Slovenia’s Mladinsko Theatre: ‘We’ve had a lot of protests’
Slovenia’s Mladinsko Theatre exists on the periphery in more ways than one. As Goran Injac, artistic director for the past two years, explains: “As a former youth theatre, it was never the focus of Yugoslav censorship.” But its location also emphasises its apartness. It is literally on the wrong side of the tracks – to reach it from Ljubljana’s immaculate Old Town, you have to walk through an underpass and cross a scrubby car park. As the theatre’s managing director Tibor Mihelic Syed puts it more bluntly: “If we do something stupid out here, maybe no one will notice.”
The Mladinsko Theatre was founded in 1955 by Balbina Baranovic as the first professional children’s and youth theatre in Slovenia. But while retaining the name – ‘mladinsko’ means ‘youth’ – its identity shifted during the late 1970s and 1980s, when the theatre began to create work for an adult audience. After the legendary Yugoslav director Ljubisa Ristic became associated with the theatre in the 1980s, it gained an international reputation, and became an exporter of what Injac calls “the theatre of Yugoslav culture”.
When Slovenia gained independence in 1991, things changed again. “Mladinsko became a small theatre in a small country,” says Injac. Though it has a rich experimental theatre scene, Slovenia is a country of two million and Ljubljana a city of around 350,000 people. Stand in the right place in the centre of town and you can see all the way to the Julian Alps.
The theatre tried to establish a new identity for itself, based on “national differences and the uniqueness of its small community”. During this time it promoted mostly young Slovenian directors, including Tomaz Pandur and Tomi Janezic. But by the end of the decade, the theatre was suffering from an identity crisis.
“I am the first foreigner in such a position in a Slovenian cultural institution since independence,” says Injac. “That tells you a lot about the social and cultural politics since 1991.”
Injac and Mihelic Syed aim to give Mladinsko back the status it had in the 1980s. “Our focus has been on devised theatre and political theatre,” says Mihelic Syed.
Injac agrees: “Mladinsko’s old identity had to be questioned through today’s ideological paradigms. Political today means something completely different than in the 1980s. We use different strategies. Theatre as a system of artistic expression has changed a lot.”
Injac wants to demonstrate two things: “Mladinsko is not Slovene and Mladinsko is not theatre.” To this end, most of the artists he has invited there are not from Slovenia. Directors Oliver Frljic and Sebastijan Horvat have both made work at Mladinsko in the past season. The intention is to have a have a much wider social and political impact and to create public debate – something he believes they have succeeded in doing over the past two years.
The director remembers a conversation with a dramaturg from the National Theatre in London, who commented ironically on his political approach to programming. Injac recalls: “He said: ‘If you want to send a message, use the postal service.’ He did not realise that we are all sending messages anyway, by doing theatre and art. Today, a lack of direct political engagement is a political act as well – by pretending there is no need for it, you confirm the positions of privileged groups.”
Syed, meanwhile, firmly believes in engaging the audience beyond the art world. “Theatre becomes most interesting when it exits the discourse of art, when it enters the domain of public opinion and when it has some impact on something that is not art.”
Each season at Mladinsko is conceptual. “They have their own narrative. They are connected,” says Syed. The theatre’s 60th-anniversary season began with Frljic’s Ristic Complex, a piece that “focused on the legacy of Mladinsko”. Syed calls the show “archaeological”. But it’s not enough to just raid the archive – they want to look at what political theatre can be today. It’s not the 1980s anymore and Yugoslavia no longer exists. “Producing political theatre in a totalitarian regime is completely different from this neoliberal society where everything is ‘allowed’.”
They intend, over a period of three years, to work their way from the 1980s to the present. While the work the theatre is currently presenting – including Frljic’s Our Violence and Your Violence and Simona Semenic’s We, the European Corpses, directed by Sebastijan Horvat – attempts to reflect the current political moment in Europe, what Syed calls “strategies to cope with the nihilism of today”, the next season will see the theatre looking towards the future. “We will try to find something utopian,” says Mihelic Syed. “We will look for solutions.”
The theatre is housed in a former seminary – it was intended to form a circle but remains half-finished, the jagged brick edges visible, which feels somehow apt. It has two spaces: a main hall with imposing stone pillars and a basement studio with a vaulted brick ceiling. There is also a third performance space in an old post-office building across the road.
5 things you need to know about Mladinsko Theatre
1. Mladinsko Theatre was founded in 1955 as the first professional children’s and youth theatre in Slovenia.
2. During the 1980s, when Ljubisa Ristic was making work there, Mladinsko became known as a home of political and experimental theatre.
