by Jeton Neziraj
directed by Blerta Neziraj
actors Bajrush Mjaku, Adrian Morina, Anisa Ismaili, Adrian Aziri, Ernest Malazogu
musicians Susanna Tognella (violin), Gabriele Marangoni (harmonica)
dramaturg and artistic consultant Ilir Gjocaj
choreography Arthur Kuggeleyn
music composer Gabriele Marangoni
stage and costumes Susanne Maier-Staufen

Qendra Multimedia, Prishtina

Running time 1h 30’

National Première
Played in Albanian with Italian subtitles

About ten years after the end of the war, Kosovo, until then administered by the United Nations Mission, is getting ready to declare its independence. The newest state in the world is expected to be born soon. The Secretary of the Ministry of Sport asks the Kosovo`s National Theater troupe to prepare a ceremonial play which will be performed on the historic day of declaring independence. Two million Euros are allocated for the celebration of independence. The theater troupe is proud and feels very privileged. But their joy is not without some challenges. Besides various “aesthetic” politically correct requirements, the troupe faces two unpredictable “problems”. First, the day on which independence will be declared is being kept a secret; and, second, the play has to include an unwritten speech by the Prime Minister, which he will give in Parliament on the historic day. While the theater troupe begins intensive rehearsals, James, the stage technician has a parallel project. He starts to construct an airplane which he wants to fly around the world with the wholly original goal of lobbying as many states as possible to recognize the new state. The news about the date of declaring independence comes all of a sudden. That evening, the government cabinet, guests from NATO, the UN, the EU and other diplomats, come to the National Theater of Kosovo to see the play – The Kosovo National Epopee. One Flew over the Kosovo Theater is a political comedy about one of the important events of global significance of this century – the birth of the state of Kosovo. This is a comedy about the new Kosovo, which is exhausted and ravaged by the war, poverty, corruption and the endless tutelage of international missions, and is trying to find its own way toward the future…

Jeton Neziraj is a playwright from Kosovo. He was former Artistic Director of the National Theatre of Kosovo. By now he has written over 15 plays that have been staged and performed widely in Europe as well as in the USA. His plays and his writings have been translated and published in many languages; his play, “Liza is sleeping” won the first prize in a national competition for Albanian plays. He wrote the screenplay for the feature film “Donkeys of the Border” and is the author of many books and articles on cultural and political issues, published in local and international magazines and journals. Neziraj is the founder and the director of Qendra Multimedia, a cultural production company based in Prishtina. He was Professor of Dramaturgy at the Faculty of Arts – University of Prishtina, during the year 2007-2008. He has given speeches and run theater workshops at several festivals, conferences and universities around the world. As a playwright, he has worked with theatres and companies all over Europe and the USA and his plays have been performed in many important European theatre festivals. He is Board member of Dokufest (Prizren), Kosovo Institute of Peace and Centre for Research, Documentation and Publication (CRDP),  and is the Kosovo patron for the New Plays from Europe Festival in Wiesbaden – Germany and the Kosovo coordinator of the EURODRAM network. In 2011 Neziraj won the INPO prize for “Accelerating the debate”.

Read the interview with Neton Neziraj

Exclusive Interview with Jeton Neziraj

Kosovar Politics and Balkan Theatre

BTS intern Margarita Russolello interviews Jeton Neziraj, writer of One Flew Over the Kosovo Theatre, which will be premiering in North America at BTS 2014.

