I know all the lights and shadows in this city, the smell of lime trees and the river, I can see the cargo ships passing under the bridge from the window in my apartment, I ride my bike to the beach – it’s not so difficult, being back.

The jury of this year’s Festival of Professional theatre of Vojvodina, held in early April in Novi Sad, consisted of three women. I talked to one of them about leaving, coming back, acting, directing, teaching, everything that she – Dragana Varagić- does. I avoid writing “actress” as a title, because she’s so much more. She’s an actress, a director, a professor and a traveller.

After getting an acting degree at Belgrade’s Faculty of Dramatic Arts, Dragana played a handful of important roles at the National Theatre. She was a familiar face on both TV and movie screens, and then she just… Wasn’t there anymore. She wasn’t in Serbia, but she was indeed still in the industry. She specialized in Shaekspere at the Shakespeare Institute in Stratford, then got a Masters degree in Drama, Theatre and Performance Studies at the University of Toronto. For years she has performed, directed and worked as a professor in Canada. Today, she’s back in Serbia – she teaches acting at the Academy of Arts in Belgrade, and still does acting and directing.

The Festival of Professional theatre is back in Novi Sad after 19 years, and you’re back after spending many years abroad. The inevitable question is: what’s it like to be back?

A comeback is not, and shouldn’t be, a step back. When I came back I had two jobs waiting – one as a teacher and the as a director of a Canadian-Montenegrin coproduction. My first generation of students graduated last June, and “The Penelopiad” is playing its fifth season at the Mediterranean theatre festival in Tivat. Showing the play at the National Theatre in Belgrade was sort of a symbolic comeback. It did great, it might be performed again, and “Kir Janja”, another one of plays I did with the theatre in Kragujevac, will have a guest performance at the National theatre as well. I’m also starring in two plays, I’m slowly returning to acting, and that makes me happy. I know all the lights and shadows in this city, the smell of lime trees and the river, I can see the cargo ships passing under the bridge from the window in my apartment, I ride my bike to the beach- it’s not so difficult, being back.

What was it like to leave?

To leave means you’re carrying with you something you want to share with others, that you’re ready for new experiences, ready to change. I left when I was 36, meaning I wasn’t that young. I had lots of plays, appearances and awards here, and I was supposed to start from scratch. I didn’t mind. What I did mind was the fact that all the film and TV offers I got were about the war here, and I didn’t want to participate in that, so I turned over to theatre completely. I was lucky to get a role with a well-known theatre director after just four weeks. I did many plays, from 17th century England to Shakespeare, Strindberg, Howard Barker, Edward Bond, contemporary Canadian playwrights. It took me a while to get used to doing a show every night for three weeks – now I can’t get used to doing it only twice a month here. 

I love to travel, I’m nomadic at heart, maybe that’s why leaving wasn’t particularly difficult for me. My heart races whenever I approach an airport. I feel like anything’s possible when I’m up in the air. I went to rehearsals in Kragujevac by bus: I’d watch the scenery I can still remember from childhood, my head would empty out, I’d become myself in between the meadows and woods passing by, I’d feel whole.

What, if anything, has changed in the Serbian theatre and acting scene, during all these years? Was there something you wished would be different but wasn’t?

I don’t think much has changed, although I wished it did, simply because there are new forms and new technologies now, the world has gone a step further.

When talking to young actors about leaving, I’ve heard them say it’s difficult to work somewhere else when language is a part of your art, as it is with acting. Was the English language a barrier to you, as an actress, and how did you overcome that?

Yes, language is a problem. My English was good, but it still limited the number of roles I got, no matter how good I was on the audition. A foreign language can trick and confuse you, your head needs to be clear and work in both ways. On the other hand, it can also bring back a sort of playfulness and exciting uncertainty. It meant a lot to me to have support from critics. I was the first actress with an accent to be nominated for best female role in Toronto. I taught acting at three different colleges, and I was the only professor with an accent at all three. I pushed boundaries, in a way. I believed I could, even if I didn’t have evidence of it at a time.

Scena iz predstave “The Vindication of Senyora Clito Mestres”, fotografija: Božo Vasić
From the theatre play “The Vindication of Senyora Clito Mestres”, photography by: Božo Vasić

Do you have any advice for young people facing similar issues?

To every young actor who came to me in Toronto I suggested doing postgraduate studies. Canada has a great educational system in that sense, and in a year or two you get a new degree and make many business connections. University teaches you, on a smaller scale, how another culture and society in general functions. There’s also the option of getting a doctorate, which in turn offers many scholarships and open up the possibility of teaching. 

You need to listen to yourself- I missed some opportunities because I hadn’t recognized them. I’m referring to directing, mostly – I rejected it when it first came up because I thought I needed to choose either directing or acting, that I’d have to abandon acting completely if I pursued a doctorate in directing. I realized later it’s different there, things intertwine and change, nothing is static. There is a need to constantly improve yourself- I learned many new things there.

Serbia has plenty of women working in theatres, but you don’t often see that every person in a theatre festival’s jury is a woman. A woman myself, this means a lot. How do you feel about it, as one of the judges? What position do women hold in the theatre and film industry? 

It’s so completely normal to me that I’m surprised by your question. I hadn’t thought go it that way, which is probably due to spending so much time in a country whose prime minister recently insisted on equal representation of women in parliament.

As I see it- we’re not a female jury, we’re a jury. When I think about it, there isn’t enough women directors in theatre or in film, not enough as heads of theatres, let alone politics.

Adolescents are mostly ignored in theaters here, with only a few plays aimed at their age group. How do we bridge this gap between children’s theatre and plays aimed towards adult audiences? What is the situation like abroad?

In Canada there are youth theaters, or at least part of the program of some children’s theaters are aimed for adolescents, which I think happens here too. There are special plays written for them, they do receive attention. I covered one of them with my first year students, “Jbg!”, it was written by one of Canada’s greatest playwrights. Right now, I’m working with Milena Depolo on translating a screenplay about youth violence and isolation, but also the false pacifism and conformism of the older generation, who happen to have built this society on aggression and violence. It is a shocking and very clever play with a lot of twists and turns, and I think it will find its place here. It’s obvious children’s theaters are neglected, there’s no money. We don’t even have a puppetry school, but I do think until we can open it, we could work out a system of mentorship or a few scholarships for students to go abroad. Not just puppetry, other things too – like light design, for example. The rest of the world considers it as important as costume or scene design, and we still don’t teach it here.

You were a guest professor in the film school in Lodz, Poland, which every famous Polish director attended – Polanski, Wajda, Kieślowski. How much, if at all, does working with students there differ from working at academies in Serbia? How much does the work in Europe differ from across the ocean?

I taught at the theatre department of the National Film School. I was one of five, and then one of seven professors from abroad, who were brought to share their acting methods with Polish students. It was an important experiment, not just for the students, but for professors as well, to share experiences. When I was a third year student, we had famous vocal coach Cicely Berry visit us from England, and it’s still one of my biggest influences. I hope one of us inspired Polish students in that way.

In Europe, as well as North America, they pay more attention to different schools of acting, not just Stanislavski, but Suzuki, Viewpoints, Chekhov, Meisner… I think that’s the main difference. Professors are being changed every year, which means not only do students get at least four acting professors, but the professors also get to expand their teaching spectrum. You have, as you do here, complete freedom in creating your lessons, so in Canada I experimented with the relationship between math and drama, or adapting a certain piece to various genres – opera, ballet, hip-hop musicals. They just expand on our basic acting studies.

Thank you, Dragana! Until we come back – hopefully, to a more developed, diverse, more “female” theatre, film and stage life in the broadest sense.