In-depth | Culture

The demolition of the theater as a harbinger of an upcoming dictatorship

By - 22.05.2020

A state captured by the whims of an arrogant leader.

In an unprecedented act, the Albanian government, in cooperation with the Municipality of Tirana, razed the historic National Theater in Tirana in the early morning of May 17. This is the epilogue of an extraordinary, nearly three-year-long effort by a group of artists, activists and citizens with the aim of protecting the theater.

I dubbed it an “epilogue” for purely technical reasons because, in fact, I believe this is only the beginning of a longer and more challenging battle, after which, however, the theater will not come out the loser.

The conflict about the theater so far has driven a wedge between the disorganized theater community in Albania, the scattered cultural elite and the politically divided and disunited citizens. Perhaps the poorest theater scene in Europe, a disorganized theater community, left in pieces in the worst way possible, tantalized and exploited by politics for its own ventures, but most of all abandoned by the state for decades — this is the overall picture of the current situation of theater in Albania.

And as if this was not enough, once again — goaded by politics — this theater scene became an arena for confrontation. This time around, there was a big difference; a group of artists, activists and citizens showed their teeth to the politics. And this is not trivial: In fact, it is quite a lot for present-day Albania, a country that has been captured by the whims of an arrogant leader! 

When the Albanian government published its plans for demolishing the National Theater, a group of artists and activists occupied the building and from that time on stayed there, protecting it day in, day out. Soon, the government’s devious leaked to the public: The demolition would make way for a new and — as it’s instigators proudly call it — contemporary theater building, while the private investor who would build it would get the property at the back of the theater in compensation to build skyscrapers, the kind that have become the new face of Tirana. 

Thus, the cause to protect the old theater from demolition was joined by the cause of protecting the public space around it (regardless of how little attention the latter received). This is the tableau of this ongoing drama.

With the demolition of the theater, the government also turned off that open microphone, which was one of the only ones left for critical voices in Albania.

Before I return to the crux of the matter, I first want to say that the cause, debate and the entire dialogue (that sometimes was reasonable, and at other times degenerated into insults and threats) about the demolition of the theater could have easily changed course and been more constructive, thus being beneficial to all parties, especially to the fragile democracy there. If the government had allowed people to protect the theater, it would have fewer opponents than it does today — after the demolition — their enemies have now multiplied.

Secondly, for almost the whole of the past two years, in the yard of the building there constantly was an open microphone where theater artists, writers, intellectuals and citizens have had the opportunity to talk, discuss and sift through issues and subjects that are not only of interest to the theater, but also to society, politics and the past and future of Albania.

With the demolition of the theater, the government also turned off that open microphone, which was one of the only ones left for critical voices in Albania, and along with it the possibility of openness toward people who think differently. The arrogance of Prime Minister Edi Rama is epic — it was known before, but now it is bare.

Outline for a future play

If somebody soon wants to write a play, here’s an outline of scenes that could come in handy.

Scene #1. After midnight. The prime minister is joined by the police chief, the Mayor of Tirana and a couple of others (one of them could be a journalist at one of the many television stations that survive on government funding). The decision has been made, although there is some hesitation. “Not yet,” the prime minister says, “we’re not far enough into the night.” When the clock strikes four in the morning, the prime minister glanced at his company, signalling that it is time to act.

The Mayor of Tirana, tired and full of speculation, sets out to open his mouth, but the prime minister understands that he will once again spew words of doubt. “Shush,” he tells him. “It’s over. We have decided: It will happen tonight. We couldn’t wish for a better night to demolish that theater. Even COVID-19 is on our side. A quiet weekend, the dead of night, the middle of a pandemic. It’s wonderful.” And then the order is given.

