9, 10, 11, 12/05 – 20:30

Multilingual > FR / NL
±1h 30min

This creation by Serbian artist Sanja Mitrović takes a hard look at the power of mass communication, and more particularly that of public oration. Her starting point is the idea that the person who tells the best story wins. Speeches of hope, she notes, can go in one of two directions: hope as a real possibility of change – Yes, we can – or the rhetoric of betrayal and false promises. Mitrović takes her base material from “great” orators such as Slobodan Milošević, John F. Kennedy and Václav Havel. While the content of their speeches is political, the artist focuses on the formal elements of how they are staged. The emotion enveloping the words gradually shifts their meaning into the background. SPEAK! is a performance about the persuasive power of messages – if it is expressed well, it will happen – and the virtuosity of language. Lucid and funny, Mitrović is seeking to understand why we are so willing to let ourselves be duped by nice words. Spread the word!

Concept, choreography & direction
Sanja Mitrović

Geert Vaes, Sanja Mitrović

Jonas Rutgeerts

Stage & lighting
Laurent Liefooghe & Christophe Antipas (LLAC architects)

Luka Ivanović

Frédérick Denis

Friso Wiersum

Sarah Doridam

Philippe Baste, Maarten Mees

Kunstenfestivaldesarts, Les Brigittines

Stand Up Tall Productions (Amsterdam)


Supported by
Beursschouwburg (Brussels), Pianofabriek (Brussels), STUK Kunstencentrum (Leuven), NOW.be, SPRING Performing Arts Festival (Utrecht)

Funded by
Amsterdam Fund for the Arts, Performing Arts Fund NL

Special thanks to
Frits Bloemberg/Het Debatbureau (The Hague), Annet Huizing

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Speaking as if your life depended on it

In the Netherlands, Sanja Mitrović has for years attracted attention for her remarkable interpretations of pieces by Nicole Beutler and Olivier Provily. However, her own work has stirred still more controversy. In pieces like the solo A short history of crying (2010), or Will you ever be happy again (2008) - in collaboration with Jochen Stechmann - she shows that she has a handy way of sowing confusion about difficult topics such as 'nationality', the Balkan Wars, World War II, or even the 'European idea'. Not that she then contrives a theoretical structure. On the contrary, she first and foremost flings her own history and that of her performers into battle. She contrasts this with historical or scientific findings. 'Docu-tales' (an analogy with fairytales), is the result. It appears that the memories, beliefs, and thoughts of the performers always interfere. They undermine a 'fair', 'objective' approach to the thorny issues controlled by world politics. Their thoughts and memories are, after all, maybe true, but are adaptations of the 'bare facts'. Therefore they are not - ever - clear or unambiguous. The viewer is thereby not left unaffected. Sometimes he even becomes an active player in the story. In the solo Daydream House (2011), the audience, almost without realizing it, takes over the house that Mitrović abandons while she talks about her departure and the bombardment of Belgrade during the last Balkan war. For the Kunstenfestivaldesarts, she now creates SPEAK!, a piece about the famous speeches of politicians. In such speeches, truthfulness and seduction, or maybe even deception, also strive to prevail. In this piece, too, the audience is given a primary role.

When I ask her to briefly summarize who Sanja Mitrović is, she takes on a rather worried look. SM: "Who is Sanja Mitrović? That is such a simple, and at the same time, difficult question. I am a director and a performer. Sometimes I am also the author of texts for my own pieces. However, I originally studied languages and literature, especially Japanese. I am from Serbia, but I now live and work in the Netherlands. That was not a choice. I arrived roundabout the year 2000 because of a production by the Croatian-Dutch company called Montažstroj, by Borut Šeparović[1]. It was a choice to stay. I discovered the mime school in Amsterdam and followed the course there. Afterwards I started a freelance career. Around 2004, I returned to Serbia in order to finish my Master's in Japanology, but the return felt strange. If, like me, you have been somewhere for a time, you naturally create a new context. That becomes more important than your place of origin."

"Still, those origins, and the history of the former Yugoslavia, play an important part in her work. I ask her why she makes that choice. SM: "I am very concerned about the role your surroundings play in the way you relate to the context. When I emigrated from Serbia to the Netherlands I brought along certain baggage, a history. Even if I had remained silent about my origins, others would have confronted me with all the clichés about the Balkans anyway. As long as you stay in a country, in one society, you will not easily question the givens, but in a different place you are obliged to do so. This is true not only for the Balkans. Within the original core of the EU, that survey is also repeatedly undertaken. Crash course chit chat (2012) is mainly about the European dream and history. I do not play in that piece myself, however: there is a German, a Frenchman, a Belgian, a Dutchman, and an Englishman on stage with their history and their beliefs."

Of course, the question remains: why would you bring those things to the stage? And why in such a personal manner, by making use of personal - whether half made-up or embellished - stories? Examples abound in this work. Crash course chit chat is driven by the personal stories of the five performers. In A short history of cryingwe see a photo of wailing, deeply grief-stricken people at Tito's funeral, and in the middle of that crowd stands Mitrović herself. Until it is established that her figure was conveniently inserted into the image. Then she says: "I was not there, but it feels like I was ..." SM: "The theatre is a fantastic medium in which to deal with reality and imagination. Sometimes things are 'true', sometimes they are a true representation of the past although they are not historically accurate, sometimes they are indeed lies. The truth is not automatically given: it is something that you create and mold. When in Will you ever be happy again, Jochen and I raise the memories of our childhood in Germany and Yugoslavia, we forge a new reality: one shows up in the story of the other and vice versa. We have created something that in reality had never been possible. A discussion flows from there. That would be impossible for you to achieve through a book or a regular discussion. Theatre creates a new playground. The audience is an integral part of it. It participates in a communication. I must have the feeling that I am addressing myself to someone. For me, the game receives its urgency through the personal character of your presence. That was also true when I used to work for another director. I could not just play a role then either. I always wanted to contribute something myself."

