Though the pandemic has been nearly fatal for live theater, it has been boom times for podcasts and audio drama. A new British podcast project, “Out of the Woods: New Plays from the Balkans,” featuring two young Kosovar playwrights, hopes to take advantage of changing trends in how we consume art and help bring Balkan stories to a wider audience.
“Out of the Woods” is the brainchild of British playwright Fin Kennedy, the former artistic director of Tamasha, a UK theater company dedicated to producing work by marginalised voices. Kennedy first became familiar with Kosovo through collaboration with British musician PJ Harvey, who had traveled to post-conflict countries while making her 2016 album “The Hope Six Demolition Project.”
A number of the album’s songs are about Harvey’s experiences in Kosovo. Kennedy fell in love with them. “I was struck by the immense mournfulness that she tapped into in those songs,” he said. “They were full of striking poetic images.”
Kennedy decided Harvey’s tracks would make a good accompaniment for a radio drama. Using the songs as the foundation, he created a series of five 15-minute plays called “On Kosovo Field” for the BBC. The series follows two young refugees who return to Kosovo for the first time as adults in order to discover the fate of their parents.
But as Kennedy was working on the radio drama, he said he “increasingly felt the weight of responsibility around writing about this other country’s trauma without really having any connection to it myself.” He felt an additional discomfort about being paid to do this. While he accepted the commission, he decided to use the fee to collaborate on a project with writers in Kosovo.
Kennedy set up a writers’ group with the help of Kushtrim Koliqi, artistic director of Intent New Theatre, a London-based organization dedicated to Kosovar and Balkan theater. He then went to Kosovo to lead a series of workshops, which started out exploring the practicalities of writing for radio, but soon evolved into a wider discussion on the creative process.
Though Kennedy initially planned to create an Albanian language version of “On Kosovo Field,” he soon became more interested in helping new voices tell their own stories. “There’s more than enough well-intentioned international projects in Kosovo,” he said, and besides, “the younger generation don’t want to write about the war.”
The workshop participants wrote their own audio dramas, and now the work of two of those writers, Agnesa Mehanolli and Ulpianë Maloku, are featured in the first season of “Out of the Woods.”
Mehanolli, who studied dramaturgy at the University of Prishtina, was excited by the artistic potential of audio. Though she found it restrictive at first to have to use dialogue to tell the story, she liked the way it forced the audience to use their imagination. In the Odyssey, she said by way of example, Helen of Troy is never going to be as beautiful on stage or screen as she is in your imagination.
Mehanolli’s play “Where is Mr. President?” is a satire with an absurdist streak in which the president of Kosovo disappears and is replaced by a dog. The dog is now in charge. She drew inspiration from Orson Welles’ famous radio broadcast of “War of the Worlds” — which tells the story through news reports — and from an episode of the Netflix series “Love, Death and Robots” in which a super-intelligent yogurt takes over the world.
“I didn’t want to write something political,” she said, but politics “just showed up.” Maybe, she said, “I was too stuffed up with all the things that happen in Kosovo.” Mehanolli grew up hearing exclusively negative things about the country’s leaders. Instead of adding to the negativity, she decided to take a different approach to analyzing questions of power and leadership, one that people might find funny.
“Humor is the way I deal with things,” she said, and Kennedy’s mentorship enabled her to take herself seriously as a writer of comedy.
Maloku’s play “Nude” is a more conventionally told tale of an artist who causes ripples when his new work turns out to be a naked portrait of his middle-aged neighbor. It’s a short play full of ideas about the act of making art and different perceptions of female beauty.
“I get inspired by everyday life stories,” said Maloku, who has previously written plays for the stage as well as short film scripts. “Living in Kosovo, I always wanted to write about our lifestyle and mentality.” Nude, she said, is not only about physical nudity, but about “acceptance of oneself without thinking how others may judge you.”
The third play in the series is by London-based playwright Miran Hadžić, who Kennedy knew through Tamasha. Hadžić filled in for Kennedy to lead a workshop in Kosovo in 2017. Hadžić’s play, “Fifth Dimension,” was written with input from Kosovar composer Trimor Dhomi.
“I didn’t feel I could write about Kosovo,” said Hadžić, whose family came to the UK from Sarajevo when he was a child in the early 1990s, “it’s not my country.” The play he ended up writing is a dystopian tale set in a near-future, post-Brexit Britain, in which a formerly famous musician is tasked with writing a new national anthem. It was inspired in part by Dhomi’s difficulties obtaining visas to perform outside Kosovo. In the play, UK citizens face similar barriers to travel that the citizens of Kosovo do now.
The idea to turn the fruits of the writers’ workshop into a podcast came relatively late in the process. But with a project grant they were able to produce the plays, recording them in the UK with a mix of British and Albanian actors.
Maloku was delighted when hearing her play for the first time. “The actors were great; they brought that energy that I thought my characters should have,” she said. “It’s a great satisfaction to know that other people can listen to my piece and enjoy it.”
UK theater can be frustratingly insular. Though international work does occasionally make it to the stage, it’s often by established writers and directors. New work from Europe and beyond remains rare and the Balkans are particularly under-served. So Kennedy hopes “Out of the Woods” will remedy this.
He’s keen to record the plays in Albanian as well and has set up an online campaign to fund the endeavor. There is more work in development too. Kennedy said he is hopeful this will be the beginning of a bigger project, one that will go beyond Kosovo to encompass writers from across the region. “This is a project of several years,” he said.
The plays are available on Spotify for people to listen to all over the world, but Mehanolli is most excited about people back home having the opportunity to hear them. “I hope people will like it,” she said, “and that it will make them laugh.”
Feature image: Courtesy of Intent New Theatre.