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Zagreb Youth Theater – Today

In the 70 years of its existence the Zagreb Youth Theater (Zagrebačko kazalište mladih), or the ZKM Theater, (it was established on March 29, 1948 as the Pioneer Theater – Pionirsko kazalište), has seen numerous artistic, production, and organizational transformations. Starting from a theater college with a hundred students, led by Božena Begović with a group of loyal associates, which in the first years after its founding performed in the then Small Theater (Malo kazalište) in Frankopanska Street, through its growth to the Zagreb Pioneer Theater (Zagrebačko pionirsko kazalište) barely two years after, then obtaining its today’s name Zagreb Youth Theater (Zagrebačko kazalište mladih) in 1967, followed by moving into Istria hall (the first stage of its renovation was completed in 1982), a continuous struggle for a performing and living space that ended only in 1987 with the opening of the Youth Cultural Center (Omladinski kulturni centar) with fully equipped Istra and Janje halls, and finally to the last nearly 30 years of working at the same location, the Zagreb Youth Theater has grown and become an essential place of the city’s cultural life, a promoter of new theater aesthetics, a place for international theater meetings, exchange of knowledge and experiences, and above all – a theater where audience can always see a good performance that will offer them answers to critical issues of everyday life, enrich their personal experience, and also try to move the boundaries of the performance and drama medium in line with requirements of the time in which a certain performance was created.

In nearly seventy years of the existence of the ZKM Theater a lot has changed, not only in theater life, but also in social and political contexts. However, referring to previous periods and the history of the Theater, which has grown from an acting studio for children and the youth with a hundred students and turned into a theater institution that continually manages to reconcile artistic and repertoire ranges with its pedagogical work and demands of the audience, it must be stressed that today’s ZKM Theater would not exist without the work of a large number of exceptional theater educators, artistic personalities of directors, dramaturges and actors, writers, choreographers, stage designers, costume designers, as well as all those who have built their personal creativity and skill into the rich history of this theater with commitment and love. And today, without all of them there would be no exceptional performances (link to performances), which delight the local audience, but also fascinate foreign viewers every time the ZKM Theater is hosted abroad.

Moreover, the future of the Theater would not exist without the acting ensemble (link to the ensemble), a well-thought-out repertoire (link to the repertoire), and a careful artistic program (link), which in the ZKM Theater combines the work of the College (link to the College), nurturing cooperation with dance ensembles and a high level of artistic quality.


Establishing the Ensemble

From the very beginning of the work of the ZKM Theater (then the Pioneer Theater), its activity is based on the “collective character of a theater performance and working in the theater,” which were directed towards achieving educational and aesthetic goals by the Theater’s first director Božena Begović and her colleagues (Đurđa Dević, Zvonimir Agbaba, Silvija Hercigonja, Karlo Radinger, Nenad Lhotka, Marija Mery Šembera, Truda Reich), with the efforts to provide “their audience with performances of serious amateurism and defined taste, inhibiting decisively every affectation and the usual mimicking of adults in children’s artistic expression” through “achieving performances – drama, music and ballet,” as summarized by B. Begović. The first premiere of the Pioneer Theater was Pioneers on Vacation (Pioniri na ljetovanju) based on the text by B. Begović (June 30, 1948), which marked the beginning of a continuous stage acting, already at that time surpassing the intentions and plans of the founders. Theater professionals included actors and professionals from other theaters in the educational and pedagogical work with children, so two years later, when the performance of the Train in the Snow (Vlak u snijegu) was created (1950), which was a stage adaptation of a novel by Mate Lovrak, along with children, roles of adults were played by guests from other theaters. Among them were Fabijan Šovagović, Sven Lasta, Semka Sokolović, Izet Hajdarhodžić, Pero Kvrgić, Josip Marotti, Drago Krča, and other great names of the history of the Croatian theater. “Even this narrow selection of names is a sufficient evidence that the Zagreb Pioneer Theater was gathering professionals that did not refrain from never before tried stage creation, and at the same time it indicates how many young people remained forever tied to art in various ways,” as written about the period in the monograph 50 Years of the Zagreb Youth Theatre (text by Antonija Bogner-Šaban titled In the Mirror of History).

