Public battle for a theatre

„Long live the theatre!“, „Down with the dictatorship!“. In Albania’s capital Tirana, artists and citizens occupy the National Theatre in order to save it from demolition.

by Lindita Komani in taz from 30.07.2019, see also here:

The National Theatre of Albania has been the scene of protests for a year and a half, first weekly, then daily. For just over a week now, artists and citizens have been protecting the house around the clock from the threat of demolition. A large poster with the inscription „Cultural monument, protected by the people“ covers large parts of the facade.

On 24 July in the morning, the situation threatened to escalate for the first time – the police took violent action against the protesters. The respected Albanian screenwriter and director Edmond Budina was attacked and dragged away without any warning by dozens of policemen on the forecourt of the National Theatre just because he was in the vicinity of the theatre building. An unexpected turn of events that, among other things, resulted in artists and citizens occupying the theatre two hours later to finally stop the government’s plan to demolish the theatre.

Actors and directors took part in the cast – in addition to Edmond Budina, Robert Budina, Neritan Liçaj, Adriana Tolka are also on the front line of the protests. Kiço Londo, director of the experimental theatre, is always present. Writers, journalists, architects, historians, legal experts, university teachers and citizens from other professions have been involved from the beginning.

For more than a year, Prime Minister Edi Rama and the Mayor of Tirana, Erjon Veliaj, have been trying to demolish the National Theatre. The affair revolves around the public land around this building. 8,500 square metres are to be handed over to a private company. The government argues that it does not have the financial means to renovate the theatre. Therefore, it enables a private company to develop the site with six skyscrapers and a shopping mall while building a modern theatre at its own expense.

The project is to be implemented as part of a Public Private Partnership (PPP). The partner is the Danish architectural firm Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG). The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) have repeatedly criticised the practice of such partnerships in Albania for a lack of transparency.

At the end of September 2018, the Albanian parliament passed a special law specifically for this project, which makes it possible to sell public land to a private investor without a tender. Several legal experts consider it unconstitutional. The President of the Republic, Ilir Meta, refused to sign it. On 24 July, he filed the complete National Theatre dossier with the Constitutional Court. However, the Constitutional Court has not been functioning for more than a year.

At the request of an Alliance for the Protection of Theatre, founded in March 2018, the European Commission has asked 15 questions to the Albanian government regarding this particular law. Among other things, the Commission asked why a private company was commissioned to carry out the project without competition and why the contract was drafted in the form of a specific law, and the selection criteria for the private company.

Until 2017, the National Theatre in Tirana was a listed building. Built in 1939 by the Italian architect Giulio Bertè in a futuristic style, it is the cradle of Albanian cultural institutions. Here the first cinema was opened, the first Institute of Albanian Studies, the first club of writers, and the first professional theatre performances took place. With a decision in 2017, the government had lifted the monument protection. Even then, renowned artists and architects protested against it. Most recently, this was confirmed by declarations of support from the international NGO for monument conservation, Europa Nostra, and the International Association for the Documentation and Preservation of Modernist Buildings and Urban Ensembles (Docomomo).

A further success of the Alliance for the Protection of Theatre was that last Saturday the National Theatre, which was protected by artists and citizens, was once again the venue for performances. Mehdi Malkaj, one of the actors who has supported the protests since 2018, made the audience cry and laugh in a crowded hall. At the beginning of the performance the shouts „Long live the theatre“, „Down with the dictatorship“, „Long live freedom“ were heard.

Lindita Komani, author, translator, is a member of the Alliance for the Protection of Theatre.

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