EDUCULT Talks: with Bekim Morina
Bekim Morina, born in Kosovo in 1986, has lived and worked in Vienna for the last several years. From 2004 to 2008 he studied acting at the University of Art in Prishtina and since 2017 he has been studying acting and performance at the diverCITYLAB Academy in Vienna. With EDUCULT he talked about his childhood in Kosovo in the 1990s, his career, and the challenges of the acting profession in Vienna and abroad.
EDUCULT: How long have you been in Vienna? What were you doing before and what are you doing now?
Bekim Morina: My name is Bekim Morina, I was born in Kosovo. At that time it was Yugoslavia. In the 90s I was there in the Hauptschule. I come from a small town called Gllareva in Kosovo. The Hauptschule was interesting, but the situation was difficult. We were under pressure, at the time the Milosevic regime was with us. From 1990 to 1999 it was difficult. My father always had problems with the regime and had to flee again and again, to Germany and Slovenia. Then, all of a sudden, the war came in 1998. Our house was very close to a main road connecting Peja and Prishtina, the capital of Kosovo. In the first month of the escalation we had to flee from my village. It was too risky, the tanks always drove through the main road. My childhood was difficult. We had to flee for almost 14 months, I was never at home anywhere. I don’t have such nice memories of my time as a child. Now I see the pictures of Syria, how the children there suffer- that just kills me. Because I know the feeling of how hard it is. The war was long, from March 1998 to June 1999, the last three months we were in the forest. At that time, the NATO bombing of Serbia was over, suddenly it was over. I was so happy although I lost many friends from school through massacres, bombs, and so on. After the war, we went back home to our village, our houses were all destroyed.
When was that?
We were back, June 10th, 1999, this was the deadline. The NATO troops were already there, but we were only in the woods for two days, we were afraid of the mines. Then we were at home in the village, my dad was in the military. He knew it was dangerous and found cows in the village, tied them up and brought them to our garden. He was always afraid that there would be mines. So the cows came in first, and then we went in behind them. But we didn’t have a house, we got a tent from the UNHCR/UN. We were there until November and then renovated a room in the house. 1999/2000 was hard for me and my whole family. Then I was back in school, in the 8th grade. There I participated in my first play in school. They invited me as an actor because I was always the class clown, and they said come because you have energy. Then we did the play and it was just full of passion, because we were traumatized, all of us.
What was the play about?
The play had to do with war, but even more so with peace, but beyond that, I have completely forgotten it. It was more of a play for children. And then I was admitted to grammar school, I was a good student. In 2004 I finished my exams and asked myself: What should I do now? My mother wanted me to study pharmacy because my big brother was a doctor. Dad wanted something different and I decided to go to the art academy. And then I went to Prishtina, the capital, and took an entrance exam. We were a lot of applicants back then and only eight were accepted and I was one of them. I studied for two years, I was a good actor then, in 2006 I left drama school because it was difficult with the money. I couldn’t afford anything anymore. I come from a family with nine children, back then we were four students and my dad worked for the police, he earned 226 euros a month. With four children in the university it was hard and I took a year off from acting school. I wanted to get a scholarship so I could study somewhere else. I got one for Greece and then for Italy. I was there and I only worked so that I could support my family.
What did you work as?