3. In 2008, Mladinsko was named a European Cultural Ambassador for its international activity.
4. Goran Injac has been artistic director of the theatre since October 2014.
5. Directors in the current Mladinsko season include Weronika Szczawinska, Oliver Frljic, and Ziga Divjak.
During a four-day showcase, we are offered the opportunity to sit in on young Polish director Weronika Szczawinska’s forthcoming production of Hitchcock (a cinematic thread runs through the current season), and see her working with the Mladinsko ensemble. What’s so striking about watching the showcase is the swiftness with which you get to know the actors – or feel as if you do. The productions require so much of them: they expose themselves (there is a lot of nudity), push themselves to the point of exhaustion, cram their mouths with food, sweat and spit, and smear themselves in various substances. This is a very total form of performance.
While rehearsal periods are longer than in the UK, they are short by European standards. The average preparation time is two and half months, says Mihelic Syed, but this can be problematic. “Some directors don’t want to work in a Slovenian institutional framework,” he says. Frljic is the exception to the rule. He has a reputation as a fast worker, creating pieces in about six weeks. “We know if Oliver comes, he never works long. He just comes with an idea and actors who understand.”
Syed finds other aspects of Slovenian institutional theatre frustrating. “There’s also a problem here that doesn’t exist in other countries. Usually, when an artistic director comes to a company, they choose their own artistic team. In Slovenia this is not possible. Some of our actors don’t believe in what we are doing, but because it’s their job, they have to do it.”
“Another important aim of ours is to experiment with different theatre languages,” says Injac. “We want to disrupt the stereotypical expectation of what theatre should be and should look like.”
The Republic of Slovenia, the theatre’s piece to mark 25 years since Slovenia became independent, used various verbatim techniques as well as the tribunal play format, to explore the country’s illegal arms trade with Croatia in the early years of independence. It was made anonymously. None of those who participated disclosed their identities and it ended with a sequence involving several cars that required a huge space to stage it – they used the conference centre across the road.
In Horvat’s work, in which Europe is repeatedly held up as a bloated, decaying, complacent entity, food features frequently. He likes mess and splatter, in this case watermelon and Nutella.
Frljic, who has been rather hysterically labelled a theatre terrorist, makes work that excels magnificently at causing offence. His production of Klatwa (The Curse) at the Powszechny Theatre in Warsaw featured a simulated oral sex scene on a statue of Pope John Paul II. As a result, it was investigated by prosecutors, while Frljic received death threats. His Mladinsko piece Our Violence and Your Violence, which opened in Vienna last May, features nudity, simulated rape and a flag extracted from a performer’s vagina, along with a surprising amount of disco dancing.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, it also resulted in protests. When it was programmed at Sarajevo’s Mess festival, a decision was taken to perform it for jury members only. But the Bosnian audience responded to this perceived act of censorship by demanding to be allowed to see the performance and judge for themselves. Different audiences have reacted to the piece in different ways, says Injac. In Germany the sexual violence was the issue, while the Poles are not overly fond of his use of religious imagery.
“These protests are always the same,” says Syed. “People who didn’t see the performance are protesting. They are misled by pictures taken out of context
“I don’t mind a protest if they have a strong argument. We’ve had a lot of protests over the 12 years I’ve been at Mladinsko but they never have a good argument. They never want to enter a dialogue. This is a manifestation of something that’s wrong in general in our society. Nobody’s prepared for dialogue.”
Of all Slovenian theatres, the Mladinsko Theatre it is the one that most frequently tours around the world. A third of its productions tour, and not only to Europe: Mladinsko’s work is well known in Latin America. Links to Poland are particularly strong and Injac and Frljic will co-curate a programme of Balkan work at the Malta Festival in Poland later this year
As well as more established voices, Mladinsko works with young directors. The current season features a new piece: The Man Who Watched the World, by Ziga Divjak, a young theatremaker fresh from the Academy of Theatre, Radio, Film and Television at the University of Ljubljana. Injac seems almost amused about the text-heavy nature of the piece.
While Injac and Syed are aware that much of the showcased work is rather bleak in outlook, they both stress the importance of motion and of not staying still. Syed believes that theatre can and does open dialogues. The next season will see another shift. “We are trying to be optimistic,” he says. “This will require a twist in our thinking. The title of season will translate as ‘Everything is Nice and Fine’. It will be ironic but, at the same time, we will be trying to act as if we believe it.”
Profile: Mladinsko Theatre
Artistic director: Goran Injac
Managing director: Tibor Mihelic Syed
Productions (2016): Seven new productions, three of which were co-productions (one international, one with an NGO and one with a public institution)
Total number of events: 273 (including performances, lectures and workshops)
Audience figures (2016): 44,246
Turnover (2016): €325,000 from ticket sales, tours, donations and sponsorship
Funding: Three main sources:
• Slovenian ministry of culture for salaries, material costs and most of the programme
• City council for special programmes and festivals
• EU projects