Waiting for a New Takeoff
From 2006 to 2023
“For me, it was our most relevant theatre in the nineties” (Foretić, 2000), concludes the critic at the turn of the century. With the passage of time and an objective review of the activities of the Varaždin theatre throughout its long history, “ups and downs” in terms of management and repertoire alternate almost in regular rhythms. External circumstances can have a great influence (e.g. financing, wars, disasters, etc.), but the primary causes of prosperity or decline are most often hidden in the theatre itself. Rejuvenation of the ensemble, as well as continuous care of it and a challenging repertoire, are prerequisites for the stability of the theatre. The arrival of a dozen young actresses and actors and Borna Baletić, who takes over the artistic direction, got a result: an enviable number of memorable plays were staged within the framework of the Croatian theatre, the number of audiences and reruns increased. According to the number of plays performed as well as the number of the total program of the Croatian National Theatre in Varaždin, the years 2000 and 2001 were the most successful, and a significant number of plays for children contributed to this. In the early 2000s, two or three seasons resulted in repertoire stagnation, with a drop in the number of premieres, as well as enthusiasm in the ensemble and in the management, so the Theatre with insufficient financial resources was waiting for its resurgence. A series of unsuccessful competitions for the managing director of the Theatre followed, and the previous director, Marijan Varjačić, held the position of acting director, without ambitions for a leading position and new repertory challenges.
With the arrival of the new managing director of the Croatian National Theatre in Varaždin, Jasna Jakovljević, in 2005-2006, the expectations of all employees were high. However, the problems accumulated over the years were not negligible, therefore the Theatre could be started by a person with a clear vision, uncompromising solutions and charismatic persistence in the realization of repertory, personnel and financial policies. The dilapidated technical equipment and run-down interior were noticed, so the managing director, having gained the trust of the local and state authorities, soon began the renovation and already at the beginning showed her skills in collecting the necessary financial resources. The second problem became – the ensemble. The older members have retired, until recently the “young” have become “middle”, so it was necessary to either hire a certain number of young actors or virtuoso adapt the repertoire to the existing ensemble. Ten people are employed, mostly in administration.
The priorities were as follows: renovation of the theatre building, re-introduction of musical repertoire, i.e. opera, and obtaining national status. The repertoire of several successive mandates of Jasna Jakovljević can be divided into two periods: from 2006 to 2012, during the time of artistic advisor Mladen Martić, and from 2013 to 2021, when the Theatre becomes national, and Ozren Prohić becomes a part-time advisor.
Towards the National Status
From 2005-2006 until 2012-2013
Repertory production was soon increased, but the number of reruns dropped significantly compared to before. Senior directors were engaged in the author’s teams: Želimir Mesarić, Petar Veček, Georgij Paro, Steven Kent, Petar Selem, Zvonimir Ilijić, Slovenian directors: only M. Strelec, Boris Kobal, Jernej Kobal and Rene Maurin. The repertoire continued to follow the rules of repertory theatre: from domestic and international classics to contemporary dramatic literature. In order to freshen up the ensemble, guest actors were hired, so no attention was paid to the existing local ensemble. This resulted in a significant increase in the price of performances, as well as difficulties in timely planning of monthly programs. Only in the period from 2006 to 2009, guest actors were represented in about 100 roles, and later the number grew, so that in some performances of the Varaždin theatre, more guests played than the resident ensemble. In his criticism of the performance of Dundo Maroje at the Dubrovnik Summer Festival, the critic (I.M., 2008) observed that “the play was created in collaboration with most actors from Zagreb, namely only six of them were from the theatre in Varaždin”. Ivan Glowatzky is employed for a short time, Berislav Tomičić leaves the Theatre, and Leona Paraminski, Hana Hegedušić and Ivica Pucar come. Although the new forces contributed significantly to the ensemble and the possibilities of creating the repertoire, the ratio of guest actors did not decrease.