Anything, anything, not acting at all. From 2006 to 2007 I sent money to my brother and sister, who also studied, and to my parents. Everything was destroyed and we always tried to build our house. In 2007 I was back, finished the acting school in Prishtina and graduated. I worked in the municipal theatre, I got 150 Euro per month as a member. And then I played in various short films/TV films, but the payment was bad because there was no money. For TV series I got 50 Euro per episode, I was very satisfied because I could survive with my money. Not living, but surviving. Until 2010/2011 I was abroad again and again, I was in Austria during the summer holidays, I worked for my brother-in-law. He lives here in Baden near Vienna with my sister. And then I enrolled at the University of Vienna for theatre, film and media studies. Then I came here in 2011, took a German course for two years from 2012 and worked part-time. Then in November 2013 I started attending lectures at the main university in Vienna, but I didn’t understand much, it was too difficult for me, much too much material. I imagined it differently that theatre, film and media studies are more practical, not so theoretical. Until 2017 I took roles as an extra and acted in short films in the meantime, here in Austria. But there were not so many commissions. And then by chance I met Aslı Kışlal and she explained to me that there is an acting academy and then I went there and was accepted. There was no exam, but a workshop for three months, at the end we did a performance and then a few of us were accepted. And since then I’ve been at diverCITYLAB, currently in my third year. I studied acting but this was the only way to show that I have more contact with the profession, that I am more recognized. I was really lucky because everything works great at diverCITYLAB. I went to a classical acting school in Prishtina, that was typical Stanislawski, that was great, but here we now have different methods, different teachers from different countries, different opinions, somehow different and much better, because with the profession you always learn your whole life long and I feel great being there. We had cooperations with different theatres, Volkstheater, Dschungel Wien, Toxicdreams, with different performances and so far it has gone really well. So not as I imagined, that I’d quickly be in the business, but it’s great, it’s only helped me. That was my short CV.
Wonderful, thank you. To clarify: In 2011/12 you came straight to Vienna?
The first three months I was in Baden with my sister and then I found an apartment in the 15th district, which my aunt took over.
To what extent did you try to get acting opportunities? How do you proceed if you don’t know anyone at all, if you come to Vienna and want to work in this field? You said that there were also opportunities to participate in films. How did that come about?
In the beginning, I couldn’t write German at all, I tried English or I copied a Google application template into the e-mail – “How do you write an application correctly?” I wrote to various theatres. Back then I wasn’t so well informed, I didn’t know how it worked. I thought to myself, it’s like Kosovo, there’s a theater, you apply there and they accept. It was different. I had forgotten casting agencies. And I tried it that same way, all the time. I sent it to different theatres, maybe to the Burgtheater and also to the Volkstheater, even to Kosmostheater and suddenly an answer comes: “We are a women’s theatre”. That was my solution at the time, I sent various e-mails: I am an actor, I studied it. I had no material at all, no CV for Austria. But that didn’t work out so well. And then I read portals on the Internet – on Facebook, there is one for acting jobs – and there I was invited to a few castings. I did a few of them, it was almost always low budget. That’s how it went all the time. Now I understand better, I have a CV. Now I go straight to the casting director and ask if they can take me to an agency. I have an agency in Bavaria and one in Vienna. But I have sent something to about 50 casting agencies in Austria, Germany and Switzerland and wait until something comes. But the question was whether it was difficult – it was not only difficult, but hopeless, I would say. I expected more than I started. But that’s normal anyway. I once read that there are 50 stages in Vienna. How is it possible that it is so difficult to get into a stage? But that’s the way it is. And it’s also the language, I’m still learning German.
What was the experience like, recognizing that language skills are so important especially in the acting profession? How did theatres react back then – or perhaps still now? Have you had any experience with the language? Is there still a need for the stage language German?
Yes, of course. In several castings I was always in the second round. It was the language, which is why I was not picked up. It’s difficult on the stage, I had more expectations, but also with film. There was a moment when I was invited to a dress rehearsal. I was done, I had already got the role, it was a great supporting role in a very famous film in Austria. During the dress rehearsal, they called me and said we were sorry, we chose someone else. I was very depressed. In the first round I was great, in the second round they decided, it just doesn’t work. He’s great as an actor, but we can’t take him because he has a strong accent.
And that’s equally true for theatre and film?
No, theatre is definitely much more difficult. In theatre it’s harder to get a role, but once you’re in it, it’s much easier because we have rehearsals, I can work on my High German, on the right vowels and the emphasis. It’s something different with film. I played different roles in the film, but they were foreigner roles, cliché roles, taxi drivers and so on.
