The last act is over, the lights are off, the curtains lowered onto the stage and the echo of the last applause dies down, but the theater continues. Theater takes place there, in the place and time in between performances. The show continues behind the scenes.
The glamor is on stage, while behind it, in the darkness, the work must get done. The realities of offstage and onstage are diametrically opposite, like night and day.
Alongside their roles in the play, actors in theaters across Kosovo have to embody another role — that of hiding what happens behind the scenes. Here, the work they do goes unnoticed, their bodies numb from cold and their efforts unappreciated.
The answer to this cannot be found on stage, but instead in the basements of theaters, in the cold that penetrates the rehearsal rooms, in the dangerous ropes of the rigging systems, in the dusty floors, in the splintering floor boards, in the non existent showers, in the mountain of unappreciated work, in the undisturbed silence of the institutions.
Besides the play that we see on stage, an ugly show goes on behind the curtains, one that hides anxiety and fear, underestimation and contempt. Applauding is not enough, nor is the rush to boast of the theater’s achievements on social media, nor the promises from institutions that are rarely met. The backstage needs attention.
It seems like the hardest question for actors and actresses, technicians and theater managers is not what would they do if there was no stage, lighting or anything else that is thought of as essential in order for the show to go on, but what would they do if there was no heater.
As the stories unfold about working in the theater, among the warmth of laughter and anecdotes, one truth emerges — how coldly the theater treats these people.
“I remember one time, we did rehearsals wearing ski suits. We almost froze,” said the actress Hajat Toçilla, part of the ensemble of the Prizren theater. She said that she has photos to prove the freezing conditions in her workplace.
An almost inhuman level of sacrifice is expected from theater workers. Guided by their love for the profession, trying to fight with all they have. But you can only fight so much, when your body is numb from the cold and refuses to move. “Does it make sense, that it’s -20°C in the hall, when you have to act in a scene involving washing yourself with water?” asked Adrian Morina, an actor for 22 years and part of the ensemble of the National Theater.
This situation may not make sense, but there is an explanation — the theater is disregarded by relevant institutions, not only as a building, but above all as an institution, as a creation, as a concept.
“My sister called me, and asked ‘Where are you?’ I said, ‘At work.’ She said, ‘What kind of work?’ I told her, ‘I’m an actress, I work in the theater,'” said Toçilla, sharing dozens of stories about how every time she tells people she’s an actress, they tell her “come on, make me laugh.” For her, there’s nothing to laugh about when it comes to her workplace.
“The theater is a mirror of all institutions,” said Morina, and this mirror is broken into pieces, similar to the mirrors in the dressing rooms, which sometimes have mirrors and sometimes do not.
The attention institutions give the theater is often partial or non-existent, and their most important show, the public hasn’t seen.
Let the curtain fall, let the lights turn off. Let the show begin.
The National Theater of Kosovo (TKK) is the workplace of around 70 people and one of the most important houses of culture in Kosovo. Its building stands in the center of Prishtina, facing the government building, so close that government officials walk past the theater to go to work.
The theater and the government face opposite directions — the former is always looking to articulate a critique of the latter. Furthermore, it seems that the government and theater even disagree on whether theaters should be supported.
In June of this year, the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sports announced a complete renovation of TKK, because there have been too many plays that, according to social media posts from the Ministry of Culture, represent a “high level of danger for employees.”
TKK employees have been working in dangerous conditions for a long time, where things only function properly on the night of the premiere and rarely in rehearsals or reruns. “We scribble in the dust that circulates through the theater like a ghost,” said actress Verona Koxha, who has been active in the Kosovo Theater scene for six years.
Before the renovation announcement, Kushtrim Sheremeti, actor and general director of TKK since April of this year, mentioned that the infrastructure problems at TKK are deep-rooted and stem from years of lack of investment.
The delayed renovation, which now has been guaranteed, has raised the new issue as to where the theater will move to during the work. In the absence of an explanation from the Ministry, theater workers are worried about what will happen to the program and TKK employees during the renovation.
Concerns for the temporary loss of a theater are understandable, especially considering the dire conditions that Kosovar theaters face. K2.0 requested clarification regarding the duration of the renovations, the budget and where the activities of TKK will take place during the renovation, but the Ministry of Culture hasn’t responded.
