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An interview with Dr Milena Dragićević Šešić

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Issue No: 101September 15, 2014

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• SMART: Strategic Management in the Art of Theatre A capacity building programme ...

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An interview with Dr Milena Dragićević Šešić

Dr Milena Dragićević Šešić has degrees in cultural management, cultural policy as well as a Ph.D in the Sociology of Culture from the University of Belgrade. She has been teaching Cultural Management at the University of Arts in Belgrade since 1978.
For over three decades she has combined intense study, travel and a direct experience of the diverse expressions of theatre from different parts of the world. This has given her the means of tracing/decoding/deciphering the values and views of the varied societies that produce these theatres with a critical reading of the cultural contexts in each case. In addition, she has launched the UNESCO Chair in Cultural Policy and Management (Chairholder since 2002), and also introduced doctoral studies in this domain. She is also a guest lecturer at numerous universities (Columbia New York; Buffalo university, Iagiellonian in Krakow, Lyon II, Institut des etudes politiques Grenoble, Hildesheim university, Bilgi University Istanbul, art schools and universities in Riga, Tallinn, Vilnius, Utrecht, Moscow, Tbilisi) She has published 15 books and more than 100 articles and has been translated in 17 languages.

What are the origins of theatre management within the context of arts management as a discipline? Do the root principles of cultural anthropology reflect in any way in its evolution and recognition as a valid need experienced by diverse groups and societies?

Paradoxically, arts management started with theatre management in the US, as a response to a need to achieve “efficiency and productivity” in the commercial Broadway theatre productions.

Theatre management, as the whole science of organization in its beginning, focused on theatre, and later performing arts production. Its “founding fathers” are Isak Amar and Borislav Jović in the then Yugoslavia/Serbia and Mr. Stephen Langley in USA. Langley in 1967 was reorganizing performing arts programmes at Brooklyn College and later established the graduate program in performing arts management at the college.

The University of Arts in Belgrade, since 1960, had opened the first Arts Management programme in Europe, focusing on Theatre and Film Management. As Yugoslavia was a socialist country – Isak Amar, teacher of Theatre Management, and Dr Borislav Jovic , teacher of Economy and Law of Artistic Production, focused on different issues: from production to audience development, including areas that are neglected even today, such as Labour Laws for the artistes.

However, in contemporary Europe and in Anglo-Saxon managerial theory, the focus shifted towards new issues, such as innovation and leadership, festivals and cultural diplomacy and strategic management and marketing. But, authors writing in other languages widened the scope of issues to include the social responsibility of arts and art institutions, relations with public policies and public spheres etc.

As for the principles of cultural anthropology reflecting those evolutions, unfortunately I have to say that they were much more influential in cultural, and not in arts management. And therefore, in Slavic and Francophone worlds, as well as in Latin America, but not Anglo-Saxon countries and countries in Asia which follow liberal approaches and where art is seen as another business domain (China, Singapore, South Korea, etc.)… There are several reasons for that. In continental Europe the arts have been seen as an important part of ethnic/cultural identity, and theatre had a predominant role in the construction and representation of identity in the nineteenth century.

Also, the arts had an important role in popular, social movements – from Kulturkampf in Scandinavia, to the spread of Russian socialist ideas. In my own work, the art value chain starts with needs and education, while in Anglo-American theory it starts with production.

The Theatre Management programmes curricula usually combine theatre courses (History of Drama and Theatre, Dramatic Criticism, Theatre techniques and technology…) with management and marketing courses (accounting, business/company management, business plan development, financial management, managerial concepts and practices, marketing). Subsequently, a few other ‘subjects’ have been added such as advancement/ community engagement, community arts, cultural management ethics, etc.

Although I am convinced that practitioners need both training and education, a complete lack of academics in the university curricula is manifesting itself as a complete lack of adequate research. Thus, the real professor-researchers are missing in this field in most developed countries. Consequently knowledge remains non-transferable, as only knowledge where research is combined with personal experience can be discussed, codified and transferred.

In this sense, cultural management, much more then theatre and art management, is linked to cultural anthropology.

What are its specific uses and methodologies today given that in the last two decades there have been unprecedented opportunities for transfer of learning and sharing thanks to the age of the internet and social media. Besides informal sharing within an arts community, especially in countries where the state is largely indifferent to the arts, they have evolved their own support systems. How can a programme like SMART acknowledge and add to these structures?

Despite the widespread use of new technologies, the fact is that communication is dominated by the English language. Hence, new technologies have contributed to the propagation of the Anglo-Saxon model of arts management, which is not the best possible model for countries in development, rather than help the spread of real know how. The French approach to “gestion et administration culturelle”, together with “cultural engineering” (Claude Mollard), have not been widely debated and acknowledged, neither have models developed in Slavic countries…

There is still a lot to be done to start really using internet platforms and social networks for knowledge exchange, where a practice from India can have the same value as a practice from Italy, or Poland.

Are there certain shared fundamental and universal principles in theatre management; how do the changeable and transitional as well as multidisciplinary realities of theatre practice co-exist with these?

