“The Theater of Broken Language” An Interview with Vildana and Dimitrije Stanisic-Keller

Ljiljana Coklin: How was the idea of an immigrant theater in Ottawa, Canada, born?

Vildana and Dimitrije Stanisic-Keller: Eleven years have passed since 1995, the turning point in our “Canadian life,” when we began to hope we could do theater again. The dramatic changes of 1992 affected not only the history and political life of former Yugoslavia but also the lives of ordinary people like us. The two years that we lived in a war-torn Sarajevo were the time of emotional exhaustion, hopelessness, and withdrawal from the public life. Leaving Bosnia for Canada at the end of 1994, we never dreamed that the new country would offer us a peaceful and a stage to create continuity in our lives.

Soon though we realized that being in Canada did not mean a “new life.” It was a new beginning that meant an enjoyable challenge of learning a new language and a chance to discover a new model of culture, including theatre. We believe that it was not an accident that 1995, apart from bringing hope for a better future and a more normal life, gave birth to great expectations for a new theatre. It was a lucky coincidence that, among hundreds of students studying English as a second language at St. Joseph”s Adult School in Ottawa, there were ten of us with theatre background. The ten of us came from eight different countries, eight different cultural and theatre traditions, and we had two things in common: broken English and a love of theatre. All in one class at the same time! It was no surprise that one of the teachers, Bernadette Hendricks, a theatre artist herself, recognized and supported the theatre buzz.

It all began with an idea of doing a play about immigrants and their transition to a life in a new country — a theme that was our reality. We wrote stories about individual experiences set against different cultural backgrounds and larger political events. As soon as we began rehearsing the play, we came up with an idea of establishing a theatre that would gather and give voice to theatre artists immigrating to Canada from all over the world.

DSK: Thus, The Broken English Theatre (BET) was born! Our theater! Our play! It was a live art happening again here and now! Our first original play, Culture Shock (1997), resonated very powerfully with all of us: it reflected our extra-theatrical reality and the cultural politics of our adopted country. I could not have been happier since theaterhas been a major part of my life since I was 8.

VSK: The Broken English Theatre was the first theatre we helped establish and set up in Canada. Another theater we have been involved in was founded three years ago by theatre artists and art lovers from former Yugoslavia (Serbia and Bosnia). The thirteen of us got together and registered the Ottawa Serbian Theatre (OST) as a non-profit organization. The goal of the OST is to produce, present, and promote Serbian- and English-language plays and other forms of performing arts we believe represent that reflect the highest quality of stage artistry.

DSK: BET was born out of a desperate need to “speak out” in and about broken English in a fluent theatre language. The founding of the Ottawa Serbian Theatre was a result of a lucky coincidence that we could gather a substantial group of theater professionals and enthusiasts. More importantly, the OST wanted to respond to the cultural needs and interests of our people living in Ottawa and North America by preserving the richness and the significance of the Serbian theatre and cultural tradition. Besides Ottawa, we have very appreciative audiences in Toronto, Kitchener, and Sherbrook (Quebec). Apart from the fact that the OST is more culturally specific, the two theater groups differ in terms of funding. While the BET is funded by federal grants, which pay for all the artists involved in theater productions, the OST is volunteer-based and earns its revenue from ticket sales. It is a pure labor of love.

VSK: Even though our priority is to represent Serbian playwrights, the OST stages the plays written by world-renown authors with a goal to offer good theatre literature and quality theater performance. In 2005, we produced and staged Ray Cooney’s famous farce, Run for Your Wife. Danijela Stojanovic and I translated the play and adapted its humor to the cultural codes of our audience. Besides theatre productions, the Ottawa Serbian Theatre encourages a variety of other forms of artistic expression in order to gather an art supportive and appreciative community. The OST has a music ensemble that has organized and performed at a number of social and fundraising events beyond the Serbian community. It has also organized several visual art exhibitions and book promotions. The theatre has been performing in both Serbian and English, so it is known to Ottawa public at large, especially after winning the first place and the Rubber Chicken Award at the 2005 Ottawa Challenge Festival. In the past three years, the Theatre has grown from thirteen to thirty members who are active in making theatre and music productions happen. We enjoy a great support of our audience, who have named us “volunteer professionals.”