In Prishtina, in one of the two wings of the Palace of Youth, also known as Bororamizi, a theater is hidden, Oda, or Lokali 111 as the director, Florent Mehmeti, calls it. He deliberately calls the only independent, or, non-public, theater in all of Kosovo Lokali 111, because according to him, the Oda Theater hasn’t been treated as a theater by institutions, but just as another bar inside the Palace of Youth.
A fragment of the city’s history is preserved in Lokali 111. Once a bowling alley, behind the stage of Oda Theater there are still remnants of bowling lanes, which conserve both the past of the theater and the Palace of Youth.
Mehmeti cannot talk about Oda Theater without recalling 2003. A few years after the war, he and actor Lirak Çelaj, were looking for a space to stage “The Vagina Monologues,” a stage reading that explores issues of the female body, reproductive rights and sexual experience. After a spontaneous meeting between friends and sharing the difficulties they were experiencing with the manager of the disco located in Lokali 111, he asked them, “Why don’t you come and see it?”
Thus, at the age of 26, Mehmeti returned again to Lokali 111, where he had once gone bowling as a child.
At that time, Bororamizi was under the management of the Privatization Agency of Kosovo (AKP) and there was criticism that the complex had lost its former identity as a center of sports, culture and art. Crowded with business enterprises, Bororamizi was no longer the place for which Mehmeti’s parents and many citizens of Prishtina had once paid taxes.
With a lot of dreams and little opportunity to realize them, they managed to hold the first premiere in March 2003, in the disco — which worked on Fridays and Saturdays and was free to be used as a theater on other days. According to Mehmeti, the closure of the disco after a while gave the space a new lease on life in the summer of 2003.
Under the pressure of criticism that the Youth Palace was no longer serving the youth, the creation of a theater was the ideal solution. AKP offered Lokali 111 to Mehmeti and Çelaj, with “beneficial rent” agreement. But the space was large for the two young people who, apart from being in a country that had recently come out of war, were also in great personal financial difficulties. This meant that taking such a step was daunting at best and impossible at worst.
Without a business plan and with projections and calculations that predicted a loss, Mehmeti and Çelaj decided to make Lokali 111 a theater against all the odds. This was also an attempt to send a message about the importance of revitalizing public spaces and the utilization of alternative cultural space in the Youth Palace that was on the verge of losing its cultural and artistic identity.
“We never dreamed of managing the space; all of this was made possible by our friends,” said Mehmeti, reflecting on the fact that Oda Theater has been open for 20 years. He recalls a time when in place of a door they used curtains and when people made small infrastructural improvisations, they often waited for up to five years to be reimbursed from the theater’s income.
For payment, unlike the friends and well-wishers of Oda Theater, AKP did not give them any leeway. “They closed it dozens of times. Sometimes with yellow tape and other times with a padlock, because the managers of the palace were ruthless, that is how it was. On the 5th of the month, if the rent was not paid, without any warning, you arrived one morning, [and saw that] it was closed,” he said.
Oda Theater is registered as a non-governmental organization and like any other business in the Youth Palace, pays rent to the AKP. Unlike nearby theaters, Oda worked seasonally, like many theatrical events, and the limited income — opportunities to pay the rent — halted from June to October. This often meant for Mehmeti that “the clock was ticking and the time to pay the rent was running out.”
Meanwhile, the issue of the Palace of Youth’s ownership was an issue of contention. For years, the blame for the decrepitude of the Palace of Youth was passed around the AKP-government-municipality triangle like a hot potato. The efforts made by the municipality to regain ownership of the Palace became a reality only in December 2017. The municipality is now responsible for investing in and maintaining the building.
This new reality put an end to Mehmeti’s “terrible visits to the AKP,” but did not put an end to the theater’s difficulties. Mehmeti’s new destination now became the municipality, with whom he was meeting with for three years, trying to find ways to cooperate.
The pandemic further crushed the spirit of theaters and the cultural scene in general. A performance space in the Dardania neighborhood, Qendra Multimedia, closed with an unanswered cry for help that demonstrated the lack of attention from institutions. In the heart of a city that was trying to get used to the reality of the pandemic, the Oda Theater was holding on by a thread.
