You have to liberate yourself and constantly fight for that freedom

Interview with theatre maker Žiga Divjak

Week of the Festival: Ptuj, Slovenia

Žiga Divjak (1992) is a Slovenian theatre director who has won the Borštnik Award for Best Director for his first performance in an institutional theatre (The Man Who Watched the World, 2017) and won the Grand Prix just two years later (6). His projects always address social and political reality, developing recognisable engaged artistic statements in a robust aesthetic/ethic event.

Žiga Divjak by Matej Povše, SMG

How does your conception of theatre as an engaged practice  marked by very contemporary topics and a tough stage expression  fit into the drama-oriented theatre field?

Rather than staging already written texts, I am more interested in researching topics that seem to be relevant and necessary here and now. This stems from a purely personal need to be active in this world and a desire to try to change it in some way. I am glad that both original projects and documentary performances are gaining ground in institutions as well, I would like to have more opportunities like that and normal means of production too. But neither the institutions nor the non-governmental scene are insuring that things will go well, theatre is a place where you have to liberate yourself and constantly fight for that freedom. 

However, like any other poetic form, documentary performance has its own specificities which are not always achievable with the same production model. That is why I miss more courage from the producers — fear is the enemy of art. Precisely opposing fear and insisting on producing more demanding performances (non-commercial, critical subjects) will be even more important. The threat of a financial crisis must not take away our critical gaze and a plurality of expression.

Can you elaborate on what you mean by theatre expression? Is aestheticisation problematic, especially when dealing with the representation of minorities of any kind?

We try to develop performances where the form follows the content, which seems to compel us to seek minimal expression. I am fond of minimalism because it generates greater participation, it activates the spectator’s imagination and perception right where the real event is actually happening. Our temporality is designed to constantly fill the void with new stimuli, but I am convinced that the artistic task is to open up this void, not to fill it with spectacle and populist approaches. Plain stage narration is a tool that can create a strong connection between spectators, actors and the subject, wherein direct stage acting would be extremely unconvincing. It might even be tasteless...

What is the relationship between factual (documentary) and empathic in your performances?

As a society, we can only survive if we understand the problems of others as our own. Theatre functions precisely on this empathic human ability. Due to the availability of information and the flood of news we often think we know everything. Yet our knowledge is mainly focused on big headlines and general information, even though the problematic essence can only be seen in the most personal, common sphere of life. Therefore, I try to present abstract, political problems and their impacts through a concrete and personal perspective: we tried to show how racist reactions are stimulated by economic instability (6), the state of affairs of the exploited workers in the Port of Koper (The Bailiff Yerney and His Rights), the ideologies of everyday life (Seven days), the pushbacks on Slovenian, Croatian and Bosnian borders (Game). In different ways, performances help us become more sensitive towards others and strengthen our sense of belonging to a community, because our time generates frustrated individuals, too burdened with their own problems to even recognise the problems of others. But many of our personal problems are in fact structural, political, and I want to draw attention to this.

Your performances disclose problematic points of our social order and aim at encouraging social dialogue. How do you see this dialogue in times of virtual communities and public apathy?

Theatre has the ability to channel everyday newspaper stories through different, more accessible perspectives. Presenting social topics and political problems that are usually not located in the domain of art and theatre gives them weight and importance — sometimes just the mere fact that a performance is about migrants or former Yugoslavian contract workers can provoke a reaction. A certain thing can trigger change in less direct ways and I believe, as a society, that we are more intertwined than we realise, so theatre has the potential to change things even without explicit proof.

The polarisation of opinion bubbles is one of the key problems of contemporary society and despite the fact that theatre probably does not address all spectrums of society, it still has this wonderful characteristic, that is becoming even more important: it is happening here and now, in front of us and with us in real space and time. In times of the increasing presence of virtual reality and constant rush, theatre forces you to sit down and look in a certain direction, and you do that with a bunch of strangers in a common space. In addition to the basic theatre dissemination taking place between actors and spectators, there is another one going on in the background: communication among the audience. In times of personalised, social media tabs, it is crucial and nice to see a stranger by your side, who is moved, laughing or angry at the same (or other) things as you are. It gives you a compass of where you actually are.

A scene from Game, Divjak's latest performance.

The process of your last performance (Game) started before the quarantine, but it premiered in a post-coronacontext. How should we perceive the social (and political) aspect of theatre in a context where socialisation and contact is dangerous (or even forbidden)?

It’s weird when the world finds itself in a crisis and you are not able to practice your profession. Usually, crises are fruitful periods for theatre, but during the corona crisis some obviously seem to think it would be better if theatre didn’t exist at all. In any case, I hope that the proximity of a fellow human being will no longer pose a threat or risk. I am afraid of a world getting used to “physical distance” which we love to falsely call “social distance” — yet I fear the latter is the exact term after all.