Scene #2. If we could name this scene, then it could be “The Criminal Excavator.” The masked policemen emerge from the government buildings around the theater where they were stationed and rush toward the artists and activists who were protecting it after hours.They violently seize them and remove them from the premises among tears and screams. The excavator, which seemed to crop up out of the night, extends its metallic arm and thumps the front of the building until it falls to the ground. The archive, costumes, the stage, the memories and over 50 years of theater are buried within its wrecked walls…

Scene #3. We don’t know what could happen, but it happens in a futuristic setting. Where the National Theater once was lies a building that resembles a shopping center (but has a theater hall within it). Behind it loom seven skyscrapers, the tallest being 23 stories high.

The first scene only serves dramaturgical purposes, to instill some suspense and draw the attention of the audience. The second scene is based on real events and is well-documented. The third scene, as speculative as it may be, is based on the government’s urban planning for that area.

Disappointment is a natural state

Fiction and fantasy aside, let’s get back to reality. What we saw in Tirana on Sunday morning, May 17, was truly shocking. The circumstances of the demolition, without social consensus, constructive debate, blackmailing and threatening artists and their cause, without efforts to find other alternatives, with police violence against those who were resisting — these are all symptoms of autocracy and a harbinger of an upcoming dictatorship.

But it is not unprecedented in the Balkans.

For the sake of comparison, let us remember an interesting episode of a similar demolition of cultural heritage in the area. Just past midnight on April 24, 2016, a group of about 30 masked hooligans in vehicles without license plates went to Belgrade and in unseen mafioso style, demolished the old Savamala buildings, a cultural neighborhood in Belgrade that the government flattened in order to make way for a luxurious housing block. Of course, the mafia-like operation was encouraged by Aleksandar Vučić — then prime minister and now president of Serbia.

When Rama took the lead of the country, many artists had great expectations.

Now, these two actions — Talibanesque by nature — have a few things in common. Both were ordered and managed by powerful politicians and were executed at night for the account of the oligarchs. Yet, there is a small difference: Vučić did not carry out the demolition himself, but used a group of thugs who, naturally, were never prosecuted or arrested.

The two strongmen of Belgrade and Tirana also have other similarities in terms of their “ideology” of crime: An authoritarian governance mindset, arrogance in decision-making, lack of transparency, buying off the media, abuse of power and using force against the disobedient and the critics and so on. So, they use classic methods worthy of autocrats who consider the state to be their property.

Rama, who himself is an artist, paradoxically utilized his affinity for art much more for promoting himself when he came to power, rather than for the benefit of the artistic community and the public. When he took the lead of the country, many artists had great expectations. But Albania is a place where disappointment is a natural state.

The opposition, a forced alternative

For the uninformed readers, let us say that about three years ago, the staff and most of the actors of the National Theater were moved to and continued to work at ArtTurbina, a cultural space that was especially created as a temporary home for the artists until a new theater could be built on the rubble of the old theater waiting to be demolished — and so it happened. ArtTurbina is an excellent space with two very nice halls, but its location is not very good. 

Artists were divided into two blocs. The first unconditionally supported the construction of a new theater on the foundations of the old one. They, maybe rightfully so, tired of the horrendous conditions where they created theater for years dreamed of a more dignifying hall where they could operate normally. And the government offered them exactly that, right in the heart of Tirana. This was enough for them — other arguments were unimportant and irrelevant.

They called the old theater — which they had abandoned until the construction of the new one — a useless barrack that didn’t provide the conditions for dignified work. This was true to some extent, but I will talk about this in a bit. And since we’re here, for the sake of correctness, I need to say that I initially belonged to the first group who blindly believed in a “theater of dreams,” which is warm even in the winter. I even spoke to the media there using these arguments, and I regretted it soon after. 

The other bloc, which gathered around the Alliance for the Protection of the Theater — an informal group of artists and activists — and who guarded the old theater, also wanted a new theater, but not in exchange for the old one.They wanted to preserve the old one and also have a new one in another location.They were also against the government seizing the land around the theater to build skyscrapers.

When the Alliance for the Protection of the Theater occupied the building following the publishing of the government’s plans for the new theater, there were efforts to purposefully politicize the whole issue and cause. And purposefully calling it “politicized” was to devalue the cause and lower it to the level of daily politics, as “a battle between the opposition and the government,” or often as a “trampoline for the opposition to gain attention.”