In order to share their troubles and with the goal of keeping their activities alive, Oda Theater and Qendra Multimedia decided to manage Lokali 111 together. After continuous calls to support cultural spaces, in August 2021 the Municipality of Prishtina decided to cover their rent.
Unable to carry out renovations on their own, the Oda Theater is waiting for the municipality to make true their stated enthusiasm for restoring the Palace, which then-mayor Shpend Ahmeti expressed when it came back under their ownership. This wait is ongoing. The employees of Oda Theater work without heating. “We work with jackets. We are all passionate people. The other alternative is to stay home, doing nothing,” said Mehmeti.
As if to add even more tension to this prolonged wait, in 2021, the Municipality of Prishtina announced a contest, calling for designs for the renovation of the Oda Theater. Although according to Mehmeti, the winning project has been chosen, the dark stains drawn by water dripping down the walls of his office show that the renovation never happened. This delay can be attributed to the change of government after the local elections of October 2021 and slow process of appointing a new head of the Directorate for Culture.
The design plan for the theater serves only as a reminder of what the theater could be. Since a year has passed since the opening of the competition, employees of the theater are hoping for the Directorate of Culture in Prishtina to get them out of this rut. “If it weren’t for the hope that’s holding us, by now we would have given up,” said Mehmeti. “Even five years, seven years, 10 years ago [they promised] that they would fix it quickly. This is a transitional phase, they said to us. It’s been in a transitional phase for 20 years” he added.
K2.0 has contacted the Directorate for Culture of the Municipality of Prishtina for clarifications about the design plan and when the implementation of this plan is expected to begin, but has not received an answer.
Not far from the TKK and the Oda Theater, in the old part of Prishtina, where a little cobblestone still remains, stands the Dodona Theater, the only puppet theater in Prishtina. The theater director, producer and playwright, Visar Krusha, shows the room where puppets are hung side by side, puppets that have been features of many childhoods, in both beautiful and difficult times.
Labeled with the names of the shows, the puppets of various shapes and bright colors tell the story of the Dodona Theater. They stand as a tribute to the people who over the years have given children beautiful memories.
Above all, this room demonstrates the work of the Dodona Theater technicians, who, as Krusha shows, with parts left over from set designs, without an additional budget, have created a physical archive, where Pinocchio and Liza now have a dignified place to be displayed and preserved.
This archive created by the workers of Dodona Puppet Theater is a show in itself, which Krusha would like to present to the new mayor of the municipality, because according to him, the old tradition of disregarding the theater is continuing. “In the municipality, it happens that you email people and they don’t even respond,” said Krusha, as he explains that despite the fact that they have not visited it, it is difficult for him to maintain communication with members of the municipality, whose answers are often decisive for the daily operation of the theater.
In contrast to TKK and Oda Theater, which are awaiting renovation, Dodona Theater, a workplace for 22 workers, was renovated in 2021. Krusha remembers the many requests for the renovation, which was cut short and many of the needs they had identified, including fixing wardrobes, shower cubicles, mirrors, chairs, were not addressed.
As Dodona Theater’s hope for the expected renovations diminished, so did their confidence that they would ever manage to operate properly. Additionally, according to Krusha, they are faced with bureaucracy that demonstrates, “no one really cares how the theater works.”
Someone who has fought hard to preserve the sacred place that Dodona Theater holds in the minds of children and adults alike, Krusha, who has been director since 2018, every day faces a mountain of administrative issues, which make creative work seem a luxury. In addition to daily work in the roles for which they are contracted, Krusha and other administrative employees sometimes also take care of putting the clothes in the washing machines, which they barely received after several years of requests.
In the same way they waited for washing machines, they wait for every other material they need to operate. Some administrative and legal changes in recent years have only made the theaters’ work more difficult. From 2017, public theaters were no longer permitted to have their own bank accounts as stated in the Law on Theaters. Instead, their funds must remain in the state treasury. As a result, theaters make requests for expenses through the municipality, which also manages their budget. While salaries and a certain amount for goods, services and subsidies are provided by the state budget, some is also managed by the municipality. For the rest of their funding, theaters depend on the budget of the respective municipality. For renovations, theaters look to both the municipality and the central state budget.
