore, the space for criticism is shrinking, causing changes in both the form and content of criticism. How do young participants reshape criticism? Has the need for a different form of criticism been noticed?

In newspapers, the space for criticism is undoubtedly shrinking, in some it is even disappearing, while websites still offer a haven for longer discussions, in-depth critiques or problem analyses.

Today’s critiques are often marked by dialogue with wider society and its implications. At the same time, a performance analysis can already be an analysis of the current social situation—and because we live in a time that brings attention to the right to empower many minorities or marginal populations, individual performances are often evaluated through critical discursive analyses. The performing arts are often not (yet) aware that they are based on views that may have been left in the past, so despite their apparent modernity they can sometimes be anachronistic. In such cases, criticism can emerge as a great means of exposing problems and the community should be grateful for it, not outraged by it.

How does the criticism of SOC participants fit in with the criticism of professional critics? How does the professional theatrical public perceive such practices?

I believe that all of us who are professionally engaged in theatre fully understand what the purpose of various seminars or practical workshops is. These are different laboratories where research, learning, debate, invention, but also mistakes happen. SOC is not meant to be either an antidote to “official criticism” or its miniature, but as a kind of space for critical experiment and learning. Both the participants and the general public are aware of this. It is a parallel space for reflection.

After all, our critical records can also be found on the official websites of individual theatres or in their monthly leaflets. Artists are always grateful for responses and appreciate any relevant record of their work.

Participants of the critics’ and journalists’ seminar holding discussions on performances with artists. 10th Biennial of Puppetry Artists of Slovenia 2019. Photo: Boštjan Lah

With SOC, young writers get to know the apparatus of critical thought and research the professional treatment of theatre for young audiences. What are the results and consequences of SOC? Why do you find the seminar relevant?

No matter where I teach, I always strive for the idea that the word criticism is meant in its full and broader sense. Even more than a critique of a performance, it is about reading the art piece in all its means of expression. How does a certain performance, in addition to aesthetic elements, fit into a given space and time? That is why I never bother myself with thinking about how many young writers will become critics after the seminar.

For me, the most important thing is to broaden their horizons in the field of theatre as well as wider society, to instil in them the desire to think critically. I want them to be able to see certain patterns of our society and the world (whether they are positive or negative) through theatre performances. It is important that young people first observe, then understand and eventually incorporate those patterns into their thought processes.

At SOC, of course, critical notes are important, as they are an essential bridge between the mind and the word, between stances, perception and the ability to articulate them in the written word. Another important aspect is the discussions, which sometimes (seemingly) move away from the performance just witnessed; but this exact digression always happens with a purpose and as a logical leap, which then takes us back again and again to the source, to the event. This cycle seems very valuable to me and sparks the breadth of perception of both art and the world.

When we talk about criticism, we often refer to the issue of who theatre criticism is intended for. Who do you think the criticism of theatre for children and young audiences is intended for? What are the main specifics in criticizing theatre productions for children and young audiences?

Perhaps it is more relevant to ask to whom the criticism matters, rather than who the addressee is. And it is important for everyone involved—for the artists, the audience, the experts and, ultimately, the critics themselves. In the case of performances for children and young audiences, even more so for pedagogues and all those who, in the context of their cultural and artistic role, have a direct impact on primary and secondary school pupils and the choice of performances they watch.

As a critic, I have never made a distinction between writing critiques of performances for adults and for children and young audiences. All need to be approached equally, professionally and respectfully. The same applies to the creators. The makers of performances for children and young audiences should create performances on the same level as they would for adults.

Perhaps criticizing performances for children and young audiences is an even more sensitive field, because the author must always place themselves in at least two positions, or start from two points of view: the adult’s and the child’s; that is, the perspective of the target audience. This is not always easy, as it requires, in addition to theatrical knowledge, additional sensitivity, knowledge of psychology, educational principles and a general understanding of the child’s perception.

