Stride meets: Dajana Trtanj
Updated: May 15
Before lockdown began, Sophie met with Dajana Fifield, who performs under the name Dajana Trtanj. She's an actor, theatre-maker and performance manager, who has produced and performed in theatre all over the world. We’ve transcribed parts of our podcast for you below - if you’d like to listen as you read, click here.
Dajana has achieved what a lot of people only dream of - she's performed and produced in theatre all over the world, including with some of the biggest names in immersive theatre, like PunchDrunk theatre . She even created an act for Fatboy Slim's biggest UK tour! She's paired these achievements with more stable sources of work, by becoming a performance manager for Elrow UK, a global events company.
Dajana, thank you for joining us! It sounds like you do a lot of things - can you explain what your different roles are and how you spend your time?
Well, I guess 'actor' is pretty much self explanatory! Being a foreign actor in UK did make me kind of need to create all these different hats - I needed to work further in order to make a career out of what I'm doing. So, to explain the difference between theatre-maker and an actor: a theatre-maker is a person who creates theatre apart from acting - who also produces. Sometimes I design, or I write, I direct, I create my own work. What inspires you when you're creating work? Is there any one thing that you always come back to? Well, many different things inspire me. And I think sometimes as a creative, we have so much that can inspire us. Sometimes I actually find it difficult narrowing down and trying to find myself or define myself as an artist. So, I guess in these different roles that I play, one thing that inspires me when I come back to it is equality and treatment of my performers - or trying to fight for myself as a performer for good treatment and payment. Those can be difficult topics - how have you found approaching those issues and having those conversations? I think the more I do it, it's easier. And I think because I really believe in what I do, it's also easier, but it takes time to build that value and feel that you are valuable. So, it takes time to get there, but once you that do, you feel good about it.
The more I worked with the people who valued me, they built that confidence in me, and I guess that's how I started to value myself too.
Did you have a moment when you felt like the scales had tipped towards you feeling that you did value your work in the way that you do now - going from being unsure about fighting for it to being sure? When I started, you kind of just work, you know? You just want to do as many things as possible. And I did jobs that, now I'm thinking "oh my god, what did I do?" You know - how could I even let these people treat me in this way?
When you are trained as an actor, you're told you need to be easygoing, to be approachable, open-minded: all these things. And then you do that. And yes, it's wonderful when you have amazing people who respect you. And, to be fair, on my journey. I did have lots of amazing companies who did value me, but then also, I had companies who didn't value me. The more I worked with the people who valued me, they built that confidence in me, and I guess that's how I started to value myself too. Going back to how you balance your different roles, can you kind of talk me through a day in the life of Dajana? I don't imagine any one day looks the same as another, but what's a typical day for you? Well, as you can see, my roles are quite varied. So I think it will depend on the project, it will depend on time of the year - usually, January, February and March are quieter and during that time I have more time to audition, plan projects or work on different proposals. But then after that there are times where I have to juggle all of it at once, and that can be extremely challenging. I don't take all the jobs anymore. I have companies that I already established a working relationship with, and companies that I want to work with. So I do try not to take everything anymore. But it's also hard: balancing finances and doing what I love can be part of the challenge. I've always had the impression that for actors, it's a really fine line between being able to choose which jobs you accept and being able to keep doing what you love as your full time job, Definitely. And I think that's why I took a lot of things into my own hands, and I tried to create my own work. Even though I do have an agent, I was never the type that could stay still and wait for my agent to call me - even though it's nice when they do! I felt like I needed to create my own work and have inputs in the process. Because just waiting, or not being able to do stuff, is just really hard - or needing to work jobs that I really don't want to do. Obviously I did quite a lot of work that I didn't want to, but luckily, I guess as you get older, and have more experience, I realised that I need to focus. And yeah, it's hard, especially because I came to London by myself, so I didn't have any support from anyone, financially or in any other way. I'm lucky now, my partner does support a bit more when it's dark times, like Corona, but luckily I need that less and less. And you mentioned when we were talking earlier today that some of your acting roles has led into some of your other roles. How did you make that happen? Well, as a foreign actor - I'm originally from Croatia - it was not easy to get roles here and to get recognized. And as I mentioned, I'm not one of those people who can be still. So I guess that led me first to immersive theatre. I started acting training here in UK in 2007, 2008, and that was the time when immersive theatre got quite big. I got introduced to the company Punchdrunk theatre, and I was working with them as a volunteer and for their production mask of the Red Death, and working with their production led me to get involved with Battersea Arts Center, and their under-25 program, which was really lovely. And then step by step, you know, you meet someone, and something leads to something. So, I started working as Head of Events for the Salon Collective, another London-based company, and managed to create and produce various immersive theatre acts. We performed its various UK festivals, and I guess my biggest achievement with them was creating and producing two massive acts for British House during the 2016 Olympics in Rio. That was amazing, that was so good. And