At first sight it seems a paradox that SPEAK! enlists the speeches of others. They are not, however, just speeches: they have, one by one, marked history. But above all: the players have to deliver them as if they were in their own words. SM: "Performers are public figures. It does not concern me how virtuoso they are, but that they have their own voice. I want to know how they relate to a particular idea. That's what happens here. Together with the Dutch historian and philosopher Friso Van Wiersum, I have collected a series of political speeches that without exception brought a message of hope in their time. We did not make an ideological distinction. Václav Havel stands next to Barack Obama or Zoran Đinđić. I deliver those speeches together with actor Geert Vaes. The first task in this work is to find a personal connection with these texts, so that a certain line links them to one another. Thus, somewhere between my speeches there is perhaps a speech by Hitler, but still, I can endorse that particular fragment. That is not always easy. Many speeches sounded implausible to the ears due to their unadulterated optimism. It really took a lot of searching and groping around to find the right orations. That personal connection is indeed of paramount importance. In this piece it's for us, namely, to win the confidence of the audience with those speeches. The performance is actually perceived as a kind of competition: in four rounds, the public can choose one of the two orators. With every allocution, the one speaker can also impose on the other at the roster. Winning votes does not only depend on your oratorical skills. How you respond to the words of your opponent can also captivate the audience. In addition, you do not know in advance how that audience will react. Will they choose the content or let themselves be guided by the form, the recitation. Will they opt for the underdog or more tend to support the winning party. Winning is, however, of great importance to both of us: the ballot might well be a very bitter experience for the loser, because he or she, in an unexpectedly direct way, is touched by his or her self-confidence and honour as a performer."

A question then struck me: where have they learned the tricks of the trade? Perhaps they studied the original speeches? SM: "We did not check how the speeches were originally delivered. But we both followed a course at the Dutch 'Debate Bureau', which teaches people how to write and deliver a speech in the most successful way. There is a lot involved: word choice, choice of gestures, tempo, tone... You also have to pay attention to whom you are speaking, and make sure you make eye contact. It is actually closely related to convincing acting. The devil is in the details. You may know the famous case of the first TV debate between Kennedy and Nixon. Nixon sounded convincing on the radio, but on the screen he did not look good: sweat beaded-up on his forehead, while Kennedy sat there fit as a fiddle. The viewers did not trust that... with the known result."

During the conversation, an almost devilish image gradually appears in my mind: no one can come out of this game unscathed. Yet, the speakers may be so convinced of what they are saying, their agenda is always, necessarily, double: it's not just about the 'essence' but also - above all - about the acclaim they harvest. Especially since it is not their words and thoughts, but words and thoughts in which they recognize something, without them thereby coinciding. They play 'only' a role (but isn't every orator primarily playing a 'role'?). Whether they win or lose - and how very important that is in our world - the result will be cut with remorse because they were not standing quite right in their shoes. But in voting, the audience will inevitably be left with a bitter aftertaste too . Did they vote for what they considered just or right, or were they seduced somewhere en route by the image of success, the man or woman who 'can speak so well'. SPEAK! repeats in miniature the perversions of the spectacle culture in the late capitalist era. When I quiz Sanja Mitrović about it, she dodges the answer, but the sudden twinkle in her otherwise serious face speaks volumes...

Pieter T'Jonck, April 2013
Translated by Jodie Hruby

[1] That neologism connects the words 'montaža ', which means both film montage and industrial montage, with 'stroj', which stands for an assembly line like a row of soldiers. It resulted in a unique combination of dance and physical theatre with a strong political slant.

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Sanja Mitrović is a theatre director, performer and choreographer who was born in what is now Serbia. She emigrated to the Netherlands in 2001 and is now based in Amsterdam. She studied Japanese language and literature at Belgrade University and contemporary theatre at the Amsterdamse Hogeschool voor de Kunsten. She is the founder and artistic director of Stand Up Tall Productions. In 2010 the Theater Instituut Nederland awarded Mitrović the prestigious BNG Best Young Theatre Director Prize for her production Will You Ever Be Happy Again? which was also named one of the five best performances of the 2009-2010 season by TM, a magazine for theatre and dance professionals. Mitrović’s performances are structured around the idea of montage, combining theatre, performance, dance and visual arts. As documentary material she often uses personal stories and testimonies which she contrasts with official historical accounts. Her works include Dhanu (2005), Shame (2006) Books Once Read Make a Good Bullet Proofing (2007), A Short History of Crying (2011), Crash Course Chit Chat (2012), Seven Lucky Episodes Regarding Resistance (2012) and Everybody Expects to Grow Old But No One Expects to Get Fired (2012). Mitrović collaborated with Nicole Beutler on the VSCD Mime award-winning solo 1: Songs (2009) and with Belgian architect Laurent Liefooghe, developing and directing Daydream House (2011). In recent years Mitrović’s works have toured Europe and internationally to considerable critical acclaim.

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