In addition to the dramatic and children’s repertoires, accompanying programs (visits of various theatres, professional and amateur, musical and musical-scenic programs and contemporary dance performances), as well as numerous special programs and events, are much more frequent. The theatre performs in the region: in centres of culture, retirement homes, castles, etc., and makes many program collaborations: with theatres in Sisak, Vinkovci, Čakovec…
Of Croatian classics in the repertoire are Krleža, Držić, Šenoa, S. Kolar, and of contemporaries Nina Mitrović, Slobodan Šnajder, whose play, The Encyclopaedia of Lost Time, was premiered under the direction of Snježana Banović. Miro Gavran’s play, Nora Today, was premiered, and Mani Gotovac staged her prose, Tell Me about Gorky, with the ensemble. Vladimir Stojsavljević’s Nicholas the Seventh was also premiered. Damir Zlatar Fray directs his text Blood and Hinds in Trakoščan Castle, What Now? By Borivoj Radaković is also performed.
European classics: A Flea in Her Ear by Georges Feydeau, Goldoni, Molière, Schiller’s Mary Stuart, Plautus’ The Pot of Gold, bilingual – in Slovenian and Croatian Kajkavian, in co-production with the Ptuj Municipal Theatre. The latter play recorded the most repetitions, 40, while the others, even the “reading titles”, were performed several times.
In 2012, Dario Harjaček from Varaždin directed four plays by Fosse entitled Mother and Child. At the time of the selection of the new management, in 2005, in his first steps as a managing director, Harjaček directed the Destruction of the People or My Livers Are Meaningless. Among contemporary German dramas, M. von Mayenburg’s The Ugly One was included in the repertoire of the Croatian National Theatre in Varaždin. The Pairs Game by M. Zupančić was co-produced with Zorin-dom from Karlovac. In the play The Marriage of Bette & Boo by Christopher Durang, all excellent roles were performed, the duration of the play was more than three hours and the topic of intergenerational emotional violence in American society was not understood by the audience. Along with Durang, plays by contemporary world playwrights were staged: Snake in the Grass by Alan Ayckbourn directed by Tea Gjergizi Agejev, Glasses by Elton John directed by home director Ksenija Krčar. Glasses have achieved the interest of a predominantly young audience. “The cast of Glasses can be said to be great, to say the least. As Bill Marinko Prga used the character aspect of a benevolently psychotic loser persistent in maintaining his football cult” reads the review, in which the other actors of the play are also deservedly praised. K. Krčar directs The Beaty Queen of Leenane and Dubravko Torjanac Arabian Night by R. Schimmelpfennig, (along with Krleža’s, Valent Žganac’s Lamentations and several plays for children and young people, including his Kajkavian texts Vrak Mrak and Seljo Beljo and Stolek, stolek).
The Children’s and Puppet Scene work at a higher capacity, the number of premieres compared to the previous period has almost tripled, but the number of reruns is halved. Although they are mostly of high quality, the performances lack continuity of performance. In terms of awards, the play Ivek the Boy and Cvilek the Dog by Đura Vilović should definitely be highlighted, whose novel was successfully dramatized by Jelena Kovačić, directed by Anica Tomić, and co-produced with Pinklec Cultural Association in Čakovec. It won the Croatian Actors Award in 2010, at the 13th Meeting of Professional Theatres for Children and Young People of the ASSITEJ Croatian Centre, it was also declared the best, and Jelena Dokleja and Mario Jakšić received the award for the best acting achievements. Mali Marulić Award in Split went to Anica Tomić for best director.
The actors continue their work as authors, so Ljubomir Kerekeš writes and directs Debutantes based on the motifs of Boccaccio’s Decameron, Stojan Matavulj directed the comedy I Love Njofra by Milan Grgić, J. Kralj Novak staged his monodrama Singerica. Performances were enjoyed at the Zvonimir Rogoz Stage and as guest appearances. As an author, Gordana Slivka performed her monodrama Woman in Black, in the Europa Media Club, and Barbara Rocco directed Nećko Svojeglavečko by Z. Balog.
We could call these theatre years more undefined in terms of repertoire than diverse; in a wide variety of themes, authors, poetics and aesthetics, more successful plays with a considerable number of accomplished excellent roles had the same short-lived life as less successful ones. With irregular performances, due to the mass of guest actors, the busyness of the stage with numerous guest programs, and poor organization, it was necessary to hold rehearsals before each rerun, so the ensemble spent more time recalling the mise-en-scène and the text than performing. As a result, the quality visibly decreased from replay to replay, and the ensemble was gripped by apathy.
