We have been persisting for ten years despite the environment that does not believe in Beauty
I left professional theater the moment I realized that theater was tainted by the banality of everyday life and the vanity; one day I took off my costume and thanked for all the trust I had been given. I failed to cope, it was as if theater and I did not properly understand each other. However, I missed the theater: being able to engage in theater, grow through theatrical expression, and share my knowledge of theater with others. That is why in 2010, when I started to work at High School in Lebane, I founded a school theater and saw a dam in it. For me, “Gimnazijalac” Theater is a shelter, first and foremost. It is a space of purity that brings together brave people who strive for the sky without any interest, for the sake of Beauty. We gather so that we would (and the students know this very well) invent ourselves, by creating new worlds together, made of pain and joy. Not to delay life - which school often does, but to live and learn how to cope with it. Theater allows us to tell a story on behalf of "millions of souls" who cannot speak because they are not brave, skilled or powerful enough to cope with the limitations within and around themself. To create a better world for the sake of better worlds. It is not always easy, but it must always be beautiful - this is the motto of our Theater. For years, theater has been based on principles that promote, motivate, empower and celebrate love and creativity. Many high school students spent some of their most beautiful days in the Theater, making small memories that strengthen them and make them better people in times of storms and inhumans. We are all different, but we are all in it together, even when we do not understand each other, even when we think diametrically opposite, but we are there precisely because we think, and because we create - because we can explain ourselves to the world and others, with words and artistic expression, and to explain the world to ourselves. And it all hurts, because it requires a lot of waivers, and the stake is uncertain, but it is all up to us - and that's the charm. We all have our own stories, but we also have a common goal - to find a place for others and those different than us, by purifying ourselves.
And so for ten years now (this year we will mark a small anniversary) - we have been working and striving to set and nurture theater values in a subversive way that enriches both high school and theater audiences, through the choice of texts and the way we work. We bring the play back to the theater, and through the play we learn to creatively and critically learn about the world, explore new possibilities, learn about our own potentials - the possibilities that the body, voice and word provide. We are becoming aware of all that we possess, and we possess plenty; we ourselves are the greatest theater resource. And everything comes and is born in spite of everything, and from nothing; that’s how we started, and how we will continue. For the plays we did: Family stories, Dear Jelena Sergeevna, Barbelo, Of Dogs and Children, Autobiography, Animal Farm, Everything is Fine, Dead Sea for Beginners - we didn't get the approval of the immediate and wider community, though we didn't expect it nor asked for it. They were born in anguish, but each and every one of those anguish enriched both the students and myself - over and over again new students who were coming and going, and myself who was present all the time to witness the ups and downs, to enrich myself with new experiences - if we draw the line, I may be at my highest gain.
In the ten years that the theater has existed, about eighty high school students from the first to the fourth grade took part in the work of "Gimnazijalac". The Theater tries not to interrupt the cooperation with the former high school students, so all of them are gladly seen in the theater as associates; it also practices to establish contact and collaboration with primary school students who will be future high school students. We avoid auditions and selective models of any kind; the only criteria for joining the theater are voluntariness, personal decision and motivation of the students to be part of the school theater. Each new group, and a newcoming member, gets acquainted with the character of the group, with previous experiences, and with the fact that it is necessary for each individual to be willing to work and invest in themselves, as this is the only way for the group to survive and last.
The audience from outside Lebane had the opportunity to see the performances of “Gimnazijalac” Theater. We performed throughout Serbia - in Kragujevac, Belgrade, Leskovac, Niš, Vranje, Kula, Novi Sad, Smederevska Palanka, Prokuplje, Jagodina, Medveđa, Knjaževac, Obrenovac, Vlasotince - over eighty performances (as many as the awards from various festivals), and, most importantly, a satisfied and diverse audience: from the youngest elementary school students to the audience in years worthy of respect. It was a great pleasure and privilege to represent Serbia at festivals in Montenegro - at the Kotor Festival of Children's Theater and in Bosnia and Herzegovina - Juventa Fest in Sarajevo, the international festival at which we won the Grand Prix for Best Performance.
The process of working on a play involves first and foremost the active involvement of all members in the work process. From the first workshop rehearsals, to suggestions for dramatization, directing, costumes and scenography. Students propose directing solutions, make costumes, participate in stage design, procure props, present proposals and plan rehearsals - constructively contributing as individuals to the group's work to be of better quality and content than previous performances. We could completely rely on my colleague Ivana Krstić, who was primarily in charge of production support for the theater. Former members of the theater also provide great support and assistance; we don’t even need to call them for help, they just come and help us themselves, because they are tied to school theater by fond memories.
