Payments are made to contractors in instalments due to COVID-19

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The lives of the young actors and actresses during the pandemic

"When you realize that you’ve been working for six years and you have good references, but contributions to your pension or health plan have never been paid for your work, you realise that what you read in the media is absurd. If you told this to someone who works in the field of economics, medicine, management, or any other field, in any other country, he would tell you that you have a serious problem!", this is how Jasmina Dedić-Ibrić begins her story about the conflict between her desire to work and the grey zone between employment and unemployment.  

Dedić graduated from the Academy of Dramatic Arts in Tuzla in 2016, but she became interested in acting during her studies. She has acted in the Youth Theatre in Tuzla, the Youth Centre and the Bosnian Cultural Centre so far, and currently she is employed under service contract as a contractor at the National Theatre in Tuzla. 

Jasmina Dedić-Ibrić (above) and Elvira Aljukić acting in the play “Čisto ludilo”at the National Theatre in Tuzla

The disadvantages of working as a contractor, especially for extended periods of time and more projects, definitely affect motivation – contractors do not have the right to health insurance and social contributions or permanent income and depend on projects. Dedić says that the standing of acting as a career does not serve the interests of young actors.

"If you ask people, we are bohemians and unreachable, but it is not true! We are workers, just like them. Each profession has its own workers and performers of its activities. And the theatre is a company. The National Theatre in Tuzla is a company, just like BH Telecom, the Water Supply Company or the Heating Company. However, it is not clear to anyone how employment is planned in the system of these companies, but not in the system of ours. Why are we treated differently?”

The same question was raised by a young actress from Vojvodina who wanted to remain anonymous, considering that if she spoke publicly about this problem, it could lead to problems with her contractual engagement. She says that the employment of actors does not depend only on their work and talent, but also on the social interaction with the decision makers.

"What prevents me from finding a permanent acting job?" Honestly, the fact that I don’t build friendships for personal gain. I wish I could be that kind of person, but I am not. I don't do things just to get employed – I am an honest worker and I fulfil my tasks, so deep down I hope that someone will respect that. "

She graduated from the Faculty of Theatre Arts in 2018 and she started acting during her studies. Although there are far less castings for female roles than for male roles, our speaker currently collaborates with three theatres in Vojvodina. However, even though she has income from three part-time jobs, it is not sufficient to have a stable and independent life.

The numbers say it all

The actresses from these two countries share the same destiny with many other young actresses who have been waiting for a long time to be employed since they graduated. According to the records of the National Employment Service, 56 actors are currently waiting to be employed in Serbia, nine of whom are younger than 30. One fifth of these actors are from Vojvodina and most of them are women.

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the register of unemployed people includes 46 actors, of which 38 are in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and 8 are in the Republic of Srpska. Although there are academies for dramatic/performing arts only in Sarajevo and Tuzla, which are cities with the biggest number of unemployed actors, there are theatres in most of the cities. There is one theatre each in Mostar and Zenica, three in Tuzla and five in Sarajevo.

Statistics for Bosnia and Herzegovina:

graduated actors
Unemployed actors with
master’s or doctor’s degree in acting
Total number
of actors
Una-Sana Canton101
Posavina Canton000
Tuzla Canton13215
Zenica-Doboj Canton101
Bosnian-Podrinje Canton000
Central Bosnia Canton202
Herzegovina-Neretva Canton000
West Herzegovina Canton000
Sarajevo Canton16319
Canton 10000

Association of Theatrical Actors in Vojvodina: In the past, there were fewer educated actors and more employment opportunities 

The imbalanced system is mostly reflected in the enrolment policy of the Faculty of Dramatic Arts in Tuzla. The Academy enrols students in the Acting study programme every two years in the planned quota of 15 students per class. The class in which Dedić graduated is the first class in which a larger number of students enrolled (13, compared to 6 or 7 of the previous generations), and the same practice remains. 

A total number of 48 students attended the Academy in the last four classes. Hence, Tuzla gets an average of 12 young actors every other year.

