ARTS AND FEATURES — 20 August 2014

Production Shot 1

Playwright and actress Mirjana Rendulic tells Shelley Marsden about the acclaimed one-woman show based on her former life as a lap dancer

ON its way to the Camden Fringe Festival for a three-day run, one-woman play Broken Promise Land is a fictionalised account of Croation playwright and actress Mirjana Rendulic’s not unhappy life as a lap dancer and an immigrant in Celtic Tiger Ireland.

The show, which Mirjana wrote and performs, is not about lap dancers as victims, but as young women simply doing a job, and learning all the tricks of the trade to do it well. The 34 year old, now living in London after ten years in Dublin, premiered her play last year at Dublin’s Theatre Upstairs, later polishing it up with the help of the Fishamble Theatre Company through its ‘New Play Clinic’.

She then took her “show in a bag” (the minimalist set centres on a single bed) around the country, including the Galway Theatre Festival and Electric Picnic. Her play was then adapted for RTE Drama on One and was recently awarded silver at New York Radio Festivals 2014. Just today, she received a copy of the book Staging Intercultural Ireland which features Broken Promise Land.

Production shot 2

“I wasn’t even sure if it would see the light of day”, she giggles. “I just wanted to tell this story, and then suddenly I was getting these brilliant reviews. People started calling me, I was in the papers, on the radio – I got a call from Good Morning Ireland asking me to come in and talk about myself.

“At the time it was just overwhelming. It was a day after the play run finished, and they were like, tell us more about yourself and I thought, I said so much about myself within the play already! At times, I got so good at it that I realised I was probably telling too much. Hold something back, please, Mirjana…”

Performing Arts and Theatre Studies graduate, the Croatian has always gravitated towards unusual subject matter. Her final performance piece for her course was “a mad, ten-minute monologue about a real-life woman, a cult leader from Australia who believed you could live on air.”

Broken Promise Land was simply a story she felt would be good to share. As a lap dancer back home and then in Italy, Japan and Dublin, travelling around as a female on her own, she explains enigmatically that ‘unusual things’ would happen to her.

“I would meet different people who weren’t always the most savoury, you know? You hear horrible stories of young foreign women being trafficked or simply targeted by predators. These things didn’t happen to me, but I do sometimes wonder how close I was to things going in a bad direction. When you’re desperate and you need to better your life and somebody offers you help, it can be dangerous.”

The closest she’s ever got to trouble, she says, was many years ago while working as an au pair in London. All she had on her at the time was a 20 pence piece, and she used it to make a phone call to people who had helped her to find accommodation. Those same people, a little later down the line, ended up hood-winking her out of all her money. “But I count myself lucky that I never got into any more trouble than losing some money, particularly because I feel like I’m quite naive. Or at least, I was.”

On exactly how much of her show is autobiographical and how much is fictional is something Mirjana is happy to preserve an air of mystery about. At first, she wanted to create a character that has to change names, and looks to go to different places to work and survive, and the storyline went a ‘little crazy’. When director Aoife Spillane-Hinks came on board, she pared it down and made things more realistic.

As it stands, the story tells the tale of Stefica, a very young woman who, sick of life in a war-torn Croatia and guided by MTV hits and Hollywood sitcoms like Beverly Hills, takes on a more fashionable new name, Teya and embarks on a quest for an American education, and ends up in a Dublin lap dancing club, via Italy and Japan. It’s honest and funny, as Teya shares her experiences as well as the tricks of the trade.

Mirjana wanted to dispel easy preconceptions about exotic dancers:  “I wanted to portray lap dancers as people in a trade, not sad characters forced into a situation against their will. It is a trade – I imagine it almost like the way Irish people and Eastern European would come to the UK to do construction work. In the same way, you have girls travelling the world, maybe sharing a bunk-bed at night, and getting ready for work every day, sending money home to their families. There’s a comforting routine to it.”

Teya ends up in Ireland, and the play describes how different the men she encounters in clubs there are to those in Japan and Italy. Says Mirjana: “In Japan men look at women in awe; they are impressed that somebody’s just flipped themselves upside down. In Italy, it feels a bit more… straightforward. In Ireland, all the men want to talk to you. I remember this. They all want to chat, ask you where you’re from, where you live, why you’re doing this. You’d get “Ah you’re too lovely to be here” all the time!

Would Mirjana ever return to lap dancing? It’s a job she began after answering an advert for, anbd came after turns as a porter, reception and sales rep. It’s not something she seems to harbour any ill-feeling towards. I kind of feel too old”, she admits. “But it was a fun job while I did it. I was always asked ‘why are you doing it?’ Well, why are you a waitress?’

Right now, she is working in a ‘lovely Italian cafe’, which gives her the freedom in the evening to work on her writing. She adds: “I’m a trained drama facilitator, and I may pick that up over here in the UK. Helping people tell their own stories through drama, particularly children, is of the most amazing things I’ve done.”

Broken Promise Land is at Camden’s Etcetera Theatre from Fri 22 – Sun 24 August at 3:30pm. To book, call 020 7482 4857 or visit www.camdenfringe.com.

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