And these demonization efforts were successful. Many artists, activists and citizens preferred to remain indifferent — to watch it quietly from their TV screens as “just another clash between the opposition and the government.”

The cultural opposition has been and remains very powerless — even more powerless is the political opposition.

In normal circumstances, the Alliance for the Protection of the Theater would be much larger and more powerful, but in a country such as Albania today, something like that does not seem very easy. We are talking about a country, possibly the only one Europe, where there is no independent theater scene. The theater life there is entirely dependent on the financial support of the state — and this explains a lot, I think. 

In the current circumstances, most artists are employed either by the few public theaters that are in operation, or by other state agencies, or work on various TV programs, which in most cases are produced by TV stations that are controlled and financed by the state. So, as you can see, there is a vicious cycle that is difficult to break.

And so it is with other cultural structures, but also with the circles of intellectuals and activists. The cultural opposition has been and remains very powerless — even more powerless is the political opposition. It has even, for the sake of correctness, made efforts to include the cause of the protection of the National Theater within its political agenda.

Of course, the Alliance for the Protection of the Theater, powerless against a quarrelsome government and ready to confront, did not have options. Therefore, for them, cooperation with the opposition has been an alternative — not the best, but the only one in these circumstances. And the only hope for longer-term resistance.

The thirty-year misery of the theater

The collapsed National Theater had been physically damaged and had a primitive infrastructure. It is difficult to say whether any serious investment has been made in it in the last 30-40 years. And in general, the entire theater infrastructure in Albania has been ruined and neglected.

The only investments were made in the Korça Theater and to some extent in the Shkodra Theater. In Elbasan, the theater has been completely renovated after the fire it suffered, however, its stage has never been equipped with lighting or stage sound. This is a syndrome of many projects there — they start but never finish…

In Tirana, among the most credible theater investments has been the creation of ArtTurbina, then the National Experimental Theater “Kujtim Spahivogli” and the theater “Metropol” funded by the Municipality. Some of these few investments have come more because of the will of the former Minister of Culture, Mirela Kumbaro, than as a part of any development strategy. Although many artists in Tirana may disagree with this statement, I would say that Kumbaro has done a good job, especially in terms of cultural heritage.

However, for all these 30 years since the fall of communism, only that much has been invested in theater in Albania. And the National Theater, it seems, has been deliberately set aside, as if to instill in the public, artists and the media of the idea of ​​a ruined theater, a theater that is not worth the investment, and a theater that needs to be demolished. So, over 30 years have been invested into the idea of ​​demolition.

The government was able to recruit supporters and did not act alone, but together.

And the miserable condition of that theater, of course, must have tired the artists. But I think the artists’ anger at that miserable situation should not have been unleashed on that theater, on the contrary, the unhappiness should have been unleashed on politicians (both the right and the left; when it comes to culture, it is not that they have any essential difference).

Hannah Arendt, in her book On Violence, rightly says, “Power corresponds to the human ability not just to act but to act in concert.” Even in this case, the government was able to recruit supporters and did not act alone, but together — unfortunately, along with artists. And I think that’s the trick here, which a lot of artists haven’t figured out in time, and maybe some still don’t.

Why should we now trust this government that promises to build a “modern theater,” a kind of “theatrical paradise,” while in reality it has contributed to the creation of a theatrical hell! And let me say it again: This hell is not only created by this government now, but also by the opposition when it governed before, and I am afraid that future governments will also continue as such, whichever it may be.

Why demolition should not have been an option

The National Theater was designed by an Italian architect as part of a larger complex that was finalized in 1941, at a time when Albania was occupied by fascist Italy. It was originally conceived as a cultural theater-cinema complex and was known as “Savoja.” In 1943 it was renamed “Kosova.”

