High artistic quality that touches sensibility

Appealing plays of highly artistic quality that touch upon the sensibility of our times is the reason why audiences are flocking to the CNT. We enjoy the support from both of our founders – the Ministry of Culture and the City of Zagreb.

Croatia has an understanding of culture. Regardless of how turbulent a time period was, it seems that the Croatian culture has never been substantially withheld from anything. In the last two years, the CNT participated in two European Commission funded projects under the auspices of the Creative Europe programme. We have also started talking to the Trieste theatre regarding the 2018/2019 season – says Dubravka Vrgoc, Director of the Croatian National Theatre (CNT) for the Diplomacy & Commerce magazine.

You were quoted as saying that nobody would ever again be able to post a picture of an empty CNT venue on Facebook, and you kept your word. What prompts audiences to come to the CNT in droves at the time when culture takes the last place in the society?

When I came to the CNT in Zagreb in autumn of 2014, certain plays had virtually no audience and it was very difficult to appeal to people to come. My first campaign in the theatre was called „The Open Square Day“ which we organized together with all cultural institutions that are located in the square. We devised various programmes and invited people to join us in the theatre.

We opened the theatre to different poetics, styles and genres, hosted attractive programmes, and tried to appeal to audiences of all generations. Certainly, all of this helped us with raising our public visibility. But, what really makes people come to the CNT today, is, first and foremost, interesting plays of highly artistic value that touch upon the sensibility of the time we live in.

Are contemporary themes that you cover typical of the challenges that Croatian society is facing today, or are these universal themes in the European society on a whole, as noted during the visit to your Philosophical Theatre?

These are definitely contemporary topics too. Back at the time when I was the director of the Zagreb Youth Theatre, I noticed that the audience liked Croatian playwrights. This was a phenomenon of sorts because, back in the 1990s, Croatian playwrights rarely staged their plays, and the audience was not that interested. This has changed dramatically, as seen from the example of the Zagreb Youth Theatre. The audiences flocked to the plays written by Tena Štivičić, Ivana Sajko, Ivor Martinić, Ivan Vidić, Goran Ferčec, and Damir Karakaš, more than those written by Shakespeare or Chekhov.

At that time, the transition was at its peak, and the war had just finished, while the audiences searched for recognition and directions on how to navigate through the turbulent reality in the plays written by Croatian playwrights. Even if theatre failed to provide answers to these quests back then, at least it asked the questions important for our times, as it does today.

Apart from the contemporary domicile themes, universal and global topics are also exciting to tackle too. These are the topics that we find in the classic plays, as well as in the programme of the Philosophical Theatre which has showcased the work of some of the biggest thinkers of our time in the Croatian National Theatre.

Do you think that the CNT’s success, both in terms of the number and the quality of drama, opera and ballet performances, is the result of the work done by the theatre itself, which goes against the overwhelming cultural tide in the society, or maybe Croatia still has enough understanding for culture?

Croatia has an understanding of culture. Regardless of how turbulent a time period was, it seems that the Croatian culture has never been substantially withheld from anything. If you look at the number of theatres, museums, galleries and all-year-round festivals both in Zagreb and all over Croatia, it seems that the cultural offer in our country is almost identical to the one in other European countries.

As far as the CNT goes, we really do enjoy the support from both of our founders – the Ministry of Culture and the City of Zagreb. According to the latest information, the state authorities are planning on finding a new venue for the CNT’s Drama Department that would resolve a long-standing problem of three troupes of actors unable to develop under one roof.

For the third consecutive time, you are appointed the president of the European Theatre Convention (ETC). How are theatres in the EU funded today, and can the CNT rely on European funds too?

Theatres in the EU receive funding from various sources, and it differs from country to country. It all depends on the financial potential of their respective country, but also of the overall interest in culture. The German and Scandinavian theatres receive the biggest funding, while the Eastern European theatres still manage to secure operational continuity despite having a lot less funds at their disposal.

What is good and what we still need to work on, is that Europe, as far as theatres are concerned, has still not implemented the format used in Anglo-Saxon countries. In Europe, theatre is still not an entirely commercial artistic endeavour, i.e. it is not directly marketed. Artistic theatre cannot survive without the state’s support today. Of course, there are various European and state grants that help with the implementation of certain projects.

Recently, CNT became a part of a project under the auspices of the Creative Europe programme which implements new technologies in theatres. What is CNT’s role in this project?

In the last two years, the CNT has been involved in two projects funded by the European Commission under the auspices of the Creative Europe programme. In the Drama segment, it’s a project called European Theatre Lab which we are jointly realizing with a Norwegian theatre, and in the Opera segment, we are a part of a large-scale project called Opera Vision along with thirty other big European theatres which entails recording operas and showcasing them in different European opera theatres.

European Theatre Lab: Theatre Goes Digital is a two-year-project involving eight European theatres. The idea is to implement new technologies in theatres while searching together for new theatrical opportunities. As a part of the project, we are going to have two dramas – Krleža’s ‘Kraljevo’ which we are going to perform in Oslo, and Ibsen’s „Peer Gynt“ that will be performed in Zagreb. We are also exploring the opportunity of having new audible approaches to theatre.

One of the big changes is also guest appearances. What kind of impressions did you get after having your young playwrights staging their plays in other towns?

Guest appearances are extremely important and useful for any theatre. These appearances open different perspectives both to audience and actors. We have started doing guest appearances two years ago, and our intention is to have even more of them. Probably the most exciting one was our guest appearance with Tena Štivčić’s play „Three Winters“ in regional countries (Sarajevo, Belgrade, Novi Sad, Maribor, Ljubljana, Podgorica). The play was greeted with understanding and approval. Personally, I think that our most impressive guest appearance was with our ballet troupe in St. Petersburg in May. They performed „Anna Karenina“ in front of the audience in the packed Alexandrinsky Theatre and received a standing ovation.

For some time now, you have also been engaged in the European subscription project that connects Zagreb and Maribor. Are some cities in neighbouring countries, or in Europe also going to join this project soon?

We have been cooperating with Slovensko Narodno Gledališče from Maribor on the European subscription project. The project entails our subscribers going to Maribor to watch three plays staged by their theatre, and vice versa, i.e. Maribor’s theatre subscribers coming to Zagreb to watch our plays. Last season, this proved to be an extremely interesting endeavour and I think the same will happen this year too. Of course, we are open to other cities in our surroundings participating in the project, but they have to be cities that are not too far away so that the theatre goers can travel there and back in the same day. We have also started negotiations with the Trieste theatre regarding the 2018/2019 season.