then again, I met people, and then someone invited me to work on another project, and you know, things always evolve. It sounds like networking has been really powerful for you. Yeah, definitely. Because in this creative industry, it's all about how you get along with people and how you click and how you respect each other. I think it seems like having your fundamental values of respecting the people that you work with his take you really far which is so lovely and inspiring to see someone with like a truly positive intention have it pay off for them. Oh, thank you! What is the biggest challenge being in terms of getting set up in your industry? You always hear so many things about actors facing constant rejections or really struggling, and you've obviously been quite entrepreneurial in taking other opportunities as well as pursuing acting. Well, I would say my biggest challenge is similar to the most fun part of the job. You know, it's like constantly meeting these various talented individuals, keeping up with new trends, and constantly learning. As much as I find that so amazing and inspiring, at times, it can be sometimes exhausting because sometimes you also feel like you're constantly starting from the beginning, which is amazing, but also hard at times, depending on what kind of phase in your life you are. You know, currently I'm pregnant, my energy is quite calm and I don't feel like meeting new people and starting new things. It's amazing, but yes, it's quite hard. Also, finding financial stability is quite challenging. As for some projects, I'm paid very well. And then sometimes I have to take jobs that are not paid so well, which can be very frustrating. And as I mentioned, it's like each time I'm starting from the beginning, and it can be exhausting. And now, especially when I'm pregnant and expecting a baby, I'm also thinking about how am I going to make it work, because I do feel I need better conditions. I need to be respected and my time needs to be respected: in the theatre and acting world, sometimes your time is not so respected. So, I'm hoping to find a way to work it out and, hopefully, explore this new journey and find ways for other people too.
There is definitely a rise of female-led theatre companies and creative producers, which is very inspiring
You mentioned your husband has been really supportive of you, and you also mentioned when we were speaking earlier, that Equity has been really helpful for you. Have you found any other supports that have got you through these challenges that you recommend to someone trying to start out in acting author to make it? Yeah, definitely Equity, get yourself registered if you have any problems with contracts, or needing advice - they recently announced mental health helpline, which is really good. And they also provide a lot of free courses. Recently, I went on a free course about how to do marketing and how to advertise yourself online - that was really helpful. They actually have lots of courses but lots and lots of people who are using Equity are not even aware of their benefit. So yeah, check it out. And I also think my theatre company, 27 Degrees - we have another company that we worked with, Shotgun Carousel, we have groups where we support each other. It's kind of like trying to figure it out together, how we still continue working, and how we make work, but still continue having babies or, you know, maintain our personal lives.
What's the acting and filmmaking industry, like in terms of accepting that women may want to balance their time, if you are starting a family, if you found people received your news positively? My manager agent, she was wonderful. When I told her it was actually kind of weird, because I just signed up to the agency. It was early days, so I didn't really want to tell her I'm pregnant on our first meeting, but at the same time, I also wanted to meet her and see if we were going to get along. We had a really lovely meeting and we agreed that I was going to join the agency, and then I was like, "I've got some news...", you know, and I kind of felt bad, which is not good. You know, I shouldn't feel bad about being pregnant! But it wasn't because of her, but I think because of all the usual pressure in this industry. So I told her, I'm pregnant. And when I was, I guess, five months, my belly wasn't as big. So I said, "Look, I still want to be in the company and see if I can get some work. But then I want to take some time off and I'll let you know when I'm going to be joining again," and she was just really supportive and very lovely. Unfortunately, I didn't manage to get much work and auditions - it was tricky because it's also a commitment thing. I was reading an article about it recently, and it's easier definitely when you feel more established. You know, a respectable actor may be pregnant, but even they struggle. So it wasn't so easy. You hear about these stories of women turning up to auditions and being outright asked if they're pregnant. That seems quite a scary prospect. And that's not legal. They can't really ask you, you know, that's a personal things. So yeah, if you are part of Equity, they will tell you, that's not right - because pregnancy is not an illness. It's fantastic they're busting that myth! Yeah, they're changing it, but it's still hard - and it's hard also, because, for example, I had really bad pregnancy sickness. For two and a half months, I was really struggling. Luckily, I did have my company, Elrow, who I work with because there my work is mostly remote because I book performances. So then I would have just two or three days of events, where I did put in all my energy. Luckily, because I've been working with them for so long, I have a really wonderful team of performers. So, even though it was exhausting and hard, I still had support - I was really grateful for that because otherwise, I would have struggled more. You mentioned that you've had quite a few different ranges of experience, and especially that being pregnant has changed how you've approached balancing your work. How have you found the industries that you've been working in have changed since you first started working? There is definitely a rise of female-led theatre companies and creative producers, which is very inspiring. I love it, it's really nice to see and women are more talking about equal pay, demanding for themselves, which they have every right to do. So, I think that's definitely is something that changed.
