Translated by Duška Radosavljević
(The following only includes extracts from the interview transcript, which will be published in full in 2019.)
Duška Radosavljević: I’d like to start this conversation by taking you back to your beginnings. I am interested in a full picture of your work to date – starting with how you discovered theatre and your calling?
Oliver Frljić: I did not have any theatre-going experience until I came to Split as a refugee in 1992. I then started going to the theatre more seriously and I watched whatever was available at the time, mostly at the Split HNK. Together with some friends from my high school I started making projects, which at the time we didn’t know what they were, but later we were told that what we were doing was closest to performance art. Then I came to Zagreb as a student and I started a band and a theatre group called Le cheval. At the beginning we were mostly working in public spaces – not because that was what we wanted, but because we did not have access to any infrastructure at the time. The only place we could show our work was the so-called SKAZ (the Festival of amateur theatre of Zagreb). In 1996 there were around thirty groups of different people there who were interested in performance, and we were one of them. Little by little we learnt more about theatre, and I realised at some point that the fusion of performance art and theatre had already happened with the Flemish wave, and then I managed to see some relevant performances either at Eurokaz festival or on video, which were formative for me.
It’s paradoxical that the shows I saw on video were more influential than the shows I saw live. Then in 2001 I made a decision. All my colleagues from Le cheval had graduated by then – we had all studied various other subjects, nothing to do with theatre. Then, when we nearly finished our degrees, I enrolled at the Drama Academy because it seemed to me that I needed to enter the institutional context and start working on the inside. I realized that the critique of the institutions and everything we had found annoying in that phase could be carried much more effectively using the resources of those institutions. I was a mature student at 25 when I enrolled on the Theatre Directing course and I started doing some professional work even during my studies.
DR: You mentioned the significance of performances you saw on video – which shows did you see in this way?
OF: The ones that were actually formative for me and that created some sort of a break in my understanding of theatre: one of them was certainly The Power of Theatrical Madness by Jan Fabre. That was a performance that in some way altered my understanding of what theatre is and what theatre can be. Another thing that also determined my approach in some way was Robert Wilson’s A Letter for Queen Victoria – a very bad recording; that was the time of VHS when you could hear background noise much better than the performance itself. It’s particularly interesting that I did not get a chance for a long time to see any work by the Wooster Group. I only ever got information about their work from secondary sources. I studied under Branko Brezovac, who shamelessly stole ideas from their work and who did have some recordings of their work but did not want to make them available to me as a student at the time. Eventually, I did get a chance to see some of their works live, but everything I’ve ever read about them and the way that Elizabeth LeCompte thinks about theatre has always felt very familiar to me, even before I saw that work. In fact those shows in their virtual state have also had a formative influence on me.
As for the Croatian scene in the 1990s, it had an influence on me in the sense that I definitely did not want to do the kind of work I could see at the time. That kind of theatre was extremely depoliticized – given the war and the whole set of problems which existed at the time, no one dared establish some clear references in the social reality around us. I mean it is all clear to me what was going on in the 1990s, the processuality and the notion of art as production of knowledge – I also in a way participated in this – but I always felt this was some sort of an excuse not to talk about those problems and not to enter the area of risk. Another thing that made a very, very strong mark on me – and this was something I saw live – was the performance of The Sea & Poison by Goat Island. I also had an opportunity to attend their workshops and to see their methodological approach, and that was one of the most fascinating experiences for me. The fact that those people are from America and that they operate within a theatre market that really does not have an understanding of that kind of theatre form and that they survived for such a long time… Also, the work of Reza Abdoh – I did not really get a chance to see his work live because he died really young in 1995. Abdoh was an Iranian-American director who also collaborated with Lin Hixson. I’ve been looking for recordings of his works for years and eventually I did get hold of them, but that work was influential in that I had an opportunity to read about it.
DR: What were the key moments in the early phase of your career? How did you establish your own signature style?
OF: One of the projects that was very important to me – and which I think was quite complex both in terms of its use of space and its use of text – was the three-part production of Death in Venice/Dido and Aeneas/The Plague (2008) at ITD Theatre. Henry Purcell’s opera was taking place on the main stage, Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice was taking place in the Student Experimental Theatre studio next door, and Albert Camus’ The Plague was taking place in the corridor that connects those two spaces. The performers were moving from one performance to another but what I wanted to achieve was that – with the exception of the corridor that connects the two performances – you could not tell that the same cast actually constitutes the individual performances in both spaces. So when you watched it you didn’t know where the performers going off stage were actually going. It was a very complex mathematical problem. Interestingly however, in the corridor, which the two other performances ran through and in which The Plague was taking place, you could always hear the other two performances simultaneously. That was one of my early works and it was really interesting. Of course, given that opera has a very exact timing, Dido and Aeneas was dictating the timing of the other two performances. It was a very important project for me because it gave me an opportunity to think through the notions of scenic space, scenic time, the relationship between the real and fictional time.
