Activist group ATA talks to Flamur Dardeshi about making work in unconventional spaces and using theatre to connect with the community.
Until a year ago, when the Arbri Road became passable (even though it is still under construction), the entire north of Albania was connected to Tirana via a single artery that runs through what is now the Kamez municipality.
Because of this, and because it is only nine kilometres from Tirana, Kamez has a high rate of internal emigration. In 1992, Kamez had only six thousand inhabitants, a number that has risen dramatically to around 134,000 today, making it one of the most populated municipalities in the country, despite being located on a small territory of only 37.18km2, and where (despite the lack of accurate statistics), it is apparent that almost every family has a member who has emigrated abroad.
Activist group ATA (which means them in Albanian) was founded in Kamez in 2014. Theatre has been an essential part of its activities since the beginning. Its most recent play The Emigrants by Slavomir Mrozhek fits very well into this “knot” city (if we are to use the name of the local online newspaper Knot, which is one of the contributions of the ATA group). One of the two actors of the show, Klodian Gjonpali, says that, of all his high school classmates, only he remains in Albania – everyone else has moved abroad.
The Emigrants is a one-act drama that takes place over the course of one night, on New Year’s Eve. The protagonists are both emigrants who live together and share the rent; one is an intellectual and political emigrant, and the other is a worker and an economic emigrant.
The performance took place in an unfinished building in Kamez. Diana Malaj, one of the organization’s founders (ATA was first created by a group of young women), explain that they do not have a dedicated director or a troupe of actors for the theatre they produce and that every production begins with finding a director who is invited to collaborate with them.
“We talk with the director about what we want to achieve together, about the criteria that each piece of work that we select must meet; we do not stage commercial works, this is not our purpose,” she says.
Endrit Ahmetaj, the director of the play, came from Italy to Albania (he is an Albanian second-generation emigrant in Italy) to take part in a play at the “Skampa international theater festival” in Elbasan. Then, after auditioning at the Metropol Theater for Anton Pashku’s play Gofi, he decided to try living in Albania. It was in this way that ATA and Ahmetaj met.
Ahmetaj says that they chose The Emigrants because, despite being one of the most popular dramas in Albania and Kosovo, it still has something to communicate to a contemporary audience.
ATA have only one criterion when auditioning actors: they don’t have to be professional performers, but they must be a resident of Kamez. “During the auditions, Klodian and another boy were selected, but the latter informed us that he had to leave for Switzerland and he didn’t know when he would return or if he would return because he didn’t have a residence document in Switzerland. So, we cast another actor, who later dropped out, and because we didn’t have time to find another, I had to act myself”, explains Ahmetaj.
Ahmetaj ended up performing alongside Gjonpali, a 21-year-old who has worked with ATA twice before. “We met Klodian when we were visiting high schools with the group. We were working with director Anila Balla at the time, and when we decided to put on stage Dario Fo’s Accidental Death of an Anarchist, we realized that we didn’t have an actor for the lead role. Then we invite Klodian to the audition, and he took over the role,” Malaj recalls.
Gjonpali, was only 16 at the time. “In the beginning, I was a high school student and I just wanted to protest, I wasn’t even sure whether to participate in the play or not. But I’m glad I made this decision because this experience has grown me; it’s now been fice years, and being a part of this is an important part of my life.” he says.
Their performances take place in unconventional locations such as vacant lots, parks, abandoned homes, or, in the case of The Emigrants, in an uncompleted apartment building. Malaj and Ahmetaj remark, “After reading the play, we knew where we were going to put it on stage, it was the ideal place.” On the one hand the absence of any dedicated performance space conditioned them, but it also gave them freedom.
Choosing to put plays on in alternative spaces was not necessarily a matter of preference. ATA’s first production was performed in the Palace of Culture of Kamez. Built in 2011, it also includes the city’s theatere and library, but it has been reduced over the years. Over the course of its 11-year existence, thus building that was supposed to act as a cultural hub has slowly began to liquidate its own spaces by renting these spaces to private businesses like coffee shops or private banks as well as housing the offices of other municipal institutions like Water and Sewerage.
The institutions responded to ATA’s protests against this loss of public space, by excluding them from the theatre hall. Malaj explains that, because of this, they had to seek alternative spaces in which to perform, something which ended up opening another window of communication with the city.
Malaj describes their struggle to find a performance space. “At the time, we made a series of requests to be able to present the next show in the local theatre, but the refusal was severe. Then we found an abandoned house, but those who owned the house had emigrated abroad and even the people of the neighbourhood did not know where they were or had any possibility of contacting them, because we were looking to get permission to enter and do the show there. Then we asked the whole neighbourhood and got permission from them and went in and did the show. We got the lights from a nearby house, the water from another house, the close neighbours came out to the balcony to see the show with their children in their arms, like in a theatre box.”
Their performances in alternative spaces have been an extraordinary experience for her as well, she explains. “When you do theatre in random spaces around the city, you see a community that is created there from scratch, and they give another aesthetic to this aesthetic moment. The actors’ families attend the plays; it may be their first time seeing a play, and they enjoyed witnessing their relatives or neighbours on stage. The audience gets excited because they are hearing their own dialect, hearing familiar jokes, and watching how their own problems are dramatized, since we normally adapt the text by making adjustments.”
Putting those shows around Kamez has changed the way they see the city. “You see people attending the outdoor performances and wearing their best clothes; they arrive in groups and sit on the field. Or, a mother whose small child has escaped from her grasp and entered the stage, may also enter the stage in the middle of the play to take her child back, creating a new moment where the aesthetics change, the city changes, and all the conventional ideas about theatre, aesthetics, and ethnography change, and something completely magical occurs that is impossible to describe. That’s why we insist on staging a performance at least once a year because many sprouts are born all the time there,” Malaj says.
At first, ATA’s choice to incorporate theatre as a means of interaction or action within the community was driven by their passion for theatre. They were a group of young people who love theatre and want to make theatre for their community.
Yet while these theatrical performances were being produced, they saw that this process was beginning to resemble laboratory work more and more. “Young people who participate in the play, which requires dedication and discipline as they commit to a two-month, six-day-per-week intensive rehearsal schedule, learn a new theatrical language and begin to consider how an institution’s head would behave, articulate, and think. They are often faced for the first time with strong dramatic texts and so they gain aesthetic and political sensibility during the time they are associated with the theater. This group is then transformed from disinterested young people of the city into actors, activists, and in the end, persons with higher sensitivity”
They have also noticed that other activist groups have been affected by the way they work. “So, we believe it has some resonance,” says Malaj.
Further reading: Finding their voice – making feminist theatre in Albania
Flamur Dardeshi is a freelance writer based in Tirana. He has contributed in the areas of translation, analysis, and poetry. His main fields of interest are literature, cinematography, and theatre.