Thus, from the initial elation at the “new beginning”, through confusion, gradually came a benevolent effort to eliminate shortcomings by talking with the management, and then indignation because nothing has changed in the organizational sense.
An (Over)ambitious Program
From 2013 to 2021-2022
On September 27, 2013, after a two-day debate, members of the Croatian Parliament voted on the proposal of the Act on Amendments to the Act on Theatres, according to which the Varaždin-based Croatian National Theatre in Varaždin will stand on an equal footing with those in Zagreb, Osijek, Split and Rijeka. The initiative to obtain the national status of the Varaždin theatre was initiated by the City of Varaždin and the Croatian National Theatre itself, and as part of the parliamentary debate, the member of parliament of the Croatian National Party and the deputy mayor of Varaždin, Natalija Martinčević, explained the initiative: “The Varaždin theatre can be said to be the “guardian” of the Kajkavian language on the stage, which is extremely important because the language deeply marks the opinion, the spirit of a cultural community, and Varaždin theatre gravitates to the area of Kajkavian Croatia with half a million people whose mother tongue is Kajkavian and who certainly deserve their central theatre.” The newly appointed intendant, Jasna Jakovljević, considered the opera program more important: “Since I have been at the head of the Varaždin theatre, I have only wanted one thing – for our theatre to be a regional centre of musical and performing arts, to the pride of Varaždin and Croatia”, and additional funds need to be allocated for it, so she hoped, like the ruling local structures, for more abundant funding from the state budget1. She pointed out that in 2013, as many as 101,834 spectators watched the programs of the Varaždin theatre, and such unrealistic figures were recorded during all the mandates of this administration.
The Croatian National Theatre in Varaždin announced extremely ambitious seasons with as many as 11, 12 or more premieres, half of which were co-productions, whose performances in Varaždin were often missed. In addition, 15 to 20 replays were retained in the repertoire, which means that our youngest national theatre should play about 30 different plays in the next few months. However, with the end of the season, it becomes a rule that 50 percent of the titles disappear from the list of the repertoire realized. Jakovljević explains: “In my opinion, it is always better to have ambitions. Without this, we would hardly have been able to realize such a large number of performances with minimal funds in the past years, to begin the renovation of the theatre building, and to gain national status through quality work.”2
The ensemble publicly expressed its problems, so the most credible situation until the end of this administration is to show the statements of the actors themselves: “The other day, the schedule of performances was published, from which it can be seen that there are no performances from the repertoire in November, but only three premieres. First, three premieres in one month is crazy, which is hard to explain. There is little technique and it will be rough. Secondly, there will not be any shows from the standard repertoire in that month, of which are very many. Next is December, in which we usually play a little because of all the pre-Christmas events at the Theatre – tell us the interlocutors, who asked to remain anonymous for the sake of “peace in the house”. Twenty years ago, it was normal to play 40 performances in Varaždin, which was not the case of any play in the last two decades. We are happy if we act in a performance 15 times, and not every show gets to do that. It’s a bit funny. The actors are very unhappy because of that, but when we mention it, we feel like we’re lazy?! It’s the other way around. We love our work, and this is how nonsense is brought into it. It is difficult for an actor to find the motivation to seriously prepare a play that he will not play later again. We come to rehearsals, and already in advance we have an internal betting on whether the show will play twice or six times, and both of them are awfully small. (…) We don’t have five formations of Schneider and technique. There aren’t enough people in technique to stage 12 premieres. We don’t even have five halls to work parallelly, so there are too few rehearsals on stage and everyone is “fighting” for it. Stage rehearsals are one of the main prerequisites for a quality show. Because of this, the situation is terribly tense and nervous, everyone is irritable because things are not working – they say. They conclude that the reason for the ambition of a large number of premieres at any cost is not clear to them. – Everything is forced and we don’t understand it. If the plays were played a lot, it would be great, but we already know that they won’t. We rehearse all the time, and we have six rehearsals a day. At the moment, we are doing four shows in parallel, and we are not playing anything at all. Terrible.”3 The journalist concludes: “This is not the first year with such problems at the Croatian National Theatre in Varaždin. Moreover, the (over)ambitious repertoire is announced every year, but it is almost never realized”, and this publication on October 31, 2018 does not require additional comment.