It would be very pretentious to speak about fundamental and universal principles in arts management – especially because there are so many ‘types’ of theatres. Thus, trainings in theatre management are wrong if they preach ‘the truth’. Trainings are there to help each troupe, theatre organization to develop according to their own needs and ambitions, according to their values.

For me – the key point is excellence! Excellence in what we really want to do.

If we are a commercial theatre whose aim is to amuse people and to bring happiness in human life (by making enough money for the team) – then training should enable our capacities to see what to improve and how to choose a repertory which will help us develop artistically, while also remaining popular in the community.

Thus – all arts management manuals preaching 4P Marketing Mix for example, are ridiculous. They might work for a Broadway musical – but definitely not for an organization like JANAM (Jana Natya Manch). However, it might work in a very specific way for another street theatre – the French company Royal de Luxe. But only if those applying certain concepts from business management, are free to adapt rules to the specificities of artistic production.

Can you describe your experiences studying contemporary theatre from a teacher and policy maker’s perspective in the Balkans and Arab world and subsequently in Turkey and Russia? How have these experiences both confirmed and changed your notions of theatre and its role in diverse societies?

The possibility of travel and of experiencing theatre around the world has helped me to see the different roles and perspectives which theatre has in different cultural contexts.

To take a simple example – in Novosibirsk, in a span of three days I had an opportunity to see three very different theatre performances, made for very different audiences and with different aims. The first one, a local comedy about a guy who pretends to be dead to see how family and friends would behave after his death. It aimed to entertain audiences, but also, to make them think about the value of relationships and friendship. From the standpoints of ensemble and of actors, it was a great show, offering opportunities to numerous members to take on a demanding role and create a character that audiences could identify with and accept.

The second show was by the Austrian writer Werner Schwab - Die Präsidentinnen (First ladies) 1990. It is an extremely interesting and difficult text and not often performed on stage anywhere in the world. This show brings on stage 3 women in old age who are from the margins. It is morbid and tough. The theatre was again full, but this time the audience was different, serious, calm and reflective.

The third show was by the American playwright Robert Anderson, a one act show which became a two act show as the second act repeated the same situation, but this time in a Russian context. It was obvious that it dealt with freedom of expression, market demands, audience needs and a producer’s sense of it in both cases. I think this was just the theatre director’s way of showing the course of transition as it was happening in Russian society. The shift from socialist values towards the values of a liberal society where success is the only parameter in establishing quality. But, the aim was also at the same time to enable the urban aspirational population to laugh at itself.

But, these three performances all had very different audiences. Thus, there are differences not only among cultures, but even in a monocultural city like Novosibirsk with a predominantly Russian population. People are choosing ‘their’ theatre, and theatre has chosen its own audience. When doing this, they are ‘limited’ by questions of dramaturgy, direction styles, but also in a way by management techniques (the importance of efficiency, for example, is completely different), of marketing strategies. While for The Dead Man advertising in the popular media was very important, the PR for the second play required a very specific effort aimed at drawing sophisticated, mostly academic audiences. The third play again demanded a different strategy with an approach linked to advertising in life-style magazines and distributing flyers/posters in ‘cool’ urban places, as well as the wide network of academic institutions where young intellectuals today have to face for the first time market pressures rather than ideological pressures.

All of this just goes to show why there is no possibility for recipes and standards in theatre management.

What would you say are the critical differences between the notion of an arts sector heavily subsidized and supported by the state with an implicit link to social change and the state of democracy vs. the more makeshift and improvised models of theatre that have arisen due to the challenges faced by troubled regions and complex, transitional societies whether in Asia or South East Europe or the Middle East?

The wide differences in context are really critical in understanding the role of theatre, and the types of possible organizational models in each. Usually, public theatres were (in Europe) more free – as huge power was in the hands of the theatre director regarding choice of repertory, choice of its stars, etc. and no politician dared interfere, as they were usually charismatic personalities. Even in Soviet Russia, big names had the opportunity to lead theatres for a long time (albeit with a developed sense of the limits of freedom, a kind of auto-censorship).

In troubled regions and societies, theatres have a multiple role. They are not only creative institutions, they are also mediating institutions as they try to discuss divisive issues. They develop peace ‘missions’, from the Bread and Puppet Theatre actions during the War in Vietnam to Sarajevo artists Haris Pašović and Suada Kapić (including the famous production of Waiting for Godot by Susan Sontag performed in Sarajevo under siege) and numerous contemporary troupes in Israel and Palestine …

Artists in Tunisia, Egypt, Morocco, like Latefa Ahrrare, actress and directress, also produce very relevant shows, risking their lives and careers. To be free – she had to create her own company – Theatre des amis. Her performances Lubna, Caphernaum and many others, are devoted to the ‘oppressed body’, a woman’s body which irritates the salaphists who find in her their greatest social enemy.

I will never forget the cold January night in Belgrade, 1997, when actors of the Center of Cultural Decontamination performed Macbeth in front of a cordon of policemen. Or Women’s Side of the War from Dah theatre which told us stories of women from Bosnia, Kosovo, Serbia. And today there are numerous examples of the Docudrama theatre or devised theatre, showing better than any other media the complexity of human trauma not only during wars, but also in the post-war period.

