Experimental Theatre in the 1950s and 1960s

From Culture.si

Engraving experimental theatre into the institution and beyond

Primož Jesenko

Primož Jesenko provides a brief sketch of the developments of experimental theatre in Slovenia of the 1950s and 1960s. In this post-war time of the newly-established Yugoslavia, we see how experimental practices became a way for theatre artists working to link to the international, avant-garde space in Europe and beyond. The next questions became: in which spaces could such activities be carried out and how to blend the "institutional and non-institutional"?

At the beginning of the 20th century and above all in the time between WWI and WWII (1918–1941), when the professionalism of theatre activities was continuously attained and affirmed in Slovenia, we can trace the same motivation among earlier generations of Slovenian theatre artists (especially among those who broadened their horizons with studies abroad, in Vienna or Berlin, such as Ferdo Delak or Bratko Kreft). By the early 1950s, the organisation of the cultural field very clearly needed synchronising with theatre currents in the main cultural capitals outside of Slovenia (or rather, outside of Yugoslavia) that provided avant-garde pushes forward. The awareness of being a part of the Western cultural hemisphere was awake, regardless of the political trends that tended to grasp unity with the Slavic neighbouring nations with which Slovenia had mutual historical and ancestral origins.

Avgust Černigoj and avant-garde tendencies in Trst/Trieste

To better understand the post-WWII period requires a glance at the inter-war period. Theatre forces had already begun to be consolidated, modernised and actualised in the times when the borders between amateurism and professionalism (at least for the authorities) were not clearly formulated. The first phenomenon in regard to experimental tendencies in Slovenia can be traced back to 1924 when the painter Avgust Černigoj (originally from Trst/Trieste on the Slovenian coast, at that time the second-largest Slovenian city) who spent a few months at the Bauhaus school in Germany (as allowed by his financial capabilities), opened his first constructivist exhibition in the gymnasium of the technical school in Ljubljana (with an ambient of constructions, motors and two-wheelers, plastered with manifest slogans).

However, the principal art historians declined this stylistic course of the new generation – this is why the police made Černigoj flee from the provincial setting of Ljubljana after his second exhibition in 1925. Such was the affinity for the experimental in Slovenia of that time. After that, Černigoj worked with his followers in Trieste, also as a theatre set designer.

The Workers' Stage

That same year (1925), Bratko Kreft saw the guest performance of Tairov's Kamerny teatr in Vienna; the Berlin journal Der Sturm devoted its whole issue to Junge slovenische Kunst (1929). Ferdo Delak experienced Tairov in Paris, 1930, and was thrilled by what he saw. Individual ties of Slovenian theatre artists and writers, leaders of Slovene historical avant-garde, to European and Russian phenomena were permanent, and their internationalism was becoming more and more politically determined.

Another unique phenomenon was the Workers' Theatre, which did not want to take after the institutional theatre mindset and under Kreft (1927–1929) and Delak (1931–1938) presented contemporary pieces of proletarian descent (Toller, Raynal, Cankar, Hašek, Schönherr) and also presented a model of the repertoire shaping that after WWII was adopted and upgraded by the institutions. In the late 1940s, the Workers' Stage (Delavski oder) and the Artisan Theatre (Obrtniško gledališče) occupied their own spaces around Ljubljana.

Defining the national substance through theatre

After WWII, theatre activity in Slovenia became accentuated as a part of defining the national substance and its capabilities. Even though it had not been officially pronounced, this implicit striving and imperative was strongly felt among younger authors and theorists who were partly shaped also through study scholarships in France (like Mile Korun, Taras Kermauner, Veljko Rus).

If we look at the interconnections between institutional and non-institutional activities in the development of Slovenian theatre in the period after 1953, we see a period that was clearly (however indirectly) fuelled by foreign avant-garde tendencies but kept transplanting these to Slovenia in an indirect way that produced an autochthonous response, retaining an avant-garde scent, yet adjusted to the very specific national situation. The interaction of the institutional and experimental scenes, which included the activity of the same actors, directors and playwrights, could not be prevented (or neglected) and thus decisively and noticeably defined the contemporary Slovenian theatre scene.

