»Immerse yourself into teamwork«
– Melita Vovk (1928–2020) and performative arts
Ejti Štih (born Marija Štih in 1957), the daughter of Melita Vovk and the renowned publicist and artistic director Bojan Štih (1923–1986), well-known in Slovenian cultural circles, especially in theatre, donated her mother’s heritage related to theatre art to the Slovenian Theatre Institute – Theatre Museum in 2020.
On the initiative of Ejti Štih in 2020 the Bled Culture Institute organised a comprehensive exhibition entitled Melita Vovk in Person (the artist herself was originally from Bled) and on the occasion also published the eponymous monograph in two volumes: Biografija umetnice 1928–2020 [Biography of the Artist 1928–2020] and Ustvarjanje [Creation]. The Slovenian Theatre Institute – Theatre Museum took part in the preparation of the latter one.
Theatre was just one area of Melita Vovk’s artistic creation, her contribution to this field, however, is remarkable: from 1956 to 2009 she took part in 49 stagings in Slovenian professional theatres alone, not to mention amateur theatres, e.g. the staging of Gordijski vozel [The Gordian Knot] by Ljuba Prenner in 1973 in the Šentjakob Theatre, Velika puntarija [The Great Rebellion] by Bratko Kreft in 1986 in the Slovenian People’s Theatre ‘Samorastniki’ in Šentprimož, Županova Micka [Molly, the Mayor's Daughter] by Anton Tomaž Linhart in 1990 and Veriga [The Chain] by Fran Saleški Finžgar in 2000 in the Tone Čufar Theatre in Jesenice.
She left a strong mark in puppet theatre as well, despite designing the puppets for ‘only’ five Slovenian puppet performances (one of those re-used her puppets from a previous staging of the same play) and for one in another republic of the former Yugoslavia (The City Without Love by Lev Ustinov in 1980 in the Sarajevo theatre Pozorište mladih - puppet stage). In drama theatre she worked as set and costume designer (in 14 stagings she combined both areas), and on occasion she made the selection of costumes from the theatre fundus, painting set elements by herself, illustrating the theatre programme or the occasional accompanying brochure.
When she had any opportunity, be it in theatre or while on a film set observing the process, Melita Vovk would pick up her pencil and sketch the creative team at work. Thus The Slovenian Cinematheque got a donation of her sketches made at the set of the film Jara gospoda [The Parvenus] in 1952 in Bled and the TV series Primož Trubar in 1986 in Kranj, while the Slovenian Theatre Institute keeps her sketches of German actors on stage that she drew during her study visit to Germany in 1976. Here we can also find a sketch of the staging of Othello at the Dubrovnik Summer Festival, portraits of Samuel Beckett and the actress Marija Nablocka, several portraits of the Italian actor Peppino De Filippo, sketches dating back to 1953 entitled ‘Indian Dance’ for which the occasion of their creation is uncertain, etc.
Somewhere in between book illustrations and costume design we can find her sketches for the book Mladi na odru [Youth on Stage] by Draga Ahačič, written for the purpose of theatre education, including practical advice for youth theatre groups, excerpts from various plays and dramatisations of fairy tales.
Among the documents kept in the Slovenian Theatre Institute one can also find a manuscript written by Melita Vovk dated on April 13th 1988 in which she responds to a survey about Slovenian cultural policy. In it she writes: “I work in different areas and I feel happy enough in this so-called province, as I enjoy peace and quiet. /…/ In the end let me confide to you my utmost satisfaction that I managed to get to retirement with only 6 years of regular employment, for the rest of the time I spent as a freelancer. It feels good to know this and it gives me confidence.”
Melita Vovk was a successful artist with an enviable body of work which makes it quite surprising that she has left so few written records and that interviews conducted with her are so rare. It appears that she consciously chose not to invest her time and energy into ‘self-promotion’ and avoided public appearances. In her modesty, she preferred to dedicate her time to work. This can be inferred from her writings as well as from newspaper announcements of theatre premieres. Judging from these publications, she would not attend press conferences held before premieres and her contributions to the stagings were mostly presented by directors or artistic directors. This is also in accordance with her conception of stage design as she elaborated it in her paper Scenografija – kaj je to? [Set Design - What is It?] ((Theatre Programme of the Celje City Theatre, 1977/78, no. 3): “Nobody should mount their own individual monument on stage. A good set designer should adhere to the one rule: IMMERSE YOURSELF INTO TEAMWORK.”
