Visiting the ASSITEJ Archive

If we seek to have a vision, we need to have a look in the past.

In 2015, when a group of German students walked into the ASSITEJ Archives in Berlin looking for interesting bits on the occasion of celebrating the 50th anniversary of the association’s founding, they noticed that the word peace had gradually disappeared since the nineteen seventies. ‘Peace’ has somehow imperceptibly lost its importance and gravity, possibly because of a belief that ailments of insecure and tumultuous society from the time of the Eastern and Western blocks had been overcome and left behind by the world that had by that time become well ordered and secure.

Last November, I was invited by ASSITEJ Germany and KJTZ (Kinder und Jugendtheaterzentrum – Children’s and Youth Theatre Centre) to take part as an expert at Happy New Ears International Congress – Music Theatre for Young Audiences, in Manheim. Discussing the details of my stay, I asked my hosts Meike Fechner and Annett Israel to arrange a visit to the ASSITEJ Archive on my way back, since I was stopping over in Frankfurt anyway. I was interested to see where and how the history of an association existing for over half a century was stored. Not only that, ASSITEJ International’s 50th birthday that we celebrated in Berlin in 2015 inspired me to give more thought to the culture of remembrance, of preserving historical and cultural backgrounds, and to sensitivity (fragility) of this task when it comes to a momentary art every performing art is by its nature.

I have also been thinking about the important, and not frequently referred to, article 29 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and every child’s right to national and cultural identity. This article has interested and provoked me for quite some time, for the reason of my profound conviction that thorough familiarity with and respect for one’s roots, founded in realistic facts rather than myths populists from many countries of the world are so fond of using, can open a road towards genuine tolerance and solidarity. My starting point is, namely, the idea that confidence about one’s own identity empowers a person and encourages them to better understand, honour and accept otherness.

In the spirit of celebrating 50 years of existence of ASSITEJ International that Yugoslavia of the time also actively took part in, in 2015 I initiated the making of a documentary entitled ASSITEJ Serbia yesterday today and tomorrow. Collecting materials for this film, I noticed that in Belgrade there were very few preserved and accessible documents on the work of ASSITEJ Yugoslavia in the past half century. There are numerous reasons for this, but one is certainly predominant: our ASSITEJ centre never had its own office space but was rather always hosted by one of Belgrade theatres. Thus the records on the work of this branch of the organisation have for decades depended on the degree of understanding and care of respective theatres’ leaderships. Fortunately, the central Archive of ASSITEJ International preserves records of its branches worldwide, and thus also those of the ASSITEJ Yugoslavia.

Naturally, my expectations for the visit to the Archive were great; a lot of questions awaiting answers. For a start, I needed to know what documents there were on joint activities of peoples in the region of South Eastern Europe, what these documents comprised and how many there were. Then, how they were accessed, who could use them and in what way. Another block of questions relates to information on Serbia’s activities in the past two decades, how well represented they are and what is missing from making the picture more comprehensive. I also hoped that I’d return with an idea of how to at least initiate digitalisation of most important documents of the National Centre of Serbia at our national centre operating with resources limited in terms of staff, office space and finances. And above all, the question of how to use these information in order to raise young Serbia based researchers’ interest in this matter. I forwarded all of these questions as a reply to a letter Dr Juergen Kirschner, scientific documentalist at KJTZ, had sent a month prior to my visit. What I got in return, when I finally reached the KJTZ where the Archive is situated, surpassed my expectations. Firstly, I was met by printed materials in four separate sections. The first section included the text on the Archive itself, The Structure of the ASSITEJ International Archives, and the following three corresponded with my questions forwarded previously. Juergen showed me through all the rooms, introduced me to the catalogisation system, layouts and contents of each room, we opened folders, looked through a multitude of catalogues, posters, photographs, maps, books… I was discovering seemingly not too attractive details that shed new light to some productions, artists, moments in history that were still living in my memory… the day simply flew by. I can’t remember the last time I was as inspired by what I learned as I was during the exciting seven hours of the work visit to ASSITEJ Archives in Frankfurt. Here, once again, I would like to thank my hosts, because I found myself feeling empowered and inspired.

There don’t seem to be many ASSITEJ centres enjoying the privilege of systematically building and enriching their archives. I believe many national centres, such as ASSITEJ Serbia, do not have their own premises and capacities to build their own archives, not even one half the size of this one. Still, contemporary technologies make much of this work possible. I personally like to see printed matter, a book, a brochure… sometimes I jokingly say that these virtual clouds may cost us our memory – a single powerful solar eruption is enough to disrupt the power systems and make everything come to a halt. On the other hand, a single cloud that can contain incredible amounts of archive materials can be of significant help in preserving from oblivion all we are currently creating. Moreover, we mustn’t neglect the fact that we are increasingly missing research whose results can be used to support, for instance, our theses on the impact or influence on personality development in children, whereas when we create innovative projects we rely on such results as legitimate arguments in favour of our claims. There we reach the matter of networking and joint action of professionals from various fields that could significantly improve our position and make the effects of our work more visible. We mustn’t neglect the financial factor either. Without a doubt, great countries with their wealth of culture become even greater for the very reason of having a highly developed awareness on the need for preserving cultural achievements and constant reviewing of cultural heritage in the contemporary context, as well as the need for continual investment. But great countries often follow some well developed systemic solutions that are also economical. In Germany, a network of theatre archives has been established. If any of the archives is no longer sustainable for any reason whatsoever, it is merged with another archive. Even though every year students work at the archives for a certain number of hours a week, at KJTZ they consider starting a small scale training programme for young people in this specific work, where both the knowledge of archive work and theatre culture are equally important. And it is also important to work on promotion and visibility of such a centre, creating programmes that would attract young associates, students from various fields: literature, cultural anthropology, culture management. It is great luck to have a top-notch scholar and a devotee such as the experienced Juergen Kirschner lead an archive, bringing this one to perfection. We at the ASSITEJ international community should know and value this, and more than anything, make use of it and support it. This Archive has an enormous potential, it is open and easily accessible, and it is up to us all to make it visible in our academic and artistic communities, to support it and help it live as a place where new projects constantly emerge, where ideas and dreamlike visions of a better world are born, a world that can be realised if we remember and share our experiences and achievements and learn from the past.

Finally, I’d like to point out that a small portion of funds for archiving projects and documents should always be planned and included in the budget maker creating the projects. And once a year, make a presentation of activities, and upload it all to a cloud. And lo and behold, an archive is easily initiated.

Diana Kržani? Tepavac

ASSITEJ Serbia president

Member of EC ASSITEJ International