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INTERVIEW: MICHAEL LEDERER - Artistic director of Dubrovnik Shakespeare Festival

Dubrovnik ideal stage for Shakespeare festival

22.03.2011. 14:25

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What were your inspirations for founding the Dubrovnik Shakespeare Festival?
It seems that I always start every interview here in Croatia by mentioning that my father Ivo was born in Zagreb. That’s because I want people here to know that, although I was raised in America, I am not just another transplanted foreigner.  I have deep roots here.  I’ve named the apartment I bought in Dubrovnik “Full Circle” because that’s how it felt when I came back to Croatia, as if I was completing a circle. My father and his parents left Zagreb to move to the United States, and I have left the States to come back to Europe. The first time I visited Dubrovnik was in 1958 when I was two years old.  We used to come regularly to Dubrovnik or to Opatija in the summers, and those were such happy days.  I suppose that one reason I returned to Dubrovnik was to recapture that childhood happiness. And I am pleased to report that I’ve been very successful in doing that! I love every second, every minute and every day here. However, as I started spending more time here I also began to feel a certain frustration that many of my friends here share. Although Dubrovnik has many moments when it feels alive, particularly in the summer months, there are also times when it feels a little too silent, both for visitors and residents. Having a background in theatre I decided to do something about that.  By launching our Festival in April – May, we hope to turn that off-season into an on-season.

Why are Shakespeare and Dubrovnik such a perfect combination?
The playwright Ben Jonson, who knew Shakespeare, wrote that “He was not of an age but for all time.”  The same is true of Dubrovnik.  Both have withstood time, one with its stone walls, the other with enduring words.  Both display power, beauty and grace.  Both bear witness to tragedy and much joy. And there is an air of romance common to both.  On a personal level, one is my favorite writer and the other is probably my favorite place.  Walking the old city, one immediately understands that it looks much the same as it did in the 16th and 17th centuries when Shakespeare was alive. Marin Držić, were he to revisit today, would see familiar stone façades and still know how to get from A to B. Dubrovnik is a perfect natural stage for holding performances of both Shakespeare and Držić.  The famous Summer Festival has taken wonderful advantage of that fact for 61 years, and we aim to begin doing the same starting next year.  There are very few places in the world so ideal for such performances. And although our festival is named after Shakespeare, by no means will it be limited to his plays. Even the most ardent theatre lover would probably grow weary of seeing only Shakespeare. So, as with the best Shakespeare festivals around the world, for instance the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, our backbone will be performances of Shakespeare but we will also do many other plays by many other writers.  Marin Držić will play an important role in our festival.  And in future years, I would love to give young Croatian and foreign playwrights both an opportunity to present themselves and their work. Theatre has to keep reinventing itself, otherwise it risks becoming something stale.

How difficult was it for the seed of the idea of a festival to grow into reality?
We have had tremendous support and encouragement.  Largely because the festival aims to serve two different groups: the residents of Dubrovnik, and also guests who will come because of our festival. I use the term guest and not tourist because “tourist” seems to imply someone who will come and go quite quickly, whereas a guest will stay longer and take time to experience the city, its culture and its people.  On a practical level for Dubrovnik, we want to help fill hotel beds, restaurant tables and café bar chairs. The weather here even in January or February, and most certainly in April and May, is already like a tropical vacation for guests coming from northern Europe. We chose the dates 23 April – 7 May after discussions with Mayor Vlahušić and Pave Župan Rusković from Destination Management.  It was suggested that around the 1st of May is a good shoulder time between the off and on seasons.  Also many people have holiday time during that period when the city is not nearly as crowded as in the summer.  You can walk the streets in the warm air at some leisure and get a great sense of the soul of Dubrovnik. What’s more, we have chosen to open the festival on the 23rd of April which is a day celebrated all over the world as Shakespeare’s birthday.  And the 2nd of May marks the anniversary of Drzic’s death.  So we aim to pay homage to both those writers.

Is your plan to make Dubrovnik Shakespeare Festival a traditional event on the city’s cultural calendar?    
Absolutely!  I have no interest in staging only one festival, because again on a personal level I’d like to give back to Dubrovnik some of the joy it has given me over the years.  The best way I can do that is to initiate a festival that, with luck and a lot of hard work, will endure and grow year after year. And my goal is not only to offer a two week festival of performances.  Even starting our first year we will also offer workshops for actors, symposia for writers, and some children’s theatre by and for children.  I grew up in California, and children’s theatre there was a vital part of my own childhood.  You could see the excitement in that direction here during the recent Carnival festivities, which were wonderful.  Our festival would also like to offer something to the children of Dubrovnik, because they are tomorrow’s actors, writers and audiences. For example, Irina Brook, Peter Brook’s daughter, is coming from Paris to stage two performances by Shakespeare.  While she and her company are here they will also stage performances aimed at children during some of the days. In addition to Irina’s performances, there will be a performance of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet with the rehearsals held in public so people can see how a play is put together.  And there will be premieres of a couple of plays that I have written. One of these, called Nothing Lasts Forever Anymore, is about a family trying to decide whether to sell to a foreigner the home they have lived in for generations.  That play will be presented in Croatian because it deals with a subject familiar to many here.  So this and future festivals will aim to combine classical with contemporary theatre.  I would also like to take this chance to put out a call to Croatian actors and playwrights to contact the festival so we can learn about their work.  Information about us is available on our website:  www.dubrovnikshakespearefestival.com

As the majority of the plays you will staging next year will be in English, some even in French, how will you overcome the language barrier?        
One of the significant goals of the festival is to introduce to Dubrovnik the mechanics of simultaneous translation. With the help of this technology, everyone can see and understand a show regardless of what language the actors are speaking. The technology for this is very advanced.  The audience gets what looks like an MP3 player with earphones, and simply selects the language they want from a menu. The first year our plan is to offer two languages: Croatian and English.  For the future, as our audiences grow, we imagine offering five or six different languages.

It is important that the first ever Shakespeare festival in Dubrovnik is successful, so what are your plans for marketing this first festival?
We plan to target three European cities, Paris, Frankfurt and London, because these cities have direct air connections to Dubrovnik. If in our first year we can succeed in bringing just five hundred guests to Dubrovnik for the festival I will be happy. Of course being the first festival it’s almost certain that we will not get everything right.  But we’ll do our best, and as long as we are moving in the right direction we’ll be thrilled.

What support have you had for this project?
Remarkable!  Full-blooded and unreserved.  Everyone we’ve spoken to has really gotten behind us and offered their full support. Mayor Vlahušić and his team have been with us from the first day to help and encourage us. I am very grateful to them.  Without their help this would be an uphill climb, but with their support it feels that the wind is at our backs. Also I met with President Josipović in New York last year, and he was, is, and promises to continue to be extremely supportive.

You’ve mentioned that you envisage the festival as a traditional event on Dubrovnik’s cultural calendar. How do you imagine the festival in future years?
I would like the festival to take on a life of its own, and one day reach the point where it is not dependent on me, or any other single person.  Our aim is to serve the needs of the people of Dubrovnik, for as long as possible.

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