When Jeffrey Eric Jenkins, vice president of the International Association of Theatre Critics and chair of ATCA’s International Committee, posted on Facebook a picture of me at AICT-IATC’s 2016 World Congress, I relived an experience I feel I should share with my ATCA colleagues. It was my honor to be shown in the distinguished company of critic Ivan Medenica, artistic director of BITEF (Belgrade International Theatre Festival), who had joined Jeffrey, Michael Howley, and me. BITEF, that very important European presentation and celebration of the performing arts, ran concurrently with IATC’s biennial congress.
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Erica Jenkins, Ivan Medenica, Jeffrey Eric
Jenkins and Marie J. Kilker at the 2016 World
Congress in Belgrade. Photo: Katayoun H. Salmasi
Medenica noted the outstanding contributions of Jenkins, as the American was once again elected—by sizable numbers—to IATC’s executive committee. Ivan repeated his congratulations in the pictured conversation and warmly included in further conversation both my fellow ATCA delegate Michael Howley and me. We were so proud to realize the important contributions we made as critics and contributors to global theater as well as the reputation of American theater. Jeffrey had scored a big hit with his paper on the musical Hamilton in a final conference panel.
It so happened that “unofficial” interaction proved to me valuable not only professionally but personally throughout my days in Belgrade. Ironically, though I had cited Michael’s many accomplishments when I nominated him years before to ATCA’s executive committee, I hadn’t learned details about his Cambridge, England, theater and educational experiences until we conversed at a lunch first and later over a drink after a matinee. Michael at the conference made many friends for the American section and, I’m sure, more on his extended stay in Belgrade. (Those of you who know of my passion for theater in Paris will not be surprised to learn I stopped off for four days en route home to see four art shows—comped with my IATC membership card—at matinees and four theater pieces each evening in France. These included a Petit Palais exhibition on Oscar Wilde and a monodrama acted by Oscar/Les Clack for Dear Conjunction Theatre Company at the Théâtre de Nesle.)
“Newness and Global Theatre: Between Commodification and Artistic Necessity” was the theme of our International Conference with two full days of panels, papers, discussions involving critics from all over the world. I thought that these illustrated “Newness” more cogently than did the BITEF offerings I saw. At my age, I’ve been around long enough to have seen so many performances in so many countries and the United States that it’s hard to amaze me with anything astonishingly new. The nearest might be combinations, especially if executed in unusual ways, but these presume knowledge of what went before differently.
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The Most Expensive Capitalist Word at 2016 BITEF.
Photo: Sonja Zugic
Most of what I saw in Belgrade that claimed itself as “new” consisted essentially of monologues. They were, though, “set” in or backgrounded by projections or dance or film and often prominently featured music. Freedom: The Most Expensive Capitalist Word—featured two alternating monologues with untheatrical breaks for “interactive theater”—in this case, engaging the audience to buy things or donate for a cause described in a background film. The History of the Machine Gun combined an opening biographical monologue followed at length on the other side of the stage by an extended lecture about horrific experiences the speaker had in the first person’s African homeland, among other such besieged places. Its “new” feature consisted of the speaker coming downstage center and urinating.
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Belgrade Showcase. Photo: Nenad Petrović
In a showcase of specifically Belgrade theater outside the main BITEF program, Nora! by Elfriede Jelinek at Yugoslav National Theatre and The Wizard of Oz by at the National Youth Theatre were the ones I reviewed. Though the showcase did not represent the BITEF and conference theme, The Wizard of Oz was a newly written version of the well known show and movie that “gradually moved away from the original precisely so as to remain to it as close as possible.” Nora! was not, like Ingmar Bergman’s, a new version of Ibsen’s play but a continuation of the story of its heroine after she left her husband. It was impressively configured in a Brechtian literary mode, though much more complicated than the kind of epic theater Erwin Piscator would have advised. I reviewed these and the other productions I saw for TotalTheater.com, where reviews and pictures are archived.
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Osofisan of Nigeria
What I remember most are the things that do not appear in my reviews—my personal experiences. They started at a first breakfast when I was seated with Femi Osofisan from Nigeria. My studies didn’t go past Yoruba, so being able to get a few insights from Professor Osofisan was very precious. Later, he was honored with the prestigious Thalia Prize, which celebrates the honoree’s impact on critical thought. A reception with the ceremony was held at the estate of the German Ambassador. As a traveler, I usually head first in new places for cultural sites, predominantly of visual arts and theatre. That afternoon we critics were treated to the opening of an African arts museum on the ambassador’s estate. Had I not been a conference delegate but just a tourist, I would not have had the opportunity to peruse that collection.
From new critic friends from Turkey I received many samples of great Turkish confectionery, including two that I hadn’t eaten on two trips to Turkey. I also enjoyed a number of conversations with Greek critics. One from Athens who mostly reviewed opera shared his opinions that have since influenced my outlook. I also amazed him with information about Sarasota Opera’s having finished the complete Verdi cycle, for he had not heard about it! He does follow opera in a number of countries, and now he may include Florida in future reviewing. I’m arranging for him to get press information from our opera by mail. I’ll also be getting some posts from him and critics from other countries who whetted my interest in the fare there.
Of the papers delivered, I was able to get “backstage notes” from several of the presenters. The one I first followed up on when I got home involved an exploration in connection with new North African plays. I had asked about Mohammed Dib and Mouloud Feraoun’s work and found out how theirs was a transition to, not a part of, the new. I also gained added insights on deconstruction, on theater as a cybernetic machine, and what’s being done in Brazil and my favorite Argentina. Back home, I had almost immediate opportunity to apply the first of these insights reviewing a Gilbert and Sullivan musical in St. Petersburg.
As I accompanied an Indian critic to the theater one night, I learned enough to make me want to return to her country. Although I myself am not as physically agile as many of the people I met in Belgrade, there were so many kindnesses from them that I missed very little of the off-conference experiences. I wouldn’t have made it to one theater without help from Katayoun H. Salmasi, Jeffrey’s wife (and a presenter from Iran/USA), who walked me through “a short passage” that was at least a mile. (On the way, I did get to see some important sights at night.) Helpers brought me selections of drinks and pastry during coffee breaks to which I otherwise would have had to walk down several flights of stairs from our meeting room.
A waiter in our hotel dining room always rushed to help me with a breakfast or dinner tray. Later he told me he admired my fending for myself in getting food from the buffet and how I always seemed so cheerful. How nice! And who wouldn’t feel cheer at all that was gained by this delegate to the IATC International Conference and BITEF? Thanks to IATC and ATCA from the smiling woman critic in good company in that picture!
— Marie J. Kilker