FIND 2016
What Football Supporters and Theatre Have in Common
Part One of a Conversation with Sanja Mitrović

by Joseph Pearson

7 April 2016

Director Sanja Mitrović is a compositum of international influences: born in Former Yugoslavia, trained in the Netherlands, now living in Brussels. She brings two pieces to FIND 2016 at the Schaubühne: »Do You Still Love Me?« and »SPEAK«. We discuss today the former, and turn to »SPEAK!« in Part Two of our Q&A.

»Do You Still Love Me?« involves a cast of non-professional supporters and explores football’s grand spectacle: its interstices in familiar themes such as nationalism and group identification, but also the experience of theatre. Apart from being a gifted director, actor, choreographer, and conceptual artist, Mitrović has an elegant way with words (also in English), as I think our conversation shows.

Joseph Pearson: In »Do You Still Love Me?» you confront football with theatre. Why did you decide to create a piece about such (superficially?) different collective experiences? Are they really so different? What did you learn?

Sanja Mitrović: I know they seem like an unlikely pairing. But for me that’s the exciting thing about theatre — it allows us to turn a lens to things that by and large go unnoticed, to make connections we wouldn’t necessarily think about. The starting point was something that both groups undeniably share: a complete dedication and passion for a certain cause, for one thing they feel so strongly about that it often seriously influences other parts of their lives. An actor’s commitment to their art isn’t all that different from a supporter’s commitment to their team. And, of course, they share hopes and fears which, at the end of the day, you and me share as well. Perhaps a more obvious parallel would have been between actors and football players, both having supposedly »active« or performative roles, but I felt that such a comparison would have been too limited. The role of a supporter –essentially a spectator – is supposed to be »passive«, but supporters often think of themselves as the 12th player. They believe that, through their commitment and engagement, it might be possible to influence the outcome of a game, so they see themselves almost as an extension of the team that they watch on the field. In addition, both acting and supporting a team are, like you say, profoundly collective experiences, in which the boundaries between the individual and the group shift in unpredictable ways. I was really interested in how this is articulated from two perspectives that are seemingly different, if not downright opposed, but might have more in common than we think.

The question of belonging and nationalism is a strong theme in »Do You Still Love Me?« I’m interested in how your experience of nationalism in the Balkans, and growing up during the war(s), may have influenced the perspective you have on Belgium and football nationalism? On masculinity?

Funny you should ask that as sometimes people say that the breakup of Former Yugoslavia started on the football pitch. They refer to the large scale riot which erupted during the game between Dinamo Zagreb and Red Star Belgrade in 1990 in Zagreb, only a few weeks after the first multi-party elections in Croatia in which parties advocating the independence and secession from Yugoslavia took a majority of votes. I was still quite young but I guess already from that age football and nationalism were for me intrinsically linked. My father was a supporter of FK Partizan, the other big club from Belgrade and Red Star’s arch-rivals. I remember watching games with him on TV every Sunday, but I never went to see a live match. Funnily enough, I did see Red Star Belgrade when they played Dinamo Kiev in 2001. My boyfriend at the time was a Red Star supporter and I went along with him. It was a strange feeling to find myself there, almost like I was betraying my father, because supporting tradition is something which comes from the family, and gets passed down from generation to generation. During that particular game, I was overwhelmed by the atmosphere – chanting, almost choreographed movements of this large mass of bodies, a feeling of belonging to something bigger than yourself. But I could also hear 80 000 people shouting, »Kill, kill, kill!« and it made me nauseous. They were referring to Slobodan Milošević, so it was a double-edged emotion. We were surrounded by the police and it all felt very volatile, like it could explode at any moment. So yes, I feel there is a connection between football and politics, and the influence football can have on everyday life, even if you’re not a supporter. You might have no interest in football whatsoever, but during the World Cup you still find yourself cheering for your country. It’s a very strong point of identification for a lot of people, and this is what interests me.

