Although images of Montenegro have recently been flooding the travel sections of the mainstream media, there are still a few well-kept secrets about this part of the world, secrets that you will only discover if you actually set foot in this marvellous landscape where mountain peaks are mirrored in the clear blue water of the Adriatic sea.
Montenegro is one of the smallest states of the former Yugoslavia, with a population of just over 650,000 and some of the most impressive natural beauty in Europe. Having just attended a children’s theatre festival in the historic walled city of Kotor, I would also say that this is where you will find the best tourist packages for young families. Not least because McDonald’s has not yet reached this newly independent country.
Taking place over the ten days just before the official start of the holiday season on 10 July, the Kotor Festival of Children’s Theatre has become a regular fixture in the city since its inception in 1993. The festival opens and closes with a ceremonial exchange of the city keys entrusted by the city mayor with a children’s representative for the duration of ten days. Meanwhile, the fully pedestrianised city itself is adorned with public art created for and by children themselves.
Founded in the midst of the Yugoslav war, the festival has represented an investment in hope and a better future, and is certainly coming of age beautifully. Its current director, Petar Pejaković, took the reins three years ago, placing a greater emphasis on a rejuvenation of the festival structure, and putting the children at the centre of it.
The awards jury traditionally consisting of experts and elders has almost entirely been replaced by a jury of children, aged 8 to 13, who meet every day to discuss what they had seen, and their impressions are eventually summed up to give out prizes. Children are also heavily involved as volunteers in the running of the festival and in numerous accompanying workshops and activities taking place throughout the day.
The 20th Festival has this year had the most ambitious programme yet, with over 70 scheduled events. The main performance programme has featured guests from Italy, Greece, Russia and Zimbabwe (in amongst others), with the genres ranging from classical theatre to puppetry, dance and street performance. The workshops on offer, delivered by artists from Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia and Montenegro, have involved word-play, animation, stained glass window- making, acting, boat painting, film-making and dance for children with learning difficulties. Events have ranged in suitability from those aimed at age ‘4+’ to those targeting teenagers.
Although just a few days before the start of the festival Montenegro had received a date to start negotiations regarding its entry into the EU, the place is as yet unencumbered by the tyranny of health and safety, political correctness and the neo-liberal capitalism’s tendency to turn us all from citizens into consumers.Most of the events are completely free and the ticket prices for the main festival shows are sold at 2 Euro, ensuring impressive attendance even in the late hours of the hot Mediterranean evenings. The pedestrianised city ensures free and safe movement of children between various festival events, often unaccompanied by any adults, and the local sponsor Jugopetrol has made it possible for each child to be given a free ice cream after the shows. The Kotor Festival of Children’s Theatre is therefore one of the last examples of a cultural event where children are able to seize an opportunity to act as autonomous, responsible and integrated members of a community. Jury member Marija Todorović told us that her favourite thing about the stunning city of Kotor is that she knows every man and woman who lives there, while one night we witnessed how some kids who decided to sit on top of the backs of their seats received a fillip on the head each from a stranger sitting behind them and struggling to see the stage.
The most striking feature we observed of the local junior population is their maturity, curiosity and articulacy. A local girl, Lana, who we met in an animation workshop let it slip that she runs a highly popular Youtube channel herself called Splashkittyartist, which regularly receives fan art from other users. But probably the most convincing testament to the taste and wisdom of this year’s children’s jury was their ultimate decision in awarding this year’s festival grand prix. Despite worries of the local adults that the Merlin Puppet Theatre’s dark satire Clown’s Houses would be inappropriate in content for pre-teen audiences, the show did in fact provoke a lively and interesting discussion between the artists and the 8-13 year olds constituting the jury.
Hailing from Athens, the show in question, named after and framed by an Edith Sitwell poem, consists of five stories about anxieties of modern life – including loneliness, greed and despair – which often culminate in some form of a violent ending. Without much prompting, the jury understood that the show offered hope in the form of engendering the responsibility for a better life with the audience.
Being in between its 18th and 21st birthday, the Kotor Festival for Children’s Theatre is quite aptly a fine mixture of untainted enthusiasm and youthful maturity, and it should certainly be added to your theatre tourism itinerary – before the McDonald’s gets there.