Why Theatre Belongs on the Street: Takeaways from Ana Desetnica Street Theatre Festival in Ljubljana

Performance at Ana Desetnica in Ljubljana

Theatre. Remember it? Dim memories of Shakespeare-obsessed school trips, or being dragged to shows by enthusiastic grandparents? Once, theatre was everywhere. Then along came TV, videogames, Netflix, and smartphones – and we collectively forgot the power of live performance happening, like, right over there.

But not all of us. And thereby hangs a tale.

Shall we begin?

Epidaurus theatre, Greece

A Short History of Theatre

Theatre is one of our oldest forms of entertainment, storytelling and education. Long before much of the media that distract, delight or dull our senses these days, there was theatre. Even before those antiquated, pre-Kindle paper devices we call books, there was theatre. Theatre: it got there first.

Historians have put forward a good case that theatre was born out of the religious rituals popular 3000 or so years ago. Often taking place in open air, public meeting areas, these rituals were very performance based and an eager audience watched on, invested and intrigued as the action took place on an elevated platform so everyone could see. The performing element of these rituals transpired to be one spectators naturally elevated to and in a sort of pseudo X-Factor of its time, the audience made it known which executors of these rituals were the best giving these early actors (and ancient celebrities) much praise and power.

In response, performers began to “ham it up” and the use of masks and costume became commonplace. Eventually the ritualistic element was ignored and audiences simply gathered to follow a story, to escape daily reality, to feel moved. By the time, Thespis, who spawned the term “thespian”, became Ancient Greece’s finest actor in 534 BC, ampitheatres for tens of thousands were being built.

So, I have questions.

Why is it that nowadays, theatre is the plaything of just a few enthusiasts and, dare I say it, an elite minority?

Why is it that even the most famous and historic theatres in the West End of London and on Broadway in New York need the pull of A-list celebrities to draw in the crowds?

Why is that a one-time passionate theatre goer and former student of theatrical arts – err, that’s me – hasn’t been to the theatre in over a year?

Answers? Alas, I have none.

What I can tell you, however, is that popular theatre isn’t dying out. Far from it. Theatre is being reborn, thanks to events like Ana Desetnica International Street Theatre Festival in Ljubljana. (Oh yes, and other festivals like that small Fringe one in Edinburgh are doing their bit too.)

And this rekindling of arguably the oldest of art forms will benefit you.

Before I tell you why, let me tell you what a three day event in the capital of Slovenia taught me about street theatre and why it’s as cool and important as its famous distant cousin, street art.

(Yes, really. That cool and that important.)

ana desetnica programs_x960

A Short History of Ana Desetnica International Street Theatre Festival

Ana Desetnica’s history is sort of backwards to that of theatre itself.

In 1982, a theatre company was established in Ljubljana, Slovenia. They called themselves Gledališče Ane Monró, or Ana Monro Theatre to you and me. Over  the years they established themselves as specialists in street theatre and improvisation and in addition to putting on performances they also offered training and support to upcoming local, Slovenian and international performers.

In 1998 they took this to another level by starting the Ana Desetnica International Street Theatre Festival, which means when I arrived in Ljubljana for the festival, clueless and a little confused at what to expect, it was Ana Monro’s 16th festival.

The premise of Ana Desetnica is simple. Over a four day period in early July, street theatre performances take place across the city of Ljubljana from mid-afternoon until after nightfall. Artists come from Slovenia and surrounding countries, and even a few from further afield. Each year there is a theme and 2014’s was masks and clowns.

All the performances are free.

Group dancing at Ana Desetnica

A Short Explanantion of Why Theatre Belongs on the Street

But first a quick interlude, because we need to talk about street art.

For the last few years, I have become fascinated by the street art movement. This fascination hasn’t led to anything ground-breaking like me picking up a can of spray paint myself or me studing the who, what and wheres of the movement, but I have been moved by it.

I love that it has made art accessible. I love  that a child can look out of a train window and on an otherwise blank concete wall he will see a mural so colourful and unexpected it makes his eyes pop open. I love  that on the reverse of the East Side Gallery in Berlin you’ll find art as imaginative, thought-provoking and possibly a lot more fun than that displayed on the “real” side of the gallery. And I love that my bike rides in my home city of Amsterdam are interrupted by the temporary poetry of Laser 1.34, a street artist who only ever tags temporary boardings put up around construction sites.

In short, street art makes you stop, think and feel something.

Maybe you relate to this?

And now for the finale, in which I finally make my point.

Well, I felt the same thing as I wandered the streets of Ljubljana  in search of my next performance.

Of course, it helped that this year’s theme allowed for various degrees of  “clowning around” from the painted face of Dan Le Man and the tutu-wearing of MC Fois to the astonishing juggling skills from the likes of Vincent De Lavenere and Heidi Blumenfeld, which brought cheers and laughter from the crowd. Juggling at Ana Desetnica

Yet even the more dramatic or politically motivated performances by Faber Teatr and Teatr Brovi respectively, stopped much of their audience in their tracks, made them watch and made them feel something.

Actors from Faber Teater

And don’t assume that street theatre only happens on the street…

At Ana Desetnica through interactive tours and truly physical performances, theatre took over walls, cellars, fountains, bridges and buildings.

Oh yes, watch out for that. Street theatre can seriously open your mind and enhance your imagination too…


Don’t assume theatre belongs on the street because that’s where it came from. It’s not that.

Theatre belongs on the street because that’s where it can be enjoyed by everyone.

So go find out if there’s a street  theatre festival happening near you, or maybe stop and watch a street performer the next time you see one, and enjoy being part of a tradition – fragmented, changed, but still thoroughly alive – that stretches back into history almost as far as we do, and that will accompany us into the future.

Plus? Through the magical alchemy of live performance, you’re going to feel something. Maybe something amazing.

Are you ready for that?

All photos by Frankie, except the second (credit to Tilemahos Efthimiadis) and the last one which is from Vertigo Arhiv. You can see more photos from the festival on my blog here.