After the liberation of Albania in 1945, it is said that the first trials against opponents of the communist regime took place there. That same year, the “Club of the League of Writers and Artists of Albania” made its headquarters there, and a little later the professional theater was established there, too. At that time it was called the “People’s Theater” and after the fall of communism it was renamed the “National Theater.”

The fact that it was built by the fascists was now used as one of the arguments in favor of the collapse, that “it was a worthless project of fascist Italy.” Moreover, the fact that the communist trials were held there was, by some, an additional argument according to the logic of “what reminds us of evil, let us remove it from the face of the earth.”

The idea for a new theater began in the early 2000s — either to be built somewhere else or on top of the old one that needed to be demolished. Edi Rama, then Minister of Culture, was one of those who demanded the destruction. Twenty years from then, he now brought this idea to life. Even though the rest of us will pay the price of his stubbornness.

That derelict theater was the best reminder of a country that is just as derelict.

Renovation, according to him and others, was not an option because it cost a lot and, as they said, it was simply not worth it. This reminds us of the Arabic anecdote published by the philosopher Ernest Gellner: A man prayed to God to fix so many misfortunes of his, that a neighbor mockingly remarked that it was much easier for God to create another man than to fix such a lost cause.

The theater, of course, should not have been demolished. This has been said hundreds of times, throughout this long debate. It was no longer just a “National Theater” but an important object of Albanian cultural heritage. There were about 80 years of history there theater history, needless to say, but also Albanian history converted into memories, events, collective remembrance.

That theater, as it was, derelict, was the best reminder of a country that is just as derelict. And therefore, its demolition is an act of self-destruction. It is like the action of someone who, dissatisfied with his face, scratches and scrapes in the hope that by tearing himself apart, he will bring to light another, more beautiful face…

The Dream of the Cinderellas

The biggest theatrical collapse in Albania is not the physical collapse of the National Theater, which took place on the night of May 17, 2020. The biggest example that has happened to the Albanian theater for over 30 years is the aesthetic and moral degradation of the idea of ​​doing theater, the arrogance and contempt of the state toward the theater, and the powerlessness and inability of the artistic community to organize. With the exception of a handful of theater artists, including Stefan Çapaliku, Ema Andrea, Gjergj Prevazi, Arben Kumbaro, Altin Basha, Enton Kaca and others, I really don’t know what we would call contemporary theater in Albania today.

This movement for the theater, despite the rift it has created within the theater community itself, and despite the price paid, should be the start of a longer battle to free the theater from the clutches of degradation and a battle that in addition to the cause of physical objects, fights for another cause, if not more sublime the cause of the dignity of theater in Albania, a dignity that has been abducted by everyone little by little, including by the artists themselves, but especially by politicians.

In the Albanian Riviera, in addition to sand, tourists can and should be offered a cultural menu.

This certainly sounds like a moralizing call, yet I am inclined to believe in the power of theater. Even when theater artists lose hope, the idea of ​​theater manages to triumph and guide artists, even if they are just a handful. What some of them have done these years, in defense of the National Theater, should serve as inspiration.

Meanwhile, of course, in parallel with the belief in the power of theater, we should probably dream of a prince-politician — the kind that Cinderella dreams of — who would come to pull the theater out of misery. It doesn’t have to be an artist politician, nor does it have a politician captured by the oligarchs, it just can and should be a normal politician or a politician who sees theater development as potential.

There must be someone who understands that, in the Albanian Riviera, in addition to sand, tourists can and should be offered a cultural menu. After all, a developed culture can be transformed into an industry that promotes tourism and thus generates income. There must be someone who understands that the creation of an independent cultural scene does honor democracy, becomes a stimulus for social development and emancipation, which is so necessary for Albania.

And so, while we still mourn the loss of the National Theater in Tirana, the dream of the theater continues, more vibrant, more concrete and more beautiful than ever … Any cynic could now quote Marx, who said that “the problem lies in the fact that dreams never come true.”

Theater, however, is a place of dreams and miracles!

Feature Image: Arrita Katona / K2.0.