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There’s an Array of Theatrical Talent on Display in Kosovo. So Why Won’t Its Government Support It Properly?

I spent a few days in October 2020 at Kosovo’s Theatre Showcase in Pristina, the country’s capital. The country is like a dog straining at its lead—eager to explore the world and make friends since it gained independence in 2008 after a costly war with Russian-influenced Serbia, but held back by five European Union (EU) member states whose refusal to recognize its independence means it is struggling to join the Union. Kosovo is also a small country, so, despite its long alliance with the United States, it keenly feels its vulnerability and aloneness on the world stage. Its ex-president, Hashim Thaçi, resigned on 5 November to face war crimes and crimes against humanity charges in the Hague for his time as a guerrilla leader during Kosovo’s fight for independence. The country is also tired of the perpetual stereotypes leveled against it, and where better to understand this, and the country’s blossoming journey to independence, than through its theatre sector, which, despite being beleaguered, is pushing boundaries and asking challenging questions?

But not being in the EU of course makes things like tours and cultural exchange harder and more costly to organize: Kosovar theatremakers, such as those I visited, struggle to bring in international artists to showcase work and face difficulties exporting their own productions (getting visas can be an issue). The country’s theatre sector exists in three strands: the independent sector, which finds funds privately or by applying for government funding; the city theatres, which are run and funded by local city councils; and Teatri Kombëtar, the country’s national theatre in Pristina, entirely controlled and funded by the state.

The existence of Kosovo’s independent theatre sector is precarious. The country has only one independent venue at Teatri ODA, located in Pristina. Independent theatre artists often find they have to collaborate internationally and make use of grants from Creative Europe or the European Cultural Foundation. There is a struggle for space; only recently Qendra Multimedia, the independent company run by playwright Jeton Neziraj and the organizers of the showcase, had to move in with Teatri ODA after losing their own office in Pristina’s city center because the municipality failed to accommodate their needs for a performing venue. This has put massive pressure on ODA’s already limited resources and performance space (which doubles as a rehearsal room).

exterior shot of teatri oda

Teatri ODA. Photo by verity healey.

On the other hand, the state-run theatre, Teatri Kombëtar, is over-subsidized so much so that tickets to see shows can be as little as one euro. This might make theatre more accessible, but it increases the theatre’s dependence on the government, whose Ministry of Culture controls its bank account and whose board, often made up of politicians and business people, has the final say on programming. Teatri Kombëtar also lacks an onsite bar or coffee shop—the way other theatres do, such as England’s National Theatre—preventing it from making extra revenue.

City theatres also struggle with quality and for funds. It is the law in Kosovo that the national and city theatres must employ an ensemble to produce repertory theatre. However, some small towns and cities, in such a small country as Kosovo, cannot find let alone financially support twenty or thirty professional actors. This can drive down the quality of the work. Some theatres, like Gjilan City Theatre in Gjilan, a city in the East, are being steered in the right direction by young, bright artistic directors such as Erson Zymberi, a theatre and film director. But it took several years of attempts before the city accepted Zymberi as its artistic director. Zymberi tells me he is making sweeping changes to how the theatre is run; one such change is to encourage public donations in an attempt to make it more independent.

On top of this, Kosovo’s government does not seem to understand or recognize the value that the theatrical arts brings to its society. Florent Mehmeti, a long-standing figure in Pristina’s artistic scene and the artistic director of Teatri ODA, tells me: “There is no cultural policy in Kosovo.” Which of course means, given all this strife and difficulty, that Kosovo’s independent theatre scene especially is thriving, if only minimally and if success can be measured on the basis of ideas, experimentation, and pushing theatrical boundaries alone.

Kosovo’s independent theatre scene especially is thriving, if only minimally and if success can be measured on the basis of ideas, experimentation, and pushing theatrical boundaries alone.

Blertha Neziraj at the Theatre Showcase

One artist, then, who could be deemed successful is female director Blertha Neziraj, whose three productions I saw at the showcase were all written by her husband, Jeton. Blertha makes work that demonstrates an interest in pushing theatre’s boundaries to the extreme. She does it, she tells me, not only to prove a point, often about state power and abuse, but to give a psychological sense of what it is like to suffer this abuse.

Her production of Jeton’s of In Five Seasons: An Enemy of the People—where Ibsen’s original about societal corruption is updated to modern post-war Pristina—is a good example of this. Based on the true circumstances surrounding the murder of urban planner Rexhep Luci, the architect here dies after opposing the corrupt and unsafe building schemes rushed into Pristina, covertly supported by a French official in the United Nations administration brought in after the war. Not only did people die in Pristina’s rebuild in the unsafe housing (at the expense of making local businessmen very rich), the city’s environmental and health concerns were also pushed to the side by international experts who were meant to protect the Kosovars.

