‘EXOTIC DANCING’, ‘East European immigrant’; put these two phrases together and straightaway you have the raw materials for a story of sexual exploitation set amid shady nightclubs and sleazy impresarios. Or perhaps not.
Mirjana Rendulic’s one-woman show, Broken Promise Land, which comes to the Town Hall Theatre studio next week as part of the Galway Theatre Festival, offers a different perspective on a milieu we normally encounter via excitable TV exposés or tabloids.
Drawing on her own experiences as a dancer, Broken Promise Land traces Rendulic’s journey from Zagreb to Dublin, via London, Italy, and Japan. It is as much about a voyage of self-fulfilment as it is that of a young woman running the gauntlet of the sex industry.
A Balkan upbringing
Now settled in Ireland, and making her way as a writer and actor, Rendulic took some time out to talk to me about her show, beginning with her memories of her Balkan upbringing.
“I grew up in Croatia in the 1980s,” she says. “It was a good time until Tito died insofar as we were doing well financially. Then when Yugoslavia fell apart the war started, I was only a teenager at the time. We experienced some of the war but not to the same extent as some other parts of the country. We suffered more from economic collapse than physical destruction. While the rest of the country was falling apart Zagreb was somehow hanging together but you could feel the war on all sides.
“In 1997 I finished high school and the following year I went to England for a year to improve my English and look into drama courses. It turned out I couldn’t enrol in those at the time because of my visa. Being an au pair is not the same as being a student but I did an English course.
“I worked for a while as an au pair and later in a restaurant. I got to see England and meet people. Years later working as a lapdancer brought me more freedom than I’d had then as an au pair because the pay was very low and I had to stay in the home most of the time.”
Rendulic’s love of writing and performing has been with her since she was very young.
“I’ve always been into writing and acting,” she says. “I wrote as a child, I wrote my first stories aged eight, they were all set in America, in Detroit for some reason. Myself and my best friend Ivana made up these American stories, probably because we grew up watching programmes like Cagney and Lacey. We’d be running round on the streets of Zagreb pretending to be these Americans, just trying to be different people for the day.”
Broken Promise Land
Produced by Stones Throw Theatre and directed by NUIG graduate Aoife Spillane Hinks, Broken Promise Land premiered earlier this year in Dublin to glowing reviews. The Sunday Times found it “captivating”, Entertainment.ie said ‘it’s moving, it’s funny and it’s a must-see’, while The Irish Times awarded it four stars.
“The show is based on my own experiences but some things have been changed round so not all of it is exactly the way it happened,” Rendulic explains. “When I started as a dancer I was young and nervous but I also felt brave because I had worked my whole life.
“I remember I once applied for a secretary job in Croatia and went for an interview. The people sitting in the room were offering me a job, but never said much about it, and they all looked dangerous. I think it might have been prostitution, that was scary, they were intimidating.
“That was more difficult than answering an ad and speaking to a nice woman and her saying that ‘dancing is great, meet me for a coffee and I’ll explain everything’. So I met this lovely girl for a coffee and she was warm and chatty and laughing and telling me exactly how it works. It’s a job, you go there, you dance, you make money, you come home. And the way she explained it is exactly what it is.”
I ask Mirjana whether she ever felt exploited during her time as a dancer.
“I find more exploitation in the arts than I did as a dancer,” she replies with a chuckle. “People focus on the bad stories but there are many good stories. If you think about Western girls or Australian or English girls going to dance, for them it was all fun and frolics. But when you start focusing on the East Europeans they tend to be seen as victims, these are the only stories we hear.
“I do find myself a lucky person but I didn’t encounter these bad situations, for me it was almost like playing a character. I was young and naïve but not so naïve that I wouldn’t have been able to sense a dangerous situation. Even if things didn’t go well at times it was nothing really bad.”
Having worked as a dancer in Italy, Ireland, and Japan, how would she compare the countries?
“There is actually a section of the show, which is kind of funny, where I talk about my experiences in the three countries,” she replies. “In Italy they appreciate acrobats, in Japan dancing is an artform, in Ireland it is all about the chat.
“I remember in Italy all these girls were working as fitness instructors by day and dancers at night time. In Japan there were girls just flying around and Japanese people appreciate it as an art so the better the dance the girl did the more successful she would be. In Ireland it was mostly about having a good chat.”
Rendulic’s time as a dancer ultimately enabled her to obtain the funds to pursue her education and thereby open the door to her long-held dream of having a career in theatre.
“I wanted to go to college, the whole point of the dancing was to save money to do that,” she declares. “At the time getting into college as a foreigner was not straightforward, I had to pay my fees and get there. By improving my English I got in to study three years of theatre studies and performing arts and I also did drama facilitation.
“I settled here in Ireland because I studied here then I became one of the ‘new Irish’, being 25 going to college for three years then another year as a drama facilitator. After that I wanted to get some experience and started acting. Now I am rooted here and feel as if I have grown up here, it has been my second upbringing!”
Broken Promise Land is at the Town Hall studio on Monday September 30 and Tuesday October 1 at 9pm. Tickets are available from the Town Hall on 091 - 569777 and www.tht.ie