Performing Post-Yugoslavia in the UK – a Conversation with Natasha Stanic Mann and Jaka Škapin

Voila! Europe

From: 3 Nov 2022

To: 13 Nov 2022

The Cockpit Theatre
Gateforth Street

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Natasha Stanic Mann (NSM) is a Croatian performer and theatre maker based in London. Her one-woman show ‘The Return’ is based on her personal experience of living in Croatia during the breakup of former Yugoslavia. Jaka Škapin (JS) is a Slovenian transdisciplinary artist, vocalist, and improviser based in London. Using the body, language, autobiography, and video, his performance ‘E – man – A’ challenges patriarchal masculinity from within.

Natasha, your production The Return is named after Dobriša Cesaric’s Croatian poem. How does your migrant background inform your practices in the UK? Does the cultural landscape differ in the Balkans?

NSM: I came here to study when I was about 27, it was a change of my career path. In Croatia, I was a teacher in sociology in high school. I was always interested in theatre but in former Yugoslavia, it was very hard because we only had major academies for performing arts in each of the capital cities of the republics, and it was very hard to get into those academies. And then I decided that finally, that’s it, and came here to study acting. But then I found that I was restricted in a different way. It’s quite different to work here in performing arts if you are a first-generational migrant and not a native English speaker. I wasn’t aware of this straight away, but I started to realise that there are quite a few barriers to progress in your career. Now, I live in London, there are a lot of opportunities here to develop on fringe theatre level, but it’s quite big struggle to get onto that second level.

JS: I moved here when I was 18 to study music right after high school. So I was not even a grown-up yet. I feel like I semi-grew up in Slovenia, and then I moved here and then I really grew up and, and for a while I was going a bit further for my cultural identity. And, and then slowly, and especially through the practice of improvisation, I’m now going fully back and also fully back in time. I feel like as a vocal improviser, I’m really discovering nuances in my voice that are not based on my training in choral jazz, but the way I improvise, it’s quite Slavic and quite ancient. Vocal improvisation isn’t thought-led or rational, it breaks that process of socialisation, so I’m starting to look backwards, and things come out from your childhood, your subconsciousness, your environment, and where you grew up. 

You spend much of The Return wrestling to escape a suit jacket, and Jaka, your improvisation draws on the body. How does physical theatre inform your work?

NSM: Physical theatre was always a big inspiration. I realised that I really wanted to specialise more in movement and study corporeal mime. I find that through the physicality and through the movement, I can really express the subtle things that I want to say. 

JS: It’s the theme of my piece because I felt my connection with my body, my emotions, was extremely limited, and that’s just how I grew up. And then I think slowly, through doing more work with improvisation, I realised I didn’t have a connection with my body, I kind of just lived up here in my head. I did sessions with Meredith Monk and Bobby McFerrin, really my favourite improvisers on the planet, and then I found a community of vocal improvisers that weren’t involved much in professional theatre or arts. It was quite a narrow bubble that we’re now expanding.

Speaking of mixing – you switch between English and BCS. How does this freedom from language and the politics of language impact your work?

JS: I didn’t know how much language there would be in my piece. I thought there would be much less, because I so value being free of language and the pressures around it. Here in the UK, having even a little accent, it always cuts through, and British people ask you straight away, you know, where are you from? Since Brexit, there’s a different environment when you cross the border, and speaking to my acting friends, it’s very specific – your accent, your features, how you get cast.

NSM: Maybe for an English actor, it’s really important to have a proper accent and talk in a way that is expected. But, for me, I actually found the freedom to have an accent of my own. On one side, it’s liberating, but on the other, just as Jaka pointed out, you want people to understand what you’re saying. I like the idea of challenging how you have to sound on the stage, and there’s a rebellious part of me saying, I can talk on the stage the way I want to talk.

Natasha, one of the most powerful scenes comes when you describe the existentialist youth rave culture during the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s – and how empty it all was. Hiding under a desk to the sound of air raid sirens evokes an idea of World War II for audiences here. What do people misunderstand about what it is like for young people living through civil conflict?

NSM: It’s interesting, because I also went to see an online show from Ukraine at VOILA! There were these young people who were talking about how they didn’t understand, they had just woken up from a party and somebody called with the message, There’s a war. It was quite emotional, this surreal sort of situation. 

The Return also references Ukraine directly…

NSM: My great-grandmother was Ukrainian, my great-grandparents met because of the First World War, when my great-grandfather was retreating from Russia and he met her there. They went and lived in Bosnia. I had never met her, but she was a cleaner. And then when I was about to give birth, I didn’t have any family around and I decided to get a cleaner, and it happened that the cleaner was Ukrainian. So I straight away said, I want you! It was just because suddenly, I felt like somebody’s coming to rescue me, look after me. And so, after that I just kept on having Ukrainian cleaners, because I always felt like that’s a bit of my grandmother coming to ferry around my flat.