In the middle of Blertha’s show there is a moment where a French United Nations official, who is working against the hero architect, urinates into a urinal that is placed center stage. The urinating is very loud and continues until the audience is startled into uneasy laughter. The moment goes beyond irritating to the painful and only then does it cease. “I want the audience to think that something is wrong,” says Blertha, “because it is, because they”—meaning the state and international administrations—“are not stopping abusing us.”

exterior shot of teatri kombetar

Teatri Kombetar. Photo by verity healey.

Jeton Neziraj at the Theatre Showcase

Jeton, on his end, is both successful as a well-known playwright abroad and a theatrical provocateur at home in Pristina. Yet in 2011 he was fired from his position as artistic director at Teatri Kombëtar because, he says, of his anti-nationalistic and critical stance. Since then he has put all his energies into independent theatremaking, exploring stereotypes and abuses of power on a global scale. Also a successful children’s playwright, Jeton is less interested in characters and feelings and follows a more continental tradition where he writes about ideas. He cites the change in heart back to his experiences during the Kosovar war, which invited him to see more colors and nuances and the humor in life, too. Certainly his plays are layered with irony and meaning, but similar to Blertha’s aesthetical style, they are also deeply uncomfortable and awkward to watch. Micro scenes compile into something metatheatrical, which are readily exploited by Blertha, who often directs.

Besides Enemy, A.Y.L.A.N and The Return of Karl May were the other two plays of Jeton’s that were part of the showcase. A.Y.L.A.N is a critique of the international response to the refugee crisis, a tragicomedy that pokes fun at how a small town so economically downtrodden and bored will fake the arrival of a dead refugee in the hopes of receiving European Union funding. The production uses the auditorium seats as if they are waves that refugees have to tumble over to get to the shore, which is the stage and where the audience sits. We feel it is us, the audience, who are in the spotlight; we can see ourselves in the manipulations of the townspeople, not the refugees. The show’s ending attempts to re-humanize Aylan Kurdi, the real-life young refugee, after the image of his death was exploited by the world’s media. In Blertha’s words it is “trying to right a wrong.”

Return, a co-production with the Volksbühne theatre in Berlin and that began as a joke at the artistic demands of the German company, is a parodic and comical critique on popular German author Karl May’s racist attitudes—his writings are full of clichés and stereotypes of Albanians and Balkan people in general. The play also attacks the hypocrisies of the European Union, where fascism is outlawed and yet still contrarily is allowed to exist. With all the tropes of a road movie, Return deftly dissects the controversy around Austrian playwright Peter Handke, who was awarded a Nobel Prize despite his support for Serbia and war criminal Slobodan Milošević during the war with Kosovo.

Blertha makes work that demonstrates an interest in pushing theatre’s boundaries to the extreme.

Other Works at the Theatre Showcase

The showcase was full of other works, too. These included Bertolt Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui produced by Teatri Kombëtar and in homage to its recently deceased director Bekim Lumi; an experimental dance piece called Let’s Go produced by the Albanian Dance Theater Company; and Natën, Ma, the Pulitzer Prize and World Theater award winner play by Marsha Norman from Metropol Theatre in Albania; a dystopian community play called Control and the Love Machine by Kosovo’s City Theatre Adrianna in Ferizaj; and a Roma play, “02.08.1944” written and directed by Edis Galushi from Prizren, Kosovo.

On top of these, there were a handful of shows that touched on a common theme, which is also common in Kosovo theatre: the exploitation of form. Mehmeti contributed two works of this sort to the showcase: Trails of the Underground 90s Culture (of Pristina), an audio walk that plays with memory, history, and space in real time and is, in Mehmeti’s words, an “intervention” and Refuge, a play he co-directed with Jessica Burr about Jewish refugees who were harbored by families in Albania and Kosovo during World War II.

an actor onstage

The Return of Karl May (Entertaining Play for the German People) by Jeton Neziraj. With: Ylber Bardhi, Adrian Morina, Arta Muçaj, Edona Reshitaj, Shpetim Selmani, Armend Smajli. Director: Blerta Neziraj. Costume Design: Sebastian Herlich. Choreography: Gjergj Prevazi. Composition: Gabriele Marangoni. Light Design: Mursel Bekteshi, YannPerregaux. Video Design: Ilir Gjocaj. Artistic collaborator: Alban Beqiraj. International Outreach: Maud Dinand. Coordination: Beqir Beqiri. Stage manager: Lendita Idrizi. Translation into English: Alexandra Channer. Translation into German: Zuzana Finger. Coproduction between Qendra Multimedia & National Theatre of Kosovo and Volksbühne Berlin. A Qendra Multimedia project, in cooperation with National Theatre of Kosovo.