In »Do You Still Love Me?« the problem of nationalism plays an important role. Both groups of performers are confronted with questions relating to national symbols and points of identification which they provide. The show opens with a statement by a Belgian supporter about the importance of the flag, which gains another meaning in the light of recent events. He says that if someone attempts to take your flag, it’s a declaration of war. We take this as a question — how far are we ready to go in order to protect our family, our land, our history. I think it’s important to ask such questions in relation to football supporters and their organisations which often act as a litmus test for society’s repressed mores: from nationalism, xenophobia and terrorism, to civil wars.

Of course, there is a whole iconography of masculinity connected to football supporters, particularly in terms of hooliganism and violence. But I was interested in values that we usually don’t associate with this culture, such as insecurity, gentleness, social awareness, as well as the fact that supporters’ groups are not exclusively male. Far from it. I’m really pleased that in each iteration of the show we had women participants.

Have any of your insights, findings, regarding xenophobia and Belgian nationalism changed with the recent attacks in Brussels? Will the ongoing question of terrorism influence the themes of national belonging in your works?

The recent wave of terrorist attacks, both in Brussels and elsewhere, is a tragedy which seriously puts into question the idea of »nation« as perceived by Western liberal democracies. I have been living in Brussels for a few years now and events like these tear into the fabric of society and relationships between communities which are, even at the best of times, delicate and not easy to negotiate. Such events seem to point back to divisions along religious, ethnic or sectarian lines, which were supposedly absorbed by, and »outgrown« in modern nation states. What they even more significantly reflect is the fact that a sense of belonging to a »nation« is much more complex than we choose to believe. Equally important is the lesson that even such tragedies can be co-opted by hate-mongers and extremists everywhere – from Donald Trump to masked neo-Nazis at Place de la Bourse – who deliberately obstruct the discussion of the wider picture, from the ongoing economic crisis and the impunity with which the rich treat the rest of the population, to the aggressive expansionist mode of capitalism at this stage, or policies of Western governments in the Middle East.

Could you tell me about your experience with non-professional actors (football supporters)? How did you work with them? How did they influence choices you made in terms of stagecraft?

I have worked with non-professional performers before, and it’s always a hard but rewarding process. In 2012, I directed a project in Guimarães, in Portugal, with workers of a local textile factory. This time the collaboration felt more intense, perhaps due to some of the themes with which we were dealing. Generally, we started with several rounds of interviews and long lists of questions which were shared and discussed. The questions for actors and supporters were not literally the same but they reflected comparable areas of experience: when was the first time you saw a game / when was the first time you were on stage; when have you felt disappointed in the club / when did you feel let down by theatre, etc. After these general questionnaires we had longer, more intimate sessions, organised both as individual conversations and group discussions in which we dealt with personal stories, the ideas of love and loyalty, family relationships, political views, and a sense of belonging to a group or a nation.

There were moments when it felt emotional for all of us, and it was humbling to see the supporters form a temporary community with the actors. For them, it was like discovering a new world, with all its pleasures and hardships. Two days before the premiere one of the supporters had a panic attack and didn’t show up. He was anxious that he wasn’t good enough on stage, so he had to work through some of the issues that the actors constantly face. The others as well. You could see how they gradually began to engage with the production–going over their lines, asking questions about the structure, bringing in new ideas and suggesting different approaches. In the end, their involvement was so generous and dedicated that it really gave shape to the show. The supporters own the stage on the same terms as the actors, which was very important for me as I didn’t want to create a situation in which non-professionals were just »visitors« or guests. I wanted to make them equal with the actors. The fact that the supporters voice their opinions in public makes them, at the same time, powerful and fragile, and this friction is something that, I hope, the audience can feel.

With different versions – French, Dutch, and Belgian – the stories change, but the structure is generally in place, so the show adapts and shifts within a given framework. The language is different too, and that’s important, for fans to speak in their mother tongue. So it’s a different experience each time, which is both scary and exciting, seeing how the new situation develops and where it takes us.

Part One, of Two, of a Q&A between Sanja Mitrović and Joseph Pearson.

Do You Still Love Me?

by Sanja Mitrović (Belgium/Serbia)
Direction: Sanja Mitrović

Premiered on 10 April 2016