by Fin Kennedy
Long has the discussion reined; what is the power and place of art in promoting justice and peace in societies? More importantly, societies struggling to find identity and agency as they emerge from conflict.
In June 2021, Tamasha Theatre launched a fresh, funny and provocative podcast series, Out Of The Woods – New Plays from the Balkans. A series focusing on Kosovo, which presents three audio dramas from or inspired by the region, two of them by first time local writers from Pristina, the other by a British-Bosnian writer, Miran Hadžić. Although new, these plays and the podcast series have a long and interesting history; with all three connecting back to a play of my own inspired by the overlooked but fascinating Balkans region.
Back in 2016, BBC Radio 4 approached me with a tempting offer – to script a new series of short dramas using some unreleased songs by musician PJ Harvey as a starting point. Harvey, one of our greatest living singer-songwriters, and a hero to my generation of 1990s indie kids, had visited Kosovo during the research for her last album, The Hope Six Demolition Project. She was following a hunch that the former conflict zone would hold some inspiring people and stories for an artist long interested in the intersection between music and politics.
She was right. The songs she crafted in response were a haunting and powerfully moving set of meditations on grief, loss and renewal, from a region which had seen some of Europe’s bitterest fighting and most distressing examples of ‘ethnic cleansing’ since the Second World War.
But, as I found when I followed in PJ Harvey’s footsteps and visited the region myself, there’s another aspect to Kosovo’s story.
Kosovo is Europe’s newest country, achieving independence only in 2008. Although 90 percent of the population identify as Muslim, many of whom experienced systematic persecution during the war, there is no official state religion, and the people there wear their faith lightly.
Like all countries with a troubled past, it is not without its problems. However, the most noticeable thing when you visit is its immensely youthful, creative and vibrant population. Half of Kosovo’s population is under 25, with a median age of just 30.
This is largely due to the travel restrictions this population experiences. Kosovo is not part of the European Union, and not recognised as a country by some major European players, notably Spain, who has its own restive, breakaway region in Catalunya. As a result, travel visas to live and work abroad are hard to come by for Kosovo’s young population, so instead, they bring the world to them. Kosovo hosts the largest number of domestic arts festivals in Europe, with near constant, year-round celebrations of music, art, literature, film, theatre and other art forms. Foreign artists and organisations are regularly brought in to perform domestically, in place of Kosovans being able to travel.
These networks ensured that my BBC director, Nadia Molinari and I, were warmly welcomed. As a result of our trip, I was inspired to write On Kosovo Field, which I hope is a fitting tribute to all that the country has been through, while also offering some hope for the future.
On Kosovo Field, was written with the aim of telling a region’s very personal story, with a mixed cast of British and Kosovan/Albanian actors. I ended up feeling uncomfortable about essentially mining another country’s trauma for personal gain. Having visited Kosovo twice, I was also struck by the dearth of opportunities for emerging writers from the region.
Over the years, I found the funds for a return trip to Kosovo, in which I teamed up with a writers’ group run by local theatre company INTENT. With some additional fundraising from Tamasha’s Lead Producer Debo Adebayo, the budget stretched to a visit for him and Miran Hadžić in 2018, in which they scoped out Kosovo’s audio infrastructure for homegrown work, and forged links with several radio stations, record companies and universities, to help develop and host future, more locally owned and led projects.
Miran, a Bosnian heritage writer born in Sarajevo, but who fled with his family aged two to escape the war engulfing the region, had been particularly moved by On Kosovo Field, which has two child refugees as its protagonists. Miran’s joint work with a well-known Kosovan composer, Trimor Dhomi, helped mirror the process I had gone through with PJ Harvey, in using music as the creative starting point for a plot.
Miran’s smart and funny dystopian satire Fifth Dimension, the inaugural episode for Out Of The Woods, cleverly relocates its action to contemporary Britain, using the breakdown of the former Yugoslavia as inspiration for a subtle allegory about what is occurring in a post-Brexit UK. It turned out to be disturbingly prophetic. In addition, two of the Kosovan writers I’d been mentoring had come up with their own witty and provocative audio dramas – Nude by Ulpianë Maloku and Where Is Mr President? by Agnesa Mehanolli – which together with Miran’s work, complete Series One of the Out Of The Woods podcast.
What I love most about the Kosovan plays, is that neither mention the war or Kosovo’s troubled history at all. Instead, they look to the future, to the everyday, and in doing so these plays genuinely feel like the voice of a new generation, who don’t remember the war, and who just want to be artists, telling whatever stories they wish, just like their peers across Europe.
It is this that I hope Out Of The Woods will achieve. In founding a new, permanent platform for a region genuinely coming of age, and moving beyond its past. Providing a potentially powerful case study of the role of arts and culture, and in particular narrative drama, in national renewal, empowering marginalised regions and their diasporas to take control of their own stories, and with it, their real-world futures. After everything Britain has been through these past few years, we could learn a lot from them.
If you are interested in hearing more about the role of the arts in the development of identity in post-conflict societies, join us for an event on Wednesday 13th October 6:30 BST concerning the Dramatic Interactions for Justice and Peace.
This event sees new playwrights Ulpiana Maloku and Agnesa Mehanolli, alongside acclaimed playwright and producer Fin Kennedy and research specialist Dr Ivor Sokolic, analyse the interactions of art and life in post-conflict societies. With Dr Denisa Kostovicova, European Institute, as Chair.
Produced by British-Bosnian writer Miran Hadžić, with support from award winning theatre company Tamasha, and Kosovan-UK company Intent New Theatre. Funded by Arts Council England. A link to the full podcast series, Out Of the Woods, can be found by clicking here: Out Of The Woods: New Plays from the Balkans on Apple Podcasts.
Fin Kennedy is an award-winning playwright and outgoing Artistic Director of touring theatre company Tamasha. Writing credits include Protection (Soho Theatre, 2003), How To Disappear Completely and Never Be Found (Sheffield Crucible, 2007), Locked In (Half Moon national tour, 2006), Life Raft (Bristol Old Vic, 2015) and four plays co-created with young people for Mulberry Theatre Company at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. For Tamasha, Fin dramaturged and produced eight national tours of new plays by diverse playwrights, including the award-winning Made In India by Satinder Chohan, Approaching Empty by Ishy Din, I Wanna Be Yours by Zia Ahmed, as well as digital projects We Are Shadows: Brick Lane, The Power of Persuasion and Out Of The Woods: New Plays from the Balkans. Fin’s new company, Applied Stories, uses site-specific audio drama in education and community settings, to foster positive social change.