Hleb Theatre – Stage play “Marija Ručara”

Sanja Krsmanović Tasić in "Marija Ručara" play
Sanja Krsmanović Tasić in “Marija Ručara” play

Towards the end of 2021, stage play Marija Ručara premiered at Cultural Centre Magacin, performed by Hleb Theatre. It emerged from the poem of the same name, once being forbidden and destroyed, written by Aleksandar Vučo and Dušan Matić. Through our program of Special Focus, it was our pleasure to support the development of this stage play, making connections between the position of women workers in 1930s and today, orbiting around the basic human needs of which people are deprived by the capitalist cruelness in diverse manifestations. On this occasion, we talked to Sanja Krsmanović Tasić from Hleb Theatre, who staged this play and performs in it. 

1. It has been almost 90 years since the poem “Marija Ručara” was written. In a 1977 interview, Dušan Matić said: “After 1930, I was trying to direct surrealism towards reality. Marija Ručara is a poem with the subject of a worker’s murder, provoked by social reality, while at the same time this poem was vastly achieved by surrealist technique.” This staging also floats between the surrealist text and the iconography of reality, supported by little stage reminders of recent tragic workers’ stories, and it is all also shaped by the inflow of Brechtian expression. How was the process of creating the stage play flowing, swimming between the eclectic of artistic currents, how have politics and aesthetics informing each other?

Thanks to Srđan Atanasovski, a musicologist, I got this tremendously wonderful poem. Just a reminder, the poem was censored right after being published, and its copies were being destroyed. Due to some miracle, some of the copies have been saved, to our great luck, because it is an unusual and precious piece, clearly made from deep initiation and disturbance of the authors, Dušan Matić and Aleksandar Vučo, by the fate of the worker who has committed the murder, and who was on a trial at the time. The poem ends with a workers’ march, protest, revolution, a call to go out in the streets and demand the right to the Sun, health, life, a normal, decent life. I find it rather moving. When our surrealists list such simple things amidst the fervor of the desire for a change. They say:

“A better life,
Sun books pictures waterproof gloves
Windows looking at the Sun
White sheets,
Hot sandy beaches,
Sponges, flowers.
Sweet pastry.”

And in the end:

“Workers’ red footsteps.”

The authors envisioned the poem to be performed by a speaking chorus. The suggestiveness of the words building images in our imagination is very strong, and my greatest fear was to exaggerate with something, we wanted to leave the space for the audience to envision that space on their own, the action, Belgrade in the 1930s. We are only the carriers, narrators, “talkers”, all of us except for Marta Keler who plays the role of Marija Ručara. 

The resonance of the words chosen by the poets is so strong that we even dropped and reduced all the musical interpretations, the polyphony. We tried to carry it out in its fullness. We intentionally chose the technique of reading most of the text because our faces, except for Marta’s, do not matter. We are symbols, nameless bodies of thousands of workers, exploited, always at the verge of existence, who give and sacrifice their bodies, souls, and primarily hands, to the capitalist machinery. I am personally very involved with this stories, because my Belgrade Krsmanović family, not its rich part that has built those magnificent villas, but that other part, workers and proletariat, were at the same time and city where Ružica Soukup, the worker who inspired this poem, lived and worked. 

2. Where can we recognize workers such as Marija Ručara today? To which degree is their position differentiated compared to a Marija Ručara in the 1930s?

At the beginning of the stage play, we are reading ads by jobseekers. Only a few of them were taken from the poem, the rest are advertisments found on various websites. They are moving and reflect the realistic situation on hopelessness in which a large number of our country’s citizens is in. Essentially, this is what hurts, what substantially provokes us and does not let us stop, and motivates us to keep up with the work no matter what, because for us, it is crucial to speak out on the stage about these injustices. Because we do not make stage plays just for the audience to mobilize them, wake them up, remind them of the injustice, we also make these stagings because of those workers because we give them voices, we tell their story. They know and feel that they are being heard somewhere, respected, that someone is concerned, touched and moved by their destinies, their injustices. 

Essentially, what hurts me is that I do not see a difference between the position of workers back then and now, or the entire society, humanity. It seems to me that we are taking giant steps backwards instead of forwards, toward a better, more just society. The means are more sophisticated now, the types of manipulation are more insidious. Behind the big words, masks and corporate machinery, the hiding oppressors are the same. 