1) Tell us about One Flew Over The Kosovo Theatre. What was your inspiration in writing this play?
For the past few years I’ve been really active in the “battle” to liberate Kosovar theatre from the claws of politics, which has and continues to use theatre for its needs and other non-theatre-related agendas. The comedy “One Flew…” is based on many personal experiences I had. Beyond the “national euphoria” of state creation, the play tries to confront the public with the obstacles that Kosovo is currently facing and will face in the future, to show the long road we have to sovereignty and liberation from nationalistic ideologies, in order to create a true democracy climate
That’s why there were attempts from the Kosovo government to censor this play. Thanks to intervention on the part of a few ambassadors in Kosovo, it didn’t get to that point. Maybe this isn’t the moment to elaborate further, but let’s say the “comedy” that took place in order to have the play performed for Prishtina’s audience, was even more ironic and paradoxical than the events that take place in the play itself.
Before the play even premiered, it began to be criticized as “antipatriotic.” This kind of rhetoric is familiar and it really didn’t leave any impression on me. But, lets say also that the rest of the public, the majority, received the play really well. The applause that we received after the premiere at the National Theatre on December 5 2012, went beyond our expectations. It was also received wonderfully in Tirana, Skopje, Belgrade, and every other place where it was presented. In Belgrade, critics wrote that “this play proves that the independence of Kosovo has become a reality.” There were, of course, members of the audience in Kosovo who were a bit “unsettled”, because they thought that we went a bit “too far” in making an irony of “the most glorious event in the history of Kosovo”; the declaration of independence.
2) How has the social, political, and economic situation in Kosovo affected your work, specifically Kosovo declaring independence from Serbia?
Of course, these interesting political and social developments that have happened over the past few years in Kosovo have had a direct impact on my work as a writer. Some of these developments are reflected directly in my work (like in the “One Flew over the Kosovo Theater”, and other plays). In some of my plays these developments have dictated my style of writing, in one way or another. I believe that now, my plays are freed from the “darkness”, “pathos”, and “hopeless tragism” that dominated my early work.
3) What has been the reception of your plays in Kosovo? Have they made an impact on society or caused a cultural shift?
My plays have mostly been received well in Kosovo – at least that’s how it seems to me. I can’t say exactly what their effect has been on Kosovar society. But I know that most of them (especially these last few ones), have initiated a lot of debate.
4) It is my understanding that this play has been translated into numerous languages and performed throughout the world. What have been some similar or different reactions of people in the various countries? Do you see any trends in how people receive the work?
Even though it was only written less than two years ago, the play has been translated in six languages up until this point, and it’s been performed and presented in a few places in Europe. And in a few more places will be presented over the next new months, including this presentation in New York, for which I’m very curious about.
The reactions have really been different. In Prishtina, as I mentioned, the play was almost censored by the government of Kosovo. In Kragujevac, a Serbian city, a police presence was required before and during the performance. Whereas as the public reception has really been good, wherever it’s been presented. The more superlative reviews came from critics in Serbia.
With regards to the latter part of the question: it’s difficult to discuss a “trend” in how the public receives a theater performance in the Balkans, but in general it seems that people in these areas are tired of “big national themes” which have dominated the theatre scene all these years. They want to see theatre with fresh topics, and above all, a theatre that is aesthetically well made. “pièce bien faite”, as French would say. The only trend that I would identify here is the desire for quality theatre.
5) Do you feel represented as a Kosovar theatre artist in the NYC and US-based performing arts? Do you feel as if your culture, history, and identity are understood by US-based people? why or why not?
My work has been presented very little in America, unfortunately. But I hope that interest will slowly rise. That said, I have the impression that unlike in Europe, the audience there is lazier and mostly wants to see “easy” plays, that don’t leave them with the burden of questions after the play is over. I could be wrong.
Political events, unfortunately, have dominated the small amount of Kosovar art that has been presented in the U.S. In the U.S., and also in Europe, when Kosovo is discussed one immediately thinks about the war, NATO, the interethnic problems that still exist between Serbs and Albanians. The new state of Kosovo still hasn’t created an infrastructure that would allow the promotion of Kosovar culture abroad. Energy and focus is mostly dedicated to the political war of achieving “international recognition” for Kosovo’s independence. Beyond this diplomatic battle, there’s practically nothing. In these conditions, we can’t expect a foreign audience (like the one in New York, for example), to know much about us.
6) How is your work similar and/or different to the work of artists from Serbia, Albania, Macedonia, Bosnia, Croatia, and the rest of the Balkan region, in terms of both aesthetics and content?
With regards to Albania’s dramaturgy, I’m familiar with it and I know that my plays have some essential differences (both aesthetic and content-wise) compared to the plays that are written there. And generally speaking, differences between Kosovo and Albania proper are noticeable in all of Albanian dramaturgy, even though they both write in the same language. This is because Kosovo and Albania have lived in different social and economic surroundings for the past fifty years.
But I believe that one way or another, my work is a bit more similar to that of my colleagues from other parts of the former Yugoslavia (Serbia, Croatia, Macedonia, etc.). This is because the political and social experience these countries have been going through for the past fifty years, are very similar to that of Kosovo – including the experience of the wars of the 1990s.
7) You were the Artistic Director of the National Theatre of Kosovo for some time. what was your greatest accomplishment while working with them, and why did you decide to split off and start working with Qendra?
In fact, from the National Theatre, I was fired by the government of Kosovo, after the end of my first 3-year mandate in 2011. If I would assign a reason, I would say that I was removed because of my critical and anti-nationalistic stands, and because of my efforts to keep the theatre from being used as an instrument of politics.
The story of my removal from the post of Artistic Director of the National Theatre of Kosovo is preceded by my involvement over the past few years in intercultural regional cooperation, especially with Serbian artists.