The dialectic of developmental transformations was predicted and realised not only by the hosting of theatres from Europe (something that became a regular practice after 1955) but foremost by the activities of certain agile individuals who, with their sophistication and nonconformist personal attitude, shifted the horizon – by drawing attention to the already established genre and stylistic approaches happening abroad, such as the "theatre in the round" or the introduction of choreographed movement into stage expression. This dialectic nature of Slovenian theatre was able to bring notably better-profiled stage results.

The contributions of Balbina Battelino Baranovič

After 1945, a thorough approach and the leading force of the experimental theatre movement was established by the Experimental Theatre (Eksperimentalno gledališče) of Balbina Battelino Baranovič. At the beginning of the 1940s, Baranovič began her studies at Theaterwissenschaftinstitut in Vienna (this was her differentia specifica), where she became acquainted with trends and approaches to theatre staging in Western Europe that she tried to creatively transplant into the Slovenian performative practice. Struggling with the previous reductive reception, in just over a decade, the Experimental Theatre would expand the purview of performing practices at the time.

But in order to grow her theatre, Baranovič would need a space. The spatial conditions were met in 1955 when the Ljubljana City Council approved the use of the newly renovated Knight's Hall (Viteška dvorana) for the experimental theatre activities. In the years following, this centrally-located, yet partly overlooked and relatively inadequate in-between space within the former monastery complex in the Križanke Cultural Complex by the renowned architect Jože Plečnik became the contact point of and venue for a wide variety of culturally and socially significant events (workshops, open public debates, celebrations).

The initiator Baranovič realised her work in three major currents, her aim being foremost of an aesthetic nature and to broaden the theatre perception: she introduced the "theatre in the round" as the new format of stage organisation (thus making theatre more accessible and appealing to the public and contributing to a significant turn in the acting and directorial procedures). She also introduced the presence of physical movement and choreography on stage. But most of all, the Experimental Theatre introduced authors like Beckett, Albee, Lorca, Dylan Thomas to Slovenia. Her repertoire first actualised the (neglected) naturalism on the "round" stage (Zola's Therese Raquin, 1955) and tried out a fresh comical play of contemporary French origin. The synchronisation of propulsive new authors with Slovenian theatre followed in only a few years.

Every performance was not entirely a success, since the staging manner of Baranovič owed a lot to literary affinities and put attention to classical authors as well (Plato's The Last Days of Socrates, 1957) – but it enabled strong performances by young and some otherwise "forgotten" actors. This formed a stable group audience that followed the Experimental Theatre programme regularly and attributed substantial meaning to it.

Besides a few readings of poetry (with a rather educational aim), stress was put on quality drama, like Requiem for a Nun by William Faulkner (1958) or Goethe's Faust (in the form of a rather ambiental performance, in the courtyard of Križanke, 1959). Experimental Theatre gained a certain exclusive character, and some of the performances were included in the programme of the Ljubljana Summer Festival. Also, Baranovič tried out the opera genre of Pergolesi (Serva-padrona, 1965) and began to attract Slovenian writers (but ended her theatre activities in 1969).

In 1955, Baranovič also established the Mladinsko Theatre (Youth Theatre) that first operated in the Knight's Hall but moved to the cinema hall of the Academic Collegium in Bežigrad in 1959.

Ad hoc Theatre of Draga Ahačič

Other experimental groups followed in the Knight's Hall as well: after introducing Huis clos by Jean-Paul Sartre in 1958, Ad hoc Theatre of Draga Ahačič continued to present plays of Sartre (Les mains sales, 1959). Exploring contemporary French authors was a pattern, later joined by introducing Slovenian pieces which was stimulated by the politics but met its substantial goal only to some extent. Ahačič strove to gain her own performing space but faced financial hardship.

Stage 57 (Oder 57)

The most propulsive and influential experimental group of that time, Stage 57 (Oder 57) first introduced Ionesco to Slovenia (La Leçon and La Cantatrice chauve, 1958). Soon, its chief aim in the exploration of different possibilities and potentials of theatre representation became the systematic shaping and staging of contemporary Slovenian drama authors. These were a constitutive part of the Oder 57 enterprise, this was the principal trait that resulted in binding drama pieces. Let us name only one: Antigone by Dominik Smole (1960) which deals with the national division in WWII, is still valued as the most prolific poetic drama in Slovenia. Among other things, Oder 57's interaction with the critical Perspektive (Perspectives) journal, however, contributed to its 1964 shutdown in an act of state censorship.