What advice would you give to someone who maybe isn't receiving equal pay? How would you go about addressing that? Once piece of advice is: always read the contract when you join the company. And, if they offer you the job, feel like you have a right to negotiate before you sign. I know some jobs I got, I was so happy that I got the job that I was like, "Oh, you know, I haven't been paid so well... But I'm still happy I got the job!" But then after you're in production for like, five months or something and you're like, "Oh my God, I'm really struggling." So yeah, read the contract and feel free to negotiate. I've heard that across quite a few different industries. There's sometimes a feeling that your potential employer is almost doing you a favor by offering you a job and so you get into this mindset of feeling grateful for the opportunity, but to too far an extreme, and then not actually getting what you're worth and settling for less. Exactly. And I know I did feel like that at times - and then after I did regret it. It does take time, but I advise everyone to work at it. Learn from my experience! It's a good thing to start practicing early on! Now, this is a bit of a topic change, but have you ever had a mentor of someone who has had a really inspirational impact on your career? I did have a mentor in my events and production sector. She was extremely hardworking and fair, and she was a really amazing individual. She taught me so much - but unfortunately, I still haven't found a mentor in acting and theatre. I would really like to find someone, and I'm trying to find females who are inspiring, but sometimes I feel like "Oh, you're too good for me!", you know? I think it's that feeling you get when you admire someone.
I do feel like advice and direction sometimes would be really helpful, especially as I'm currently feeling like I'm kind of on a crossroad - becoming a mother does that to you, you know? Especially because I've done so many different things, it would be nice to have someone help me with direction, or just advice. As I mentioned at the beginning, we creatives, we have so many different paths we can take, but in art, you do have to specify in order to become more successful as established - so let's hope someone comes along.
It seems like you've kind of been blazing your own trail even without an acting mentor. Do you ever think about mentoring someone yourself? Do you get asked for advice very often? I do, I like giving advice to people. Loads of my friends are in creative industries, so we do help each other. And, because I've been finding my own way, sometimes I can see like, someone's maybe doing too much and need to focus a bit - I guess, making mistakes, maybe, that I've done. But also you have to be careful, because everyone has their own path - so I try to give advice only if I'm asked.
You can see why some brands and some companies are successful, because they really look after their team.
You mentioned earlier, that one of the things that you're proudest of was working on the performance in Rio. Would you say that that's the biggest achievement of your career so far, or has there been anything that's eclipsed that? Actually, I did have something last year. I had an amazing project where I was performing, and I created an act for Fatboy Slim, for his for his biggest UK arena tour. That was amazing. I think for me, it was just such a great process, working with such an established brand. You can see why some brands and some companies are successful, because they really look after their team and we really felt really valued. It was amazing experience. We kind of became a part of the family for that time. So yeah, that was pretty good. That sounds amazing! How did that opportunity come about? It was through the company that I work with, Elrow. Their producer, Milo, who is amazing, he recommended me . So I felt really honored - and then they also liked my ideas! So that was pretty good. What a testament to your work and your abilities, that someone thought, "I know who to call - Dajana!" Yeah, I did feel very touched and Milo I developed a very good working relationship. And working through Elrow, actually, I realized how much I care about fair and equal treatment of performers - and we're constantly trying to improve. So it's been such a pleasure also working with them, because we still have work to do, but for the last five years, I can see how much we've established and created this positive environment for performers and actors in the company. That's amazing. And so you mentioned you've got a journey that you're kind of following and you're open to seeing where it takes you but do you have plans for what's next in your career? So, I guess what I would love when I finish my maternity leave, is that my theatre company 27 Degrees can put on its beautiful new show, called Touching Home. The show is about London migrants - a subject really close to my heart. So, we worked on this show for like over a year and the project is supported by Theatre Deli, the Migration Museum and the Arts Council. And it was kind of such a beautiful process. But once we finished creating it, we started having issues of basically finding the perfect venue for the show, because it's an a massive sensory show, so it requires spaces which have few rooms and a kitchen - something like home. Immersive theatre really changed in the last maybe four or five years. Everything is more commercial, and experience dining based venues are charging quite a lot. So, we are currently in talks with promising venue - fingers crossed. But that will be my next step - what I would love. Another thing that I do miss as an actor is performing in films, and I would like to maybe move a little bit in that direction too, especially because theatre might be a bit harder to do as a mother, because all the productions and performances are from 7:30pm, so probably I would get home at 12 - and I would have to be there from around 4-5:00pm depending. With the new baby, it might be a bit difficult. So, maybe, moving a little bit of a different direction would be good. I'm lucky I have a lovely partner who can wait to be a dad, but I'm sure it's going to take us some time to work out my freelance craziness. It sounds like your work could be very demanding or tiring. We talked earlier about how you're inspired by fighting for equality and fair working conditions. Is there any place that you always go to to inspire and energize yourself in that work? Yes, theatre is definitely one of my biggest sources of inspiration. That's the best way to get me out! I'm big fan of the World's Festival of London, and the Barbican - there's always amazing and inspiring work there. Also, I always want to be up-to-date about new immersive shows in London - and I'm a big fan of Secret Cinema. I think they're combining immersive theatre with film really well, and that's always very inspiring to see. I do love reading my Equity magazine, so that I keep updated about rights, or changes in the industry. I do like to have a little read of that when I receive it!
