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Theatres have special needs
Ever since the roof of theatre in Subotica, on the border with Hungary, collapsed back in 2001 it has had to stage performances in other theatres or in an abandoned factory.
In Vranje, at the other end of the country, construction of a theatre began back in 1974 within the Cultural Centre building. The construction of this facility, built from mandatory contributions of the people of Vranje, was never completed, however. Instead, plays are performed in a building that dates back to the beginning of the last century and which has only 300 seats and no modern equipment. Meanwhile, the far more modern building, which is twice the size, falls into ruin.
Vranje theatre director Nebojsa Cvetkovic says the sound and lighting equipment in the existing theatre has not been modernized for 30 years. As a result, only less demanding plays can be held in Vranje, even though the town hosts the Bora Theatre Days Festival.
The head of Generator, a local non-governmental organisation, Gordana Ristic, says with a touch of irony that she still keeps a receipt that reads: „Mandatory contribution of the people of Vranje for the construction of the Cultural Centre.“
Theatres in Subotica and Vranje are not the only examples of Serbia's battered theatre infrastructure. The situation is somewhat better only in Belgrade and Novi Sad, where most theatres have been renovated since 2000.
Belgrade theatres with cut budgets
The Terazije Theatre last year received 12 million dinars, 40 per cent less than it got in 2010. “We are short of about 2.5 million dinars each month,” Terazije Theatre director Mihailo Vukobratovic says.
Atelje 212 received a total of 15 million dinars for eight premieres for the Muci’s Days Festival and all other performances on three stages, 30 per cent less than in 2010. „We are currently working on three plays that we are funding ourselves, but in spite of everything, we are not planning any cancellations,“ says Atelje 212's director, Kokan Mladenovic.
But disproportionate investment in the theatres in these two big cities, a phenomenon often disparagingly referred by the rest of the country as „Belgradisation“ – does not mean the capital is spared other problems. According to the heads of some Belgrade theatres, their 2011 budgets were cut by 30 to 40 per cent compared to 2010, triggering strikes and threatening some theatres with bankruptcy.
The Law on Culture was expected to direct budget funds more efficiently to boost the development of cultural institutions and theatres as well. It was expected to reduce staffing, breathe life into the regions and give the independent sector more room.
Ministry: No need for a Law on Theaters
BIRN: Will the operation of theatres be legally regulated and in what way?
Ministry of Culture: The field of theatre is adequately regulated by the Law on Culture and there is no need for the passage of a special law for this field.
But theatre directors say that the 2009 Culture Law failed to recognize the specific qualities of this art - from planning to public acquisitions to staff employment - and they say it is inapplicable, particularly as it contradicts the terms of the Labour Act. A special law, or by-laws, therefore, are seen as necessary to eliminate the problems in the operation of theatres.
“The Labour Act, which is a fundamental piece of legislation, does not allow for three-year employment, nor for the renewal of employment for this period of time,“ Ljubica Ristovski, director of the Subotica National Theatre, says.
|Ljubica Ristovski, director of the Subotica National Theatre|
„Therefore, you are directly violating a fundamental law and whoever you sign this kind of a contract with, that person can sue you and the court will just put him back in the job.»
She says her hands are tied because there no special theatre legislation defines and differentiates between professional and artistic positions, enabling some kind of a job classification to be made.
„This is what the culture ministry should have defined in a by-law. But it hasn't been done. So, there is nothing we can do about it,” she says.
The last time a special theatre law was discussed was back in 2002, when the Ministry, then under Branislav Lecic, took over a text of the law drafted by the dramatic artists. The draft never made it to parliament, nor was it adopted by the government. Following the assassination of Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic in 2003 and the changes of government that followed, the law was forgotten.
„I waited for the Law on Culture for decades. I also expected a theatre law and am deeply convinced that this is something that needs to be done,“ Aleksandar Milosavljevic, director of the Novi Sad Serbian National Theatre, says.
He describes the Serbian National Theatre as a mastodon that cannot respond to the changes taking place at the international level in theatre because of complicated and conflicting laws and unadjusted decrees.
„We would like to function more easily with less effort and money. But the bureaucratic machine cannot be controlled right now and we want this to change,“ he says.