There are also public theatres like the Birmingham Repertory Theatre whose aim it is to be a socially responsible theatre.

In December 2004 it chose to stage a play Behzti (The Shame), written by a young Sikh author Gurpreet Kaur Bhatt which depicted murder and sex abuse in a temple. On the day of its premiere, it could not be staged because a Sikh mob had gathered in protest against the revelations.

Convention in an authoritarian society and political correctness in the liberal states, is influencing theatre repertories worldwide, severely limiting the freedom of expression.

Can you describe your travels and encounters with contemporary Indian theatre and how this has informed the designing of the theatre management course SMART. Also, what is your reading of the contemporary urban context of Indian theatre?

My travels in India started in 2008, at the Asia Culture Conference in Bangalore, where many interesting personalities from all over South Asia came. But, the most decisive moment was a workshop which I was supposed to lead where I met Sanjna Kapoor. We first discussed creating a capacity building seminar then. But fortunately the members of the Indian Theatre Forum decided that the seminar would be of little value if I did not first visit – if not all of them – at least some key members. Thus a fabulous journey into Indian theatre began on the first day of January 2010 – with my visit to JANAM, and its homage to Safdar Hashmi.

There, I was impressed by the number and behaviour of the working class audience, which was still sitting and enjoying the different shows at 5 p.m. when we had to leave to visit Katkhata Puppet Theatre in another Delhi suburb. Here, in two small rented rooms we entered the enchanting world of imagination and artistic strengths; we saw diversity and creativity of a kind I had not seen for a long time anywhere else.

The travel took us further to Tamil Nadu – where Pravin (Magic Lantern) waited for us, leading us over the next few days to Sadanand Menon’s Spaces, to Kalakshetra for discussions with Leela Samson, to Padmini Chettur and Preethi Athreya’s rehearsal space. We also visited the Kattaikkuttu Sangam and Adishakti in Auroville… All those experiences had brought us something different – but what was the same – was the energy and passion toward theatre that each person shared with us. I was struck by the openness towards different artists and art groups at Spaces and the devotion with which Rajagopal and Hanne worked in the traditional art form of Kattaikkuttu and the sensitivity to the community and underprivileged children who formed their group.

Then in Bangalore I visited Ranga Shankara, Attakalari, Samudaya, and also a few years later the newly created Jagritti. I also met people from the Suchitra school for dramatic arts.

Finally in Ninasam we found dedicated students exercising already at 7 in the morning… performing Shakespeare and Chekov with the absolute conviction that they were going to bring change to the world of Kannada theatre!

In theatres throughout the country I saw Talamadale, Yakshagana, Tamasha, street theatre from Tamil Nadu as well as numerous plays by contemporary Indian playwrights at Ranga Shankara and Jagritti, and at Ninasam. There were also European authors (film directors ???) like Almodovar adapted for the stage at the Prithvi theatre in Bombay. Such richness and diversity!

All of this was the material for a book in the Serbian language titled Indian Theatre: from tradition to activism (research diary).

While the Indian context for theatre does not place it in the category of ‘troubled’ regions, there are some very fundamental and structural problems. How can theatre management in a course like SMART be mindful of these problems?

In spite of the general opinion that India belongs to the “emotion of hope” (according to Geopolitics of Emotions of Dominique Moisi), and its present membership within BRICS (Brasil, Russia, India, China, South Africa), I would not idealize the situation. The North East of the country is still unstable, and theatre practitioners from Manipur don’t come too often to theatrical gatherings; neither do theatres from other regions of India visit there.

I am surprised that the colonial British law on censorship is still valid, and that there is no cultural policy in different Indian states supporting national dramaturgy or drama education.

Thus – strategic planning is necessary, even if unconsciously performed. In my teaching in Europe I am often offering Ninasam Institute as an example on how an amateur company, led by strategic vision, enabled Subbanna to achieve what he did in a small village in Heggoddu. He was able to build an auditorium, a vibrant, interested theatre audience, a professional travelling Theatre Company, a Drama Academy in the Kannada language – and an important centre for theatre studies and workshops in India.

I hope, that a book emerges from all those SMART initiatives and experiences. A book on theatre management with case studies on best practices, will come out soon, revealing the injustice done to Indian theatres by neglecting their contribution. I mean there books on Arts leadership with international case studies, there are no examples from India. It is not because there is a lack of good arts leadership and the entrepreneurial spirit in India. It is only due to a lack of research and knowledge codification. Thus – SMART seminars will simultaneously be about research, training as well as learning and sharing platforms.

Devina Dutt is an arts critic, translator and editor. She has been a business journalist with Business India and is a senior corporate communications consultant in Mumbai. Last year she co-edited and produced Pathfinders, a volume on Indian art and culture from 1950-2010 covering cinema, theatre, film, literature, visual arts, music and dance. She is a regular contributor to the culture pages of The Hindu

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