In contrast, a total number of 30 students graduated in the last four classes at the Academy of Performing Arts in Sarajevo, where students enrol every year. On average, Sarajevo gets seven or eight young actors per year

Apart from the student stage Theatre Cabaret Tuzla and the Youth Theatre in Tuzla, which do not have an ensemble, there is only one professional theatre in Tuzla. Dedić explains that "the market is overwhelmed."   

"There is an enrolment for new students every year in Sarajevo, but there are five theatres in Sarajevo as well. Every second year we have an enrolment, and the number of students is far bigger than appropriate... In the past, we were in a better position when people from Osijek, Novi Sad or Županija used to study acting here, considering the fact that they would eventually leave. It may seem easier to enrol students from other cities, because they will leave our city in six months and they will pay a tuition fee of hundred marks, or a thousand marks, if they enrol with self-financing - which is not a solution to our problem! "

According to the data from the survey which included graduate actresses and actors at the Academy of Dramatic Arts in Tuzla in the last two classes, and which was filled out by 14 out of 25 actors, most of them are currently unemployed. 

If the graduate actors want to remain in the Tuzla Canton, their only option for employment is the National Theatre in Tuzla. However, according to the director Mirza Čatibušić, the last time a job for the acting position has been advertised was 10 years ago, i.e., the last time an actor was employed as a permanent member of the ensemble was in 2013. All of the actors work under service contracts. 

Čatibušić also says that the lack of employment opportunities does not only harm the actors, but it also harms the institution.

“Undoubtedly, the National Theatre needs young actors and actresses. Apart from actors and actresses, the National Theatre in Tuzla faces a constant labour shortage of different types of workers. The theatre is a complex mechanism, and in order to achieve quality and professionalism in our work, we really need to have a whole range of specific workers at disposal, that is employees who contribute to the theatre with their work. Anything else would be a mere improvisation. Unfortunately, we are currently facing an enormous labour shortage. The optimal number of employees would be between 60 and 80 employees. We have only 36 employees at the moment.” 

Despite this, the National Theatre cannot advertise job positions without prior consent of the co-founders of the theatre, the Government of the Tuzla Canton and the City of Tuzla, regardless of the obvious need of workers and labour shortage. Employment cannot be provided without consent. However, Dedić explains that the National Theatre is striving to provide opportunities for young actors within its power. 

If I had to leave the theatre, I would be emotionally torn apart. Nobody asks me how I feel about it, nobody cares. One contractor less. Awesome!!! In contrast, the theatre cares and aspires to keep us in every possible way, unlike the system which does not support employment of new actors.“  

It is difficult to name only one villain in the story. The director Ćatibušić says that there cannot be only one directly responsible individual, ant that everyone is equally responsible for the current situation.

"We live in a complicated country and the issue of labour shortage in the theatre we are currently facing did not occur overnight, but it has lasted for 20 years. It reflects the attitude of society towards culture.“  

The professional ensemble of the National Theatre in Tuzla consists of 15 members. If we divide the employees by age, using the parameter that young people who are not older than 30 are considered to be young, the National Theatre in Tuzla does NOT have young actors among the employees. The youngest full-time actor was born in 1986.

The ratio of contractors and members of the ensemble of the National Theatre in Tuzla in the last two seasons: 

15 out of 20 contractors who starred in the last eight performances are young people. Dedić starred in three performances, and aside from these roles, she performed as a replacement actress in the reruns of older performances. 

Jasmina Dedić-Ibrić (in the middle) during the performance of “Čarlijeva tetka”, in the National Theatre in Tuzla. The other three young actresses in the photograph are also contractors. 

As for Vojvodina, the Academy of Arts in Novi Sad annually offers 10 job positions which are funded by the budget of the Study Programme Acting in Serbian language. Furthermore, every second year 8 students enrol at the Study Programme Acting in Hungarian language. Over the past four years, 27 actors completed the Study Programme Acting in Serbian language, while 14 actors graduated from the Study Programme Acting in Hungarian language at the Academy. Last year, there were not any graduates from the Study Programme Acting in Hungarian language.

According to Predrag Momčilović, professor at the Academy of Arts in Novi Sad and president of the Association of Theatrical Actors of Vojvodina, the fact that acting is studied at too many places should be blamed for this. He says that there used to be less opportunities for hiring actors, but there were also less academies.

