About This Issue
Nitra International Theatre Festival
Nitra, Slovakia 2019
REPORTER: KIRSTEN BOWEN
From September 27th to October 2nd I had the honor of attending the International Theatre Festival Divadelná Nitra. Every fall for the past twenty-eight years artists and audiences converge on Nitra, a small city located in central Slovakia to attend a selection of innovative and inventive offerings from across Europe and Slovakia.
Divadelna Nitrá was founded in 1992, a year before Czechoslovakia separated. Each year the festival curates its selections around a thought provoking and resonant theme. This year’s theme, “Faces of Freedom,” referenced the thirtieth anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, when Czechoslovakia peacefully transitioned from communist rule to a parliamentary republic. The Festival took an expansive view of freedom, exploring it not only in a political sense, but how it manifests in our personal lives and relationships. The festival programming also took into consideration, how for many of these countries, including Slovakia, “freedom” is still a relatively new paradigm, having only existed for thirty years. Festival Director Darina Kárová wrote in her introduction to the program booklet,“We experience first-hand what it means to be able freely to travel, do business, publish, protest. But also unfreely to express our disapproval of the powers that be, run into debt, raise children in face of the uncertain future of our planet.”
These issues were not only explored in the productions. Spread out all over the city, the “Accompanying Program” took on an even more expansive and according to Kárová, free spirited, interpretation of the theme, with extensive offerings by and for children, including plays, puppetry, films, and workshops, art installations, talks, concerts, a flea market, and a separate film festival.
I would have loved to attend more of these events, but I was busy seeing the Main Program and participating in the “Working Program,” discussions with the artists and creators both directly after the show and in lengthy dialogues with the curators each morning. Key participants in this program were the V4@Theatre Critics Residency, which brings theatre critics under the age of thirty-five from Central and Eastern Europe to attend and write about the festival in their own countries. The program aims to foster dialogue and cultural exchange.
Another program worth noting was Be SpectACTive!, an international project that the festival joined last year, which more deeply involves select local audiences in the work, from education, to participating in program selection, to working with other European partners to create new work. The program aims not only to foster more educated and adventurous audiences, but also to inspire social change as well. According to Be SpectACTive!’s stated goals in the festival program booklet,“In the long-term we aim to contribute to forming Nitra residents who feel responsible for what happens in their city.”
Nevertheless, the main event was the work of the Main Program: twelve plays from Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Poland, Russia, Hungary, and Germany which were mostly performed across three stages at our host theatres, Nitra’s “regional” theatre, the Andrej Bagar Theatre Nitra, and the city’s smaller, intimate puppet theatre, the Karol Spišák Old Theatre. Director Júlia Rázusová and dramaturg Jan Šimko curated the Slovak and International programs respectively. Rázusová, who is the Artistic Director of Prešov National Theatre in eastern Slovakia and whose own work was featured in the festival, chose pieces that connected strongly to the “Faces of Freedom” theme. For Šimko, it was important to address the anniversary of the fall of communism and to present a program that traversed a range of styles and forms – from music, movement, the visual arts, contemporary drama, and performative events.
Though freedom resonated in each of these pieces in distinct ways, from a topic and theme to a particular form, the offerings at Divadelná Nitra connected in multiple conversations and goals. Depictions of corruption, distrust in, and abuse of power arose in work from both the Slovak and international programs. These preoccupations seemed expected coming from the three international offerings I attended from Hungary, Russia, and the Czech Republic, where these countries are dealing with authoritarian, or populist, anti-immigrant governments. However Slovakia’s new president, Zuzana Čaputová, ran on a platform of anti-corruption and is a social liberal who is pro-Europe. But Čaputová must deal with a pro-Russian government and a country still reeling from government corruption revelations following the the murder of twenty-seven year old journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancee Martina Kušnírová in February 2018. (Kuciak had been investigating Italian organized crime linked to the Slovak government.) In addition, not all feel that the freedom they were granted thirty years ago has lived up to its promise. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Better Life Index, the country is below average in health, wealth, and well-being. “You can feel a sense of frustration from people who do not feel they have had a dignified life in the thirty years since November, 1989,” Čaputová told The New Yorker’s Masha Gessen in Gessen’s Devember 5, 2019 column.
Čaputová diagnosed the problem in a speech she gave on Velvet Revolution’s anniversary, “Although as citizens we are equal, the basic experience of too large a number of people is that their dignity and their rights are not fully respected. People who live on a subsistence level, and who experience a hard-to-cope situation with every unexpected cost, know this… All those who demanded their rights as guaranteed by law, but learned that court rulings can sometimes be bought, know it. People who are different and belong to marginalized groups know it very well. All these mentioned and many others are waiting for what we as a society are obliged to do: help them attain the respect of their dignity and their rights.”
This frustration and a desire for change was felt across the Slovak program in the form a questioning of civic and societal mores, from abnegation of responsibility by the government in Catch-22, the collapse of government in The Bacchae, the changing significance of religion in Bible, xenophobia and fear of the other in both Moral Insanity and Stories of Walls, and an investigation into history and inheritance in eu.genus. According to Rázusová, history, political corruption, and absurdity ran rampant across the nearly fifty productions she attended throughout Slovakia this past year.