Forgotten draft law on theatres
The last attempt to solve the problem of uneven development was made in 2001 when the setting up of a national theatre network was proposed. The draft law was put up for public debate, but the process was halted in 2003 when Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic was assassinated, and there has been no mention of it since. Repeated personnel changes at the helm of the culture ministry followed, so there was not the continuity needed for the adoption of such a law, explains Branislav Lecic, actor and culture minister at the time when the theatre law was drafted.
“The working title of the law was Serbia – Our Capital. We wanted to network all theatres in Serbia,“ he recalls. «The repertoire was to be defined a year in advance. Vranje was to have the same status as Atelje 212 regarding media coverage and funds. When we announced the working title, two meetings were held with municipal heads, directors of cultural centres and cultural institutions. However, the Prime Minister was killed and this was halted.»
The Culture Law is also criticized concerning the provisions that envisage depriving businesses that are doing poorly of the status of institutions of national importance, which means they lose budget funding.
Milosavljevic says the Culture Law does not clearly define the criteria by which some theatres are designated as commercial and others are subsidized and so protected from market forces.
Bozidar Djurovic, general manager of the Belgrade National Theatre, says this, too, shows that theatres need a special law:
„It would be logical for the theatre to be separately regulated by law, albeit under the 'umbrella' of the general Culture Law,“ he says.
„We should also have in mind that the National Theatre is in many ways run differently from the city theatres, which leaves room for consideration of a special Law on the National Theatre, just as Serbia once had back in the 19th century.»
Existing legislation does not suit the nature of theatre work, critics say. Public theatres are regarded as state institutions, but the decrees regulating operation and employment in public institutions are inadequate or unsuitable for theatres.
Djurovic explains that in the absence of a special law, the National Theatre currently operates on the basis of a mass of sometimes conflicting legislative acts.
Branislav Lecic says actors are in a difficult position:
“Those with salaries get very little. An actor who is a full-time employee can only make money if he does not work in his own theatre. If he is busy working, he is broke... A theatre law would essentially change things for the better.“
These are „the Law on Culture, the Labour Law, the Special Collective Agreement for employees of cultural institutions whose founder is the Republic of Serbia, then... the Law on salaries in state bodies and public services and the Decree on salary coefficients for public service employees,” he says.
Masa Mihailovic, manager of the Belgrade Drama Theatre, founded by the City of Belgrade, says that, “There is a current problem in programme organizing where everything has to go through public procurement and tenders, which isn’t easy to apply when it comes to authorial work and performing.”
Public theatres suffer most from the decree on coefficients, which determines employee salaries, adds Aleksandar Milosavljevic, general manager of the Novi Sad Serbian National Theatre. In his opinion the decree does not recognise the specific qualities of the functioning of the two major national theatre institutions, the Serbian National Theatre and the Belgrade National Theatre.
“The decree does not take into consideration some jobs that these two theatres do, which do not exist in other theatres,“ he says. „Low coefficients degrade jobs that are extremely important for the theatre. The Decree should either be abolished or radically changed.”
Problems linked with the specific character of work in the theatre could be solved by a special law on theatres, Bozidar Djurovic believes.
“It would solve all the problems that the umbrella Culture Law does not recognize as a specific quality of theatre work and which dictate the complex process of creating a theatre performance, starting with the technical details and the engagement of a large number of authors and artists of various kinds, to the specific qualities of the performers,” he says.
Although the new Law on Culture does not differentiate on paper between the independent sector, public institutions and cultural centres, this difference is visible in practise with public institutions having preferable position.
Independent theatres had hoped to be in a position to compete with public theatres for funds on equal grounds - with those offering better programmes emerging as winners. However, they say public theatres are still guaranteed more funds, money that is often spent on staff salaries and maintenance of theatre buildings rather than programmes.
Nela Antonovic, director of Belgrade’s Mimart independent theatre, which is registered as a civil society organisation, says the unequal status of public and independent theatres when competing for state funds is reflected in the fact that different criteria apply in the selection of programmes.
While the programmes of independent theatres are selected in competitions based on quality, the programmes of public theatres are funded automatically, he says.
“The law should unify all cultural offerings, regardless of whether institutions, cultural centres or independent theatres are involved,” Antonovic adds.
In her opinion also, a special law is needed for theatres and the current confusion is slowing down creative work.
„Such a law would result in recognising investigative theatre as an important factor in the development of cultural policy, increasing its presence in the media, enabling its easier operation, securing spaces for the staging of plays, and it would secure equality in public competitions for the co-funding of projects in the field of culture,” Antonovic outlines.
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