"Way back, when I was approaching the end of my studies at the Academy, there were academies only in Belgrade, Novi Sad and Zagreb. Enrolment at the Academy in Novi Sad was not open every year, but every two or three years. We were not more than 20-25 graduates per generation at the Academy. Therefore, we had more opportunities to perform. Today, there are five academies in Belgrade alone, along with the academies in Novi Sad, Banja Luka, Sarajevo... They produce 10 actors per year, which means that the number of educated actors has grown, and the employment opportunities have been reduced to a minimum."

He also says that the demographic development, that is the retirement rate of actors, would not result in employment opportunities for the younger actors, because the number of actors graduating each year does not match the needs of the labour market. 

The numbers in Vojvodina

Fifty professional actors work in the Serbian National Theatre in Novi Sad. All of them are employed by the theatre, and if necessary, 10-15 actors are hired to work under service contracts each season. Over the last three years, the theatre employed 14 actors and actresses. Previously, they performed in the theatre under service contracts, which qualified them for employment. Eleven actors are under the age of 30 and they are mostly employed on permanent contracts.

The Serbian National Theatre

The ensemble of the Serbian National Theatre in Subotica consists of 35 employees on permanent contracts and 15 contractors. The employment of new people depends on the City of Subotica and the Provincial Government as founders of the theatre. If a job position is vacant, with prior consent from the founders, the theatre employs the young actors who performed under service contacts. Currently, one actor who works under temporary and casual work contracts and five actors who work on fixed-term contracts are young people.  

The Serbian National Theatre in Subotica. Author: Natalija Jakovljević

Although the City Theatre in Bečej is not a professional theatre, they have one graduate actress who works under fixed-term contract and they intend to employ two other actors, with prior consent of the Ministry of Finance. The other actors perform under service contacts or under temporary and casual work contracts and all of them are under the age of 31. 

The ensemble of the Serbian National Theatre in Sombor consists of 14 actors on permanent and fixed-time contracts. Apart from these actors, the performances also include actors who work as contractors, and 18 of these actors are part of the current repertoire. They say that the new actors are mainly contractors. Three of the actors are 18–30-year-olds and they work under fixed-term contracts. Eight actors who work under service contacts are young people, says the theatre's director, Bojana Kovačević.

"Besides this, I would like to add that the situation has significantly deteriorated due to the employment ban, which has been in effect since 2014. This hinders employment of young actors and affects the filling of vacancies, which are vacant due to retirement, demographic development, etc."

The director of the Children's Theatre in Subotica, Marta Aroksalaši, has been a manager of the theatre for 11 years. She says that she has striven to hire young educated actors for years, because in her opinion there are too many young actors, but only a few of them perform at the theatres. 

"I empathise with the majority of the actors, who after graduating from various academies, do not have opportunities for permanent employment at the professional theatres – apart from a few who were lucky in that regard. Theatres can hire young actors, when necessary, on their own initiative, but compensation for the actors is covered by the theatre itself. It is easier for theatres with bigger budgets to hire young actors", says Aroksalaši

She further explains that her theatre constantly enriches the ensemble with young actors, who are given main roles in the plays. According to her, the law allows the theatre to hire two young actors to perform under fixed-term contracts. On the other hand, four young actors who perform in Serbian and four young actors who perform in Hungarian are regularly hired to work under service contracts. 

"Unfortunately, regardless of the necessity to employ young actors, the staff does not have unanimous agreement towards this matter - they fear that the older actors would be deprived of new roles in favour of their younger colleagues. However, the older actors cannot wait for their younger colleagues to replace them, because they are counting on the fact that with less work, they would receive the same wage until their retirement“, stated the director of this institution.

With or without masks

Another circumstance which affects the issue we are facing is the influence of COVID-19 on gatherings, on the activities of the theatre and, indirectly, on the position of young actors. Uncertainty has further increased for the young actors, because they cannot rely even on their irregular income.

Jasmina Dedić, who works under service contract at the National Theatre in Tuzla, shares the issues she and her colleagues are facing since the beginning of the pandemic. According to Dedić, the payments to the contractors are made in instalments at the beginning, in the middle or at the end of the month or even at the beginning of the next month. 