In a draft of her application for the ‘post of full-time assistant for set design’ which Melita Vovk submitted in 1971 to the Academy for Theatre, Radio, Film and Television in Ljubljana, one reads: “I admit to not having any specialised qualifications in set design and have not been fully active exclusively in theatre. However, I have always been very interested in theatre, attending many theatre performances at home as well as during my study visits abroad, visiting theatre museums and exhibitions in various countries across Europe.” She even set a condition: “If the duty of the assistant for set design at the Academy is primarily to teach students the conceptual meaning and role of set design in a theatre performance and to explain its history from the very beginnings up to contemporary aspects, while the elaboration of practical realisation (drawing of blueprints, use of materials etc.) comes second, that I feel confident in applying for the post.”
From this passage as well as from her first steps in set design it can be inferred that a conceptual and artistic approach to set design was nearer and dearer to Melita Vovk than a technical one.
First time she worked in Slovenian professional theatre was on the occasion of the 1956 staging of Miloš Mikeln’s youth play Atomske bombe ni več [The Atom Bomb is No More] performed by the Celje City Theatre. Here she prepared ‘conceptual ideas for set design’, while the ‘technical blueprints for the scenery’ were provided by the set designer and architect Sveta Jovanović. She would collaborate with Jovanović again on several later occasions and established a similar working relationship with the set designer Milan Butina (who was also employed as the technical director in the Ljubljana City Theatre for a couple of years) and the architect Uroš Vagaja, as well as with the theatre director Mile Korun who also originally studied architecture. Such creative symbiosis proved to be very fruitful. Mile Korun, Melita Vovk and Uroš Vagaja were awarded the prize for best stage design for the performance of Ivan Cankar’s Pohujšanje v dolini šentflorjanski [Scandal in the Valley of St Florian] (SNT Drama Ljubljana, 1965) at the most prominent theatre festival in Yugoslavia, Sterijino pozorje in Novi Sad, Serbia.
As mentioned above, Melita Vovk’s theatre career started in the Celje City Theatre where she also found work most frequently (16 stagings). She would also often work in the Ljubljana City Theatre (9 stagings), SNT Drama Ljubljana (8 stagings), SNT Drama Maribor (7 stagings), four times in the Mladinsko Theatre, twice at the Academy for Theatre, Radio, Film and Television (one of those was a co-production with the Ljubljana City Theatre), and once in SNT Drama Nova Gorica and the Experimental theatre Glej in Ljubljana. She also worked once in the Ljubljana Puppet Theatre and four times in the Jože Pengov Puppet Theatre.
In Slovenian professional theatres she collaborated with 26 different directors, on several occasions with Miran Herzog, Slavko Jan, Franci Križaj, Vesna Arhar, Helena Šobar Zajc, Voja Soldatović, Mile Korun, Dušan Jovanović, Zvone Šedlbauer, Jože Gale and Marjan Bevk. But most frequently – seven times – she collaborated with Dušan Mlakar.
Melita Vovk’s set creations were marked by poetry, expansive imagination (often with an added drop of madness), combined with a pinch of zeitgeist and mixed with modernity, the world as we live it. When the text and the staging concept would allow for it, she introduced playfulness and humour, a drop of satire or mild, benevolent irony.
Especially as a set designer she was always trying out new approaches to theatre art and paved the path for free, unbridled experimentation. She did not need to resort to lavishly expensive and massive stage constructions in order to achieve effectiveness on stage, rather she brought it to life through original and artistically inventive set design concepts.
Tea Rogelj, MA
Colophon of the e-xhibition
Producer of the e-exhibition: Slovenian Theatre Institute (SLOGI), 2021
Author of the e-exhibition and texts, data entry and translation of captions into English: Tea Rogelj, MA, Senior Curator
Translation of the introductory text: Jaka Andrej Vojevec
Digitalisation: Andrej Ovsec (SLOGI)