The project I did immediately after this was Turbofolk in Rijeka’s HNK, in 2008. Turbofolk was primarily a critique of ‘high culture’ and the unviability of that term in the aftermath of the historical avant-garde. National theatres in Croatia still insist on this binary opposition between high culture and popular culture. It therefore seemed to me that turbofolk as a phenomenon – not just as a musical genre – could be quite interesting if placed in the context of a National theatre.
After this, I did The Bacchae at the Split Summer festival 2008. This work, in among other things dealt with war crimes in the Lora prison camp in Split, and was also dedicated to Klaus Michael Grüber’s famous Schaubühne production in 1974 – which was yet another production I’d never seen live but which was significant for me. My production was an homage to this work, although no one noticed this of course – this metatheatrical aspect of my work frequently remains invisible. This production too had some very complex reception politics built into it, some of which we had to relinquish in the end. The performance took place in a school playground in front of the primary school Spinut. There was a second audience inside the school who watched both the performance and the audience watching outside. At the time I was very interested in the performativity of the act of watching – the way watching constitutes performance and various politics of watching. I have since departed from this topic, but I still like thinking about it.
From this project on, things took off. At one point three of my performances Turbofolk (2008), Damned Be the Traitor of His Homeland (2010) and Cowardice (2011) were being referred to as the so-called Balkan Trilogy. Damned Be the Traitor was dealing with the disintegration of Yugoslavia and more specifically with the relationship between the official narrative and the individual memory, specifically the porosity of that personal memory. Dramaturgically speaking, it was actually made by means of creating a counterpoint between those two kinds of memory on the one hand and the collective betrayal of a particular system of values, which happened as part of the disintegration of Yugoslavia. For the title we took the refrain from the national anthem of Yugoslavia, and even though nobody really believed in it too much, this production is now a Slovenian and probably a Yugoslav record holder in the number of international performances it has had. But I still remember the bitter feeling around its premiere, the coldness of its reception and the colleagues who had nothing to say about it at the time.
Following this, I made Cowardice in Subotica. It was really important to me to work in Subotica because of its theatrical history and because of everything else that makes it distinct.1 In working on this production, we started looking critically into the theatre troupe KPGT. The performance has a particular ending where I was trying to explore the ephemerality of theatre and how we can fight against it. I’ve had to explain this multiple times because it has often been read in oversimplified ways – the last scene, in which the actors have memorized the names of 505 victims of the Srebrenica massacre, was preceded by a scene in which an actor speaks about how theatre can fight against oblivion and its own essence. And then the actors had to memorize these names without any inner logic that otherwise exists in a dramatic text. This created significant problems for the actors because even a small mistake in pronouncing the name of a victim puts them in an ethically difficult situation. Those names remain as the only document of someone’s existence in a broader context. So the process of working on this piece was interesting. The whole question around what KPGT was, what became of KPGT, whether KPGT was some sort of an emancipatory theatre project or actually based on some kind of Yugoslav cultural unitarism – these were the questions that arose around the margins of this project. Then I continued working on this topic in Complex Ristić which we made a couple of years later premiering at the BITEF festival in Belgrade in 2015.
DR: How did collaborations with German theatres come about? And how did your work in Poland start?
OF: I think this was all to do with my work being seen at international festivals. Many of my productions made in the Balkans have toured to festivals in Germany and Europe in general where they were noticed. And of course a lot of this seems much nicer and more interesting when it is seen from the perspective of an outsider/ Western-European patronizing gaze. One of my first invitations to work abroad was at Schauspielhaus in Graz. I made two productions there. The first one – Where do you go to, my lovely? (2013) – was a production about Europe, exploring the genre of alternative histories. For example, we asked what would have happened if Helmut Kohl had been killed in 1989 by a terrorist group from East Germany, or if Austria hadn’t entered the EU. The ending for this production was very interesting as it featured a synchronised terrorist attack on all EU institutions resulting in a state of emergency in all of Europe, and the last line of the show was: ‘If we want to preserve democracy we must temporarily suspend it’. Which is exactly what is happening to us right now. This was in 2013 and that’s how various invitations started. I also toured Poland with various productions. The first invitation was from Stary Theatre in Krakow. They invited me to do Un-Divine Comedy by Zygmunt Krasiński. In reading this text I detected a specific anti-Semitic throughline and I found it very interesting that nobody ever problematised this, not even – critically enough – Konrad Swinarski, who made a famous adaptation of it and to whom the whole season was dedicated. He had made his own production based on this text and he chose to dress the Jewish chorus up as devils. Then I found a text by Jan Kott, which was the only one that dealt with this theme both by reference to this production and in a broader context. And this production never saw the light of day as it was banned by Jan Klata. Then I made another small piece that was a kind of comment on this ban. Finally I did The Curse in Warsaw, which I would say belongs to the part of my opus where I primarily focus on the potential of the theatre medum to realise its performative potential in a broader social context and to transcend the limits of a closed fictional universe.
DR: I read somewhere that your personal experience of war is seen as a crucial factor in your directorial approach when you make work in other contexts. Do you think that is the case?