Although without own stage space, with the management that has been located at today’s address of the College, Preradovićeva Street 16, since the 1950s, in the first twenty years of the work of the ZKM Theater arose performances that have been changing the image of Zagreb’s cultural life, promoting Croatian playwrights and authors, and posing a significant shift from the then-prevailing repertoire. Performances were created as a logical result of the pedagogical and artistic work with children and gradually grew into productions for both children and adults, and the ensemble also gathered around the work on performances.

The turning point in this period was the Youth Studio, the core of today’s College, established in 1953, when Milena Večerina became the director, and Zvjezdana Ladika joined the work of the Youth Studio. Her performances Mariana Pineda (Mariana Pineda, 1955) and Dubrovnik Night (Dubrovačka noć, 1963), for which she has adapted Lorca’s and Držić’s texts, and also Pinocchio (Pinocchio, 1966, J. Juvančić) and Captain John Piplfox (Kapetan Džon Piplfoks, 1967, B. Violić) were performed at local and foreign festivals. Along with the drama program, music and ballet performances have also been realized, and in the early 1960s Milana Broš introduced freestyle dance in the educational work with children and the youth.

Separating amateur and study activities from professional theater productions was encouraged by Nikola Vončina, who argued for a further artistic and program profiling of the Theater. Mr. Vončina took over managing of the Theater in 1967 and changed its name to the Zagreb Youth Theater, while remaining at the head of the Theater during the following ten years. During a long period of searching for own stage space, the Theater increased the ensemble, performances were directed by prominent directors of the then younger generation

(“in the following years many prominent directors worked in the ZKM Theater: Tomislav Durbešić, Vladimir Gerić, Božidar Violić, Joško Juvančić, Dino Radojević, Petar Selem, as well as those who were yet to be affirmed as directors: Tomislav Radić, Želimir Mesarić, Petar Veček, and Miro Međimorec,” Bogner-Šaban), and anthological children plays were created, such as Whistling Maximilian (Maksimilijan Zviždukalo), The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (Pustolovine Toma Sawyera), Štrokoloko and Malapala (Štrokoloko i Malapala), but also The Good Soldier Schweik (Doživljaji dobrog vojaka Švejka), The Tower (Toranj), Anno Domini 1573 (Anno Domini 1573) for adults. New Croatian drama texts were staged, and translations of dramas by Volker Ludwig also brought a kind of reform in the drama and educational work with children, because in the work on these performances the principles of the GRIPS theater from Berlin started to be applied. The performances were mostly played on the stage of the Trešnjevka Social Centre up until 1974, when the Chamber stage (Komorna pozornica) L-99 was opened in Preradovićeva Street, with the premiere of Prelude for Good People from the Square (Preludij za dobre ljude s trga) by Dubravko Jelačić Bužimski.

On Own Stage and Visiting

After the first premiere title on the L-99 Stage, followed the performances of The Gallop (Galop) by Matko Sršen, directed by Damir Munitić (1976), Suckers (Naivci) by Ivan Kušan, directed by Miro Međimorec (1976), and Simon of Cyrene (Šimun Cirenac) by Ivan Bakmaz, directed by Georgij Paro (1977).

The Chamber stage opened up the possibility for directors at that time, who were mainly members of the ZKM Theater ensemble (Marijan Radmilović, Franjo Džimi Jurčec, Stipe Radilović, Tihomir Miško Polanec), to continue to develop the repertoire in two directions, one for children and the other one for adults, and by questioning others, and not just drama templates, for artistic and aesthetic climate that made the ZKM Theater distinctive to be created within the Theater. Artistic openness, inclination to experimenting, and emphasizing unity in a theatre act of a play led to connecting the ensemble and creating an environment in which the ZKM Theater in the mid-1970s became the “stage hotspot for numerous members of the young and the youngest generation of Croatian writers and theater workers and a stronghold in the further creative confirmation” (Bogner-Šaban).

All performances on the Chamber stage were for adults, but at that time the performances of the Youth Studio also emerged, for example The Invisible Leonard (Nevidljivi Leonard), Greetings (Pozdravi), Holidays in Moscow (Ferije u Moskvi), Puss Genghis Khan & Mike Tracy (Mačak Džingiskan i Miki Trasi), Nećko Svojeglavečko (Nećko Svojeglavečko).

However, the whole theatrography, enumerating significant performances, cannot reconstruct the artistic vibrancy and the changes that were occurring in the early 1980s in the Theater and the broader artistic and social context.