Given that according to the Act on Theatres, a national theatre has an obligation to employ artistic directors, in 2015 the intendant hired an external consultant, Ozren Prohić, employed at the Academy of Dramatic Arts in Zagreb. Ines Bojanić left the ensemble (2013), and from 2012 and 2014: Ozren Opačić, Mitja Smiljanić, Jan Kerekeš, Ljubomir Kerekeš, and Goran Guksić and Matija Kezele joined as permanent external members until 2016. The number of guest actors in the play does not decrease, and the only play in which only the actors employed with the Varaždin theatre play is the author’s project of Olja Lozica in 2014, The Feast, perhaps one of the most relevant plays of this period – current social issues, with great acting achievements.
Soon (from 2016 to 2019), Leona Paraminski, Mitja Smiljanić, Jan Kerekeš, Ozren Opačić and Ivica Pucar left the ensemble. In 2017, Karlo Mrkša was emplyed, in 2018, the Eldan brothers from Varaždin arrived, but as external collaborators – they were employed in 2021, together with Elizabeta Brodić. At the professional training, which was (modestly) financed by the Ministry of Culture, the ensemble was filled by young actresses, Hana Kunić and Ivana Zanjko, and directors, Dražen Krešić and Julija Klier, along with other young Varaždin women, without the possibility of permanent engagement. Costume designer Žarka Krpan is hired for the first time, and Vid Novak Kralj takes the place of the deceased composer Dragutin Novaković Šarli. Marija Krpan and the national champion, Jagoda Kralj Novak, are retiring.
Ozren Prohić, along with the former generation of directors, Georgij Paro, Ivica Kunčević, also brought directors who directed for the first time in Varaždin: Krešimir Dolenčić, Vinko Brešan, Jasmin Novljaković, Aida Bukvić, Valentina Turcu, Tomislav Pavković, Natalija Manojlović…who assigns directions to herself and engages a representative number of young directors, mostly his students: Lea Anastazija Flegar, Ivan Plazibat, Marina Pejnović, Ivan Planinić, Hrvoje Korbar, Roman Nikolić, Ivan Penović.
The repertoire includes an equal ratio of Croatian and European playwrights, with as many as 15 premieres: the mentioned The Feast, V. Kosec-Torjanac The Hands by Ranko (based on the short stories The Hands, Your Lonely Life, The Hug, Dead Souls (genitive singular) by R. Marinković, directed by Dubravko Torjanac; author’s project, Quadrature of the Circle, directed by ensemble, co-production of the Croatian National Theatre and Gllugl Art Organization; U. Vizek, No Life on Mars, edited by Marina Pejnović; Brajčić, Dežgracija, edited by Julia Klier, whose performance we did not see in Varaždin; D. Špišić, The Rubber Sky, directed by Aida Bukvić, L. Vlašić, Nothing New, directed by Hrvoje Korbar; I. Penović, The Croatian God of Massacre, directed by Ivan Penović, Classical Mousetrap, an author’s project of the Artistic Guerrilla Movement, directed by Ksenija Krčar; K. Krčar, Hidden (based on the stories Happy Vashtar and Gabriel-Ernest by H.H. Munro Saki), directed by Ksenija Krčar; K. Krčar / E. A. Poe, Horror Diptych, directed by Ksenija Krčar; co-production with GMV, V. Arsenijević, Crocodiles, directed by Dražen Krešić, A. Baricco, Ocean Sea, a co-production of the Dubrovnik Summer Festival, Croatian National Theatre in Varaždin and the Croatian Society of Writers, edited and directed by Mani Gotovac and others. The first performance was also part of the Children’s and Puppet Scene, which is formally discontinued in this period, but not its production under the direction of Dubravko Torjanac.
Contemporary Croatian authors have also been performed: V. Balog / G. Vrbanić, Bricks of Saint Elizabeth, T. Zajec, Pigs and A. Srnec Todorović, Dead Wedding, co-production of the Croatian National Theatre in Varaždin and the EUROKAZ Art Organization.
