Features Published 23 June 2020

POSTWEST Festival: What does it mean to be Eastern European?

“Something positive came out of this shitty situation:” Natasha Tripney talks to the artists who are moving Eastern European arts festival POSTWEST online.

Natasha Tripney

Man From Fish, part of the POSTWEST Festival. Photo: Laura Vanseviciene

Even before the Covid-19 pandemic forced them to abandon their original plans, the organisers of the POSTWEST festival, a transcultural theatre festival setting out to dissect the term ‘Eastern European’, had a vast task ahead of them.

The title ‘POSTWEST’ is both a wordplay – ‘Ost’ means East in German – and a provocation to all the participating theatre makers. The idea, explains curator Alina Aleshchenko, is to create a programme of new work that examined the elastic categories of East and West, to explore national, linguistic, historical, social and political differences and commonalities from a variety of perspectives and “to initiate cooperation and exchange between the theatre makers.”

It was originally designed to take place in May at the Volksbühne, Berlin’s people’s theatre – a theatre whose history makes it the perfect host venue for a festival intent on asking questions and collapsing preconceptions about the shifting nature Eastern European identity. The Volksbühne was created so that working people had access to and ownership of Berlin’s cultural life, with the building financed by their donations and tickets kept at levels that everyone could afford. It was one of the most influential theatres in the GDR, theatre being a highly valued part of East German life.

The companies participating in POSTWEST come from Germany, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Czechia, Romania, Hungary, Kosovo and Ukraine. The idea of the festival was never to represent all of Eastern Europe, but rather for the well-funded Volksbühne to support artists and build relationships. To begin with the plan was to have six main stage productions united by one set design. But some of the participants wanted to make work for smaller spaces and smaller audiences, so the format evolved. “For me as a curator it’s important to stay open,” says Aleshchenko. “Sometimes you can plan something, but the artists make everything different.”

This was put to the test when it became clear that the festival would not go ahead as planned, and could not be rescheduled. An agreement was quickly reached between the participating artists that the solution was not simply to release archive recordings of existing work. “All the partners agreed,” she says, “to create new things which were adapted for the digital world.”

The new digital version of POSTWEST takes place from June 24th-26th, and will feature staged readings, audio walks, a virtual birthday party and a discussion with the journalist Saša Uhlová, author of The Heroes of Capitalist Labour, about the jobs that society all too frequently overlooks.

The process has not been an easy one. The window of time in which to make this transition was short, but there have been unexpected upsides. Everyone involved ended up having far more talks via Zoom than they might otherwise have done, and this helped strengthen and enrich the sense of community between the artists. Placing the work online also meant they would be able to present all the pieces in the original languages, something that would not have been possible in the festival’s original format. People, says Aleshchenko, think that everyone in ex-Soviet countries speaks Russian, which many do, but it’s not the language they identify with. “It was very important, for example, that the Ukrainian company perform in Ukrainian because that is the language they do art in.”

For some of the artists, this switch to digital required a complete restart. Martin Boross, of Hungary’s STEREO AKT – whose European Freaks, a participatory piece exploring what it means to be European in the current political moment, was performed in the UK last year as part of Voila Festival – had originally intended to create “an Eastern European Disneyland with travelling performers, stunts, freak shows and the commercialised mysteries of the East.” They were four weeks into rehearsals when the decision was made to turn POSTWEST into a digital festival. So, using an idea from their first rehearsal in which every performer listed their own Eastern and Western qualities, they went from creating a huge outdoor carnivalesque spectacle to a piece focusing on the most intimate of encounters: the date. Date an Eastern European is a short, filmed piece. “I don’t think it’s less personal or less ‘alive’ than theatre. It’s just a different genre, a different mechanism of action, and a much more private experience for the viewer.”

Lithuanian director Eglė Švedkauskaitė decided the best approach was to adapt a pre-existing piece. She had already presented Russian playwright Asia Wolosina’s Man from Fish for Jaunimo Teatras in Vilnius. It’s a play, she explains, that deals with a lot of topics that are central to the festival: “Eastern European identity, the relationship with the past system, ghosts and life in the shadow of state as an oppressor.” But, she says,  also wanted “to work in the direction of distilling all these topics through a woman‘s lens.” In this play, she explains, “the men become the listeners and women are the storytellers. In Russian plays that is still a bit of a novelty.”

The coronavirus shutdown resulted in a lot of theatre being streamed online, but for Švedkauskaitė it eventually became too much. “I was simply tired of images, images, images. Therefore it was a very natural choice not to produce more images myself.”

She decided to rework Man from Fish as an audio piece, working with two actors from her original production and two Volksbühne actors. “The four women sound as if they were all speaking in their own rooms, spilling out their guts but at the same time hearing each other, sharing the feeling, the atmosphere of the night, the loneliness.”

Kosovar playwright Jeton Neziraj had written a new play for the festival, The Return of Karl May, subtitled ‘An Entertaining Play for German People’. It takes as its starting point the work of May, a popular German writer of adventure yarns, and, in particular, his novel ‘Durch das Land der Skipetaren’ (Through the Lands of Albanians), a book packed with stereotypes of the people of the Balkans.