OF: I don’t. I mean, my personal experience of war exists, of course. It is not comparable to the experience of war of some other people – I did manage to escape at the very beginning of the war in Bosnia. I spent time behind the scenes, in Split. There were some awful things happening in that city because the local civil government did not function very well so people could experience all sorts of things because of their nationality – ranging from the unfortunate camp Lora to expulsions and evictions from homes to confiscation of personal possessions. I saw what war could be in its essence, war has a kind of discursive mask – the claims of freedom and homeland, etc. – but when you scratch that surface, you can see… All those stories of freedom – freedom is also a form of ideology… The only aspect that I think might have some relevance in the theatre is the notion of conflict. And as I said many times before, in my work the conflict does not unfold between fictional characters, but relationally between performers and the audience which in a way represents the society and the system of values of that society and how those values have been normalized. That is the level on which I try to build conflict, and, of course, with a petit bourgeois audience and with those who represent their taste among critics or elsewhere, this creates misunderstandings or a lack of understanding. In Germany especially.
DR: What is the point of contention in the German understanding?
OF: German theatre is extremely logocentric. In German theatre text is still the primary producer and transmitter of meaning and something that represents the main means of understanding performance. I was recently invited to write about Frank Castorf for Theater der Welt, which was prompted by his departure and the need to build him a monument. I said that I had not seen enough of Castorf’s productions to be able to speak about the underlying principles of his work – namely the way he does montage of different texts – so I wrote about the ways in which the performer’s body starts to create meaning and then super-codes the meaning produced by the spoken text, and about the re-examination of the ontological status of live performance in his work by extensive use of video. I think his use of video should be analyzed in the context of his directorship at Volksbuhne, the theatre which was the fist to use film as a medium in live performance…
They take these things very literally. In the last production I did in Mannheim (Second Exile) there was an actor who plays my alter ego, and in terrible German he reads from a piece of paper saying thanks to the festival and to the director of the festival and to German theatres for their patience, and he says he doesn’t know much about German society – and the German actors start to correct his German – and none of this was understood the way it was intended, as irony. He says: ‘I come to Germany as a refugee but unlike those who are waiting down by the border to cross, I travel by Lufthansa with my two Samsonite suitcases’. This was all taken literally and I was criticised for comparing myself to the refugees from Syria, which was never my intention, because it’s very clear that what is spoken is in inverted commas. So, yes, there have been misunderstandings with German theatre, and I’m afraid there will be more. This is now a matter of stamina – it is not a sprint, it’s a marathon. Will I withstand all this and gradually inaugurate some things or will I just get tired and say, ‘You are already so super! You don’t need the same things I do’?
DR: So even in German theatre there have been conflicts between their expectations and your ideas and desires?
OF: And those expectations are very clearly communicated to me. I know that now everyone would of course like their own version of The Curse. But they don’t understand that in the German context there is no point in doing such a show. I often talk about the lack of understanding for Christoph Schlingensief’s work during his lifetime. Now of course he has status in German theatre, but I think that ultimately there is still a lack of essential understanding. And that’s really surprising. Even at Volksbühne they told us, ‘yes, we love him very much, but he was an amateur, he didn’t know much about theatre’. And I’m thinking, ‘well, I don’t know: to manipulate the broader social context the way he did in his work – all of this necessitated a plan and some deeper understanding’.
DR: One more question for the end – is there any chance or a concrete plan that you might be working in the English-speaking world?
OF: This possibility has never presented itself….
Oliver Frljić is a theatre director and scenographer. His work has been presented in various international festivals and theatres, including: Wiener Festwochen (Vienna), Kunstenfestivaldesarts (Brussels), Dialog (Wroclaw), Festival TransAmériques (Montreal), Neue Stücke aus Europa (Wiesbaden), Bitef (Belgrade), and La MaMa (New York). In 2014-16, Frljić was general director of the Croatian National Theatre in Rijeka. He is the artistic coordinator for the theatre program of the Rijeka European Capital of Culture 2020 and the curator of the last edition of Malta Festival in Poznan (2017).
Duška Radosavljević is a Reader in Contemporary Theatre and Performance at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. She is a writer, dramaturg and teacher, and her research interests revolve around modes of authorship in the 21st century. Her publications are Theatre-Making (2013), The Contemporary Ensemble (2013), The Mums and Babies Ensemble (2015) and Theatre Criticism: Changing Landscapes (2016).
- Subotica is a city in the northern province of Vojvodina with a large Hungarian population. Subotica is also associated with the theatre director Ljubiša Ristić who frequently worked in this city throughout the 1980s and then, following the start of the war in Croatia, moved with his theatre company KPGT from Zagreb, where the company had been based since its foundation in 1977, to Subotica. KPGT was an acronym consisting of the starting letters for the word theatre in four Yugoslav languages (kazalište, gledališče, pozorište, teatar). Unusually for the Yugoslav theatre scene, KPGT was also an independent troupe rather than a building-based municipal theatre and its membership was representative of the country as a whole. ↩