Hailing from Serbia, Joana Knezevic was already a noted actor in Europe before earning her MFA MFA in Acting from Cal Arts this year. I met Joana through my friend and collaborator Michael Alvarez. Getting to know her this past year, I have grown increasingly excited by Joana's verve for the craft of acting, her ideas about the act of theatre making, and her mere presence (she's truly electric on and off stage). Now, Joana is starring in a re-imagining of Henrick Ibsen's Ghosts debuting at the Hollywood Fringe Festival this month. I sat down with Joana to get the skinny on her life before studies in the US, her time at Cal Arts, and current post graduate work. For more info on Henrick Ibsen's Ghosts, visit: http://www.hollywoodfringe.org/projects/5318
Roger Q. Mason (RQM): You just graduated from Cal Arts' MFA Acting program. Congrats! What were some of your big take-aways from the program? What did you learn that you can take with you now moving forward?
Joana Knezevic (JK): Thank you so much! CalArts is a world by itself and I am very honored to call myself a Calartian. The most valuable thing that I got from the school is to be fearless, to celebrate diversity, to create dialogue through my art, and the most important thing - to respect every person's life and value their stories. In terms of acting skills, I learned how to work very fast following my own impulses. A very important part of our education at CalArts is the school productions. Working on the shows, as a part of my curriculum, gave me the opportunity to practice my craft outside of the classes and create deeper relationships with the directors.
RQM: Tell us a little about your background. I know you have extensive performance experience from overseas.
JK: My journey on stage started when I was twelve years old. I went to the acting school for kids in my hometown, Novi Sad. There I had a great mentor (Milan Pletel) for over eight years and had the best childhood ever. My high school was an art school for design with the focus on graphic design. I earned my BFA in acting from The Academy of Arts in Serbia and got the award as a student of my generation. In my final year at the Academy, I got cast in the very famous contemporary musical "Hair"; (we performed it over 100 times to full houses all around Serbia and Ex Yugoslavia). Even though I was working in the theater and occasionally on film, I've never stopped creating my own work or collaborating with independent productions all around the world. After a couple of years in Serbian theater, I become a member of the theater company Coraline Lamaison in France, based in Toulouse. That was one of the best and most important experiences of my whole life. My last year there, I got selected for "Biennale College" as a part of Theater Biennale in Venice, Italy and did the workshop with Nathalie Beasse.
RQM: Ghosts is your first project after graduation. How did you get involved with the
JK: Ghosts is directed by Jonghee Woo who graduated from CalArts last year, form MFA program in directing. I already collaborated with Jonghee in my first year when we did the performance for The New Works Festival "You Are Not Alone". When I saw that he had an open call for Ghosts I had no doubt that I wanted to work with him again. However, I did my project "Apartement34" in Cuba so I was not able to audition. Later on, when I came back from the trip, I saw that he couldn't find an actress to portray Mrs. Alving. Jonghee opened another audition specifically for that role. So, I applied and got the part the next day. It could not be better.
RQM: The production promises to be a fresh take on the Ibsen classic. What has the
rehearsal process been like?
JK: Working with Jonghee is very special because he is first of all an actor himself: he graduated acting in Korea. So, he knows very well how to analyze a script to its inner core, how to warm up actors, what every actor needs in a particular moment, etc. Every rehearsal starts from a big improvisation. The most important thing in our rehearsal process is the trust and freedom that he creates with his special exercises. Every day we have different goals that we try to achieve in the show, and because of that, every rehearsal is very fresh. The key to our process is simplicity which is very challenging especially in an immersive theater experience that we are creating. We also have our movement rehearsals with our choreographer Carissa Sahar where we explore our relationships with each other through the lens of our characters.
RQM: Why is Ibsen still relevant to us now?
JK: Ibsen's play Ghosts is very complex and it is one of the most criticised plays at that period of time. It was written in 1881 and it was a commentary on 19th-century morality. But this play is still relevant today (patriarchate, religious issues, free love, euthanasia, venereal disease). If you closely take a look at the position of women in our society today or the relationship that we have with our past and obligations that we have towards our family, we can find many similarities with the play Ghosts. Mrs. Alving, a widow, is an example of a woman who is suppressed and victimized by her husband. She used to play a role of the wife that her mother and her aunt thought her to be. Everything is a matter of business, so, Mrs. Alving was never loved and respected by her husband. Her husband used her in a very dirty way that a woman can only carry because of her hope for her son.
Mrs. Alving believes that everything that she goes through is for her son's love and peace. Even though she fights against the ghosts from the past, impossible love towards Pastor Manders and the reality of her son's illness, it is very difficult for her to give up of her duty as a "proper" mother and wife. Mrs. Alving's biggest battle is the battle for the truth, no matter what. She is an example of a woman who is willing to learn new things and to question her old beliefs. I see her as a feminist who is ready to fight for the truth. Does she win, you will figure that out.
There are also some other issues that our play Ghosts deals with but I invite people to come and experience it. Then, let's talk after the show.