Major Projects and Anthological Performances

The Zagreb Youth Theater, indeed, has got the Istra hall for use, and in 1982 the first stage of renovation of the building was completed, but the hall had only an amphitheater-shaped auditorium. The building which was supposed to accommodate the Youth Cultural Center, along with the ZKM Theater, was never completed according to the original plans. Conceived as a multimedia and multifunctional center in the city center, the Youth Cultural Center has to this day remained home for the ZKM Theater, in which in the 1980s significant things for the Theater were taking place. This was the time when monumental theater projects were emerging, such as Magelli’s Nation (Nacija), Brezovac’s directing of performances of Traviata (Traviata, premiered in Šalata in 1989 for the opening of the Eurokaz Festival), Shakespeare The Sadist (Shakespeare the Sadist), Why are we in Vietnam, Minnie? (Zašto smo u Vijetnamu, Minnie?). The sequence continues with Šnajder’s Bauhaus (Bauhaus), Taufer’s Odysseus and Son, or The World and Home (Odisej i sin ili svijet i dom) and Magic and Loss (Magic and Loss), and ends with Krleža’s Flags (Zastave) directed by Georgij Paro in 1991.

The Youth Studio has worked continuously all this time. Even though the projects intended for children were not the primary focus, productions of professional performances for children and the youth were an integral part of the repertoire. Nevertheless, the students of the studio have their annual productions, and there are fewer performances in which they perform together with professional actors. One of the last performances of that kind was The Jungle Book (Knjiga o džungli), directed by Janusz Kica, which remained on the repertoire of the Theater even after the 1990s. Removing it from the repertoire has in a way completed the final separation of the Youth Studio, which in 1991 became the ZKM Theater College, and marked focusing on activities within the framework of pedagogical work with children and youth in the context of dance, drama, and puppetry studios of the College.

The organization of work of the then Youth Cultural Center allowed for opulent, baroque, and monumental theater projects, and the ZKM Theater was going through its golden production and artistic period. Some of the performances and projects were realized as co-productions, in cooperation with other theaters in former Yugoslavia, and even with foreign partners. The potential multimediality and multifunctionality of the and the concentration of artistic ideas in one place resulted in the fact that the direction of the Eurokaz International Festival of Contemporary Theater found its home within the premises of the Youth Cultural Center, that the programs of the Contemporary Dance Week were generally performed in the Istra hall, and that the ZKM Theater has become a focal point of the cultural life of the city with its repertoire.

In the period that followed the ZKM Theater was still successfully fighting the changes for some time, trying to maintain the same production level, opening up new stage spaces within the Theater building, entering into co-production projects with the Zagreb Dance Company (Recognizing the Landscape, Prepoznavanje krajolika, 1996), the Contemporary Dance Company, independent theater groups, as well as other theaters in Croatia. Performances for children and the youth were created, and program-wise the Theater aimed at meeting the needs of the audience from 7 to 77, representing evenly local and foreign authors.

The cooperation with the theater group Mig oka on the performance of The Winter Tale (Zimska bajka, 1992) was the first step in identifying Rene Medvešek’s director’s “handwriting”. Then followed Mrvek and Crvek (Mrvek and Crvek, 1994) with the same group, and then The Hamper (Hamper, 1996), and a series of performances that enabled the usually homogeneous ensemble of the ZKM Theater a theatrical research with an optimistic result. The audience accepted the directing and stage language of Rene Medvešek, just as his colleagues from the ensemble accepted theatrical research that differed from what other directors offered them.

However, in this period performances in which children’s roles are played by children were missing. The comeback of Paolo Magelli, who at the end of the 1990s set simultaneously two performances in the ZKM Theater, Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya (Ujak Vanja) and Three Sisters (Tri sestre), resulted in performances that have been talked about for years, but he also made the Theater visible abroad as well (the performance of Three Sisters was hosted at the theater festival in Bogota, as well as his direction of Krleža’s Kings – Kraljevi, a few years later). The ZKM Theater ended its jubilee 50th season with the performance of The Event in the Town of Goga (Događaj u mjestu Gogi), directed by Damir Zlatar Frey.