"You have no idea when to expect payment or how much you earned. This was supposed to be an exception, but it turned into practice. But we don't act in instalments. We never say: Good evening! We will only perform the first act of the play, because we haven’t received full compensation. Come again next week, we will perform the second act."

Dedić says that her colleagues agree with her on this matter. Only three out of eleven colleagues from her class at the Academy work as actors under service agreements. The artists criticise the system only to get what they deserve, but nothing more or less.  

„We work for the audience, we work for the people, we work for people who visit the theatre and for those who don’t visit the theatre, we work for those who finance us and for those who don’t finance us, we also work for those who pay us in instalments, but we don’t perform in instalments. We just give, which is the good part. The bad part is that we remain at the margins. We are always on the sidelines. Not only the actors and the theatre, but also art in general is always on the sidelines."

Due to the pandemic, the life of the young actress from Vojvodina has become much more challenging. Since the beginning of the pandemic, their number of performances has been reduced, so for the first time in her life, she is considering a career change.

"This year I’ve been thinking whether there is something else I could do besides acting, although I truly believe that I belong on the stage and I don't even want to consider leaving my calling. I cannot live independently with my income from working under service contracts in the theatre, and I am 26 years old. One of my biggest wishes is to become independent and to live alone." 

Most of her colleagues still do not have a stable income. However, she says that it is not all that bad.

"One way or another, young actors have been employed at the theatres in Vojvodina, Belgrade and Serbia in the past year, due to the lift of the employment ban. That is a good thing." 

Projects as a potential solution

Predrag Momčilović, professor at the Academy of Arts in Novi Sad and president of the Association of Theatrical Actors of Vojvodina, proposes project financing as a solution for the unemployment of young actors. Apart from acting, they are now expected to be involved in the production and organisation of their work. 

"It offers opportunities to hire young actors. In the past, only one opportunity was considered after graduating from the Academy or after being hired as an actor – to get employed on permanent contract, that is to be a sacred cow and remain at the same workplace until retirement, without a single worry related to status or income. I think this will become rare, but it doesn’t mean that there won’t be any other employment opportunities in culture.“ 

He gave us an example from his days at the Academy. 

„My generation created the “Theatre of Changes”. This change, which occurred at the Academy, led to our performance all over the territory of Yugoslavia. It was an attempt to create performances tailored to our needs and beyond the walls of the institutions and the Academy.“  

The theatre stopped working over time, but the younger generations gathered and brought the "Theatre of Changes" back to life.

In the Tuzla Canton, young actors and actresses often resort to alternative solutions – they conduct drama workshops, work on projects or follow the example of the young married couple Sadika and Ermin Avdić, who established their Art Centre “Ankata”. Through “Ankata”, which was established in 2018, Sadika and Ermin Avdić have organised over 20 performances for the other municipalities of the Tuzla Canton. Ermin explains that their collaboration helps them to raise awareness of art in the smaller communities and to create a hiring platform for young actors. 

Sadika and Ermin Avdić performing in “Šta se bijeli u gori zelenoj” in Sapna 

"We primarily create hiring opportunities for ourselves, thus creating hiring opportunities for our colleagues. At the moment, our "Travelling Theatre” crew consists of six actors and two artistic team members. All of them are artists with master’s or doctor’s degrees in arts, actors and actresses, unemployed…”, says Ermin

One of the plays which are performed as part of the Art Centre “Ankata” is the monodrama "Ich liebe Deutschland” by Jasmina Dedić-Ibrić. “These joint projects result in inspiration for further cultural development”, she says.

"You cannot succeed without a partner in our field of work... Acting requires collective effort. Let’s be a socially responsible collective and set a good example which will be followed by the other institutions.”  

Authors: Šejla Džindo (Bosnia and Herzegovina), Sanja Đorđević (Serbia) and Sanja Kosović (Serbia)

Twelve teams of three young journalists from at least two different countries from the Western Balkans worked over the course of eight weeks, with the support of experienced mentors, to produce regional stories focused on youth. This story was developed through the Media for All programme funded by the UK Government. The content gathered and views expressed are the sole responsibility of the authors.

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