As one of Europe's newest and poorest countries, Kosovo doesn't have the money or interest to invest in the arts. But young theater buffs are using the stage to work through the country's past - and drawing audiences.
Kosovars could be more enthusiastic about theater, say the country's dramatists
Kushtrim Hoxha's eyes well up when he talks about it. Kosovo, 1997: The fight between ethnic Albanian rebels and Serbian security forces was plunging the small Balkan territory into the final war of the bloody disintegration of Yugoslavia. Still, Hoxha and three friends, who were studying in Pristina, wanted to visit their families in the western city of Gjakova.
They loved rock 'n' roll - Nirvana, Guns 'n' Roses, Pink Floyd, Metallica. They played a little themselves and, like other rockers their age, they betrayed their affection for the music with long hair.
Traveling at night in what was then a southern province of Serbia, the young men ran into Serb paramilitary police in a tunnel near the bus station. The officers demanded identification, then accused Hoxha and his friends of not being who they said they were. The men in the IDs had short hair.
"To be sure, we need to cut your hair," an officer told them, recalled Hoxha. One took out a knife and took off a lock of Hoxha's friend's hair.
When they saw a guitar among their things, the police demanded that the college students play some patriotic Serbian songs. But they didn't know any, so instead they performed The Doors' classic "Light My Fire." Finally, the officers let them go.
Catharsis on the stage
Fourteen years later, two of Hoxha's friends from that night are dead - killed as fighters in Kosovo's liberation struggle. And Hoxha, now a 32-year-old actor, recounts that night of humiliation to audiences at the Kosovo National Theater.
Hoxha lays bare his story as the lead in the Albanian-language adaptation of British playwright Tom Stoppard's "Rock 'n' Roll." It's not simply a translation of the play, which links rock music to the democratic awakening in communist Czechoslovakia in the 1970s and 80s. Rather, it weaves in the actors' own experiences as Albanians in Kosovo during the war.
And that has resonated with audiences who themselves lived through decades of repression that culminated with brutal armed conflict.
The cast of "Rock 'n' Roll" incorporated their own stories
"People want to be reminded of what happened in the Balkans," Hoxha told Deutsche Welle. He was initially reluctant to dredge up his painful memories at the behest of Bosnian director Dino Mustafic. But now the actor sees the experience as a personal catharsis that has engaged a public which usually takes little interest in theater.
"Rock 'n' Roll," which premiered in January, is a runaway success the National Theater of Kosovo. The play has drawn sell-out crowds to a theater more accustomed to anemic attendance.
Hoxha hopes "Rock 'n' Roll" will come to represent a turning point and encourage more local directors and playwrights to have the courage to deal with their collective past on stage.
"It's time for a revolution," he said.
'Not a theater town'
And with "Rock 'n' Roll" still more the exception than the rule, it seems a revolution is what's needed. As the artistic director of Kosovo's National Theater, Jeton Neziraj is bleak in his assessment of the dramatic arts in his country's capital.
"It's more or less dead," he said. "Pristina is not a theater town. It doesn't have what a capital city should have."
Pristina, home to about half a million residents, has the National Theater, where most plays are staged, the independent Oda and a children's theater. But people simply don't go to the theater - even with tickets available for just 3 euros (about $4.20) apiece.
Disinterest stems from the 1990s, when repression of Kosovo's Albanian majority increased and plays ceased being shown in their native tongue. Then the war halted everything. Fighting ceased after the NATO bombing campaign in 1999, but theater has yet to recover - both in terms of public interest and creative energy.
Most funding comes from the government, but the arts aren't exactly a priority for Kosovo, one of Europe's most impoverished countries.
Budgets stay on the backburner, said Neziraj, who often has to buy things like paper and pens for the office out of his own pocket. While the lack of funding is indicative of Kosovo's apathy, Naziraj hopes new energy will change that.
Kosovo's capital, Pristina, still paints a bleak picture
The seeds of revolution
Twenty-five-year-old theater director Agon Myftari is one of few visionaries to tackle the challenge of the flailing theater scene.
This fall, he's directing Neil Simon's "Fools." The play is set in a Ukrainian village in the 1800s, and tells the story of a schoolteacher who arrives to discover that the residents are afflicted with a curse that renders them stupid.
Myftari says the play is painfully relevant for Kosovo, a partially recognized country that is widely seen by its citizens as politically and economically broken, with high unemployment and widespread corruption: "It's a time of fools here."
The young director thinks that provocation will help bring Kosovars back to the theater. Ordinary people face such enormous challenges in their lives, because of Kosovo's poverty and isolation, that they are hungry for something that relates to them, he said.
Myftari is discouraged, however, that he had to look abroad to find a play to engage Kosovars. There is so much potential material in the collective experience, Myftari said, but there just aren't very many playwrights.
He sees potential for a thriving theater scene, young people need to start taking initiative and collaborating with one another. "This is what concerns me," Myftari said. "I still don't know what Kosovo has to offer."
"Rock 'n' Roll" starring Kushtrim Hoxha is, at least, a start to the theater revolution.
Author: Nate Tabak
Editor: Kate Bowen