Maria Cavali interviewed the theatre maker Sadurní Vergés.
The Lithuanian society demonstrates a significant tendency towards homophobia and ethnic hatred. The artistic work (Un)Trapped Identity or Death? aims to destroy such identities.
What are your views on homophobia?
Just like racism or sexism, homophobia is a social scourge that should be erased. Not only through laws, but basically through education and common sense. Media should play an important role too. All countries of the so-called Western world have laws stating that all humans are equal, but then the reality of the streets is that a large amount of people are racist and sexist, and many people still feel they are being discriminated. So there is a clash between laws and reality.
How much time did you spent in Lithuania? Was it your first time in Lithuania?
I spent two weeks in Lithuania in October 2015 and two more weeks in February 2016. A total of four weeks. It was my first time in Lithuania and I hope it won’t be the last. I really had a nice time, growing both personally and professionally, and I’d definitely like to come back.
What brought you to Lithuania?
The performance project “Playing Identities – Performing Heritage”, organized by the University of Siena in Italy with the collaboration of several theatre schools from different countries. The project was co-funded by the European Union. Four performers from four different schools had to choose a topic they felt concerned about. The topic was free, but somehow it had to be related to the challenges of today’s Europe, identity and so on. Four directors from the same schools — Barcelona, Cluj, Kent and Vilnius— were matched to each group of performers. We also had a senior artistic director and a mobilizer from each country. All groups were fantastic, as artists and as human beings, but we had to choose, so I went for the
Lithuanian team and the Lithuanians chose me too, so the match was perfect. We spent two weeks in Siena in July 2015, then we had a time for research and creation in Lithuania, and the projected ended the following year, in July 2016,when we performed the four projects at Kilowatt Festival in Sansepolcro, Italy.
Tell us more about the performance you were making?
The performers decided a topic. They called it “Identity or Death?”. They were concerned about the raise of extreme right-wing views in their country: discrimination, racism, sexism and homophobia. In October 2015 we did some social experiments on the streets of Vilnius and other smaller Lithuanian cities. We wanted to create situations where people had to choose between being in favour or against immigrants and homosexuals. Many people chose to present themselves as tolerant, but we also got harsh reactions of people shouting abuse or telling us
we shouldn’t be doing what we were doing. We also interviewed a number of activists, artists, journalists, a politician and even a priest. We travelled to the Hill of Crosses in Šiauliai, to Grūtas Park —that massive Soviet-era museum of communist sculptures— and to Kaunas and other small places. We basically did research in October. Then in February 2016 I came back to Vilnius and we had some days to put up a performance, trying to sum up what we had found out, specially with the aim of raising consciousness of people’s intolerance and to generate a discussion.
How did the actors feel about the performance? Any special stories or Incidents?
I think they took it as an opportunity and as a challenge. An opportunity to work with people from other countries and other theatrical traditions, to travel and to find out a little more about their own country’s views on tolerance and history. And a challenge because they gave their best even though they had busy schedules, and also because the performance was created on stage, meaning that there wasn’t a previous text they had to follow according to a director’s rules, but rather they had to put in a lot of themselves in order to create material for the stage. I thank them for the effort they made. And I’m really grateful to the LMTA —Lithuanian Music and Theatre Academy— because as co-organizers of the Playing Identities project they treated us very well.
What are your impressions of Lithuania?
To get a real grasp of Lithuania, people’s deep views on several topics, the way society really works and so on, I should probably need to move to Lithuania and spend a year or two there. Sometimes I don’t even understand my own country, even though I have lived in my country all my life, except for five years when I lived in the UK. I got general ideas about Lithuania: as an independent country Lithuania is young, but it has a lot of history weighting on her back. I think Lithuania has not found her place in Europe yet. Because of geographical and historical reasons Lithuania finds herself packed between Russia and Europe, and I have the feeling that some people are not comfortable with either of them. Some say Lithuania only accepted to be part of the EU because they were afraid of Russia —it was either the EU or falling under Russia’s power again; were it not for that, maybe they would have decided against joining the EU—. Some other people say Lithuania is just slow in accepting new ideas —it was the last country to be christianized in Europe; according to some people, that means even nowadays Lithuanians don’t accept foreign ideas easily—. But some other people are just happy to be Europeans, so I guess there is a lot of diversity of opinions. The future will tell.
What do you think about homophobia in Lithuania?
The people we interviewed assured me that homophobia is a widespread characteristic of Lithuanian people. Young people are different from their elders, they have a much more open mentality. There are a lot of youngsters who have right-wing views too, but I think young people in big cities are much more open minded. There’s hope for the future.
Is the situation different in your home town?
As I said in first question, according to law everybody is equal, and in my country gay marriage is legal, but then reality is that discrimination is still taking place and some people are sexist, homophobic or racist. I’m not an authorized voice, as I’m just speaking from an open-minded heterosexual point of view, so obviously I can’t personally relate to having suffered discrimination, but if you ask gay people they are likely to tell you a lot of personal stories where they felt discriminated. In some places and professions homosexuality is more accepted than in others. Gay people working in arts in a big city like Barcelona are totally accepted, whereas, let’s say, a gay bricklayer living in a small town may face more problems. Nowadays there is a number of people who come out of the closet. Two or three decades ago only the bravest came out of the closet. The country has taken big steps in the last couple of Decades.
What is your opinion of Lithuanians?
The performers, teachers and theatre school staff involved in the project, and also the people we interviewed were all great, really nice poeple. I’m honestly thankful to all of them. In supermarkets and bars I got the impression that some people were not used to foreigners, but maybe that’s only a cultural difference I could appreciate. I live in a town where more than one third of the population was either
born outside the EU or their parents were, so for me it was a bit of a shock to not see anybody who was a bit dark-skinned. It’s almost as if Lithuania is impenetrable to foreigners. I have mixed feelings about that, because I’m aware that being impenetrable to foreigners is partially the reason why you could survive as a people. But now that Lithuania’s existence is reassured —as an independent state in the EU— maybe some things could change.
What could be different in Lithuania?
I don’t feel entitled to tell people what they should do or how they should do it. Lithuania has great landscapes, food, art. And the oldest living European language, which is a treasure to keep and promote. And of course great theatre too. The theatre plays I saw in Vilnius are some of the best I’ve seen in my life. I hope Lithuania, just like the rest of the world, evolves towards a more tolerant society. I know it sounds like wishful thinking, but all of us can try and do a little bit to contribute to that goal. That’s precisely what we aimed to with our performances.
How was performance that you directed received by the public? Was it any different in Lithuania?
The performance we did at Kilowatt Festival in Sansepolcro was very different from the one we did in Lithuania. It had evolved a lot. The audience was different as well. In Vilnius we wanted to generate a discussion in the middle of the performance, and so we did. Some people spoke their mind and that was really good. We performed some text, piano, physical scenes, video-screening and a clown act, apart from the discussion. It was nice. Most people who saw the performance in Vilnius were theatre school students and also some activists. In Sansepolcro the audience was more varied. We got several good online reviews of the performance. It took place in a museum. The cultural flavour of the room helped us create the right Atmosphere.
What would you wish for homophobic people?
They must accept difference and mind their own business. Gay people have always existed and they’ll continue to exist until the end of times, so deal with it. It should be as simple as that.
Thank you for your time.