Collaborative Performing? The Contested Nature of Theater in Belgrade

Serbian National Theater | Photo: Sarah Edwards

By Sarah Edwards
SIT Spring 2016
Whitman College |

During my interviews and conversations with people in the theater community, I found this unexpected tension between alternative and institutional forms of theater and the accompanying forms of collaboration. This tension expressed itself in numerous ways, but it was best highlighted by certain controversies surrounding “Romeo and Juliet.” The play’s director, Miki Manojlovic, is a regionally famous actor and director, and thus had a broad platform to garner support for his efforts to produce this controversial Serbian-Albanian production.

Manojlovic brought in both Serbian and Albanian actors to work on the play, yet the way he approached that dynamic between the two during the rehearsal process is contested. Some individuals pointed to the fact that a few actors left during the making of the production as proof that the collaborative process was all a sham, while others swore by the camaraderie that developed during rehearsals. I was flooded with conflicting information from all sides, making my task as a researcher that much more difficult. I wanted to make sure I was accurately representing the productions, yet if “Romeo and Juliet” had these underlying tensions those were aspects of the production that deserved to be explored further with a critical lens.

Yugoslav Drama Theater | Photo: Sarah Edwards
Yugoslav Drama Theater | Photo: Sarah Edwards

As an individual, I don’t think I ever came to a solid conclusion on this issue. As a researcher, these differing opinions sparked my interest and helped me delve further into the political dimensions of performance in a more general way. Thus I was able to still give credence to a number of opinions, while maintaining my own thoughts as a researcher within the community. There will always be tensions between institutional and alternative forms of culture, arts, politics, etc., but I discovered that it is more about exploring the different aspects of both rather than prioritizing one over the other.

Alternative theaters such as the Center for Cultural Decontamination are spaces where provocative productions can be staged and critically engaged with by members of the community. More institutional forms, such as The National Theater in Belgrade, are more likely to draw somewhat of a different audience based on its more politically and artistically neutral repertoire. And yet, while the politics of the space are important, there are so many other dimensions – such as these tensions in the collaborative process – that allow us to move beyond the surface level and ask questions that may never have a solid answer. In my research, I struggled with the underlying question of artistic responsibility in the community and what that should look like within this particular societal context. The artistic choice to address these tensions or sideline them for a larger purpose was thus all part of understanding how culture informs the political and social climate.

Center for Cultural Decontamination | Photo: Sarah Edwards
Center for Cultural Decontamination | Photo: Sarah Edwards

Exploring this responsibility and creative space for questioning became an integral part of my research. More and more I have come to realize that these sorts of productions originate from a need to break the silence – any silence. Looking back at the people I spoke with, it’s apparent that they all work diligently to not only create space, but to keep it intact. Nonetheless, theater is functioning on many different levels in Belgrade even though some do not work in the most ideal locations. When you are confronted by the overwhelming realities of society it almost becomes a necessity to create and fight for this recognition of space.

Unfortunately many don’t give theater enough credence. For some, theater is just a form of entertainment with escapism elements: it’s entertainment, it’s fleeting, it’s unnecessary. But I beg to differ. I have found that even this need to escape is a political act in itself. It means that just for a moment you recede from societal demands and expectations, taking a moment to simply “be”. It’s a necessary breath, a space that provides endless amounts of inspiration to draw from.

Over time what became clear to me was that although different forms of space exist on numerous levels, in reality they are never mutually exclusive. Thus, whether a theater is an alternative or institutional space is less important than the way in which you engage with it. Art and culture provide this opportunity to engage, making those who seek to maintain the status quo nervous because ultimately space, and the way we interact with it, is dangerous.