This form of budget management centralization hinders their daily work and is a problem that all the theaters of Kosovo share. In addition to using up the time they have to work on their shows, the issue of continuous requests has made it impossible for the Dodona Theater troupe to participate in festivals. “The operation of Dodona is always dependent on someone else; the administrative environment is absolutely contradictory to the theater,” said Krusha, when he tells how often when they go on tours, they don’t even have money to give them “a coffee, a meal — because they make a big of deal out of it.”
Adrian Morina, who has acted in various theaters in Kosovo, tells how many times they have had to improvise, because their props did not last for the duration of the show. For them, improvisations damage the show and undermine the hard work that entire groups do to bring the show to the audience. Saying “the show can go on without everything, except actors,” Morina explains how the actors are expected to always be there for the show, even if it means that they have to work without the essential tools needed to carry it out.
Putting their responsibility towards the public first, he tells about the times when he had to compromise with his work and professional training by improvising on stage. Morina once, instead of bread, had to play with a sponge, another time with styrofoam.
“Before the show, an employee told me, they didn’t buy bread. He left a piece of sponge [instead of bread] and said to me ‘it’s not obvious that much, the color is the same’,” said Morina. “Now, during the show I take the sponge, I split it, and start throwing it. The bread weighs, therefore it can be thrown, but, the sponge, it fell at my feet.”
Another case that Morina mentions is when they needed sunflower seeds for a show.
Morina remembers a situation before the reprise with theater colleagues: “‘Where are the seeds?’ I asked. ‘We don’t have them?’ they told me. ‘Why?’ I asked them. ‘Because those from the ministry are saying that we are eating sunflower seeds.'” In the absence of seeds, the actors played with the seeds of the premiere, which the theater maintenance worker had collected with a broom after they had spit them out.
Something that has been fixed in the Dodona Theater and TKK are the seats, stairs and the exterior. “We have good floorboards, they changed the carpet and painted it. The public has no problems,” said Krusha, about a situation that is at odds with the reality backstage.
Morina also mentions the dedication towards the theaters’ facades. “State logic only thinks about the facade,” he said. “The TKK stairs have been renovated four times, they are still ugly. Nobody cares about the basement in TKK. Rats in the theater are to be expected. When it rains, [water] rises up to one and a half meters. When you go down there, full of water, the sewage remains, the discharges remain on the surface. It’s a horror there.”
“The public doesn’t see it,” said Morina, just as the public doesn’t see how difficult it is to work in the theater, with low wages, undefined roles, in the absence of a catalog for jobs in the theater. As a result some people do several jobs at once — despite the efforts of the theater managers to achieve a balance of work.
The conditions the 22 employees of the Adriana Theatre in Ferizaj face aren’t visible to the public. Almost nothing inside the building resembles the magnificent figure of the late actress, whose name the theater bears. In the rehearsal room, among the imposing painted brown wood that resembles the color of the water in the bathrooms, there is another office, completely different, which stands as an oasis.
This office stands in contrast to the rest of the dilapidated theater and just like anything that breaks the norm — arouses curiosity. Unlike the rest of the theater, there are beautiful paintings hanging, the walls are freshly painted, there is a sofa and a small desk inside. From the smell you can tell that everything is new.
It is the office of Besim Ugzmajli, the theater’s artistic director. Since 2020, Ugzmajli has renovated the office himself, not only in terms of design, but also in the sense that most of the things there he bought from his own pocket. This seemed to be the only space where Ugzmajli was able to get things done according to his vision of how things should look — tidy and in order.
For the rest of the theater, of course, renovation plans have been made.
“There was a renovation plan two or three times, but it never happened. You see it appearing somewhere in the Ministry of Culture’s budgets, then the money is transferred somewhere else, no one knows what happens, the renovation doesn’t happen,” said Ugzmajli. Perhaps the renovation plan for the dressing room has also been canceled. It is an improvised room, where the actors and actresses, some standing and some sitting on damaged sofas, were preparing for the show “Marxists and Leninists of Switzerland.”
Promises were made and photographs were taken for the renovation of the theater in Ferizaj. In 2019, the then Minister of Culture, Kujtim Gashi, while signing a memorandum of cooperation with the mayor of Ferizaj, Agim Aliu, mentioned the planned investments, which included the theater. In 2020 the mayor Agim Aliu mentioned that the theater was among the capital investments of the municipality.