Croatian classics are less frequently represented; Gloria was staged on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the birth of Ranko Marinković, and not even 500 spectators saw it on the Varaždin stage. Krleža is staged as many as three times: The Three Cavaliers of Fräulein Melania and The Ballades of Petrica Kerempuh are directed by Georgij Paro, and Masquerade was directed by the young Ivan Planinić. Paro directs Master of Your Body, and Dolenčić The Acts of Baron Tamburlan by an unknown Kajkavian author.
European classics are performed: Sophocles, Molière, T. Williams, M. Gorky, Ibsen, and for the first time in Croatia were performed: V. Franceschi, Chess – Brother; I. Vyrypaev, Illusions, A. Nicolai, Hamlet in Hot Sauce, S. I. Witkiewicz The Madman and the Abbess, M. O’ Rowe, Terminus, Michal Lang, Snake Ball. Also staged were: E. de Filippo, Filumena Marturano, Y. Reza, God of Carnage, M. Frisch, Arsonists and E.-E. Schmitt, Enigmatic Variations that are still in the repertoire today.
Acting initiatives have also resulted in new plays; Ljubomir Kerekeš directs the play The Doctor in Spite of Himself, by J. B. P. Molière / V. Gerić / Lj. Kerekeš, and the most popular show of the Varaždin theatre, Bogi Ivač / Poor Ivač, is getting a new look – Kerekeš directs and works the texts of old French farces under the title Bogi Ivač znova / Poor Ivač Anew.
On the occasion of his 25th anniversary of working in the Varaždin theatre, Robert Plemić brought together young actresses and actors from Varaždin and the stage manager, who signed the acting-musical play, Rosa E. Steel Magnolias by R. Harling, directed by Barbara Rocco. The author’s project of Filip Eldan and Nikša Eldan, Faces in Isolation, and signed by the director’s team: Dražen Krešić, Filip Eldan and Nikša Eldan. The play had its online premiere in 2020.
The Coronavirus pandemic blocked the normal work of everyone, including the Varaždin theatre, which tried to maintain communication with the audience by devising possible performance content through social networks.
Chamber opera productions are staged in collaboration with the Academy of Music in Zagreb, the Music School in Varaždin, etc. In addition to guest performances, this period also includes a dance production in collaboration with the VRUM performing arts collective, under the direction of Sanja Tropp Frühwald.
In 2021, the “Revision of the financial effects of operations and the achievement of business goals’ at the Croatian National Theatre in Varaždin, which covers the period for 2019 and 2020”, determined numerous irregularities, among which was the conflict of interest of Ozren Prohić in his contractual position with the Theatre.
Although part of the ensemble, despite earlier remarks about the work, came to the defence of the managing director Jasna Jakovljević, she tendered her resignation and a competition was announced for a new managing director. In March 2022, the Theatre was taken over by Senka Bulić.
“Live Theatre” by Senka Bulić
The priorities of the managing director Jakovljević have been achieved to a good extent: since her arrival, the building has been continuously renovated and is currently nearing completion; national status was obtained, and the music and stage branch of the Croatian National Theatre in Varaždin is included in the Statute as mandatory. Repertoire, organization, ensemble and dramatic production will remain the categories that will be dealt with by the future administration, which will take over the already started work on the plays by C. Hampton, Total Eclipse directed by Ksenija Krčar and Kadišl and Celestial Travellers by J. Domaš, directed by Sanja Ivić.
The following actors and actresses have been employed: Helena Minić Matanić, Marko Cindrić, Marinko Leš and Dea Presečki, who won the audience, critics and numerous awards with her debut in Varaždin, playing the role of Grabancijaš dijak / Grabancijaš the Student.
In this (too) short time for analysis, it is necessary to highlight the enormous increase in visibility; attention was finally paid to publicity, and this resulted in a full audience. Repertoire determinants: representation of contemporary Croatian and European authors, as well as classics in drama, Kajkavian repertoire, plays for children and young people, music and stage program (for the first time in the recent history of the Theatre an independent production was made), and contemporary dance is also represented. Most of the ensemble members play in the plays, while there are almost no guests.
Along with the completion of the works in the Great Auditorium, the Zvonimir Rogoz Basement Stage has been renovated.
