Earlier this month, plans to demolish the building that has housed Albania’s National Theater for nearly 80 years were unveiled, sparking a protest from the artistic community. Prime Minister Edi Rama, known as a promoter of the arts during his time as Tirana’s mayor, has dismissed the protest, announcing that a new, more modern building will create a better home for the theater.
But the National Theater’s actors reject the idea of replacing the old building, calling for a reconstruction not only of the existing building, but of the way the state treats artists in general, especially employees of the National Theater.
Out with the old?
Built in 1939, Albania’s National Theater, once called the Theater of the People (Teatri Popullor), was used as a cinema until the end of World War II, at which point theater groups from different towns across the country started performing on the stage.
The National Theater has been described as Albania’s most important theatrical institution, as well as one of the sublime values of Albanian culture, a ‘temple’ and an important artistic heart throughout the Albanian world.
But in 2016, the government announced plans to build the Turbine Arts Center, as part of the state’s so called ‘Urban Rebirth’ plans. The Center should, among other things, have a space for a future theater, though it seems to be still unfinished. Despite this, in October it was announced that the National Theater will soon be rehoused there, while renovations to its original home took place.
However, artists, including some of the Albanian cultural world’s most well known names, are claiming that neither the Turbine Arts Center nor a new building will be a suitable place for the National Theater.
Robert Ndrenika, one of the oldest and most renowned actors in the country, has criticized the Turbine Arts Center as a venue, and signed a petition and called publicly for the plans to demolish the old National Theater building to be scrapped.
“The existing theater building belongs to the people,” Ndrenika said in a statement made earlier this month. “We cannot allow the theater’s destruction without a clear explanation of what will happen in the future. The new Turbine building is a joke. It can’t be used as a theater.”
The actor concluded that the existing building should be protected, pointing to examples in the other Balkan countries, like Belgrade or Bucharest, where national theaters are landmarks.
But Rama believes that the old theater should be replaced with “a European theatrical space,” as he made clear during the parliamentary discussion on the issue. He dismissed the protests from the artists, saying that “their battle is missing real substance.”
Furthermore, in a televised public debate, the mayor of Tirana, Erion Veliaj, stated that the existing theater doesn’t really have architectural value. He described the old building as a “conglomerate of sawdust,” built between two wars and claimed that it cannot serve its purpose any more.
Veliaj also claimed that the building was constructed using material that is harmful to people, and that it has caused different health issues to artists. “There will not be a theater of asbestos and cancer in the town anymore,” he concluded, referencing media speculation over the deaths of a number of actors from lung cancer.
Strained relations between thespians and the state
But artists who have worked in this building for decades are not convinced. On Feb. 12, they occupied the National Theater as a sign of protest. Actor Bujar Asqeriu, spoke at a press conference held together with other artists denouncing “the miserable conditions” actors face beyond the fact that they are being forced to leave the stage they cherish so much.
“One of our best artists is paid less than a random employee at the Ministry of Culture,” Asqeriu said in a speech that went viral almost immediately after it was delivered. “This is how much our ministry and government appreciate artists. While artists who are dying are being ignored, government officials live in 5-10 million euro villas. This is the big drama of this country.”
He also claimed that the building was purposefully neglected for years, in order to destroy it and build a new, modern building.
“If you see the theater today you may even cry,” Asqeriu told Ora News later in the month. “What will be done with this place where we have spent our careers? What about theater-lovers?”
However, some artists believe a new building is needed. Artan Imami, an actor and producer, believes that a new building should resemble the existing one, and points out the need for the financial autonomy of the theater, which is currently run by the Ministry of Culture.
“I stand for a new building in the same location, with architecture and infrastructure in harmony with the modern spirit of the 21st century,” Imami told K2.0. “I am also pro every change that leads to autonomy, especially financial autonomy. There are examples that may be taken like from the Piccolo di Milano theater or Comedie Francaise.”
Many citizens have voiced support for the actors in their protests over the destruction of the old building. Fjorda Llukmani, who is 23 and from Tirana, told K2.0 about how much the building means to her generation.
“We used to go to that theater as a part of school activities,” she explains. “I have memories at the theater. There shouldn’t be buildings over a historical building like that. I am completely against the plan to demolish it. There are many people who still go to the theater.”
However, Inva Hasanaliaj, a frequent theater goer, thinks that the conditions of the existing National Theater are not befitting for the most important theatrical institution of the country.
“If the existing theater building can be reconstructed, then it’s OK. We should preserve historic values. But Albania needs a real theater, probably with a new building and new conditions,” she told K2.0, adding that she doesn’t support the Turbine Arts Center as an alternative venue due to how far it is from the existing theater and the center of Tirana.
The grey building in the center of Tirana is noticeably the only building left unreconstructed in the area. Despite the protests, it seems likely that Tirana’s rapidly changing center will soon have yet another new addition and the nation’s theater will be housed elsewhere for a period, before eventually returning to a new home.K
Feature image: Merxhan Daci.