My Balkans My Balkans
April 21, 2022

Beka Vučo gave an interview for the Serbian weekly NIN

Every Human Being is the Other Human

This year, the famous American theatre company La MaMa celebrates its 60 th anniversary. To mark the occasion, on 5 May a big gala will be hosted in New York, under the title of Remake a World, on which occasion La MaMa will honour seven privileged artists from across the world. One of them will be Beka Vučo, born and raised in Belgrade, who, upon graduating from the Faculty of Drama and earning another degree in Art History, joined Atelje 212 and Bitef, first as the theatre’s and festival’s secretary and later as its director of operations. Along with Mira Trailović and Jovan Ćirilov, she was involved in negotiating and organising visits to Belgrade by many American and other foreign theatre companies and productions, guests, theatre scholars and critics. She engaged in direct collaboration with La MaMa, Robert Wilson, Lucinda Childs, Ping Chong, the producer Ninon Tallon-Karlweis, smaller theatre companies from Kentucky and Boston… After acquiring a master’s degree in Los Angeles as a Fulbright scholar, she went to New York, where she spent the next 30 years working for the Soros foundation; recently, she has started her own organisation, My Balkans. In collaboration with Qendra Multimedia, a theatre company from Pristina, Atelje 212 has recently staged a performance of Balkan Bordello, produced by Vučo, followed by performances at La MaMa in New York. Over the course of her successful career, Beka Vučo has avoided speaking about herself and her work in public. For the readers of NIN, this is an opportunity to get to know her.

You come from one of Belgrade’s most illustrious families. You’re closely related to the writer Aleksandar Vučo, your first cousin is Vuk Vučo, your father Nikola was a renowned economist, also remembered as an excellent photographer, and you are active in photography yourself?

As they say, you choose your friends, you inherit your family, and, to a degree, that applies to your family name as well! I have never felt burdened by the surname I carry. Quite the opposite! I liked it because it’s short, easy to remember, and a bit different from other family names. I am proud of all of my relatives who carry the same name, the artists, as well as doctors, university professors, engineers, lawyers. Recently, at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, at the Surrealism beyond Borders exhibition, I was standing in front of a photograph made by my father, which was exhibited there, along with the greatest names associated with that artistic movement. I was overwhelmed by an emotion that is difficult to describe, reading the caption next to that photograph with our surname on it. This was followed by a selfie – Dad and I at the Met. Obviously, my pursuit of photography came spontaneously, as a sort of family legacy. I grew up surrounded by culture and art. Most of my parents’ friends belonged to various artistic circles that were active in Belgrade and Yugoslavia at the time; the opera and ballet, theatres, museums, concerts, exhibitions were places I was taken to from a very early age; it was certainly a matter of family privilege – moving in intellectual circles undoubtedly defined me, as well as my professional orientation.

You were among the closest associates of Mira Trailović, Jovan Ćirilov, Borka Pavićević. In those early years of Bitef you also met Ellen Stuart, who founded La MaMa, the theatrical company that’s honouring you today.

I met Ellen Stuart in 1975, when I came to the 9th Bitef with [Andrei] Şerban’s The Trojan Women / The Women of Troy / Troades. She was already a legend and an embodiment of a very important epoch in American experimental theatre, who wrote some of that history herself, with her personality, attitude, words, charm, strength, conviction, politics, courage. She carried the bohemian spirit of East Village and the New York avant-garde, she reacted to the challenges of society fearlessly, actively, and with commitment in her aesthetic and political work. The Balkans was always close to her soul and over the decades La MaMa hosted many important artists from former Yugoslavia. Her passing in 2011 marked the end of an avant-garde epoch in American theatre. One by one, the remaining leaders of that scene have likewise departed: The Living Theatre, [Richard] Foreman, [Richard] Schechner, [Joseph] Chaikin, Gregory, the Mabou Mines company. The only ones who are still present, here and there, are Wilson, Ping Chong, and, quite rarely, the Wooster Group performances.

And today?

Today, La MaMa undoubtedly still occupies an important place on the map of New York. Far from the lights of commercial Broadway and the relatively conventional-classical theatres of Off Broadway, La MaMa has retained that off off spirit of community and coming together, thereby continuing the mission and values that Ellen had established in the ’60s, adapting them of course to today’s needs and new technologies. The wonderful Mia Yoo, Ellen’s successor, provides space to alternative voices from across the world, freely to explore and experiment through a diversity of perspectives, forms, aesthetics, with music, dance, performance, and topics that consume America today. Racial inequality, immigration, LGTBQ+ topics, ethnic tensions, populism, economic differences, gun control issues. La MaMa’s unique vision of the world is still there, in her motto: Every human being is the other human. We are one world.

Pursuing education abroad was part of your family tradition. But at one you point you decided to stay in America. What made you do it?

The answer is short – I fell in love! With New York. That love affair is still ongoing. I’m not sure how requited it is, but there’s always hope! New York is the most exciting, most controversial, most difficult, and most fascinating city in the world. There’s a fresh challenge at every turn. That makes it entirely unique. It offers endless energy and possibilities, which one must carefully direct and exploit the city in full.

How would you describe the transformation that the Soros foundation underwent over the years that you spent working there? The foundation is often discussed in a negative context. To what extent is that a result of ignorance and how much, on the other hand, has current politics shaped our view of the Soros foundation?