DSK: That name is due to our professional approach to all aspects of our projects: from directing and acting to theater design, costumes, sound, lighting, and stage management. We want to bring to the audience the best because they deserve the best. For the 2006 theatre season, we have two projects in mind: Milosz Nikolic’s The Blacksmiths (“Kovaci”) and Boko Trifunovic’s children;s play, A Fairytale about a Czar and a Shepherd (“Bajka o caru i pastiru”). We hope to produce and stage both plays since our rehearsals are limited to weekends only and many members are involved in several other projects.

LC: How do you choose your pieces? Are those well-known pieces from pre-war Yugoslavia, that evoke nostalgia among the members of an expatriate community? Or, do you reach out to the contemporary and international theater?

DSK: The second production of the Broken English Theatre was Out at Sea by Slawomir Mroek, a Polish absurdist master. That was a nostalgic project for me since I directed the same play in 1986 in Bosnia, although the piece then was staged very differently. In the 1986 production of the play, we used a raft as a stage andtraveled down the Drina river while the audience was on the shore — it was in fact the first theatre on the water.

As for the Ottawa Serbian Theater, the choice of Branislav Nu ic’s The Suspect (“Sumnjivo lice”) as our first production was a result of our desire to put a new spin on a classic of Serbian theater using the limited resources we had available at the time. Branislav Nu”ic”s comedies are a great challenge for any theatre director. I often think of Nu”ic as a brilliant magician, able to transform real-life people and stories into recognizable yet timeless sketches of human character. An additional reason for choosing The Suspect was a desire to celebrate, far away from Belgrade, the eightieth anniversary of the stage life of the play. I am not sure that this play evoked much nostalgia for the theater of the pre-war Yugoslavia. The audiences in Ottawa, Toronto, and Kitchener were very pleased with the quality of the production, especially the performing skills of the actors who did not have theatre training — in fact, I was the only one with an experience in theater. The second production of the Serbian Theater in Ottawa was a children”s play, A Marvellous Boat, Singl-Tangl-Bangl-Rod, (“Cudesni brod Singl-tangl-bangl-rod”) that I wrote specifically for younger audiences. In Ottawa, there is no children”s theatre similar to those that existed in the former Yugoslavia, or to those that now exist in Belgrade or Sarajevo. A Marvellous Boat was a great success, equally enjoyed by our young audience and their parents, who remembered the thrills of childhood and their Saturday and Sunday matinees in children”s theatres of Belgrade and Sarajevo: “Bo ko Buha,” “Pinkie,” “Youth Theatre,” and “The Puppet Theatre.”

VSK: Our audiences have compared us with the best Belgrade theatres. For them, seeing our plays is an evocation of a joy of theatre going, of seeing a very good performance, and of a feeling that there is a cultural space within the Canadian multicultural fabric that we can be proud of. If there is a trace of nostalgia, then it is due to the impossibility of having an opportunity to go to “our” theatre on a daily basis. There is no familiar, should I say, “our,” building, or a repertoire, or even a theatre club one can go to after a performance, have a glass of wine, chat about the play, and meet the artists. That aspect of the theatre life still does not exist for newcomers in Canada.

DSK: Our dream is to build a theatre building. It would be a place for and of culture, open to anyone who appreciates the arts and wants to share the joy of creativity with others. One can say: “It is only a dream.” Yes, that is true. However, a dream is a beginning of something new, a magnet one cannot resist but dream it up. When we all work on it because we know it does not take much effort to imagine it, then it is a dream no more — it is a project. So, our ongoing project is to involve anyone willing to support our dream (starting with $1 donations) and to make it happen in the nearest future.

LC: What does the theater mean for an expatriate Yugoslav community in Ottawa?