The following plays have been staged so far:
Matanić, GODS; directed by Dalibor Matanić; 25/05/2022, Big Stage; first performance;
Guljašević / V. Kosec-Torjanac, CROCODILE MARKO; directed by Dubravko Torjanac; 11/09/2022, Big Stage,
Feydeau, A FLEA IN HER EAR; directed by Snežana Trišić; premiere: 15/10/2022, Big Stage;
Mazzoli, SONG FROM THE UPROAR: THE LIVES AND DEATHS OF ISABELLE EBERHARDT; directed by Livija Pandur, conductor, Matthias Fortuna; 27/11/2022, Big Stage;
T. Amadeus Hoffmann /L. Kaštelan, THE NUTCRACKER; directed by Paolo Tišljarić; 10/12/2022, Big Stage;
Brecht, MOTHER COURAGE AND HER CHILDREN; directed by Krešimir Dolenčić; co-production with Marin Držić Theatre in Dubrovnik; premiere: 24/02/2023, Big Stage, and 10/03/2023, Marin Držić Theatre in Dubrovnik;
Krleža, LEGEND; the author’s project of Vesna Kosec-Torjanac, Filip Eldan and Nikša Eldan; premiere: 14/04/2023, the Zvonimir Rogoz Stage;
Reza, ART; directed by Barbara Rocco; premiere: 19/05/2023, the Zvonimir Rogoz Stage;
Kálmán, COUNTESS MARITZA; co-production with the B.B. Opera; directed by Dejan Jakovljević, conductors, Igor Vlajnić and Darijan Ivezić; premiere: 23/09/2023, Big Stage;
Novak: A CASE OF OWN DEATH; directed by Ivan Plazibat; 14/10/2023, Big Stage; first performance;
NOW AND NEVER AGAIN (ballet diptych: M. Krleža, Adam and Eva; choreographer, Maša Kolar; For Never; choreographer Jeroen Verbruggen); co-production with the Ivan pl. Zajc Croatian National Theatre in Rijeka; premiere at the Ivan pl. Zajc Croatian National Theatre: 21/10/2023, premiere at the National Theatre in Varaždin: 24/10/2023, Big Stage;
Shakespeare, A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM; directed by Paolo Magelli; premiere: 29/11/2023, Big Stage.
Damir Martinović Mrle & Varaždin Folklore Ensemble; choreographer and director, Tim Hrvaćanin; premiere: 19/12/2023, Big Stage;
Šljivar: HEALING REGIME; directed by Bojan Đorđev; premiere: 15/12/2023, the Zvonimir Rogoz Stage, and
Kučinović, WHISPER OF THE SOUL; directed by Tamara Kučinović; premiere: 29/12/2023, the Zvonimir Rogoz Stage.
A Spectrum of Different Artistic Perspectives
Reflections on the term of office at the Croatian National Theatre in Varaždin took into account the importance and achievements of this theatre so far and respect for the fact that it was the people of Varaždin who initiated its construction. It is a great responsibility to get the opportunity to create a programme that becomes part of a great tradition.
The repertoire that I proposed for Varaždin has origins from antiquity to our contemporary exciting poetics and is connected with our understanding of the world and today’s artistic reality. The duty of the public theatre is to offer a spectrum of different artistic perspectives. This is not only a matter of my sensibility, but also the obligation that the public theatre must have towards its environment. What is important is that responsible artists embrace different influences, but it is crucial that they maintain authentic authorship. With this idea, I am opening the Theatre to new readings of classics and contemporary authors, with a special emphasis on first performances.
I create the repertoire in connection with the specifics of the climate and our Central European heritage. I want to recognize contemporary motives through tradition and reflect the authentic problems of our world. In the Kajkavian tradition, I see the possibility of speaking about great dramatic themes through the dialect. In this way, a relationship is built from the local to all other broader social contexts.
We live in a very insecure world, without stable supports, in multiple crises, without ideas about immediate solutions. Many problems are burning for us, from migrations, the consequences of the pandemic, geopolitical realignments, wars, environmental problems, generally unsafe working and living conditions. In such times, it is important to ask fundamental questions in the context of today’s world. There are a handful of topics and motives, but I will react to all new circumstances and impulses that will be important for the choice of title and director. I want the Theatre as a meeting place for great artists from different performance fields in the centre of the artistic life of Varaždin, Croatia and beyond.