The Open Society Foundations are currently undergoing their greatest and most significant transformation since their founding. This is entirely reasonable and, to an extent, it is also necessary. There is an obvious generation shift in the very leadership of the foundation, from father to son. The foundation has become too big and unwieldy, saddled with bureaucracy, legally complex, with a huge number of employees throughout the world. As far as I’ve heard, the idea is to select a few specific current domains that the foundation would pursue, such as, for instance, social and economic justice, the environment, and digitisation, which would also dictate how the foundation will operate. The concept of open society, fighting for the rule of law, respect for human rights still basically inform the Foundation’s mission. Of course, the three decades I worked there likewise saw various shifts; the Foundation is like a living organism responding to global developments. It reacts accordingly, shifts its priorities, and forges new activities. A hugely important fact is that the Foundation has stayed and survived in the Balkans. It wasn’t always easy, quite the opposite. Those were difficult times for everyone involved, especially those who was running the offices in Croatia, Serbia, North Macedonia, as much as they were for the employees and those who received our donations. We all had to live through that and felt it on our own skin. Of course, today, too, the Foundation still has serious detractors, not only in the ruling elites of individual Balkan countries, but also in individuals who are poorly informed or are influenced by government propaganda machines and media.

Do you have an explanation why?

That negative context resurfaces every once in a while, when it suits them, to have something condemned, vilified, slapped on to someone else. There were times when the Foundations consciously absorbed pressure and disqualifications from those places, in order to open or preserve space for our partners, so they could pursue their aspirations. An open and democratic approach to topics, as well as the pursuit of basic European values, respect for others, tolerance, solidarity, facing the past, freedom of expression – of course they’re annoying! Every attack and discussion of the Foundation and Soros in the negative context of nationalist and populist discourses – we know what’s happening in his native Hungary – is a sort of proof that what the Foundations are doing is actually a good and positive thing.

You left the position of regional director for the Balkans at the Open Society Foundations, but you left a significant legacy?

I am proud that over the course of these three decades, the work of the Balkans national foundations, in their selfless, courageous, public, and open pursuits, has produced extraordinary results (of course, there were some failures as well, like in every line of work), especially in their primary domains, from education, the rule of law, combating corruption, to human rights, media, environmental protection, public healthcare, via art and culture, ethnic and other vulnerable minorities, especially the Roma population, to the development of civil society itself. Leaving the post of regional director for the Balkans at the Open Societies Foundations, I spent over a year, with more than a hundred colleagues, working on The Open Society and Its Friends, a publication that, along with a series of virtual presentations in the Balkans, marked three decades since the Soros foundation first came to the region, 1991–2021. The book exists in a printed and PDF edition. It is a unique and important historical testament about a big group of people, their work, and an extraordinary time of struggle. That struggle continues.

You’ve never claimed credit for the assistance provided by the Soros foundations. Now that you’re no longer affiliated with them, what are you proud of the most?

I’ve always viewed myself as part of a big regional team working in the Balkans together. For the most part, I’m proud of the people with whom I shared good and evil over the course of those three decades. I made some wonderful acquaintances and friendships. Every time I travelled to Pristina, Zagreb, Sarajevo, Belgrade, Skopje, Tirana, Podgorica, or Ljubljana, or other parts of the region, my trips were filled not only with work, day and night, but also with huge joy at seeing those people again, spending time with them, despite having to discuss serious topics and make important decisions. That big Balkan family of mine, their extraordinary dedication, knowledge, courage, honesty, and trust filled me with hope that what we were doing made sense and had to continue whatever the difficulties.

You have founded My Balkans, an organisation that is evidently meant to present to the world artistic endeavours from the Balkans. What was your driving idea when you embarked on that endeavour? Serbia’s bad image has created many obstacles for its artists. What is your experience of it? Was it another prejudice you had to contend with?

The idea to start a foundation of my own that would deal only with art and culture is not new; I had thought about it for years. But there was never enough time! My main driving force was my desire to help and contribute to the development of the incredibly talented and gifted artists that the Balkans has. The purpose of the Foundation, which is registered in New York as well as in Serbia, is to support and encourage people to build a better and more equitable democratic society through projects related to culture. Prejudices about the Balkans do exist – they affect all of us. Our value systems have been upended. Our trusts have been shaken. The mission of our foundation is not to make a direct contribution to the acceptance of the Balkans in the world – that would be a huge task that probably wouldn’t be easy to accomplish. Chiefly due to the ruling politics. Our efforts are a bit different. We want to find exciting pockets of cultural activities in the Balkans – and we know they exist – and help them develop, enable them to prosper and succeed, hoping that their significance and impact will make a difference. Perhaps initiate some changes as well. Those prejudices would then slowly start blurring, too. I think that’s something we can and must try to do.

You’ve assembled an interesting team of people at your Foundation, including established artists such as Uliks Fehmiu and Bojana Cvejić, for instance. What are your plans for the future?

The people I’ve chosen to work with as my close associates are people I’ve known for years, with whom I’ve worked in the past, and whose opinions I share in many respects. Among them, I looked for those who are active and work in various fields of art and culture, in Europe and America alike, as well as those who are also present and active in the Balkans. We have many plans for the future, perhaps even too many. We have a book under our belt, and last week Balkan Bordello finished its theatre run in New York. We’re working on extending its theatrical life. As the chairwoman of the board of the No Borders symphony orchestra, I’m involved in its preparations for this year’s summer tour of the Balkans. There are ongoing negotiations about an interesting regional theatre project. Ideas are there, and desires and people to work with are even more plentiful.