It is important not to accept it, to maintain reminders of truth and justice, to honestly do our work in hope that we will make one of our viewers aware, that perhaps we will offer consolation to one woman worker because her voice is heard in our staging. In this case, I know she is Jelena Živković from Leskovac. 

3. Among the most striking pieces of the current reality that found its place in the stage play is reading the story about the so-called Aptiv syndrome, a number of physical and psychological symptoms characteristic for women workers from Aptiv company in Leskovac. Even without specific nomenclature, in numerous workplaces diverse syndromes are blossoming, common physical and mental struggles of workers. What are the problematic syndromes most present among artists and cultural workers within our society? 

I was looking for a connection, a direct one, with our times, and it came through the social media. I have read the article by Aleksandar Rangelov, an orthopedist from Leskovac, about the situation in Aptiv, and the article got integrated into the stage play, as well as the text by Jelena Živković. It is interested that, after the premiere, people came to me telling me how brave we are, how brave I am. After the performance “About the Consciousness” about Dada Vujasinović, I don’t think about being brave or not anymore, but I do notice that some occurrences are not accidental, such as the situations when we do not get funding from public institutions. We always find a way to make a stage play that we care about but the truth is that sometimes it comes at an expensive cost. We are professionals, Martaa Keler and I are freelance artists, belonging to a marginalized category on our scene and society. Sometimes I get tired of the continuous struggle because there is not too many of us and everything stands on our shoulders, the production, the staging, costumes, PR, administration. I shouldn’t even mention that around 70 percent of my time goes by in non-paid work of looking for funding for our production or projects. 

What rings the bell for some people when they hear the phrase “freelance artist” is that they have all the freedom, they work less. False. We work much more than those who are employed in an institution, for far less money and security. I should not even get into the story of the large debt by many of us, because the City was late with paying the benefits, which is expected to be covered by us. 

What troubles us the most is lacking space for performing. Cultural Centre Magacin is a great space, our home throughout all of these years, but charging for tickets is not allowed there. We depend on donations, and as professionals, I believe it is only fair to be paid for our work. 

It is always stressful and difficult to search for performing space, and after the pandemic, it is even more difficult. 

4. The performers, the workers, share schnapps with the audience during the play, and they indulge in breezy atmosphere, drinking, laughing, relaxing. This reminds us of an understandably needed escapism due to the strangling working positions but also of a terribly neglected labor right – the right to resting, or even idleness, why not. It is not too difficult to assume that, with all the other rights workers are deprived of, the right to resting remains at the bottom of the priority list. Yet, how will an exhausted woman worker fight even for those priority rights? Where to after the endless number of exhausting working hours, where is the road to fighting for dignified work?

Precisely because of this it is important to have organizations and spaces and people who fight for them and with them, to provide them support and possibilities for a change. I am endlessly thankful to Reconstruction Women’s Fund for supporting the development of this stage play and recognizing Hleb Theatre as a group that considers activism being its way of working and creating. Also, since the beginnings, in the 1990s, as a member of DAH Theatre, I have been connected to Women in Black. Both RWF and WIB, as well as many important activist organizations, including the choir Our song led by Srđan Atanasovski, with which I sing from time to time, make that huge difference and entice hope that the action, change and justice are possible. 

When we know that we have allies and likeminded people around us, that we are not lonely, that empowers us to continue regardless of the obstacles. 

5. Where is the stage play “Marija Ručara” going further? How is its stage life continuing?

Even besides our desire to play it as much as we can, everywhere, in galleries, in factory spaces, any spaces, this is not easy, because even the simplest guest performances require funding and lots of work. Also, due to an illness, we had to cancel the last date, but now in April we are playing it again in Magacin, and we are hoping to play it in May as well. It would be helpful to have an organizer, someone with the same activist attitudes, to support us in organizing and production work. 

Also, we have to find new funding for conducting these guest performances, as well as performances in Belgrde. 

Nonetheless, we do not give up, and we are the happiest when we play our show, the stage play that makes sense and carries an important message. 

Towards the end of this text, I wish to quote a viewer of the performance “About Consciousness” that I have performed thanks to Reflektor Theatre at Dorćol Platz: “Last night I attended an art-life experience, and comparing it against the most of the theatre production, the latter seems… Well, trivial. Rough, cruel, gentle.”

If only one viewer thinks like that, we are on the right track. 

Interview and translation by Galina Maksimović