Through the activity of experimental groups and their diverse forms of stage creation, especially the theatre activities of Stage 57 at the beginning of the 1960s, the field of art soon became creatively independent to such a degree that the regime was no longer able to establish direct contact with them.

The experimental meets censorship

The organisation of the infrastructural conditions for art was thus created outside the public institutions and also drew attention to the narrowness of the "official" theatres. Heavily determined censorship was sporadically exerted onto the experimental theatre scene in times of extreme discontent, which was felt by the oldest political groups of influential communists.

Major political disagreements happened when the premiere of Topla greda (Greenhouse) by Marjan Rožanc at Oder 57 was shut down (1964) due to its tackling of agricultural policies of the authorities and when Mile Korun (at SNT Drama Ljubljana, 1965) presented a quite "experimental", modernistic take on Pohujšanje v dolini šentflorjanski (Scandal in St. Florian's Valley) by Ivan Cankar which included the stage personnel in underwear, female nudity as a metaphor and jazz music.

Scandalised responses by the older partisan warriors followed when Student actual theatre (dir. Dušan Jovanović, 1965) staged The Plough and the Stars by Sean O’Casey, due to its demythicising of the national liberation. Various incarnations of informal theatre groups led by Jurij Souček, a notable actor of Oder 57, followed another course, defined by staging Aeschylus and F. Arrabal (1965–1970). From today's point of view, the theatre scene worked as a community though all these stage phenomena operated on their own.

Mile Korun

The Slovenian National Theatre (SNT) Drama Ljubljana as the central institution which stands practically a stone's throw away from Križanke, where experimental activity was taking place, slowly began to adopt the experimental methodologies (the involved professional actors were regularly employed in institutions). Despite following the prescribed ideological principles, the Slovenian authorities had a laissez-faire attitude towards this multiplicity.

This fact was simultaneously shown by the productions of the SNT Drama Ljubljana directed by Mile Korun in the years 1963–1969 (the main director to introduce contemporaneity into Slovenian theatre, who in 1956 staged Beggar's Opera by Bertolt Brecht at the Workers' Stage, but later resisted joining experimental theatre groups in the Knight's Hall and developed his directorial aesthetics only in the frame of the state theatre institution).

A nod to the new at SNT Drama Ljubljana

However, this form of indirect interaction between institution and theatre experiment was a precondition for the growth of Slovenian theatre in the modern and urban sense, in sync with foreign developmental currents, even more so from 1963 on, when the SNT established its own Small Stage (Mala drama) in the newly organised extension to its Main Stage.

Experimental groups were seen as makeshift, fragmented and weighed down with financial, spatial and technical difficulties, which demanded endless compromises. At the same time, the visual element and set design of performances were rather basic as central attention was put on verbal contents of presented plays and to the specific "masculine" nature of the stage presence. These theatre concepts influenced the SNT Drama (under the artistic leadership of Bojan Štih) to break away from many of the conventions to which it previously adhered.

New spaces, new practices in the late 1960s and 1970s

The society of the 1960s also recognised that the work of the first non-institutional groups was in the interest of the community. In the second half of the 1960s, the theatre activities in Slovenia dispersed into several directions. We soon see the development of the Experimental Theatre Glej in 1970, Pekarna Theatre (1972–1978), as well as of Mladinsko Theatre that under the artistic leadership of Dušan Jovanović gradually shifted its programme for children and youth into addressing spectators with progressive, "young" minds in a broader sense (two groundbreaking performances: Victims of the bum-bum Fashion by Jovanović, 1975, and Missa in a minor by Ljubiša Ristić, 1980). The creators of Glej and Pekarna (Janez Pipan, Ivo Svetina) gradually re-centred their domain to the Mladinsko and Mala drama, Igor Lampret to SLG Celje.

Author bio

Primož Jesenko is a theatre historian and researcher at the Slovenian Theatre Institute (SLOGI). He is the author of the monograph Rob v središču: Izbrana poglavja o eksperimentalnem gledališču v Sloveniji 1955–1967 (The Edge in the Centre: Selected Chapters from the History of Experimental Theatre in Slovenia 1955–1967), SLOGI, 2015).

Primož Jesenko +
Primož Jesenko provides a brief sketch of the developments of experimental theatre in Slovenia of the 1950s and 1960s. +
Primož Jesenko provides a brief sketch of the developments of experimental theatre in Slovenia of the 1950s and 1960s. +