But, in a response to K2.0, the chief of staff of Mayor Aliu, Albion Sherifi, said that according to his knowledge, the current government has removed it as a project from the budget and that the Ministry of Culture has not given any information about its removal. K2.0 has contacted the Ministry of Culture for additional clarification, but they have not responded.
Ugzmajli adds that the theater has major infrastructural problems, which, as in other theaters, begin with the cold and the iconic heater, the unifying symbol of Kosovo’s theaters. In this theater, the cold that enters from the basement due to a lack of insulation has often caused rehearsals to be postponed or canceled. “In this theater you can freeze,” said Ugzmajli, before showing how the heater not only is insufficient to warm such a large space and loses heat very quickly, but its noise, as well, drives you “crazy.”
Similar to Krusha’s experience with Dodona Theater, Ugzmajli mentions how difficult it has become to maintain a theater due to the financial dependence they have on the Directorate of Culture in Ferizaj. “They took the revenue from the theaters, they destroyed the theater completely, there is no independence without financial independence,” said Ugzmajli. The endless demands, even for the smallest things, have restricted the possibility for artistic creativity for him.
Ugzmajli illustrates this with the progression of a play from the premiere to the last rerun; over time the quality of the play decreases. “We had a show, ‘UN Inspector’ [where] a kind of dinner is served,” he said. “At the premiere it was a fantastic dinner, at the end of the reruns, it ended in a boring cocktail party. The fifteenth episode ended as if ‘we’re eating something.'”
Persistent about the urgent need for mobilization of the artistic community, Ugzmajli insists that this vocalization of criticism must be maintained, without the intervention of institutions. According to him, artists should not become institutional, just because they work in institutions.
“Ministers of Culture are, kind of, in the priest’s position, you go to confess, he listens, he hears you until you finish it; you’re freed; he is freed from your criticisms which you needed time to gather; he gave you the opportunity to express your concerns; you express them; he then forgives your sins, that’s all,” said Ugzmajli.
Due to the lack of staff, most of the employees of the Adriana Theater need to work other jobs, and as if this were not enough, the theater cannot guarantee jobs or funding for the other half of the year. “The second part of the year we don’t know what we will do. The first six months, we spend the money to produce, and I don’t know where we will receive the other cents,” he said.
Employees of the Gjilan Theater had fewer complaints in recent years. Unlike the half-completed and long awaited renovations mentioned previously, this theater was finally renovated in 2021. While walking through the theater’s new corridors, Fehmi Hoti, scenography technician at this theater for 23 years, happily shows how they achieved this. They followed the renovation work the whole time, to ensure that the work was being done as it should be.
Theater technicians tend to be most familiar with backstage, while the actors and actresses get to go on stage and receive praise, at least from the audience, the technicians are almost invisible. Often they are not even mentioned in the posters that line the theaters’ stairs that announce upcoming shows.
They work the stage, turn on the lights, without which there is no show, play the music, and follow every work that is done in the theater. They always work. “As a technician and responsible for a sector, I work almost every day and sacrifice holidays, including official ones. The reason behind this is the fact that we build for the entertainment of others and we work before, during and after the performances,” said Yann Perregaux Dielf, technical director of Oda Theater.
Similar to Hoti from Gjilan’s city theater, Perregaux Dielf advises his colleagues to be aware of the limits. When they talk about the theater, it cannot be distinguished whether they are talking about their home or their workplace.
And despite this, the increasingly hard work grows along with the challenges the theater technicians face. “Safety in the theater in Kosovo seems to have been forgotten for some time now and this can be seen in the lack of investment in it,” said Perregaux Dielf, indicating that the theater cannot be maintained only from its own income and that it needs support from the Ministry of Culture.
The technicians in Gjilan also work with the same difficulties. Ersen Zymberi, whose contract had recently expired when we did the interview, mentions the lack of work space for technicians as one of the first problems he faced in the theater. “This is a constant request from the stage technicians, because they use a space behind [outside the theater], where the theater heater is located.”
Zymberi has two very special places in the theater for him and his colleagues.
One is the working space for actors, where there is a piece of paper commemorating Raif Haziri-Spira, their beloved colleague, organizer and supervisor, who died in 2021. Another space has also been preserved — the office of actor and director Muharrem Sylejmani, who also died in the same year. When he talks about these two, who dedicated their lives to the theater, Zymberi mostly talks about the priceless connection they had with the people who made the theater and the obligation he feels to continue their path.