If the offerings at the International Theatre Festival Divadelná Nitra and the artists I spoke with are any indication, Slovakia and its theatre seem to be at a crossroads. Artists are speaking truth to power but are still carving out their own cultural identities, navigating their history, and figuring out what it means to be a Slovak artist today. Here is to the next thirty years of freedom and discovery.
Stories of Walls
Kirsten Bowen is a Philadelphia based free-lance dramaturg and arts journalist.
From 2013 to 2019 she ran the literary department of Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in Washington, DC, where she dramaturged the world premieres of The Totalitarians by Peter Sinn Nachtrieb, Lights Rise on Grace by Chad Beckim, Women Laughing Alone with Salad by Sheila Callaghan, and Collective Rage: A Play in Five Betties by Jen Silverman; US premieres of Kiss by Guillermo Calderon and Botticelli in the Fire by Jordan Tannahill.
Prior to joining Woolly Mammoth Kirsten was the Literary Associate for New York's Signature Theatre Company where she served as dramaturg for seasons of plays by August Wilson, Charles Mee, The Negro Ensemble Company, Horton Foote, Tony Kushner, Athol Fugard, and the world premieres of Hurt Village by Katori Hall, and stop. reset by Regina Taylor.
She has served as a dramaturg for the Kennedy Center's MFA Playwrights Week, Williamstown Theatre Festival, and The Civilians. Her writing has been published in Howlround Theatre Commons, Samuel French’s magazine Breaking Character, Playwrights Canada Press and she is currently a writer for the online arts and culture publication, Broad Street Review.
Kirsten holds a BA in English and Theatre from Smith College and an MFA in Dramaturgy from the Institute for Advanced Theatre Training at American Repertory Theater/ Moscow Art Theatre School at Harvard University.
A Note From Philip
14 January 2020
Welcome to whatever 2020 is going to be. Certainly the first fortnight has been a dumpster fire.
But in the swirl, we have been finishing up our work on this very smart report on the International Theatre Festival Divadelná Nitra by long-time literary manager at Wooly Mammoth and very astute observer, Kirsten Bowen. Kirsten spent an intense 6 days immersed in 9 productions reflected on here in this 9th edition of our DISPATCHES.
I happily joined Kirsten in the middle of her stay for 2 days, making the trip from Budapest to Nitra with StereoAkt and Martin Boross. I think over the years I’ve made it to 8 of the 28 editions of this festival north of Bratislava. Festival director Darina Kárová is an amazing woman, and has willed that festival into importance year after year. It was good to be back and to see old friends again.
We’ve been very interested in the goings on in Slovakia since Zuzana Čaputová, an environmental activist lawyer, was elected president last Spring. We have watched the cultural scene unfold through the eyes of Dave White’s reporting on the Nova Drama Festival for DISPATCHES. We asked Kirsten to follow up with a look at the festival in Nitra.
Kirsten’s interview with Júlia Rázusová is a great overview of the current state of Slovak theatre, seen through the eyes of passionate artist working outside the capital (in Prešov).
And as I write this, a long-time friend and colleague, Gabe Maxson, (formerly with the Wooster Group and now resettled in the Bay Area) is in the middle of a two week initial reconnaissance into the nooks and crannies of Slovak performance for CITD’s new LINKAGES project (designed to introduce next generation leadership on both the US and Slovakian side in a multi-year framework.) You’ll be hearing more about his trek in the weeks to come.
2020 got off to a sad and sobering start: my good friend, John Sullivan, former deputy director of the California Arts Council, Managing Director of ACT in San Francisco (1985-93), and later as the second leader after Peter Zeisler of TCG (1995-97), passed away in the early hours of New Year’s day at his home in Berkeley, with his wife and family around him after a great family meal.
I worked closely with Martha Coigney, and Edward Albee in responding to John’s invitation to bring the International Theatre Institute (ITI) to TCG. We were together last in 2017, when I joined Will Wadsworth, Martha’s nephew and biographer, in an interview with John for the book. John lived a good life right up to the end. R.I.P., dear friend.
Take a deep breath, friends, 2020 is here now!
founder & director
Júlia Rázusová. Image: SME Archive, Marko Erd
Philip with John Sullivan in Berkeley, 2017
The Trust for Mutual Understanding
The Trust for Mutual Understanding, a long-time supporter of CITD, is a unique and important player in Russia and Eastern Europe. Set up as a trust by a single anonymous donor in 1984, the focus was “to support direct person-to-person contact between American and Soviet professionals working in the field of art and environment.” A second gift was made in 1991, continuing the dual focus of art and environment, and opening up to Central, Eastern, and Southeastern Europe; the Baltic States; Central Asia; Mongolia; and Russia. They are now celebrating their 30th year continuing this essential work.
THE CENTER FOR INTERNATIONAL THEATRE DEVELOPMENT
Philip Arnoult, founder & director
Carol Baish, Lindsey Griffith, Jarod Hanson