At diverCITYLAB there is a consciously different approach, as you described earlier. But also the actors who are accepted there are from different backgrounds, more diverse, there is probably a completely different way of working with language right from the start, isn’t there?
Much more so, yes.
Is there an approach that tries to change the theatre landscape? Because that’s ultimately what should happen, so that other roles are assigned and not just cliché roles.
That is the goal of diverCITYLAB. There we are diverse: Austrians and Germans, from the former Yugoslavia, Iraq and other Arab countries, different origins. I am very happy that I am there because there is an understanding that I am on stage and sometimes say the vowels or the vowel emphasis wrong. You know, ok, that is wrong, because he is a foreigner, he is an actor, he cannot handle the language in the right way. And we are aware that we make mistakes. We are all aware of this, and then it is much easier to work with it. We have great teachers of voice and language and since I’ve been there, I see that I’ve changed a lot, learned a lot, the German texts aren’t as difficult as they used to be – I understand them better. Thanks to diverCITYLAB I am no longer afraid. I am no longer afraid of my language mistakes on stage.
Is it still about perfecting the language? Is that still the goal then?
We have that goal, of course, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be – we can’t fly. But we want the Austrians – the Viennese stages – to understand us. There are actors who can act, but perhaps don’t speak perfectly. We try to gain a foothold in Vienna, perhaps even in the Burgtheater. Although I prefer to play somewhere else than there…let’s put it this way: they have an unwritten law. The Austrian actors also have a problem gaining a foothold there because they have an Austrian accent. At the Max Reinhardt Seminar, for example, I see that 80 percent are Germans, the rest are Austrians or from another country. Language is important in acting, it’s like a weapon. But it doesn’t have to be like that.
That is, of course, the dominant understanding of theatre: spoken theatre. But there are also other forms of theatre. Do you also work in the field of performance, for example? Does language nevertheless play a central role in your work at diverCITYLAB, or are there other elements that you emphasize more strongly?
Not necessarily the central role, but it is important. At least for me.
So it’s not about saying “language doesn’t matter, we do more body theatre” or …
No, no, it’s body and language, both. They both go hand in hand. No, language is important in every case. We have additional meetings, six speaking and technique lessons per week. If I am honest, in the beginning I was at diverCITYLAB only for the language. I was in the German course and I wasn’t really there regularly because I always had to work, but at diverCITYLAB I concentrated fully on the language because there you learn the necessary tools to learn the texts. In the beginning I was only there for the language because I thought, “I am a trained actor, what can I learn there? – but that wasn’t true. Because you always learn something. Then I found out, okay, there is performance – in Prishtina I never had anything like that – and I saw, there are methods, like Meisner or Stella Adler, and I saw that I was wrong. And then I decided to concentrate fully on it, with everything that goes with it. And it’s free! In the capitalist world there is no drama school for free.
DiverCITYLAB is free?
Yes, it is supported by the City of Vienna.
You still have to pay the cost of living somehow else, is there no scholarship or something like that?
No, I don’t have such a thing. I am an independent artist in Austria, I have to pay for everything myself. And the truth is that sometimes I don’t have the right to work. From the MA35 I can only work as an artist. I’m not allowed to have waiter jobs or anything. And I have to survive somehow. My family is doing great now. But it used to be hard and they couldn’t always help me, so I’m over 30 now.
But they can’t make a living from artistic work at the moment?
Not at the moment. In 2019/20 I’m at the Dschungel Wien with “Was ihr wollt”, but it’s still hard. Although I have an apartment that is not so expensive.
The regulation of the MA35 is very counterproductive.
Yes, I can’t even have a part-time job. I used to be able to as a student, but as an artist I couldn’t. Maybe I’ll get Austrian citizenship over Christmas.
Before, you talked about fear regarding the language: “I don’t speak the language and then have to stand on stage or play in the film” – where does this fear actually come from? You have the feeling that you can’t speak the language, but is it also communicated by the others you work with?
