Theatre, because freedom | Jeton Neziraj

In April 2017, one day before the premiere of the play Bordello Balkan, a group of about ten war veterans entered the National Theatre of Kosovo. All of them were fuming. They demanded that the play should not be shown the next day, because, according to them, it insulted “national feelings” and “values of the liberation war”. During an inflamed conversation — which even included death threats — I remember one of them saying that it would be fairly easy for them to stop a play at the theatre, compared to a Kosovo Assembly session that they had also stopped a few weeks earlier. I quickly replied by saying that it is possible to block an assembly session, but not a theatre performance. I still remember their perplexed faces, as though they couldn’t believe that I was saying something like that. They were either thinking I was crazy, or that I was being arrogant; or, in those moments they could have even thought that theatre had a sort of ‘extraordinary power’, or some ‘hidden magic’ of which they weren’t aware.
The play premiered the next day, despite strict police supervision — which has often been the case with Qendra Multimedia plays in the last few years, in Prishtina or even in Belgrade, where we were invited as guests to show our plays!

For a long time afterwards, I have thought about my crazy determi- nation to defend the staging of a play in such dangerous circumstances. So, why did I believe (and why do I still stand by it) that somebody so powerful could potentially stop an assembly session, but not a theatre performance?
Because I believe that I am a free human being. Because I have and continue to believe that Kosovar society is a free society.

During the ’90s in Kosovo, theatres were among the institutions that were occupied and brought under the management of Milošević’s violent administration. Albanians chose not to go to a theatre that was taken from them by force and where most of the presented plays were in Serbian. The programme of that theatre was serving Milošević’s fascist policies. It had become a tool of the regime and it turned into a type of anti-theatre, the opposite of what it should have been or what theatre should represent. As an Albanian student, I once decided, almost by chance, to enter that theatre and see a play in Serbian. Being in that hall for over an hour was one of the most terrifying things I have experienced. I believed that I was the only Albanian there, surrounded by a Serbian audience. I believed that everybody there knew that I was Albanian. Meaning, a man without freedom. A slave in an enslaved theatre. And that’s why I was afraid.

What makes theatre indispensable? It’s the powerful bond it has with freedom. With the feeling of being free. With the aspiration to find freedom on the stage, at a time when it is absent in reality. When this bond between the public and the theatre is lost, the meaning of theatre per- ishes along with it.

A free theatre is testimony to a free society. A struggle for a free theatre, specifically freedom on stage, is a struggle for the freedom of a society.
Freedom on stage represents the freedom of the society. A captured and blackmailed theatre can only serve the people in power who have captured and blackmailed society itself.

So, theatre — because freedom. So, we do theatre because we aspire to have freedom. We want a free theatre because we want to be free. We want to defend the theatre because we want to defend our freedom.

For the premiere of Bordello Balkan in April 2017, regardless of the ten- sions and incidents that could have occurred because of the war veterans, the audience showed up. This time, their coming was not an ordinary theatrical ritual, but an act of resistance. By attending the play, they wanted to show their solidarity with the theatre, especially with the freedom that they desire, and which they were ready to protect. Their coming was a struggle for their threatened freedom.

Theatre, because freedom!

Jeton Neziraj is a playwright from Kosovo. He was the artistic director of the National Theatre of Kosovo and is currently the director of Qendra Multimedia, a cultural production company aiming to create an alternative form of art production to address political and social issues with clarity and imagination. His plays have been translated into more than 15 languages.