Croatian artists move theater into woods amid COVID-19 pandemic
Published: Dec 27, 2020 09:01 AM

People watch the play "Little Red Riding Hood" by artists of the Poco Loco Theatre in a park in Zagreb, Croatia, Dec. 6, 2020. (Photo by Kresimir Saric/Xinhua)

"If anyone told me this would happen, I would have called it science fiction," Croatian actress Zrinka Kusevic said, adjusting her white nightcap.

Wearing a matching white nightgown as part of her costume, she played Grandma in a local adaptation of the classic tale "Little Red Riding Hood."

Croatia is in the midst of the second lockdown as its COVID-19 infection rate still tops that of most countries in Europe. The number of new cases is still rising, and the government has imposed stricter measures. Bars and restaurants have been closed since late November, travel within the country is restricted, and the Christmas market in the capital Zagreb is only a shadow of its former self. Last year, it was voted Best Christmas Market in Europe. Theaters in the country are still open, but attendance is very low.

The coronavirus that hit Croatia in late February has left many in the country in despair and fear. One way or another all citizens are affected, but those without steady jobs have been hit the most.

Croatian actress Zrinka Kusevic performs in an adaptation of the classic tale "Little Red Riding Hood" in a park in Zagreb, Croatia, Dec. 6, 2020. (Photo by Kresimir Saric/Xinhua)

For Kusevic, a freelance artist, life has changed overnight.

The first lockdown in March left her and other freelance artists out of a job. Theaters were closed, all film and TV show shootings were suspended and Kusevic did not know what to do.

"We did get some help from the state, but it was only for three months and after that it was like, you are on your own," the actress told Xinhua. "We are struggling every day, every month. How are we going to survive?" she asked.

Before the pandemic, Kusevic had a normal life. Being a freelance artist has never been easy in Croatia, but she had enough work and, more importantly, she was doing what she loved to do.

In 2014, she, along with three close friends and artists, founded the Poco Loco Theater. Very soon, Poco Loco became one of the best children's theaters in Croatia, known for its unique and creative way of telling fairy tales and performing children's plays. In just a few years, the theater collected many awards. Kusevic herself won the Mali Marulic Award for best performance in children's theater. This is the most prestigious award for actors in Croatia.

The coronavirus pandemic brought a sudden stop to the theatre's activities. Previously, December used to be the busiest month of the year for them. They used to have sell-outs, sometimes for days in a row. They performed in theaters, schools, kindergartens, and even at corporate events.

The life of a freelance artist has never been easy in Croatia, Kusevic acknowledged, but the COVID-19 crisis forced her to seriously rethink her career and explore other means of livelihood.

Artists of the Poco Loco Theatre perform in an adaptation of the classic tale "Little Red Riding Hood" in a park in Zagreb, Croatia, Dec. 6, 2020. (Photo by Kresimir Saric/Xinhua)

"I adore my job. I love working with kids so much and I don't want this crisis to take it away from me. I want to continue with my career, but I need to find a new way, a gap that I need to go through to find new opportunities," the actress told Xinhua.

"You need to think in your own way. How to start with the activities again while regaining the trust of the audience," she noted.

While many theaters in Zagreb canceled performances and premieres in 2020, the Poco Loco Theatre decided to do something new despite the risks and uncertainty. Director Renata Carola Gatica was thinking two steps ahead. Bearing in mind the need to practice social distancing and aware of the looming threat of a blanket theatre closure, she decided to stage shows outdoors only.

"I don't know if it is true but in Chinese, the word crisis is also a word for opportunity," Gatica told Xinhua. "So, after the first shock of the corona crisis, I spent a lot of time frustrated, thinking about how to survive. I started to think, well, in what ways do I need to change so I can survive."

She moved Poco Loco's performances to a big park in the city. "Little Red Riding Hood" involves walks through the woods, runs in the park and other fun activities like watering plants or hanging laundry.

Each Saturday and Sunday, no matter the weather, a park in the center of Zagreb is transformed into a theater stage: a forest where Little Red Riding Hood, her Grandma and a wolf play out their story in an innovative and creative way. The audience is divided into three groups and each group (due to the epidemiological measures no more than seven people) follows a different character through the park with all kinds of assignments. The text is prerecorded and the audience follows the story through headphones.

Director Gatica believes that people in general do not spend enough time outdoors. The current restrictions on indoor gatherings offer a great opportunity for all, she noted.

"It is very difficult to compete with mobile phones and television, so I was thinking about how to make a game which is actually happening in the place where it is happening. It is an adventure where you can be part of the tale," she explained.

The show premiered in early December. Although it was performed outdoors, the epidemiological measures were still very strict and the theater could sell 18 tickets only. Now the shows are sold out for next month as well.

"If you are a real artist, your job is to adapt and be creative in not only what you are doing but how you are doing it. This period reminded me of why I'm doing what I'm doing. I'm aware of the danger, but I'm aware of my capacity as an artist to survive these times," Gatica said. She stressed that culture is very necessary at this moment and that she is privileged to be an artist.

"I think I prepared myself my whole life to do this kind of theater. You know, theaters where everything is in order and money is secure are kind of boring. So, I'm very excited about this period," she concluded.
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