In-depth | Teatri

You can’t because you’re a girl

By - 03.02.2023

Ten girls, one stage, and the desire to make things a bit better.

“My name is Ana Petrov. I’m 23 and in the final year of my master’s studies in architecture. I’m one of those who was told that architecture isn’t for women.”

“My name is Sara Gajović. I’m 25 and come from Kraljevo. I’m a professor of French language and literature. I’m one of those who were told that they can’t work in mountain search and rescue because it’s cold and I’m a girl.”

“My name is Ana Ninković and I’m 26. I graduated as a professor of Serbian literature and language. I wasn’t told what I could or couldn’t do.”

These are three of the 10 devojčica, “little girls,” from the theatrical play of the same name. Produced by the Belgrade-based Reflektor Theater, the play marks the theater’s 10th anniversary. The theater started off with a play called “Muškarčine” (“Macho Men”) and caps off 10 years with “Devojčica.” There is some poetic justice in this because in this period much changed, or at least started to. The MeToo movement has emboldened girls and women who more and more are demanding their rights in the streets.

“Everything happened as it should,” said Milena Minja Bogavac, playwright and director of the plays “Muškarčine” and “Devojčice.”

“When we were working on ‘Muškarčine,’ the concept of male allies in feminism here was revolutionary. We had an important experience working with young men in preventing gender-based violence, and back then it was the most sensical thing to use that knowledge in a play about young men. It’s a play that marked an important part of our lives, a play that was the starting point of Reflektor Theater, a play we grew up with as a crew, a team… a family,” said Bogavac.

Along similar lines, “Devojčice” was envisioned as a full-length documentary play about growing up as a woman in today’s Serbia. The content of the play developed through an investigatory workshop process that involved young actresses working alongside experts, researchers, activists and feminists. A struggle to overthrow a hostile social order, to get to know the enemy inside oneself, a wishlist, some fears and a dose of courage and solidarity combine to form this fast-paced theatrical story about growing up.

Given that parts of the play are informed by their personal experiences, it’s no wonder that the actors in the play, Jelena Cvetković, Sara Gajović, Anđela Memet, Adrijana Mulić, Ana Ninković, Sara Ostojić, Ana Petrov, Milena Perić, Milena Šibalić, and Lena Vujović are listed as authors of the piece in addition to performers.

When she says that “Everything happened as it should,” she’s thinking about how she is a little older now or, as she says, more mature.

I love the fact that I met these girls just now and the work that we did together was life-changing to me. It was one of the most tender experiences I ever had in theater,” Bogavac said.

Part of the ensemble of “Devojčice”: Ana Petrov (left), Ana Ninković (right), and Sara Gajović (middle). Photo: Dejan Kožul / K2.0.

As a director, Bogavac is known for her experimental methods, as well as her work with youth. In collaboration with the Third Belgrade Gymnasium, she created the play “Invisible Monuments.” It’s a play featuring the high school’s students as actors, who also studied monuments commemorating victims from the Second World War, with emphasis on the Jewish community and the Holocaust.

For “Devojčice,” acting experience wasn’t essential. Perhaps acting experience helped Gajović Ninković take the first step, but Petrov only had experience as an audience member.

“I never enrolled in acting,” Petrov said, but when she saw the topic and the open call for auditions, she wanted in. 

“I watched ‘Muškarčine’ in 2014 in Pančevo,” she said, “and it hit the nail on the head for me. We were in a stage of maturing, when these topics were interesting. It seemed to call on us girls to do something like ‘Muškarčine,’ but I didn’t expect them to accept me because I never acted before.”

Bogavac says that she prefers working with young people because they don’t adhere to standard processes, so it’s easier with them.

“I most love coming up with educational and creative processes with young people, creating social games and learning situations. Young people are sensitive, they love games, and they are ready to learn. I love it when we all get to play around but I note and record everything diligently. Because, it’s a serious game. Stories, statements, comments, ideas… our collective and individual conclusions — that’s what I then use to shape the script,” Bogavac said about her working method.

What makes her particularly happy are the life achievements and artistic and personal progress of the young people she works with.

“Youth is enthusiasm, and enthusiasm is passing,” she said.

The youngest of the devojčice is Anđela Memet. She just turned 18 and besides being the youngest, Anđela is special because of one other little thing. Namely, her mom, Jelena Memet, is one of five women who conducted the workshop “Devojčice” aimed at initiating the girls and soon-to-be theater performers into the feminist movement. Jelena has been an activist for years and Anđela has taken part in feminist protests with her mom since as long as she can remember.

“I was always out at protests with my mom when I was little,” said Anđela.

Jelena mentions that their relationship isn’t different from any other mother-daughter relationship, except that she tried, from a very young age, to instill in her daughter life principles and educate her in the spirit of feminism. Anđela expresses her gratitude for this during the conversation.

“I was just talking about the protests, their historical background, the history of women organizing themselves before we were even born — nothing truly starts with us,” Jelena Memet said. “Many women gave their lives for us to be where we are today. We aren’t in an enviable position but we wouldn’t even be here if it wasn’t for some of these women from before.”

