One of the dominant topics at this year’s Kosovo Theatre Showcase was the role that theatre artists can play in times of war and crisis. Tom Mustroph spoke to theatre practitioners from Ukraine, Israel, and Hong Kong about the different ways in which theatre can react to catastrophe.
The news moves faster than theatre. At this year’s Kosovo Theatre Showcase, which took place in Pristina between 24th-29th October, the plight of people in Gaza and Israel was very present in people’s minds. But the showcase, which this year hosted the IETM Caravan, also delivered some examples of the role theatre can play in withstanding catastrophes and the sensation of powerlessness caused by man-made disasters.
The showcase took place not long after an ambush by Serb gunmen which left a Kosovo police officer dead at a monastery near the border in the north of the country. This event led several Serbian participants to withdraw from the showcase, said Jeton Neziraj, whose company Qendra Multimedia organizes the annual event since 2018. Even international cast members of Qendra Multimedia’s own production Negotiating Peace were anxious about these events. “Our Norwegian actor was coming to me, saying: ‘Is there any evacuation plan? How can we escape?” says Neziraj, who replied jokingly that he did not have to worry as there was more chance of Norway being attacked by Russia.
Caution and confidence
Neziraj said that in some ways the tragic events in his country gave him confidence. “Somehow it gave me a sense of being more secure,” he explains. “I could see that Kosovo Police was quite well-organized in catching the group.” The drone footage showed that the police are well-trained. “While the situation was dramatic, there was a sense of comfort there as well, that people can settle the situation if it goes wrong.”
Even so, IETM remained concerned. “We followed and discussed the situation with our local sources. And when it calmed down, also through international intervention, we did not deem it a reason to start warning potential participants against coming here, when the Kosovo authorities did not think so”, said Ása Richardsdóttir, Secretary General of IETM. Richardsdóttir stressed the importance of listening to local people: “We don’t hold the universal truths. We do not pretend to know better than the local authorities what is deemed dangerous or safe. And I think if we only take notice of the Western media and do not look at what is actually happening on the ground through our local sources, we would not do anything to be honest with you.”
One of the events of the showcase was a discussion about theatre in times of war and crisis which had been planned some time in advance, but which obviously became more emotive because of the events in the north of Kosovo and the ongoing situation in Gaza and Israel.
Roy Horovitz, director at the Habimah National Theatre of Tel Aviv, was present at the showcase. He has not been able to return to his country since 7th October, He used the debate to give his international colleagues an introduction in the various actions of Israeli artists following the Hamas attacks. “Many artists, not just theatre people, but also singers and dancers go now to shelters. They try to perform to soldiers, to children, to adults. They are going there and just trying to raise the morale to everybody”, he said. It was primarily independent artists behind this quick response, he added. “Theatre in general needs time to react. So, what is being done now is just some personal initiatives by different, mostly independent artists.” Many institutions reacted by allowing free access to their archives and streaming shows online. Graphic artists, including theatre designers, have been particularly active. “Some set designers and street performers came out with some original performances, which they set in front of the Tel Aviv Museum.” There was a Shabbat dinner table and installation of 40 empty children’s buggies in remembrance of the babies who were killed.
Theatres as assemblies
In addition to this, many theatre institutions opened their houses to meet the needs of the people. The Municipal Theater of Jerusalem is now a shelter, explains Horovitz, “where they collect food and warm clothes and blankets for people who lost their homes. The theatre building itself actually changed its mission.”
Something similar happened in the war in Ukraine. Theatres transformed themselves into shelters. Actors volunteered in distributing food, clothes and other necessities, and after a while they started to perform again, Ukrainian actress Katya Kisten explained. “It’s actually a new theatre now with candles and flashlights from the phones. It has a big connection with the audience.”
Tailoring work to different audiences
Kisten went to Sweden after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. There she continued her artistic career, performing to two audiences: Ukrainian refugees in Sweden and the international community. Productions for the international community focus mainly on raising and maintaining awareness about the situation in Ukraine. Kisten even produced recordings in Swedish to address people directly. “Some texts I really read in Swedish. I don’t know language, but I’m like an actor who can manage accent. I worked with on this a long time with Swedish actors, they helped to they made an audio recording for me and I listen and then they said it’s very listenable for Swedish audience.”
