Supporting creative work by women
If you watch Jelena Stupljanin on stage or screen, you will not forget her. Her beauty, grace and fierceness are intoxicating. It’s no surprise her turn on the top rated TV show “Lisice” (“Foxes”) made her a household name in the Balkans. Jelena continues to work in Europe and the United States as well as in film and on stage.
A graduate of the National Academy of Dramatic Arts of Serbia, Jelena moved to New York to attend the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute. She is a member of Rising Phoenix Rep, and just worked on Daniel Talbott’s new play Afghanistan, Zimbabwe, America, Kuwait on the West Coast, along with Wendy vanden Heuvel, as part of a commission by by Rattlestick Playwrights Theater and Encore Theatre Company for Rattlestick West.
Jelena spoke to Works by Women about performing in different languages; working on Afghanistan, Zimbabwe, America Kuwait; and training for acting in Serbia.
WORKS BY WOMEN: What is your first memory of theatre?
JELENA STUPLJANIN: My first memory of theater is the one I was playing in my house. I didn’t know to call it theater then, but I would mask myself in my mom’s or my grandma’s clothes. I would involve my younger brother and sister. I would improvise a stage in the small apartment we lived in Belgrade and assemble the ‘audience’ which would always be my mom, and my grandma and then my dad and sometimes other family friends and we would just go and make them laugh.
And then, when I was in high school I went to see one of the most significant shows that made me apply for the audition at the Academy of Dramatic Arts (FDU) in Belgrade. It was the show called Caroline Neuber about the first woman actor-director in Germany that was brilliantly played by one of the most respected actresses in Serbia, Anita Mancic. There was a monologue at the end of the play, written by Nebojsa Romcevic, in which she talks to the audience of how important they are to her and yet, how much they always judge her although she is giving them everything – her soul, her heart, even her life. And it was so beautifully played by Anita, and I cried so much watching her and just wished I could go on stage to hug her – her character, her as an actress. I was lucky enough that after I graduated from the FDU I got a chance to be in few shows with Anita Mancic and to experience the same love and dedication she once had for me as an audience member and in that moment hugely inspired me to become an actress.
WBW: Speaking of studying acting in Serbia, you have also trained in New York. What are the similarities or differences in the approach to the craft in the countries?
JELENA: At the end of the day, good acting and good acting teachers are really the same all over the world. They seek the truth in theater and they inspire you to seek that in yourself and in your characters. I studied with professor Goca Maric with ten other acting students in her class and the program of the school was majorly influenced by teachings of Konstantin Stanislavski. And then of course, the other grand theater people like Grotowski, Lecoq, Brecht, Michael Chekov…. My professor Goca was also influenced by teachings of the Method acting as, she actually had a chance to study with Lee Strasberg himself here in NY back in the late 70’s. Although, I think that most of my knowledge comes from the influence of Russian school and all the other classes I had at FDU, my decision to come to NY and to attend classes at Lee Strasberg Institute was highly influenced by my professor Goca. Since I came here I got to meet and to work with some really great actors, and I always find the ones who think the same like me but, only because of that first impression that good actors are simply good actors no matter where they live.
WBW: What is it like acting in a second language? Are there things that feel different or that you experience differently in each language?
JELENA: I try not to think about language as a barrier although the difference sometimes can be huge, but only as one more thing I need to add to description of the character. “She speaks with an accent!” The funny thing is that I’m really good with dialects in my own language, and I love them and play them with ease. I have been dreaming for quite some time now in English though, and that’s when they say your second language becomes almost like your mother tongue, so I try not to look at it as a difficult obstacle but to keep on working on losing the accent and to embrace it as it is. Also, because I’ve been working a lot with Daniel Talbott, and he throws all of us actors sometimes in wonderful and crazy situations such as to learn the whole script in two days when we’re doing site-specific theater, I have to say that has been one of the greatest exercises for me and for which I will be thankful to him for the rest of my life.
WBW: You are working with Daniel Talbott again on his latest play. What is it like helping to develop a new work?
JELENA: I was looking for a long time and hoping almost like you hope in a dream that I would find a theater home here in NY, a place where you can feel safe and inspired and also nurtured as an artist because those places are sometimes hard and rare to find. But, I did find that and so much more in Rising Phoenix Rep and theater kindred spirits and family members and amazing friends in Daniel Talbott and his wife Addie Johnson. You can’t ‘hide’ from Daniel which is what most actors are somehow trying to do because he will see you and he will go after you with so much love and passion and beauty that, working with him as a director I feel not just inspired and propelled to wherever I need to go with my role but, also I know that I will always land on a safe ground. Which in theater to me, that’s the most important thing you can have. Where characters are real and authentic and alive to their core! I absolutely love working with Daniel, and this was the first time that I was part of one of the plays he has written. That even more deepened our relationship because he writes so personally for actors he loves and respects and when you get on that journey with him and if you trust him like you should, there’s no way to fail but only to come up with something really brilliant.
WBW: What excites you about Afghanistan, Zimbabwe, America, Kuwait? How did the workshop production go?
JELENA: I think this is the best play Daniel has written so far. And I love his plays! It was just built in such raw truth about these two soldiers, two boys who are left somewhere in the desert and who don’t know what day is it in the week, who don’t know if they will survive but, they have this huge lust for life and desire to continue living. When he sent me the whole play I was just so blown away with it, I knew I can trust him and that all of us can make something really special and beautiful together. And that’s how it was. We laughed a lot. Daniel knew what each of us need and what he needs to tell us to get us in the world of the play. Daniel has this way of knowing what people around him feel, need, what are our fears, our hopes and that’s another thing why it feels just so amazing to work with him always.
WBW: What are the challenges facing women in American theatre?
JELENA: It’s funny because right now I am working on a project that I am producing, and I’m facing my own challenge of keeping in mind that there are so many incredible female voices out there that just need to be invited to do the work and they will do it brilliantly. There are so many stories from the female perspective, and we all just need to be free enough not to shy away from it but instead to embrace it. I know there are also so many people who understand and see this as well, one of them again Daniel Talbott and the whole RPR gang that have embraced so many great writers and directors in the Cino Nights series that they’ve produced last year for 18 months, and it was a great opportunity to see how many female voices were there and how much great stuff was made over at Jimmy’s in East Village.
WBW: What gives you hope for women in American theatre?
JELENA: What gives me hope is to see how many extraordinary women are out there who are doing an amazing work in theater today. They are inspiring, they are fierce, they are wise, intelligent, beautiful. They produce, publicize, write, direct, act. Addie Johnson is one of them, Wendy vanden Heuvel, Julie Kline, Sam Soule, Crystal Skillman, Lucy Thurber, Saviana Stanescu, Jessie Dickey, Kirsten Kelly, Laura Eason, Cusi Cram, Kristen Palmer, Charlotte Miller, Kathryn Kates, Laura Ramadei, Kristina Poe, and you Lanie as well and many, many others and when you see their names now in here you just have to agree that they are badass. And that gives me hope.