Identity Capers: The New Generation of Slovenian Playwrights Isn't Only Interested in Geopolitical Concerns

By Margraff, Ruth; Rakef, Saska | American Theatre, May-June 2007 | Go to article overview

Identity Capers: The New Generation of Slovenian Playwrights Isn't Only Interested in Geopolitical Concerns


Margraff, Ruth, Rakef, Saska, American Theatre


Ljubljana's Old Town cafes and open markets, with their narrow streets and dragon-studded bridges, welcome both strolling musicians and tourists sipping hot wine. This "little Prague" jewel of a city, whose name is usually thought to stem from "ljubljena," or "beloved," is also home to four of Slovenia's eleven public professional theatres as well as several internationally renowned theatre festivals, including City of Women, Young Lions and the not-to-be-missed Desetnica Festival of Street Theatre.

In December '06, Slovenia's first and only play-development program, PreGlej--in residence at Ljubljana's Glej Theatre--initiated a staged reading series of new Slovenian and American plays. The series, called REDEYE: A New York/Ljubljana Translation Think Tank, resulted from a series of exchanges between PreGlej and the New York-based WaxFactory. It took place over several months this past fall as part of the European Dream Festival, and was supported by the Trust for Mutual Understanding and the Slovenian Consulate of New York.

In September, the playwrights Simona Semenic, Zalka Grabnar Kogoj and Saska Rakef traveled to New York to work on English translations of their plays in collaboration with playwrights Young Jean Lee, Jason Grote and Ruth Margraff, along with directors Ivan Talijancic, Jay Scheib and Sarah Benson. The Americans then traveled to Ljubljana to hear their new plays translated into Slovenian.

When the PreGlej idea of a "staged reading" excited a wave of television, radio and print attention across Slovenia, we on the American team started to ponder our overexposure to conventions of new-play development--a notion that is actually quite new and distinct for Slovenian playwrights--and our assumption that the work would reflect a certain cultural identity. Benson, artistic director of New York City's Soho Rep, says she expected the Slovenian plays to be much more focused on the complex context of the region. "Instead I found writers viewing themselves much more as part of a larger and aggressively contemporary tradition--and not writing exclusively about Slovenian concerns," she says. "I discovered in directing Zalka Grabnar Kogoj's play that the actors are more interested in behavior than in psychology. It was so refreshing to work with actors asking different questions."

Since Slovenia was the Yugoslavian province closest to Europe before the brutal 1990s civil war--the one that remained the most economically stable and that is now part of the European Union--there has long been a tension in Slovenian culture when it comes to the notion of identity. Mateja Pezdirc Bartol, a professor of Slovenian literature at the University of Ljubljana, describes a marked withdrawal from historical themes and political engagement in new playwriting--in contrast with the work of prominent 1980s playwrights Dusan Jovanovi, Drago Jancar and Rudi Seligo, who wrote about state control, revolution and totalitarian regimes.

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However, playwright Semenic, who founded PreGlej--the name is a play on the verb for "to view/preview"--is quick to point out (in a September '06 Brooklyn Rail article by Amiel Melnick) that "in Slovenia, there is a terrible gap between the young and the old generations of playwrights. And our generation is not being staged. We are criticized because you can't see a recognizable Slovenian identity. The feeling is that Western Europe and the older playwrights dare to write about the Balkan wars, but we don't feel them as ours. We're somehow too close and not close enough."

The playwrights nurtured by PreGlej are definitely challenging preconceptions, but their challenge is an intimate one, turning inward and presenting what Slovenian theatre critic and playwright Rok Vevar, also quoted in the Brooklyn Rail, calls "private universes defined by impossible relationships." Vevar, who collaborates frequently with Semenic, sees her work as a mixture between performance art and playwriting. …

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