For her compatriots, in contrast, she produced a children’s play in Ukrainian. “It is actually a Swedish play, but we translated it”, explains Kisten. And unlike her work for an international audience, she avoids to including references to war and terror. They avoid these topics. People can read these texts, she says, “but I’m not sure that we need to perform these dramatical things for them.” The theatre is instead a place they can “come and relax somehow because I understand that they need food for their feelings too, not only for the stomach and a safe place to be.”
In general Kisten observes a new strength of Ukrainian theatre. One reason for that is the international attention that artists in countries under attack get, especially in the West. “We had a big process of collaborations when Europe looked at Ukraine because of the war,” she says. “That’s good because before people abroad did not know so much about Ukraine,” she adds. “Before we did not have many economical possibilities. We could never use a lot of technical stuff. So we put the attention on the script, on the story, on acting and directing.”
Kisten also sees a new kind of energy and awareness among the Ukrainian theatre makers. She was in Ukraine in the summer and visited some performances and rehearsals. “I want to say that how they act now every director will enjoy to work with the actors because they are full of real big questions and their energy is extraordinary.” Sometimes, she says, as a professional actor “you need to find from somewhere the energy and the feelings to put in the character. But now they have a lot of reason inside. And they are very strong.”
One consequence of the war, Kisten also noted, has been a revival of Ukrainian culture and a deeper interest in Ukrainian history. “We started a process of discovering our playwrights and culture,” she says. Before, it was quite an ‘open space’ in terms of the work being made. They used to produce work based on foreign literature and Russian literature as well as Ukrainian, now there is more of a focus on the latter. “I feel that it is good because there are a lot of interesting authors,” she says, though she admits that it may sound strange to discover something deeper about her own culture as a result of the war. She describes it as “a way deep to the roots.”
Jeffery Lin Chi Ho, who moved to London three years ago from Hong Kong, says that one of the challenges for theatre makers there is to try and maintain Cantonese culture. Just as a lot of Ukrainian theatre makers have been trying to raise money with their art for their home country, artists in Hong Kong have also been fundraising. Not only did street artists respond with immediacy to the violence and the police brutality during the protests of 2019, he says, “they were also doing fundraising for humanitarian foundations that were supporting the protesters, and those who were harmed by the police or being prosecuted.” Unfortunately, he adds, “after the national security law had been imposed such actions are not possible anymore. Artists operate therefore in more private domains.”
Theatre as a safe space?
Theatre may be a place of assembly, of communication and exchange, but it is also a place of bodily encounter – a quality, which might become more important in times, when the images and information exchanged is increasingly digital, and when those, who issue it and disseminate it can hide behind screens.
Theatre is, of course, not a guaranteed safe space. That was proven dramatically by the airstrike against the theatre of Mariupol in March 2022. But theatres are also under attack in other ways, in terms of being able to present opposing points of view.
The art of rhetoric developed in ancient times in parallel to the art of theatre. The art of discourse has always been intermingled with the performing arts. Part of rhetorical bravery was to develop a tight argument of viewpoints which were opposed to the ones of the speaker. Theatre is, in its heart, a place for showing different positions, enabling diversity, enacting the clash of opposing attitudes and interests. It is a tradition to be upheld, to be defended.
Aesthetic and ethical challenges
“Drama always found extreme situations very alluring. But where we are now, we are living in it. So what can you do when reality exceeds everything? I don’t know how we can compete with what we’ve seen and been exposed to on social media and TV news”, reflects Horovitz on the current situation in Gaza and Israel. Hamas make films about their killings. There were recently published recordings of families being slaughtered. “I don’t know how we, as artists, can compete with this? Do we want to compete? It’s not just aesthetical questions. It brings some serious ethical questions and challenges for us,” he says. Horovitz recalls how theatre partly redefined itself during the pandemic, with online performances and one-to-one performances on the phone or in front of homes. “And I think here too, it will take some time. But people will have to redefine what is theatre? What is a performance? What is fiction versus reality? We will have to reinvent ourselves.”
Tom Mustroph works in Berlin and Palermo as a freelance journalist and dramaturg. He operates in several journalistic fields, such as theatre, fine arts and sports. He is most interested in how self-responsible work can succeed elegantly and in accordance to minimal moral standards. He collaborates with several German language publications such as taz, FAZ, Neues Deutschland, NZZ, Theater der Zeit, zeit online, Deutschlandfunk and WDR.