Nikita Milivojević Offers Global Perspective in Rand Lecture Series
By Mary Margaret Hogan | Wednesday, December 7, 2016
Mary Margaret Hogan
Wednesday, December 7, 2016
On December 2nd, Nikita Milivojević, director of the department’s latest production, Refugee, joined UMass for the Rand Lecture Series. Though billed as a lecture, UMass professor and playwright Milan Dragicevich joined the world-renowned director onstage to lead their discussion with a series of questions.
Dragicevich introduced Milivojević as Serbia’s leading director who is commonly known for exploring themes of Serbian displacement and migration, specifically during the 1990s. His productions have been featured in many theaters in countries around the globe such as Greece, Istanbul, Germany, Sweden, and the United States.
Before Milan delved into his questions, he explained the origin of his friendship with Milivojević. In 2005, the pair met in Belgrade, Serbia while Dragicevich was visiting the country. When mentioning his origins in Serbia, Milivojević pressed on, asking, “Where in Serbia?” Knowing the small chance Milivojević would recognize the name of the small community, Dragicevich mentioned somewhere around a main city that was most certainly recognizable. “Where exactly?” he continued. Soon the pair discovered that both of their fathers had grown up in the same remote village of 150 people. “Who would have ever guessed that two artists enveloped by theater, from the same small village, would grow to live in two different continents and meet here?” Dragicevich laughed.
The discussion progressed with a question about the start of Milivojević’s interest in theater and directing. “For a long time, my biggest passion was reading,” he responded, “and movies!” He continued with the story of his admission into a dramatic academy after being pressured into it by his friends, and though late to his entrance exam, he passed with flying colors. “I was the youngest admitted, and I think I was good because I wasn’t afraid. I hadn’t started thinking into it too much; it was more instinct,” he explained.
From his experience in Serbia during the 1990s, Milivojević described the very unique and fragile dynamic amidst the Yugoslav Wars. By the end of the violent and trying breakup of the Yugoslav state, there were now six separate and new republics created. “It seemed to be like a dream—no, better—a nightmare,” Milivojević recalled, “because it was so surreal and so unpredictable. We were in shock, and everything was falling to pieces around us.” He elaborated on the reality of war, explaining that at one moment you could be at a cafe and the next, your home is under attack. “Many of my friends died like this,” Milivojević solemnly recalled. He further explained that many people moved during this war-torn period and established their lives elsewhere, saying, “I believe that the second biggest tragedy of the war was the exodus of an entire generation.”
Milivojević cited the ‘90s as the most creative period in Serbian history, despite Serbia being a nation at war. “There was an explosion of theater life,” he mused. “This time shaped me as a human being and an artist. I learned everything is not certain. It’s temporary.” Though losing many of his friends to other countries, he remained in contact with them. From the United States, Poland, Greece, and Germany, Milivojević collected past emails between him and his friends and created a show from their text entitled Winter Gardens. He produced the show after many weeks of research and rehearsals, and once it was presented on stage he had an epiphany of sorts. “This show was a form of catharsis,” he said, “It was an amazing moment to realize the power of theater. This was a sign for a beginning of an end of the war.”
Having previously heard the story himself, Dragicevich prompted the director to tell the story of his experience during the infamous 1999 NATO bombings. As Milivojević described, he was in Greece when the first strikes occurred in his homeland, but within three days he had returned home to his family and friends. During the day, the nation would be seemingly still as citizens were able to function normally throughout the streets, but at night everyone would disappear to their shelters. This meant no theater at night. But one day, Milivojević suggested matinee performances would provide some form of entertainment to the dreary environment. Despite many naysayers thinking no one would attend, the theater was full. “I’ve never seen better dressed people—full makeup! It looked like they were ready for [a] wedding!” he smiled. “This was how the people could show some dignity still. I will remember this for all of my life.”
In 1996, there were student protests and demonstrations against the Serbian government as a result of some scandals during the voting process of a previous election. “My students looked to me for support,” Milivojević started, “so I joined them. The police beat us, and we did manage to escape, but when I was supposed to be in the theater a line of police stopped me. They wouldn’t let me into my own show.” A security guard eventually informed the police that Milivojević was the director and he was let into his theater, but he didn’t feel completely confident in continuing the performance. “I was angry, I did not feel comfortable with pretending like nothing happened,” he said. “So I asked my actors, and eventually they said, ‘We will not play.’”
The director and his actors, in full costume, stood in front of the packed theater and announced that they could not, in good conscience, continue with their performance. Milivojević noted the mixed reactions of the audience. “I remember one man in the back screaming, ‘Shame on you!’ while another shouted, ‘Bravo!’ and they began to argue,” he laughed, "I said, ‘I don’t want you to fight!’ and I signaled for the curtain to close.”
Milivojević was then asked about the relevance of theater within the digital age and ever-expanding technology. He first noted the differences between America and Serbia, saying the Serbian theater is always full because it is an integral part of their national tradition. Dragicevich attested to the theatrical presence in Serbia, adding, “When I visit, the taxi driver gives me full reviews!”
But on a global scale, Milivojević proclaimed that theater will always be relevant, despite the world’s increased reliance on technology. “We’re getting something [from technology], but losing a lot. We have created a skilled way to suppress emotion and conscience,” he began, “In the theater, you can’t avoid emotion or conflict; the theater is a very dangerous place.” With this statement, the audience erupted in a roaring applause for the established artist. “When once asked, ‘if literature is words, movies are pictures, then theater is. . . what?’ I answered, ‘movements,’” he elaborated to the audience. “I’m not one for politics. Politicians argue and they fight, but artists collaborate.”
Dragicevich and Milivojević ended with discussion of their UMass production, Refugee. “It’s different to have the writer right next to me,” Milivojević laughed, “but we found a nice process together.” Though he mentioned that Serbian theater allows for more extended rehearsal processes, he commended his actors for working with him so diligently. “Actors are my instrument. I discover everything through my actors,” he said. “I know when someone has something to offer.”
Refugee, written by Milan Dragicevich and directed by Nikita Milivojević, continues its run December 7-10 at 7:30 p.m. as well as for a matinee on December 10 at 2 p.m.