This September, the Trust for Mutual Understanding, an organization which funds exchanges between the U.S. and Eastern and Central Europe, is helping WaxFactory, a New York-based multimedia theater company and PreGlej, a play development program based in Ljubljana, Slovenia join forces to pull off an international exchange called REDEYE: A New York-Ljubljana Translation Think Tank. Three Slovenian playwrights, Simona Semenic, Zalka Grabnar Kogoj and Saska Rakef, will spend three weeks in New York working on translations of their plays in collaboration with playwrights Young Jean Lee, Jason Grote, and Ruth Margraff and directors Ivan Talijancic, Jay Scheib, and Sarah Benson (disclosure: Grote is Rail theater co-editor, and edited this article).
As a former Yugoslav republic, Slovenia was never subjected to quite as repressive a form of Socialism as other countries. Perhaps as a result of its position as the most economically stable, westernmost Yugoslav republic, Slovenia developed a strong modernist and avant-garde dramatic tradition in the first half of the century. But today, with no academic playwriting program and little support for young writers, other European drama is not only influencing but in many cases replacing new Slovenian texts.
Semenic, playwright and founder of PreGlej, is fighting to keep Slovenian playwriting alive. “Someone said that problems in Slovenia had become basically the same as problems in London and that we didn’t really need Slovene writers because we could just translate texts instead.” Semenic started PreGlej, a program that is a part of Ljubljana’s oldest non-institutional venue, Glej Theater. Playing on the verb for “to view” (gledati), PreGlej means something like PreView, and also implies that it’s a precursor to getting texts into the theaters. “In Slovenia, there is a terrible gap between young and old generation of playwrights,” says Semenic. “And our generation is not being staged.” Playwright Grabnar Kogoj adds, “Theaters usually choose foreign texts which have been successful abroad or present one of a few classic Slovene playwrights who are established as part of the repertory.” Grabnar Kogoj, like Semenic, mentions a lack of faith in the younger generation of theater artists, especially writers. “Theaters don’t trust young playwrightsâ€¦ Apparently we don’t have anyone at the theaters who dares to say, ‘this text is good even though we’ve never heard of the writer.’”
Paradoxically, it’s by leaving the country that writers become accepted. “Many Slovene artists, not just writers, have had to prove themselves abroad before they were accepted in Slovenia. And of course it’s even more difficult for writers, whose creative work is bound to their maternal language,” says Grabnar Kogoj.
The issue of language is tied into the complicated dynamics reflected in the universalist tendencies within Slovene theater. Slovene culture has been formulated around language—around the struggle to save the language during various occupations, and around its uniqueness within Yugoslavia. “We’re all looking at the problems of the world,” says Grabnar Kogoj, “and because of that it might seem that treating the problems we have at home is banal or at least overly domestic. So it’s hard to really find any themes that are particular to Slovenia.” Where before there was political censorship, now there’s a kind of self-censorship. This is in part a reaction to expectations about what Slovene writers should or shouldn’t be writing about. Semenic says, “When we put on twelve mini-dramas, someone in the audience criticized the event because you couldn’t see a recognizable Slovene identity. But I think that ‘someone’ expected us to do something about the Balkan wars, which no one touched upon at all—that showed up more in the work of older writers. The feeling is that young writers don’t dare to write about those things, or that we don’t feel them as ours. Western Europe dares to write about the Balkan wars, but we don’t feel like we have the credibility to write about them, even though we’re geographically close to the events. So 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 theater critic Rok Vevar calls “private universes defined by impossible relationships.”
The Slovenian audience is eager as well: at the staged readings which are essential to the PreGlej program, the house is usually packed. Semenic adopted the staged reading format from the American model, and that’s one reason why, together with Talijancic of WaxFactory, she developed the idea for the REDEYE. Having attended some PreGlej readings, it seems that New York might benefit from a dose of Slovenia’s “mistrustful” attitude towards theater. Once when I was at a reading the audience stayed until midnight, offering a level of engagement that one rarely encounters at theater events in New York—but one that I hope this exchange will encourage.
REDEYE will hold a presentation at the Martin E. Segal Theater Center at CUNY on September 25. The staged readings will take place at New York Theater Workshop, October 1-4 at 5pm. For more info, visit web.gc.cuny.edu/mestc or nytw.org, or call (212) 780-3372.
AMIEL MELNICK is a freelance translator, critic, and dramaturg.