A Revolutionary Theater

After a short period in which the Theater was managed by Davor Borčić, one of the last members of the original ensemble, Slobodan Šajder became the head of the Theater and ambitiously returned the discourse of a political theater on stage, setting Krleža’s The Grand Master of All Scoundrels (Veliki meštar sviju hulja, 2001) and Kamov, On Death (Kamov, smrtopis, 2003) directed by Branko Brezovec. Šnajder planned to set the project Jasenovac, in order to raise fundamental questions of the national identity and political affiliation, for which he considered that the Theater must deal with. However, at the same time, during his tenure the following performances were created: Donkey Brother (Brat magarac, 2001) and Our City (Naš grad, 2003), directed by Rene Medvešek, We Children from Bahnhof Zoo (Mi djeca s kolodvora Zoo, 2002) directed by Boris Kovačević, The Big White Rabbit (Veliki bijeli zec) by Ivan Vidić (2004), directed by Ivica Kunčević and Pancakes (Palačinke) by Filip Nola (2004).

The idea of cooperation with the Academy of Dramatic Art was further implemented, and some performances that were part of academy exams were performed at the ZKM Theater. The Theater remained open to dance ensembles and independent theater groups, and some members of the ensemble realized independent projects. Still, the openness of the Theater to festivals was questionable. During this period, both the Contemporary Dance Week and Eurokaz sought new headquarters, and a new festival was emerging in Zagreb.

International Context

The change of the general manager has brought new artistic tendencies and intensified theater production. Over the past decade the ZKM Theater has hosted many world directors and their performances within the World Theater Festival and regular annual program the European Theatre Cycle at the Zagreb Youth Theatre. This has inevitably contributed to a dialogue and exchange of experiences in the artistic sense. The vision of repertoire efforts aimed at continuous innovation of the theatrical expression, supported by Dubravka Vrgoč, has been consistently implemented. Opening the stage for new theater projects by Rene Medvešek (The Next Door – Vrata do, The Best Soup! The Best Soup! – Najbolja juha! Najbolja juha!, Voices from the Mountains – Glasi iz planina, The Man that Saved Europe – Čovjek koji je spasio Europu, You are Stepping Forward – Ideš dalje up to the last direction of Krleža’s Christopher Columbus – Kristofor Kolumbo in 2014), Bobo Jelčić and Nataša Rajković (On the Other Side – S druge strane), Ivana Sajko, Dora Ruždjak Podolski, and Franka Perković (Archetype: Medea / Woman-Bomb / Europe – Arhetip: Medeja / Žena-bomba / Europa), the cooperation with directors from the region (Boris Liješević, Dino Mustafić, Jernej Lorenci, Haris Pašović, Tijana Zinajić) and abroad (The Emperor of Loss – Car neuspjeha by Jan Fabre, Anna Karenina – Ana Karenjina and The Seagull – Galeb by Vasily Senin, L’Envolée/Flight – Polet by Jean-Claude Berutti), and activating living Croatian legendary directors, such as Božidar Violić (directed Phaedra’s Love – Fedrina ljubav and 4.48 Psychosis – 4.48 Psihoza by Sarah Kane), the comeback of Paolo Magelli (Zagreb Pentagram – Zagrebački pentagram), promoting younger generation of directors (projects by Anica Tomić and Jelena Kovačić, and Oliver Frljić) and writers (Tena Štivičić, Ivor Martinić, Olja Lozica, Damir Karakaš, Nina Mitrović) and finally gathering a group of permanent and loyal collaborators (Ivica Buljan, Robert Waltl) are repertoire moves that contributed to the activation of all potentials of both the ensemble and the whole Theater.

Over the past eight years, a very large theater production has created a number of projects that made the ZKM Theater visible on the European theater map, as it has visited many festivals and returned home with prizes. There is also a permanent collaboration with independent theater groups that are of somewhat different artistic provenance than in previous periods (the cooperation with Montažstroj was renewed, while the Zagreb Dance Ensemble regularly performs premieres on the stage of the ZKM Theater). The World Theatre Festival, membership in European theater networks and participation of the Theater in many joint international projects, as well as the use of EU funds in the implementation of projects, will enable a continuous growth of the ZKM Theater and realization of new program and repertoire objectives, as well as the preservation of the most important segments that have been the core of the Theater for nearly seven decades, the ensemble, the College, and unforgettable performances that never cease to amaze those without whom there is no theater art – the theater audience.