This is really autobiographical, and I wrote this piece before the war started in Ukraine. So, then when the war started it was like, wow, and I added a few things to it because of the reality that we are living in now. It adds to this theme of intergenerational war because in Croatia, every generation has been involved in a war – World War I, World War II, and then the nineties. When I was creating this piece, it was really fascinating to think how much and where I have this, in my body and in my mind, all this history that’s to do with conflict.

JS: That really reminds me of my great-grandparents. When I was younger, I had two great-grandmothers that I knew really well. Both of them were involved in the partisan movement, one of them was in a concentration camp for being part of the partisan movement and Slovenian during the Second World War. So I always feel like that connection with war is also very present in me. Obviously, Slovenia had a very different path to independence. Our war was only a couple of days, we were very lucky in that aspect. And also, we wanted to be more central European, to be a second Switzerland – which we never will be because we’re not Switzerland. There’s so much diversity within the former Yugoslavia, people don’t really understand the different aspects of it, and they just know that it was one country.

When it comes to war, it really makes me think of the autocracy and the rule of men, and how that relates back to the patriarchy, which is why I also wanted to do my piece. It was not just about my experience, it was about my relationship with my dad, and my relationship with masculinity in general. 

Looking around at the crisis of masculinity and what kind of leaders we seem to have. We have gotten into this pool of autocracy, I mean it always been there, but now it is really present in Russia, Hungary, the US, and even here in the UK. In my show, I really try to separate and make that distinction between men as individuals and men as a category of people, and how we are so obsessed with individualism that we don’t see the larger systems like patriarchy, and how that affects, our choices, what we want in our leaders, how we participate in politics and in all aspects of our lives.

NSM: I saw your piece and I thought very much about this link. You programme those two solo pieces, but they are really linked on the more abstract level. I felt like it extended from what my work and I really linked to your ideas about patriarchal masculinity.

In The Return, the sound of construction repeatedly interrupts your Yugonostalgic letter to building the socialist utopia – which recalls the Balkan tradition of using sarcasm and dark humour in social coping. How do you think your productions challenge misconceptions about the monolith of Yugoslavia, or Southeastern and Eastern Europe?

JS: Even for Slovenes, that’s a red flag, because we think we’re Central Europe and there is this whole confusion about where geographically we are. I think we are quite humble and, and we’re used to different people coming through and occupying Slovenia, even more than in Croatia. Nations and rulers just going back and forth, from Napoleon or the Ottoman Empire, from the Hungarian side, or from Austria and Germany. How I think about it is that, for instance, when we move to a different place, we are quite ready to fit in in some ways. For me, it was then more of a journey of recognising how I want to challenge that. So, for instance, my surname starts with the letter Š, which is a sh, and for a long time, I just put it down as an S because it was easier. Then I decided, no, I actually want it to be a Š (sh) not a S, because it’s not an S. 

And I think that then transfers to other parts of your life, and you start start even exiting your own national identity. Because for me, I would say, as quite a humble, hardworking, hospitable, well-behaved person, I’m just trying to challenge that in small ways. And the show is also part of that because in Slovenia, the discussion around patriarchy is pretty much non-existent. Gender relations are not as progressive as they are here. I really hope that I can also perform the piece there, translated into Slovenian, and help support the discussion there as well as here.

NSM: Yes, Jaka, this is part of my show! The Š with a kvacica (caron) in the middle of my first name. I came here quite a long time ago and I started going by Natasha, so I kept it like that. But I really admire that people want to use their proper writing. And maybe I will one day. It’s a crucial part of my show, this idea that it’s all somewhere there, Eastern Europe, and we don’t know exactly where. It’s everywhere in the politics, in art, in culture; you have films set in Yugoslavia and they don’t even research when the wars started or finished. I suppose what really gets me is that for the right-wing Conservative government, and even what we call the left-wing, they’re pro-Europe, but still it’s hard to connect to Europe, and keep in mind what and where it is – it’s all just something that happened in the past, over there. 

The Return: Insight into the Hidden Effects of War and E – man – A: Challenging Patriarchy from Within premiered as part of VOILA! EUROPE 2022 at the Cockpit Theatre in London in November 2022. Check the website for touring dates. 

NB Some typographical substitutions have had to be made where special characters do not have a compatible counterpart in this website’s character-set. 

Credits: Natasha Stanic Mann, Jelena Sofronijevic.

Below: Natasha Stanic Mann, Jelena Sofronijevic, Jaka Škapin.

With thanks to Jelena Sofronijevic for this interview. Jelena (@jelsofron) is an audio producer and freelance journalist, who makes content at the intersections of intercultural political history and the arts. They are the producer of EMPIRE LINES, a podcast which uncovers the unexpected flows of Empires through artworks.

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