Sara Gajević, one of the participants, found that preparing for the play was critical. She particularly emphasized the moment of recognition and identification with feminists a generation older who led the workshops, among which were Maja Maksimović, Nađa Duhaček, Marija Ratković, and Adriana Zaharijević.

“I have a sense that, when those ten years pass, we want to be just like them,” Sara said. “For us to reach this level of consciousness, thinking, smarts, intelligence, activism. It all really inspired me.”

The play “Devojčice” came at an interesting moment. The MeToo movement emboldened numerous women to go out on the streets. It happened all over former Yugoslavia, most recently in Prishtina and Belgrade, united by the motto: “If you’re afraid of the dark, we’ll burn up this city!”

This is also a cry shouted by Ana Ninković toward the end of the play. She talks about her street activism as a member of the Women’s Solidarity collective. This group organized numerous protests in front of the premises where the editorial staff Informer works. Informer is a Serbian government-controlled newspaper that recently published an interview with a serial rapist.

Taking part in the play is a new aspect of her activism.

“I believe that art is an all too important part of society, of societal change. I’m glad that I was given an opportunity to speak about this in the theater and participate in the play in this way — to try and use the theater to bring about some change,” she said.

A scene from the play “Devojčice.” Photo: Ružica Ristivojević.

The biggest changes happen with seemingly small steps. Within families.

“When one of the protests was held I was tired and not very eager to attend,” said Ninković “I told this to my dad, and he said: ‘Why should you go? As if people will show up.’ His attitude got on my nerves terribly because I don’t like defeatism in my dad, and sometimes my mom. I went to the protest, and people were gathering in large numbers. And then, after the play’s premiere, my dad told me: ‘What you’re doing is very important. I’m proud of you.’ His two statements were separated by 15 or 20 days. All it took was one play,” Ana said, admitting that she cries every time they perform.

Sara Gajović, whose father is a police officer, had a similar experience. In the late 1990s, during the conflict in Kosovo and the NATO bombing of rump Yugoslavia, her father wasn’t at home. In the play, she talks vividly about this concern because, when he entered her room, she didn’t even recognize him due to his long absence. And when you disarm a police officer, what you get is an ordinary person.

“He experienced the theater with more emotions than my mom did. My dad is a police officer, an inspector who is immune to tears, tears don’t affect him; but when he attended the play he turned into a person who wakes up in the middle of the night and cries; he told me that I killed him with this play. If I managed to reach inside a person who doesn’t show feelings, I hope I can also touch the wider audience,” Gajović said.

However, she drew her main motivation from her sister, who is nine years younger, and who is now attending secondary school and finds herself at a delicate age. She wants to show her that not that long ago, she too was in those years, that she had identical dilemmas and problems but that all those things come to pass and that you can make a play out of it afterward.

The cast gives all the credit to Bogavac because, although the stories are authentic, they had to squeeze it all into ten minutes on stage, with all the key aspects from their lives. They had to ask the right questions, to present the “devojčice” to themselves and the audience. They emphasize the director’s ability to give them the freedom to not talk about anything they didn’t feel comfortable sharing with others.

“I’m glad if I didn’t misuse the enormous trust and dedication that I received from my young women friends. I tried to present each exactly how I saw them, and in my eyes, they are incredibly strong, wise, courageous, curious, persistent, loud … devojčice,” Bogavac said.

She added that her dearest friends and longtime collaborators also contributed to the play, including Bojana Vunturišević (music) and Đorđe Živadinović Grgur (stage movement). Not only did they work on the music and stage movement, but also, said Bogavac, demonstrated extraordinary musical and theatrical pedagogical skills, and showed that they know how to communicate with young women.

“I’m glad if I didn’t misuse the huge trust I received,” said director Minja Bogavac. Photo: Ružica Ristivojević.

“Devojčice” has already left the city limits of Belgrade. The actresses are performing, doing their thing, telling their own stories and the stories of all girls in the Balkans. As architect Ana Petrov said, it’s in the girls’ very nature to think about building safe spaces and streets that aren’t dark dead ends. It’s in their nature to consider martial arts, like Sara, who has a blue belt in karate; it’s in their nature to consider using pepper spray, as does Ana Ninković and other young women in Prishtina and other cities. But all these things won’t be of any use if the perpetrator comes from their neighborhood, their family or their own home.

Some of them will continue acting because “Devojčice” encouraged them and showed them the power of theater. They weren’t competing, but rather wanted to tell their own stories. As Bogavac says, the best things about the girls in “Devojčice” are yet to come. They have started receiving invitations to perform in Kikinda, Kraljevo, Novi Sad, Vranje and other towns, and they used this play as a milestone for the 10th anniversary of Reflektor Theater.

“I will only start thinking about that change in a year. For now, I’m infinitely happy and proud that the girls enjoy each other’s company, and respect and support each other. I’m glad that the play brought them closer together and created a sisterhood of sorts in these critical and delicate years when they are on the path to conquering the city, their voice and place in society, in their generation,” Minja tells us.

She refers to the “little girls” as courageous, industrious, gentle, smart, and strong girls with many talents, while she considers them the future voice of feminism, as activists and artists.

They want to change the world — and they can do it.

Feature image: Dejan Kožul / K2.0.