New Voices in Croatian Drama (a follow-up)

For those avid readers of the Segal Center blog, my apologies for not following up until today on the New Voices in Croatian Drama event that took place on May 13. End of the semester madness led to some delays.

If you didn’t know anything about contemporary Croatian theatre and its place within the broader framework of European theatre, the evening would certainly have been educational. Jasen Boko started the night out with a brief lecture—PowerPoint presentation—on Croatian and European theatre from before the fall of the Berlin Wall through to the twenty-first century. The presentation was very straightforward and served to position the Croatian theatre tradition in relationship to some recognizable milestones in European history.

The focus of the evening, however, was on the work of two Croatian playwrights: Ivana Sajko and Tena Stivicic. Both Sajko and Stivicic are being identified with a current wave of new Croatian playwriting, which is having a significant impact on European theatre. As Boko pointed out, Croatia has had a rich history of successful actors and directors, but its playwrights have been notoriously under-recognized–until now. It seems this current generation of writers (who seem to be in their late twenties and thirties) is making its mark.

By watching segments of Sajko’s and Stivicic’s work—first through staged readings by American actors and then in video clips from Croatian productions—it was clear the women are advancing very different theatre aesthetics. Sajko works more in a performance art tradition. She discussed how she regularly performs her own work, which seems to involve a lot of direct address to the audience and a resistance to representation. Stivicic’s projects involve larger casts and apparently more traditional narrative structure (though this is hard to confirm given the limited amount of material I was able to see). The differences between the two playwrights’ work reveals the diversity of contemporary Croatian theatre.

The most interesting part of the evening for me, however, was a single thread of conversation that emerged during the Q&A with the audience. It centered on questions of how and why a specifically Croatian playwright needs to be identified. What does it actually mean to be a Croatian playwright? Are the issues that are being dealt with in the plays by these artists particular to the social and political questions of a twenty-first-century Croatia? To the last question, the playwrights answered rather quickly—no. In fact, both women asserted that they are concerned with more “universal” issues that can be accessed by audiences regardless of their national identities. (Of course, the word “universal” creates so many problems, which I don’t want to open up here.) What was revealed, however, was a palpable resistance by both Sajko and Stivicic to the notion that they are working consciously from a Croatian perspective. What is even more interesting is that Stivicic currently lives in England and Sajko regularly travels outside of Croatia for significant periods of time to work. Both women took great pride in their broader European identity.

I am in no way criticizing the women or the event for the fact there exists this contradiction. In fact, instead of it being a criticism, I think it’s a fascinating reality. Those of you working in post-national theory would certainly be able to shed more light on this.

I left the evening thinking that perhaps it is necessary to re-imagine how to approach international theatre programming, such as this. What does it mean to advance a nation’s artists when those artists feel more like citizens of a continent or the world at large? What are the advantages of continuing to view international theatre in accordance with national boundaries? This same question persists inside theatre history classrooms, as well. How should we organize world theatre history courses to attend to a view of global theatre that does not rest on national borders? Who will write the textbooks that can facilitate this kind of work? Given the Segal Center’s commitment to bridging the worlds of academia and theatre practice, it seems an appropriate and exciting place to start engaging such questions.

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