As an actor you’re always afraid: physically or the emotions are wrong or I get emotions that I cannot convey. Language is the basis for mediation, that’s the problem with spoken theatre. I have a great physical presence, but I’m still afraid and when it comes to language, it’s always difficult. Sometimes I say the wrong E or sometimes the stress comes wrong because it’s not my language and that’s why I don’t notice if it’s wrong. And that is fear: language is still “artificial” to me. I always try to learn how to do it right, but finding the mistake myself is hard. I speak different languages, some mediocre Italian, Serbian, and English. German was somehow harder than the others. I was in Italy for seven months and in the third month I could just talk, it was kind of easy. Serbian is something else, as a child, I always had the words around me. I couldn’t even see a movie without Serbian. There were no movies in Albanian, I had to listen to Tom & Jerry in Serbian or Popeye in English. And then I came to Austria and suddenly the language was hard for me. Why are there “those”, “that” and “that”? Why are the vowels different, why is everything the other way round compared to Albanian? Albanian is an Indo-Germanic language, but nevertheless quite different from German. The fear comes from there.
So from yourself? Not because others project this fear onto you?
At the beginning, I experienced the fear of others. They said: “We’re sorry, you can’t have the role because you can’t talk clearly”. “We’re sorry we think you’re great as an actor, but…” – That’s where fear comes from. In truth, fear is everywhere. I’m afraid that I won’t get the role at all. The fear then takes over the body, it sticks closer than the shirt.
That is in the professional environment, what is it like in society as a whole? You’ve been here for a long time, what’s the feeling after this amount of time like?
I have hope because I see that something is moving now. There are people with accents who are included in the Max Reinhardt Seminar. Sometimes I see actors in the Volkstheater performing with a strong accent. I play a character in Dschungel Wien who has an accent and speaks Illyrian in the middle, because it’s about Illyria and Illyrian is like Albanian. I see a change and that gives me hope. But it is still difficult for everyone.
Is there any feedback from the audience?
Yes, it’s interesting. We have in the piece “Was ihr wollt” in Dschungel Wien, a scene where we speak Albanian and people came after the premiere and said we understood you. You spoke Illyrian/Albanian, we have no idea what you said, but we understood you. That made me very happy. Albanians would have understood, of course, but they were German actors, friends of mine. A lot of people told me that it was great.
Which would again point out that one can also understand differently, not only about the direct meaning of words. But regardless of the audience – do you feel accepted in society as an actor and as a person?
I tell the truth: I am always accepted. In Austria, in Vienna or Vienna’s surroundings, I always feel comfortable with acquaintances and strangers. I had that feeling right from the start. I have travelled a lot to different countries, but in Austria I always feel taken in. Maybe that’s why I’m still here. I have many friends, Austrians and Germans. I even feel welcomed by the police. When they stopped me, they always laughed at me and gave me no punishment because I always told jokes or lied. Also with the MA35, I understand that it is difficult there, the employees have to deal with different nationalities, which partly do not speak German correctly, can not explain, or are nervous. But I’ve always had a great relationship with them, too, and everything worked out great. Many of my friends have had other experiences. Maybe the fact that I feel so accepted is the reason why I’m still here. I have a visa for America, I can go and live there at any time, but I don’t like that. I always wanted to have a visa for America, because of Hollywood and stuff, but there’s nothing wrong. If I will go back to Kosovo, I don’t know. I lost my connection there. My mother and my family still live there, but in the theatre where I worked, I don’t know anybody anymore. I don’t have any real contact with them, they invited me to play in a movie in March 2020, but I have to think about that first, if I want to go there. I want to, but I don’t know. I am somehow in “no man’s land” – in between. I try to find my home and I feel comfortable here, right now, even from the beginning.
And now you are in your third year of diverCITYLAB. Altogether it’s four years, isn’t it?