DSK: I believe that theatre in general has an impact on keeping us in touch with the imaginary world within us. It is almost a ritual space, a space of a transition from everyday do’s and dont’s into a state of an adventure that leads the spectators to an unexpected self-knowledge and self-discovery. Our theatre [OST], I hope, gives a sense of continuity to those used to the theatre culture and a sense of (cultural) discovery to those new to this form of artistic expression.

VSK: Our theatre has been seen and accepted as a creator of a marvelous plethora of cultural values of an expatriate community. In some ways, the theatre has re-created the expatriate community and its faith in the vitality of our cultural tradition, its creative output, and its powers of transformation. Many see the Ottawa Serbian Theatre as a cultural archipelago that consists of many magnificent islands (various forms of artistic expression, such as music, theatre, painting, literature, and dance), which have been forming slowly into a familiar landscape of the archipelago.

LC: What do you believe are the main differences between your work in Sarajevo and your theater experience in Ottawa?

DSK: Volumes could be written on the issue of differences! First of all, the concept of cultural and artistic expression is different. The theater world of Ottawa is the world of sit-back-and-enjoy culture, succumbing to the pressures of the market, or maybe to the blandishments of an easy applause and possible profits, offering public entertainment – sometimes well prepared, sometimes light and pretentious. In Sarajevo, Belgrade, and any other cultural center in former Yugoslavia, theatre is not just a spectacle, an entertainment that is making life more pleasant, a way of passing the time. It is rather a challenging journey to the unknown, an attempt to see human existence through alternative lenses. Theatre, and art in general, is regarded as a process of transformation in which artists and the audience participate equally. Another difference is that theatre groups in Canada tend to have an ad hoc project policy. In Sarajevo or Belgrade, theatres are committed to the repertoire policy.

In terms of my work here and in Sarajevo, there are also differences in funding. I have been working with Ottawa’s National Art Center (English theatre), the Broken English Theatre, both of which are professional theatres that pay artists for projects. The actors and other artists involved in the projects are excellent: they are highly professional, reliable, creative, and responsible. However, almost all aspects of the production — the time for rehearsals, set design, props, costumes and sometimes even casting — depend on a limited amount of money and can often be compromised. In Sarajevo, on the other hand, theatre houses were supported by the Ministry of Culture, so funding was not an issue. I am not saying that my work in Sarajevo was not conditioned by the budget. It was, but the budget was not my priority. Now I approach my theater work with an equally professional artist in a different order: I have to think first about the budget and then about the project.

There is a difference also concerning the choice of plays I direct. Even though I would sometimes like to try my hand at a different theatre, I have to keep in mind the availability of the actors, their acting abilities, demands of the roles, and the needs and interests of the target audience. It seems to me also that our audience in Canada is more conservative than the one in Sarajevo or Belgrade. So, while choosing the play, I have to be careful and not let personal preferences take control over the selection.

LC: Does your work in the Serbian Theater in Ottawa (STO) overlap with the work of the Broken English Theater (BET), and if so, how?

DSK: It has not overlapped yet, but, if it did, I believe, we could do miracles on stage. In fact, recently a few STO actors were involved in the productions and events organized by the Broken English Theatre.

LC: What kind of legacy do you believe your work will leave in Canada?

VSK & DSK: We hope that our work will encourage more people to get involved in creating a cultural milieu, which will restore faith in theatre and art in general, as a way of expression and a dialogue, a way of communicating our motivations, attitudes, ideas, and emotions. We would like to see such a cultural space as an open space, a space of meeting and merging of different fields of art, different traditions, creative energies, and interests. In terms of the Canadian cultural space, we wish thattheatres we are actively involved with (The Ottawa Serbian Theatre and The Broken English Theatre) could become an addition to the artistic fabric of the Canadian landscape, rather than be isolated islands existing separately from the mainstream cultural production.

Vildana and Dimitrije Stanisic-Keller are the founding members of the Broken English Theater in Ottawa, Canada, and the Ottawa Serbian Theater. They live and work in Canada.

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