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THEATRE WORKS HARD TO REVERSE STEREOTYPES IN SLOVAKIA

A space for the Roma

THE NAME of the Slovak Roma theatre in Košice, Romathan, roughly translates into English as "a place for the Roma". It can also be interpreted as "a place for the people". Founded in 1991, the theatre, which is the only one of its kind in Slovakia, will be celebrating its 10th anniversary this year.
"Over 10 years we have successfully represented Slovak Roma culture both on the domestic scene and abroad. We get positive feedback and are often invited back to [festivals] where we've performed," says Ján Šilan, artistic director at Romathan.
Romathan is a professional theatre with an all-Roma cast. It has a unique status in that it is fully financed by the state budget. One of its main objectives is to foster Roma self-confidence and pride, and to present Slovak Roma art to the general public.


KOŠICE-based Romathan sets out to spread awareness of Roma culture.
photo: Courtesy of Andrea Chalupa

THE NAME of the Slovak Roma theatre in Košice, Romathan, roughly translates into English as "a place for the Roma". It can also be interpreted as "a place for the people". Founded in 1991, the theatre, which is the only one of its kind in Slovakia, will be celebrating its 10th anniversary this year.

"Over 10 years we have successfully represented Slovak Roma culture both on the domestic scene and abroad. We get positive feedback and are often invited back to [festivals] where we've performed," says Ján Šilan, artistic director at Romathan.

Romathan is a professional theatre with an all-Roma cast. It has a unique status in that it is fully financed by the state budget. One of its main objectives is to foster Roma self-confidence and pride, and to present Slovak Roma art to the general public.

"Thirteen of our 32 performances have been dedicated to children and young people. We put on special shows for schools, which have an educational purpose because we have Roma and non-Roma children coming to see it. We would like to break down barriers and we try to teach children about [the negative effects of] prejudice. The fairy tales [we perform] come from writers like the late Roma writer Elena Lacková, or from legends and stories from Roma history," Šilan explains.

As the majority of Romathan's audience is non-Roma, all the plays are staged in the Roma language with Slovak surtitles, making the performances accessible to a broader audience. Most of the performances are very well received because Roma music and dance are very expressive and often have a positive impact on the audience.

"For example, we had a group of young skinheads who came to the performance. They were shouting before the start of the play but after five or seven minutes they fell quiet. One of them commented at the end, 'Not all gypsies are the same'. I think there must have been moments in the performance that moved these people," says Šilan.


photo: Courtesy of Andrea Chalupa

One of the actors at Romathan, Marián Balog, has taken up the theme of respect and understanding in a play produced in celebration of Romathan's 10th anniversary. The play, Kamene osudu (Stones of Fate), is Balog's directorial debut.

"I was inspired by the hatred between white people and the Roma when I wrote the piece [Stones of Fate]. The musical is about the fact that we need tolerance between the white people and the Roma," Balog explains.

"The story is based on my personal experiences and feelings. The project is my own initiative; I came up with the story and was asked to direct it. My colleague Milan Godla wrote the script, and the music was composed by Karel Adam."

The story, of a Roma girl who falls in love with a white man, is set in 19th century Slovakia, when there were very strict Roma laws. Since her childhood, the girl had been engaged to a Roma boy. When they turn 17, the engagement is officially celebrated, and they get invited by the local noble to his castle. At that time, the white man falls in love with the gypsy girl.

"It is a classical story about love and hate, but also a story about freedom," says Balog.

Stones of Fate will be premiered on June 27 during a daylong event. The afternoon programme will include a show entitled Romathan Theatre in Time, which will be a medley of performances spanning the theatre's history. There will also be an exhibition about the Romathan theatre, with photographs, costumes, and props.


photo: Courtesy of Andrea Chalupa

Like many other cultural institutions, Romathan is struggling to survive. With many projects in mind, such as a mobile stage that would enable them to travel around Slovakia, Romathan hopes to receive money from various EU funds.

"When we started [in 1992] we had almost 100 people performing because we also had independent actors working with us. Today we employ 31 artists and 46 people in total. Our budget was cut down from the initial Sk10 million (€242,000)to today's Sk6 million (€145,000)," says artistic director Šilan.

"We're not appreciated to the extent other theatre groups [in Slovakia] are. In the past, we've been often told that our artists don't have [professional] education. But they are highly talented and moreover, over the past 10 years, more than 70 percent of them have received training, mostly thanks to the existence of the arts high school in Košice."

During its 10 years of existence, Romathan has staged 32 pieces and put on 1,750 performances. Besides original pieces, Romathan also performs classics such as Federico Garcia Lorca's Blood Wedding, and the musical Cigáni idú do neba (Gypsy Camp Vanishes into the Heavens) based on a short story by Maxim Gorki.

"We would like to start the new season with Carmen, a classical piece, which we have adjusted [to our needs]. And for the future, we would like to perform in a Bratislava theatre once a month. We are negotiating with the venue at the moment, but I wouldn't want to say too much because we're a bit superstitious," says Šilan.

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