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Theatre Festivals as Part of Cultural Tourism

Music and film festivals have become an increasingly growing crowd-pullers, as part of cultural tourism worldwide. In addition to international sports events, or political protests it is basically the only place where you can gather thousands of people who have something in common. Pohoda in Trenčín is the best known Slovak music festival, and the Art Film Fest in Košice is one of the most prominent film festivals. Some of us buy tickets for high-profile cultural events a couple of months in advance, we plan our days off for those days and want to fully enjoy the atmosphere and selection of the best pieces. We set aside some money because we know that in addition to the tickets, there will be many other expenses. Accommodation, food, transportation, souvenirs. If there is some free time during festival, we can look around the area and we learn that there is also an excellent art gallery, and in a short walk’s time there is a beautiful castle, there is an interesting museum right around the corner, and maybe we will stop in a water park on the way back.

However, besides music and film festivals, theatre/performing art festivals are worth mentioning, too. Festival d’Avignon in France is the oldest and largest theatre festival in the world. Held regularly since 1947, when founded by director Jean Vilar, the festival gives performing art enthusiasts the opportunity to come to dozens or hundreds of theatre plays, street performances, and various side events of all genres, all through July every year. The event is among the most prestigious events of the year and the French are aware and proud of that. In one month, more than 100,000 spectators from around the world come to visit Avignon. The participants include ensembles from almost all countries, creating a unique space for confrontation of nations, languages, and cultures, in particular. In July, Avignon becomes the Mecca of theatre and everyone must come there at least once in their lifetime.

In Slovakia, we have a similar opportunity to enjoy contemporary performing art, too, only to a much lesser extent. The Divadelná Nitra festival can be considered the largest performing art festival in Slovakia. According to statistics, there were just over 6,000 participants in 2017. As part of its main programme, it offers only a few foreign ensembles within a week’s time, and, moreover, after 19 years of the festival, Nitra lost the privilege of awarding every season’s performing art awards – DOSKY (the “STAGE BOARDS”). Starting from 2015, the awards ceremony has moved to the Slovak National Theater in Bratislava, and so Nitra lost what had been previously considered as the top moment of the festival.

In order to raise the artistic level and show us, Slovaks, more of the big world of theatre, the management of the Slovak National Theater (SND) decided in 2014 to start a festival called Eurokontext.sk. The European Theatre Festival of SND has got a nature of a biannual event, alternating drama theatre with music and dance theatre. To a large extent, however, the programme includes domestic plays, while performances by ensembles from abroad represent a minor part only. It would be too naive to think that there are any visitors travelling from abroad with a specific purpose of seeing our theatre festivals, perhaps except a few individuals.
Well then, is there is a theatre festival in Slovakia, which would have the potential to develop cultural tourism? Sure, all of our festivals have got the potential, but to what extent it is their intention? Probably there is a prevailing ambition to attract foreign participants, but not foreign visitors. To a certain extent, it is also connected with the programme itself. We know that when we are going to a festival, we are attracted to big names, interesting titles or something “exotic”. In the Central European area, however, there is a unique festival that meets these parameters. It takes place in Bratislava every two years from 1997 and it is organised by the Faculty of Theatre Academy of Performing Arts in Bratislava. We are talking about the Istropolitana Projekt festival. It is a meeting platform for prospective theatre professionals and for confrontation among young artists from domestic and foreign artistic schools. In its history, the festival presented over 100 schools from all over the world, including Israel, the U.S., Hong Kong, Germany, Poland, Italy, India, Russia, Indonesia, Iran, the Czech Republic and many other countries. There were more than 200 different performances and participants includes celebrities such as Baz Luhrmann. In comparison with the aforementioned Slovak theatrical festivals we are talking about an accumulation of the largest number of foreign ensembles. On average, there are about 15 ensembles, which in combination with big names, carefully selected titles, and exoticism in the form of the participating countries, creates perfect conditions for attracting many visitors, including from abroad. Nevertheless, the Istropolitana Projekt still remains, to put it mildly, a closed festival intended mainly especially for the participants. Is the evidenced by the fact that the festival’s name resonates particularly in professional theatre environment, or in individual schools, which participate regularly. It would be interesting to see what would be the outcome of making the festival more open and accessible to the public. Now that we have it.

The Best and the Worst

What I think were the biggest positives and negatives of three decades since the 1989 revolution – asks the Inštitút pre kultúrnu politiku.

The best thing is that we became part of the West. Among many other things, this meant that culture could be looked upon and treated like in western societies:

  • Culture ceased to be one of the battle grounds on the global class struggle, another field where communism was supposed to conquer capitalism,
  • Culture was no more part of the Marxian superstructure, resistant to entrepreneurship, outside the sphere of “productive forces”,
  • Cultural activities were no longer carried out among the conditions of permanent shortage of everything,
  • Culture ceased to be the medium of coded political communication.

Before the change one could do only what was permitted – but what was permitted was at the same time obligatory, planned and prefabricated.

Having been freed from all those stupid ballasts, artists and other cultural actors in post-communism gradually became part of the West. They have been facing the same challenges as their western colleagues and have been trying to address them in western ways.

What makes us belong to the same “West”, despite all the diversity, sometimes even antagonism between ourselves? To me, the West – and particularly Europe –denotes today that part of mankind that takes the values in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights more seriously than any other civilisation on Earth. Although not always in explicit manner, but respect and tolerance are categorical imperatives that can be detected in most manifestations of western culture.

What is the worst thing that has happened to culture after the regime change? Homogenisation under the spell of consumerism is difficult to withstand. Digitisation has been more of a threat to most aspects of culture than the opportunities it has borne.

But the really worst thing has been the regression occurring in our societies. Instead of freedom, tolerance and openness, certain eastern – not exotically oriental, but provincially eastern – features have returned and regained power. Populism has affected the entire western civilisation, but the post-communist countries represent a particular subcategory. If we go along the above list of issues buried with the past regimes, we can sadly acknowledge that:

  • Culture is increasingly used for ideological purposes,
  • Beyond aesthetic and intellectual values, political loyalty has again gained importance,
  • Critical and experimenting culture must struggle for oxygen (while court culture enjoys plentiful resources),
  • Being brave and critical about the political power has again become a value and a risk.

Although the picture suggests a sequence from good to bad, fortunately the two exist side by side. We keep being part of the West, which for us is the best setting for culture, and which equips cultural players to successfully handle the predicaments.

Péter Inkei