Trails is an audio walk with a difference. Using hotspots and wifi signals, attendees are guided to certain locations across the city and listen to stories these places played in the country’s bloody journey to independence. But the piece also has some of Mehmeti’s personal history: we begin at his childhood flat, above one the biggest markets in town, and trawl through its tragic side streets and former dance clubs to a place where Mehmeti’s close friend, Adrianna (Ferizaj’s theatre is named after her), was killed during the nineties during the occupation by Serbian forces. Mehmeti, a young student in those days, says that merely walking through Pristina’s streets felt like occupying the corridors of power. His audio walk was something that came out of the very fabric of Pristina’s buildings and could not be done on stage.

I Am My Own Wife, an interactive play about Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, a transgender woman during Nazi and Stasi Germany, challenges Kosovars’ phobic attitudes towards transgender people and the LGBTQIA community. For its director/activist, Kushtrim Koliqi, theatre and activism go hand in hand. He says he was motivated to direct the play because in Kosovar society, it is okay for gay and transgender people to be onstage but not for them to be a part of real life. For him and for the star of the show, Adrian Morina, who suggested the play to him in the first place, presenting such a play brings these topics more into the audience’s social discourse; when I was in Kosovo, Morina was interviewed by an underground LGBTQIA magazine that felt emboldened by the play to contact him directly. Morina, who has an eclectic presence onstage and plays all thirty-plus characters in the show, says that the part of the Kosovar constitution about freedom and free speech has to be defended, and by doing the play so openly and challenging people, he is defending people’s right to be whoever they wish.

It is this kind of patriarchal oppression that the Serbian play Balava by Dunja Matić explores. The play features two generations of Serbian women struggling with generational differences and the fight for female emancipation—during the Kosovo conflict, a large number of Kosovar women were gang raped by Serbian forces. Balava was shown in the heart of a country that still struggles in its relations with ethnic Serbs, and Jeton, as curator of the showcase, felt it was important to bring a message of collaboration and hope to Kosovo. Like the others, Balava explores form to give voice to those whose opinions are less heard.

Kosovo is no Belarus or Russia, where artists are censored and risk their lives every day to make work, but it still controls its artists through bureaucratic means.

A Beleaguered Conference and a Missing Culture Minister

The showcase’s conference addressed many of the issues in the country’s theatre industry, including the state’s insistence on total control of its national theatre, the lack of options for students wanting to study theatre (there is only one university course), and the law that city and state theatres must have ensemble companies in residence, which Jeton tells me he is against because it means actors can’t choose the projects they want to work on or the directors they want to work with. The conference was attended by the deputy culture minister, Engelbert Zefaj, in place of the minister herself, Vlora Dumoshi, who pulled out at the very last moment.

On the one hand, Zefaj promised five million euros to help the beleaguered arts, sports, and youth sectors through the COVID-19 pandemic (he said the sports industries would benefit first and soon, though I was told it was promised months ago). The deputy minister, as part of a no doubt carefully prepared speech, also insisted the government should remain in full control of the country’s Teatri Kombëtar because “an individual on their own could not be trusted to look after it for the public good.” In response to this, Mehmeti angrily interjected that “theatre needs personalities.” There was no response from Zefaj on this. Consensus, I think we are all agreed, does not always make great theatre. The deputy culture minister, however, left after around twenty minutes of the discussion. (I contacted Dumoshi for comment several times but have received no response.)

Mehmeti exasperatedly told me that the Kosovar government is not corrupt, just too lazy to change how things are. He cites several visits from the UK journalist and cultural policy adviser Simon Mundy, who came after the war as a representative from the European Council to help kickstart a cultural policy for Kosovo. His ideas were welcomed by the government, but never acted upon, although this response could be attributed to a justified fear over foreign intervention...

four actors onstage

A.Y.L.A.N by Jeton Neziraj. Directed by Blerta Neziraj, Cast: Aurita Agushi, Ernest Zymberi, Kushtrim Qerimi, Tringa Hasani, Gani Rrahmani dhe Alban Shahiqi. Stage Design and Costumes: Mentor Berisha. Choreography: Gjergj Prevazi. Music: Tomor Kuci. Light Design: Yann Perregaux.

The Last Act

Jeton tells me that his success abroad as a playwright and the success of others such as Blertha, Mehmeti, and Koliqi means that Kosovo has actually benefitted on an international stage and that their government recognizes this. Yet whilst basking in reflected glory, the politicians don’t seem to realize they need to urgently invest in that talent at a grassroots level in an open, transparent, and accessible way if success is to continue.

Kosovo is no Belarus or Russia, where artists are censored and risk their lives every day to make work, but it still controls its artists through bureaucratic means. This has to be called out for what it is—laziness and incompetence—which is, in itself, a form of oppression. Kosovo’s theatre artists are doing what they can and should, given their difficult working conditions: recollecting worlds, reflecting them, imagining them anew, and challenging audiences to help them aspire to better societies. Their government needs to understand that it must lay the groundwork, invest in talent, and entrust the future of its great artistic potential to those who know best: the artists themselves.

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