The house of the “Flaka e Janarit” festival, which Zymberi mentions as an important marker in the history of the theater, as “a raised voice, a revolt against oppression” has suffered a lot to keep it that way. Over the years, the theater of Gjilan has seen a lot.
In the 1990s, after being expelled by the forces of the Milošević regime, the theater moved to the House of Culture in the village of Përlepnicë — the time when Zymberi, the son of the famous actor Naser Zymberi, “became infected” with love for the theater and stage. To hold the rehearsals, one of the villagers would go out to see if the inspectors or the police were passing by and through whistles or other signs, would notify the actors and actresses inside.
Then, after the war, the theater was returned to its artists but the difficult conditions continued. The year 2021 marked the point when some of the difficulties were resolved. There was a provision of a special budget line for the theater in the state budget, the selection of a resident ensemble with regular contracts and the renovation.
However, as in Dodona and Adriana Theater, the theater employees in Gjilan also deal with bureaucracy to buy costumes and scenography materials. Meanwhile, a part of the theater remains in disrepair, which was actually damaged by a renovation by the Ministry of Culture in 2016. The materials that were used for this renovation and the displacement of the ceiling below have damaged the theater’s acoustics, something that can’t be ignored in a theater. Adrian Morina, who has performed there, shares his experience about the damage caused to this theater as a result of the inadequate renovation. “Inside the stage, when you start to talk, no one can hear you,” he said. “It has become a terror. They have ruined the acoustics and it will never get back to how it was before.”
The constant requests to fill the position of the artistic director of the theater of Gjilan have not been fulfilled either. Since the resignation of the last director, the role has remained empty for seven or eight years. They don’t have a communications officer either. Instead Zymberi does that work himself, similar to Krusha from Dodona Theater and Ugzmajli of Adriana Theater.
Regarding the position of the artistic leader, Kushtrim Zeqiri, director of the Directorate for Culture, Youth and Sports in the Municipality of Gjilan, says that he hopes this problem will be resolved this year.
However, Zymberi has managed to resolve some problems the theater faces with his insistence, going from one administrative office to the next. However, the heating remains an unresolved issue — Gjilan’s theater uses wood for heating — which worries Zymberi in many aspects. He sees the theater as an institution that should be promoting the protection of the environment and not adding to environmental pollution.
Zymberi says that because of this heating method, there are times when they run out of wood and have to make requests for supplies and during the period until the request is approved, the rehearsal rooms are cold.
In 2018, Zymberi implemented his determination to maintain the theater properly through the establishment of the Association of Public Theaters of the Cities of Kosovo. The members are the directors of public theaters in Kosovo.
Backstage, it is evident that institutional support, beyond the promises made, must be realized so that their workplace is no longer dangerous. For them, the idea of not having the theater, as a place where criticism is articulated and the conscience of institutions awoken, is dangerous in itself.
Theater workers have made it clear that they do not intend to stop, neither the criticism on stage nor behind the scenes. They put the theater first, sometimes even before themselves, but this does not mean they are blind to the fact that the conditions are bad. They have been educated, as they say themselves, to feel a responsibility towards the public even when their work is underestimated.
But as they live out this responsibility, they fear for their safety. They carry this fear even when they perform comedies. The actress, Hajat Toçilla, in addition to acting, cannot get the image out of her head of what she sees above, over the stage — a view that the audience does not see.
The theater’s rigging system hovers over them as a constant reminder that things must change, because after all, it’s a matter of life and death. “They are dangerous, I got on a swing, which took me all the way up and I was wondering, what if it breaks?” asked Toçilla.
They avoid answering the question, because fixing things is too expensive. Morina said, “The only fear that I have in the theater is that I am going to die in the rigging system.” If Morina and Toçilla’s apprehension that the hoist will break comes true, maybe only then will the conscience of the institutions be awoken. If it breaks, it will be too late for reruns.
“The show will stop only when I die,” Morina said, as he retreated behind the curtains at the Oda Theater to prepare for the next show, which ironically, was a comedy.
This article has been produced with the financial support of the “Balkan Trust for Democracy,” a project of the German Marshall Fund of the United States and the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Balkan Trust for Democracy, the German Marshall Fund of the United States, or its partners.
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