At the Academy of Theatre, Radio, Film and Television, you lecture in the field of dramaturgy and performance studies. How would you describe the state of education in the field of theatre criticism, especially that intended for young audiences? Do you think that theatre for children and young audiences is considered a minor subject for professional treatment?

I think that we have already successfully managed to eliminate this stereotype from the profession and the audience, but because it is quite hard to shake, it is actually necessary to work on it all the time. Making a really good children’s show is extremely demanding. If we also want it to appeal to an adult audience as well, the task is so much more difficult. And everyone should be aware of this, not just those of us who are directly involved in the practical aspect of creating performances.

Education of theatre criticism is present both at the institutional level (that is, as part of studies) as well as elsewhere, at various year-round workshops and seminars. However, writing criticism is a similar skill to, for example, playwriting, in the sense that in addition to a basic knowledge of the subject we must also have talent and, above all, some indescribable drive, which is the reason we see meaning or even necessity. Every piece of critical writing is different, unique. I do not think it’s necessary to mould students. Both plays and critiques can be “written by anyone” at first sight, but only a few will be successful, persistent, above-average, interesting and intriguing for both performers and readers. It requires the presence of a personal note that you put into the text as an author, and this “personal touch” cannot be learned or pedagogically transferred. Everyone must find or invent it for themselves. Independent of expertise and the love of theatre.

In what ways and practices do you think we could still address youth in order to be more engaged in theatre for young audiences, and in what ways could we encourage them to discover theatre in a theoretical way as well?

Well, the origins of the problem are probably multifaceted, so it is important that everybody strive for the idea that theatre for children and young audiences is necessary, interesting and an equal part of artistic production. We must all strive for this: critics, educators, creators, artistic directors, mentors. We all need to believe in the importance of this kind of theatre. Only then will it be able to meet its true potential.

In recent years, we have noticed a growing interest in youth performances in which young people actively participate as actors and contribute a fundamental share to the final product. The demand is huge, the auditions are numerous, young people definitely want to participate. When it comes to specific autobiographical or self-referential projects that take inspiration from their lives, they feel all the more engaged. These are certainly important production-artistic gestures, which in fact involve a whole spectrum of participants into new formats of performances, and thus also into new mutual relations. This is something new for all participants, both for young “non-professional” actors as well as for directors (and the rest of the cast) and finally the audience—young and old, who are undoubtedly faced with new approaches, challenges, perception and feelings.

SOC represents a good way of dealing with the lack of professional treatment of theatre for children and young audiences. It can represent both the first contact with a special branch of art that does not have a sufficiently recognizable image, as well as its deepening. By knowing the field and having a theatrically educated audience, the seminar participants contribute to the understanding of the value of performances for children and young audiences and at the same time establish it as a valuable subject of professional theatrical treatment, which is the basis for developing the creative field and its reflection. It repositions and establishes theatre for young audiences in the wider cultural space, as a worthy subject of discussion.

In addition, it also stresses the importance and value of theatre criticism, which at its core offers a dialogue with audiences and the ability to understand and think theatre for children and young audiences.

NOTE: Translated from Slovenian by Benjamin Zajc


[1] The name is a word play on Slovenian words gledališče (theatre), gleda (to look) and išče (to search).

[2] The festival is organised by the Ljubljana Puppet Theatre, in recent years in collaboration with the Slovenian Theatre Institute and cultural centre Cankarjev dom. 

*Tjaša Bertoncelj is a dramaturg, publicist and theatrologue, with an emphasis on puppetry arts. She holds an MA in the philosophy and sociology of culture. As a dramaturg, she has collaborated with established directors (Matija Solce and Tin Grabnar), moderated professional talks and round tables at festivals and published in various journals and publications. In the 2019/2020 season, she was employed as a dramaturg at the Ljubljana Puppet Theatre, during which time, in addition to her practical work on productions, she also edited several theatre magazines and was the co-editor of the trilingual professional magazine Lutka (2019).

Copyright © 2020 Tjaša Bertoncelj
Critical Stages/Scènes critiques e-ISSN: 2409-7411

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