The most precious part of each process is when the students reflect on themselves and the world, when the dramatic process motivates them to reassess themselves and the world around them. These are cathartic moments that lead to the purification of all participants in the process and then of the audience. Driven by the character, the dramatic situation, the dramatic process itself, they progress qualitatively - by purifying themselves, they find a place for themselves in another / other.
Honestly, I'm not sure that the High School I work for has full awareness of the importance of school theater, but it is no different from many schools across Serbia (this is best evidenced by the ban on last year's play Dead Sea for Beginners). Otherwise, school theaters would be more numerous and the existing ones quite empowered. School theater, above all, can enhance the educational process and improve the quality of school life. In this regard, school theater is a valuable resource that needs to be nurtured in order to have a more noble effect on improving the quality and improving the teaching process. One of the key problems in many schools is ethos - it is the weakest link in the educational process. What I have noticed, and what I can say from my personal experience, is the fact that students who participate in the work of the Theater develop different, much more decent and humane relationships in class with other students; they convey the creative process and encourage a creative atmosphere among non-theater students as well. They convey a model of behavior that entails solidarity, tolerance, respect for diversity, critical and creative thinking - all that is missing from the traditional school system. There is no peer violence in the Theater, no unjustified absence, no running away and boredom - we face all of these problems at school. There is a lot of play in the theater, but there is no playing around. In the end, the students volunteer to come to the Theater, and spend much more time than at school, it is not difficult for them, and they do not “get bored.” Schools could learn a lot from school theaters, only if they wanted to.
A big challenge for the school theater is the environment of a small town where there are no theaters, which perceives the theater as a form of entertainment, easy and cheap fun, or sees theater through the prism of prizes - a palanka that measures quality by the amount of rewards, expectations, ignorance. It is easy to notice, but it is rather ungrateful to introduce the students to all of that and strengthen them to face palanka as an eternal aggressor. One of the common questions I ask my high school students is: How can you be affected by the expectations of people who don't know theater? However, in order to be aware of themselves and their relationship to the environment, I must often insist on conversations that primarily emphasize the thought that theater is not entertainment for the masses. I often repeat: theater is a reality that you have to invent - a higher reality that you master - it is your world. Those are not rewards. What rewards do you remember? And what moments from travelling, rehearsals, guest appearances, performances? What do you tell your dear people as the years pass? Do you tell them about the awards or do you reveal the moments that shaped you in the theater? I often remind them: You are the people of the future, not the present - so don't let the present pull you to stumble. And I never say - “Go!”, but rather: “Follow me!”, to new rises and future moments! Because life is made of moments, not rewards!
Working at the Theater for me as a teacher means, first and foremost, continuous improvement and research, an opportunity to get to know the students better and to have a better relationship with them; to explore their interests and ways to approach them. Working at the theater made me become a better teacher, with better qualities, I believe, because I am able to perceive the complexity of the teaching job and the challenges we face, which we ignore in the classroom and during regular classes. First of all, theater allowed me to understand how different students are, how much the needs and interests of students differ, even though they are all the same age, and therefore, often as teachers we assume that there are similar interests. I stopped assuming and established a closer relationship with the students. Our entire education system is based on assumptions: parents assume, students assume, teachers assume. Through the theater, we tried to listen to each other, tried to believe in good - I hope we made it. We succeed because I trust the students and they trust me, we are not the opposing sides - we are a team. Education is not acquired exclusively at school, nor does it, as a broader term, fit into a rather rigid institution such as today's school. If we try to force it, we will damage our education. Often, we hear: We send kids to school to be somebody and something! Theater has allowed me to recognize the inexhaustible energy and potential of children - that they are already somebody and something.
The theater empowered many students, restored their confidence; they gained confidence by working on plays or by being alone in the Theater. They have learned to grow from stumbling, that they can empower one another and be better people; to rely on others, to trust others and to cooperate with others. And most importantly, let me say it again: they have learned to purify themselves, to find a place in themselves for others and those who are different. For many high school students who took part in it, Theater is one of the fondest memories of school life that they often remember. Many former high school students return to the Theater after graduation, which is a testament to the wonderful moments that inspired and strengthened them while they were in school theater.
Many members of the Theater are very creative people who have sought out their creativity by writing for the former school magazine Ogledalo which was awarded as the best high school magazine, or by arranging their school classrooms by transferring all of the world literature to the classroom walls - Contemporary Literature on the Classroom Walls.