Neziraj has taken the protagonist of this novel, Kara Ben Nemsi, and transplanted him to the Europe of today. Together with a group of Kosovar actors, he travels around Europe encountering Nobel-winner Peter Handke along the way. (Handke, a Milosevic apologist, is an exceptionally contentious figure in the Balkans). According to director Blerta Neziraj, the play is “an attempt to ‘revisit’ the ‘demonising’ heritage that Karl May has left in his literature and the impact that this literature has had in the shaping of the Europe of today, which, according to us, is an Europe that is still behaving with a superiority towards the east (‘east’ in its political definition).”

Rethinking the play for digital proved a challenge. She describes the process as one of ‘improvisation’ and the 30-minute staged reading they have created as something of an experiment, working in a form that is far from the “original language” she is used to talking. She hopes the play’s provocative power will still be clear, addressing as it does a Europe that, as one character says, “loves refugees only on the stage, in fiction but not in reality, a Europe where, a fascist writer like Handke is awarded with a Nobel prize.” The full piece will be presented in Pristina in September. After the festival, all of the productions will be incorporated in the theatres’ repertoire. In this way, says Aleshchenko, we will ensure that the results of this cooperative process live longer.

From the beginning, all the partners have been engaged in conversations about the topic of Eastern European-ness and what it means to each of them. Were all the artistic partners even Eastern European? Not everyone was sure. What role, if any, did EU membership play? In whose gaze, asks Švedkauskaitė, are we Eastern, theirs or ours? The participants from the Baltic countries – which are more heavily represented in the festival than the Balkans – questioned why they are always grouped together as one Baltic block when they have different perspectives, different political and social backgrounds, languages and laws.

StereoAkt’s Date An Eastern European. Photo: Gergo Nagy Pressevorab

To Boross, Eastern European-ness is “something you inherit in smaller or bigger doses. You can unlearn these qualities and replace them, but for many Eastern Europeans, the late 20th century values that we associate with the ‘west’ (such as freedom of speech, equality, economical competition, individualism, need for growth, so on) are phenomena that only my generation and the younger ones were born into. Through globalization these qualities and differences started to shift, blur and mix. We can now talk about North-South, urban-rural, new-old, as the dichotomies that describe our inherited values, but we all definitely feel that tradition still has to do a lot with how we live our lives and what our desires and goals are.”

Švedkauskaitė believes that Eastern and Western categories are not all that important to the younger generation, but that for some people in her parents’ generation the term Eastern European was seen as synonymous with being ‘less’, with being insufficient in some way.

She explains how her identity has been “shaped by being born in an independent country but being brought up by parents who lived a big part of their lives in the Soviet union.” This situation of “being in the middle“ exists in many spheres of Lithuanian life. “Certain values or prejudices from the previous era are still catching us,” she says, and even though there’s a move towards free thought, freedom of expression and respect for one another, “these processes are a bit slow due to totalitarian trauma.” This generational reckoning with shared history, and with people’s differing experiences of life pre and post-1989, is something that ripples throughout the festival, explains associate curator Wiebke Jahns.

One consequence of the coronavirus, says Jahns, was to increase the visibility and urgency of many of the social issues the participants were already addressing in their work, and to highlight the precarious state in which so many people live. “This goes beyond the cultural sector,” she explains, highlighting the plight of freelancers and seasonal workers, the Romanian workers flown in to pick German asparagus. “Everyone is thinking about how we can show solidarity and make a difference,” she says. “So something positive came out of this shitty situation.”

Covid-19 has obviously had an impact on the financial situation for many participating companies. While Germany benefits from a high level of state support for artists, in Ukraine the government cut all their funds for next year. There have also been significant political shifts in some countries during this time. In Kosovo, prime minister Albin Kurti was overthrown in ‘no confidence’ vote after only a few months in power (one of the many consequences of this was the evaporation of a promised package of support for artists). “Let’s see how things develop,” says Blerta Neziraj about the political situation, “it will be interesting in a ‘theatrical’ sense of the word.”

As the pandemic makes many countries turn inwards politically, the need for communication, cooperation and cultural exchange across borders is intensified. A digital festival affords its artists a greater opportunity to be seen. This is particularly significant for countries like Kosovo, in which very little international work is presented, and from which it remains very hard for artists to get visas, resulting in cultural isolation, but it benefits everyone. The UK also seems intent on cultural islanding itself from much of continental Europe, never mind Eastern Europe.

Before this, even in a city like Berlin, explains Aleshchenko, there were surprisingly few possibilities to see the work of Eastern European artists. “People see one Russian piece and think they know Russian theatre.” By taking the festival online, the work can now be seen not just by audiences in the partners’ home countries, but across the continent and beyond. “One of the benefits of digital is to let everyone see each other’s works,” she says, “and to allow us to see if we have some stereotypes about each other, which is important when we’re building an international community. It’s important to look at each other.”

The POSTWEST Festival will take place from 24th-26th June. There will be further discussions, debates, and podcasts on the POSTWEST festival website 

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Natasha Tripney

Natasha co-founded Exeunt in 2011 and was editor until 2016. She's now lead critic and reviews editor for The Stage, and has written about theatre and the arts for the Guardian, Time Out, the Independent, Lonely Planet and Tortoise.