In the beginning of 2011, the National Theatre of Kosovo received an invitation to present a theater production in Belgrade, at the theatre Atelje 212. I was one of the few people who wanted this visit to happen. My determination to see this happen was followed by a vicious media campaign, which presented me and the few supporters of the visit as “Yugo-nostalgics” and “betrayers of national interests.” The production was unofficially denied by the Kosovo government to go to Belgrade. For me this was a historical chance lost.
With regards to my accomplishments at the National Theatre, I can outline them shortly – in the period of time that I was there, there was approximately a 150% increase in the number of visitors compared to the previous year; I insisted on opening up the theater to international cooperation, including participation in international festivals beyond the region (there were no such opportunities before). And above all, I tried, and somewhat achieved, to reform the repertoire and aesthetics of the productions by focusing more on modern dramaturgy.
8) You are now the Director (wow!) of the Qendra Multimedia Institute. Explain Qendra’s scope of work and what you are trying to accomplish here.
Qendra Multimedia produces cultural activities which affirm and energize processes aimed towards regional reconciliation, which advance the rights of marginalized groups and which seek the democratization of the region. By addressing issues that are considered delicate and taboo, we want to create in Kosovo and the region a space for debate, reflection, and participation.
We’re mostly focused on Balkan projects, but also European ones. Our main focus has been on contemporary theater. We produce one or two performances a year, and we present them in Kosovo and through Europe at different international festivals.
Qendra, basically the only one of its kind in Kosovo, has initiated and stimulated cultural cooperation with artists and organizations from Serbia. Our theater performances are the first Kosovar plays to be presented in Serbia’s theatres in nearly 20 years.
Over the past few years, our theater productions have begun to attract the attention of many European festivals, which is something I feel very proud about.
9) What do you feel is the role of theatre in creating political discourse, visual culture, and the way people receive, consume, or interact with culture holistically? What is the role of the artist in times of (sociopolitcal) crisis?
What I’ve come to realize over the years through my work as a playwright and cultural activist, is that in times of socio-political crisis, theatre is burdened with additional responsibilities. The theatre cannot reside in its own comfort and separate itself from crises. It needs to become a part of the solution, by giving a voice to victims, to the powerless, the unprotected and the marginalized. This additional responsibility doesn’t denigrate the role of theatre – on the contrary, it functionalizes its role. The theatre should be the missing opposition of every regime. The theatre is that “missing” voice in a society.
10) I know you have a history of exposing human rights abuses in your plays, specifically those related to forced migration and racism towards Roma people in modern Europe. what is your view on immigration and racism in the U.S.?
Because of the key role America played in expelling the criminal forces of Slobodan Milosevic from Kosovo, Albanians in both Kosovo and Albania are known as the most pro-American people on the planet. They are more pro-America than Americans themselves. This kind of pro-Americanism, although it sounds really naive, has its roots in something completely humane; Kosovars are grateful to America for stopping the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo and making the return of nearly one million people to their homes possible.
I did this introduction to explain why most of the people hre see America as a “cradle of human rights” and as a place where “democracy blooms.” That’s why all of our official discourse in connection to America is built on these paradigms. But of course, curious people understand that America’s problems with racism, in fact, are probably larger than here in Europe. You mentioned my play about the Roma community, “Yue Madeleine Yue.” This play was read a few months ago at John Jay College in New York, and I was there to discuss the work with the audience, which was mostly made up of immigrant students. Even though the majority of the participants didn’t really know who the Roma were, they were familiar with the racist experiences my Roma characters experience in the play.
11) Do you feel that Balkan theatre artists have a strong Mediterranean identity? Do you see yourself as connected to the arts and culture of the Mediterranean region? Why or why not?
The wars of the former Yugoslavia have had the effect of Europe making an unfair division, by isolating the Balkans as a “hot region” (to be politically correct, the Balkans should be referred to as “Southeastern Europe”), and was marked with the stigma of being a “troubled”, “bloody” region, populated by “hotblooded” people. The term “ballkanas” (Alb. for “Balkan native”) has gotten almost racist nuances, because some call us “ballkanas” in order to remind us that we are not Europeans and have nothing in common with Europe and as a result of this, we are “the others,” “different,” and consequently “violent”.
And in this way, we Balkan natives have begun to feed ourselves with these stereotypes too. Balkan natives mostly emphasize their Balkan identity, because they think if they spoke of another identity, like a Mediterranean identity for example, that this would seem too ambitious, like an attempt to “hide” one’s true Balkan identity. That’s how it seems to me at least.
12) Do you participate in any pan-European or Mediterranean events? Are you in contact with your Mediterranean colleagues?
Yes, naturally. I attend many of the theatre festivals that are held in Europe, either as a visitor or as a participant with my own theater productions. I try to contribute to the development of cultural policies in Europe, but also of policies of reconciliation between the peoples of the Balkans and further afield.
I also keep in touch and am in regular communication with my fellow playwrights and other theater colleagues, who come from the Mediterranean, especially from Italy, Greece, and other countries, including those of the former Yugoslavia.
13) What is your vision for Kosovo, artistically and politically? For the Balkan region? For the Mediterranean region?
I’m one of those incorrigible optimists. I really am optimistic that Kosovo and the region have a bright future. A friend of mine, a philosopher, said that the Balkan wars of the 1990s were a “big historical accident.” And that’s why I say that regardless of all the occasional conflicts, the region has a longer history of peaceful coexistence. Hope for a long-term peace exists. And that hope, with all its obstacles, is becoming brighter.
The same applies for the arts. In Europe today there’s an unusual amount of interest in artistic work that comes from the Balkans, which is more vibrant, more fresh, and more colorful, like the Balkans itself as a region, and like the Mediterranean.