The fourth year is the practical exam and the preparations for it, but I don’t need that, I already have a diploma. I will take part, I will learn the monologues and do everything like the others, but I don’t know if I’m going through with it- I don’t really need it. I will leave more room for the others who need it more.
And do you already have a feeling for what might come next? Do you already have an idea?
I already know what it’s like to study in Prishtina. That’s when I thought that when I’d finished the third year, I’d be famous and on stage, and everyone would know me. Suddenly it wasn’t like that. I know that will happen again. That’s normal. You’ve finished acting school and you go out and if you’re lucky you have a job and if not then you have to work for yourself. I know how it comes. I hope there will be more work and commissions, theatre or films. I’m trying to gain a foothold through Netflix series, I may have a few castings in Germany, they wrote me back. There is much more work in Germany than here, at least in the film industry. I always talk to the colleagues who don’t really know what’s coming: “The fourth year will come soon and you have to keep up and fight to the end. There will be times when you are at home waiting and nothing comes. So I know what to expect.
And how important the networks are and to know the people in this area.
This is the most important thing in the profession: that you have a network, that you know people. They can suggest you, or they can help you with a casting and give you the information for a casting for a film or a play, or they can invite you. That’s the most important thing, diverCITYLAB helped me a lot, it’s like a home, a network. In the past, when I was in a play, nobody talked to me. Nobody knew me. Now, when I go to a premiere, I just say diverCITYLAB or Dschungel Wien, or Werk X / Garage X – even with the small stages 20 to 30 percent talk to me and already know that I am an actor, ask me how it works and if there is anything new. That helped me to build up my network. That people know me, that I have a CV where I can say I played there, did that and that. Now it’s much easier for me to go somewhere and present myself. Word of mouth is definitely the most important thing for actors.
You said you also know people in Kosovo, too. What is the situation there? Has anything changed – especially in the acting profession?
To tell the truth, the problem back then was the artistic clans. The actors and directors had a few people, they always got the commissions that way. And the political government was always corrupt. But now I have hope: the same people have ruled for twenty years. Two or three weeks ago we had elections and they’re out now. We have a left-wing party that has won, and I hope that this will now be prevented. We all hope that this will change – because there is really good potential. Kosovo is a very small country, but I think it is very magical. There used to be a lot of actresses there who are very famous in former Yugoslavia, there are a lot of pop singers who are now known all over the world, like Dua Lipa and others. There are many soccer players who are very famous. And I hope that culture, film and theatre will also work in this way. That it will be done differently than before or until now. We have many stories to tell, we have many experiences that the others have never had. Bosnia is different, they won the Berlinale, I think they also won an Oscar, with various films. They were autochthonous in their ideas, what they did and they represented it in the world. And we didn’t do that, we missed this step in Kosovo. I hope that the Kosovar government will no longer focus so much on asphalt, but more on culture. We are 1.8 million people, we have a lot to tell. And I hope that this will get better – that is why I left. The political, economic and cultural situation was so bad. But I have hope that things will change now.
And these stories – would you also like to tell them here? Including your own, about what you are doing here now?
I always use my own story when I have a role – then I always take some of it. The problem is: I can’t write. Maybe I can actually write, but I missed it – at least I have a lot of stories in my head. I always try to tell through my body in the theatre, through my thoughts and emotions. I have a lot to tell. But sometimes that’s painful. Sometimes I want to get away from the thoughts I have of my childhood. But maybe someday. Then I will have to really concentrate on writing.
Yes, I do believe that these stories are told not only about writing, but also about being here. To be here and to work as an actor as you are doing now.
Yes, of course. Drama is a profession where not only the brain, but also the heart and soul, everything is there. Sometimes I find it difficult, but also full of relish.
Is there another comment or thought that you think is important?
I can say what I want. I wish I had a chance. At least in film. So far I haven’t really had a chance in film. But maybe every actor says that. I wish that at some point I could really work.
Thanks for the interview!
Thank you. See you again at the next production in February between diverCITYLAB and Nestroyhof/Hamakom Theater.