People from Zagreb, Croatia’s capital, are addicted to the adrenaline rush that accompanies falling into plush, red, velvet seats as the overture blasts through the rafters or the opening monologue guides all eyes to center stage. The reason, according to Mira Medic, the secretary of the Komedija Theatre on Kaptol Street: “Life is bad, but for two to three hours [the people] are living nice. They are singing.”
While attending a show might seem like an experience at the West End in London or the Minskoff in New York, tourists should know Croats cherish the performing arts as much as any other major city. Below are five distinct theaters that travelers should attend while staying in the heart of Croatia.
It is iconically Zagrebian to walk from Masarykova street, past the Hemingway Bar, and see the Croatian National Theatre (CNT) in the sunlight and in all of its bright yellow, neo-Baroque glory. Entering the main archway, statues on either side beckon guests. When seeing a ballet, opera, or drama from the mezzanine, swans on the stairwell railing guide you up to your personal box from which you can watch masterpieces unfold onstage. CNT was founded in 1860 by Dimitrije Demeter, who dreamed of Purgers (as people from Zagreb are called) performing in their own language. The following year, Parliament passed the Theatre Act to state that “the Croatian National Theatre is a national institution of the highest cultural importance in the land.” In 1895, the theatrical palace was erected—the same palace a tourist sees with astonishment today.
Walk two minutes north of the Cathedral of Zagreb to the two-story Komedija Theatre, established in 1950, for light-hearted shows: comedies, comic operas and musicals. The professional playhouse—dominated by stone archways—once housed priests. Today, tourists can tap into that historic zeal when coming to the theater to see shows like the hit musical, Mamma Mia! To the right is a small café where audience members can discuss their post-show thoughts over cappuccinos. “We are not too much serious,” says Mira Medic, who has been working at Komedija since 1982. Medic says her favorite part of her job is working with the talented actors. “These people are not like others.”
As you walk along Frankopanska Street on your way to Zagreb’s main thoroughfare, Ilica, pictures of actors and the word Gavella are scrawled in cursive on the left side of the street. Sonja Kovacic, the Executive Producer of Gavella, claims with pride that Gavella is the only drama theater in Croatia. Dr. Branko Gavella, a pioneer of theatrical arts in the city, founded the Zagreb Drama Theatre in 1953, renamed in his honor after he died. Besides drama, Gavella also specializes in comedies, contemporary and classical works. Kovacic says the audience is mostly made up of people over 50 years old but hopes her workplace will eventually reclaim millennials. “[Ages] 20-35 is what we miss the most,” Kovacic says. “I want to tell them, ‘This theater is also open for you.’”
Zagrebacko Kazalište Mladih (ZKM), or the Zagreb Youth Theatre, is tucked away on Teslina Street among cafés and bookstores. After you enter through the theater’s French doors, large pictures of past productions are peppered throughout the lobby. All photos are edgy; some are provocative. ZKM, founded in 1948, holds classes for a total of 1,500 youth, as well as employing a professional ensemble of 31 actors. The modern playhouse specializes in drama (especially original works from locals), and produces dances and operas. In order to provoke reaction and thought from the audience, ZKM produces more controversial works than popular ones. “This is the only institution where you display new writers and directors on a platform with the best actor ensemble,” says Nikola Betban, producer of ZKM. “We don’t play it safe. We push boundaries.”
Stepping into the Zagreb Puppet Theatre complex feels like entering a child’s imagination. The café includes a small playground and colorful mural. Inside the only theater in Croatia’s capital geared solely toward the city’s youngest citizens, handmade puppets greet you on every corner. Founded in 1948, this is the capital’s oldest puppet playhouse and is the only one to use just puppets rather than additional actors.
By exploring these five venues, a traveler can get a taste of the complexity that envelops the city of Zagreb. Whether craving a musical, a drama, a classic ballet, a controversial world premiere, or a cheerful puppet, a theater-goer in Zagreb will always have place to land.
McGee Nall is a travel intern with Paste and a freelance writer based out of Athens, Georgia.