By McGee Nall
People from Zagreb, Croatia’s capital, are veterans of the adrenaline rush that accompanies falling into your plush, red, velvet seats as the overture blasts through the rafters or the opening monologue that guides all eyes to center stage. When asked why the Komedija Theatre on Kaptol is special to Zagreb, Mira Medić, the theatre’s secretary, replied: “Life is bad, but for two to three hours, [the people] are living nice. They are singing.” While attending a show might seem to be an expected experience at the West End in London or the Minskoff in New York, tourists should know Croats cherish the performing arts as much as any other major city. Below are five distinct theatres that travelers should attend while staying in the heart of Croatia.
One of the most heart-racing sights is to walk from Masarykova street, past the Hemingway Bar, and see the Croatian National Theatre (CNT) in the sunlight with all of its bright yellow, neo-Baroque glory. Royally entering through the main archway, statues on either side beckon guests inward. If seeing a ballet, opera, or drama from the mezzanine, swans on the stairwell railing guide you up to your personal box from which you can watch masterpieces unfold onstage. CNT was founded in 1860 by Dimitrije Demeter, who dreamed of Purgers (as people from Zagreb are called) performing in their own language. The following year, Parliament passed the Theatre Act to state that “the Croatian National Theatre is a national institution of the highest cultural importance in the land.” In 1895, the theatrical palace was erected – the same palace a tourist sees with astonishment today.
Walk two minutes north of the Cathedral of Zagreb to the two-story Komedija Theatre, established in 1950, for light-hearted shows such as comedies, comic operas and musicals. The professional playhouse—dominated by stone archways—seems ancient, and, in fact, once housed priests. Today, tourists can tap into that historic zeal when coming to the theatre to see shows like the hit musical, Mamma Mia! To the right is a small café where audience members can discuss their post-show thoughts over cappuccinos. “We are not too much serious,” says Mira Medić, who has been working at Komedija since 1982. Medić says her favorite part of her job is working with the talented actors, “These people are not like others.”
As you walk through the street of Frankopanska on your way to Zagreb’s main square, pictures of actors on the left-hand side catch your eye. Stopping to look up, you see the word “Gavella” scrawled in cursive across the balcony. The lobby area is a blend of Greek architecture and modern day furniture. Sonja Kovacic, the Executive Producer of Gavella, claims with pride that Gavella is the only drama theatre in Croatia. Dr. Branko Gavella, a pioneer of theatrical arts in the city, founded the Zagreb Drama Theatre in 1953, renamed in his honor after he died. Besides drama, Gavella also specializes in comedies, contemporary and classical works. Kovacic says the audience is mostly made up of people 50 and older and hopes her workplace will eventually reclaim the millennials of Croatia’s capital. “[Ages] 20-35 is what we miss the most,” Kovacic says. “I want to tell them, ‘This theatre is also open for you.’”
Zagrebačko Kazalište Mladih (ZKM), or the Zagreb Youth Theatre, is tucked away on Teslina among numerous cafés and bookstores. After you enter through the theatre’s French doors, modernity hits like a splash of cool water – refreshing but startling in the midst of a historic town. Large pictures of past productions are peppered throughout the lobby. All photos are edgy, some are provocative. ZKM, founded in 1948, holds classes for a total of 1,500 youth attend as well as a professional ensemble of 31 actors. The modern playhouse specializes in drama (especially original works from locals) but also produces dances and operas. In order to provoke reaction and thought from the audience, ZKM produces more controversial works than popular ones. “This is the only institution where you display new writers and directors on a platform with the best actor ensemble,” says Nikola Betban, producer of ZKM. “We don’t play it safe – we push boundaries.”
In total contrast with ZKM, stepping into the Zagreb Puppet Theatre feels like entering a child’s imagination. The signage surprises pedestrians with pops of color in a sea of dark brown apartments and offices on Baruna Trenka. Unlike most venues, the Puppet Theatre’s café partners with a small playground and colorful mural. Once inside, handmade puppets greet you on every corner. The Zagreb Puppet Theatre, founded in 1948, is the capital’s oldest puppet playhouse and is the only one to use just puppets rather than additional actors. Danijela Krapić and Leonard Mišić, employees of the Puppet Theatre, show off their workplace with pride, saying how this theatre is the only one in Croatia’s capital geared solely toward the little ones of the city. “And their parents,” Mišić adds with a laugh.
By exploring these five venues alone, a traveler can get a taste of the complexity that envelops the city of Zagreb. Whether someone is craving a musical, a drama, a classic ballet, a controversial world premiere, or a cheerful puppet, a theatregoer in Zagreb will always have place to land.