We're constantly working to make it a better and safer environment for performers.
If you're inspired by fighting for equality, it must be really awesome to see the people who are helping your industry set the new standards. It is, definitely, and also it's good to know what's happening because recently there was a big talk about sexual assaults in immersive theater, because there's so such close proximity with the audience, and the lines can get a little bit blurred - especially because alcohol is involved in these productions. So yeah, it's kind of nice to see how many theatre companies are working on protecting their performers. And we're trying to do the same with Elrow, because we get a similar event with lots of excited drunk people, who release certain energies or angers at performers who doesn't really, you know, want to deal with that. So yeah, we're constantly working to make it a better and safer environment for performers.
It sounds like a really difficult line to tread between making sure that the audience is fully respectful of the performers, but also provoking those emotions that you want the immersive experience to provoke. I mean, obviously, the performers should always be protected - but I guess you could never predict how people will behave, unfortunately, Completely - and I had a really great experience. I was working with Shotgun Carousel last year on a project called Divine Proportions. And it was all about female liberation, female sexuality, and like everyone's sexuality - it's based on Dionysius and a massive party. So, that was a big experience - and it was an all-female team, so it was an interesting process and finding those boundaries. And also, sometimes you as a performer feel like, "Oh, you know, maybe they didn't really want to, they were drunk," you know? So you're kind of trying to forgive them. But if you allow that boundary to be crossed, then people are taking even more. So yeah, so we managed to get a really nice system going at Divine Proportions, but it did take time for all of us also to come onto the same page and to establish things. But I think it's something many companies are now working on. It's fantastic to see the progress that's being made, now that there is this groundswell of anger about how people have been exploited or mistreated. It's a positive coming from incredible negatives. Definitely. And I think having female voices included in these conversations is making really big difference. So, if you had someone who's maybe new to acting, who feels like they want to set boundaries, but they're maybe not too confident speaking out with their team, what advice would you give them? I think you can always speak to your producer, because maybe some people don't feel comfortable talking with the whole team. But I think finding the time to speak to producer or director about how you feel, that's very helpful - because you do have to speak to someone. And, if you start the production, it does take time to you know, get comfortable with whole team, but you do, and it's better to voice things earlier rather than let them build up.
Honesty's the best policy, definitely.
Thinking back over your career so far, what's the most valuable career advice that you've been given? I would say, to find a couple of people whose opinion you really value. Not everyone will understand and like your work. So, definitely don't let that discourage you. Also, try to be truly happy for other people's success. It takes time to feel that, but you are working with so many people, and everyone has ups and downs in this industry. It's kind of part of the success and how success works. So, if you do get bitter, it can really stop you. And if you're happy for other people, it can also open up the possibilities, because you're kind of matching with their vibration. So, try to build a network of people you trust and build that trust. Make sure it's a diverse group of people who have different skills and opinions, because that will make a team stronger. You want to have a team that is like, "Okay, I have a different opinion." We're like that in 27 Degrees - there are three of us, and we all have different backgrounds. It's good because if two people agree, and one doesn't, the majority win, but it's been such a great process working together, because we do come from different backgrounds, different opinions, and then our ideas as a group are stronger. You mentioned just now being happy for other people when they're successful. And thinking about success. What does it mean to you? What do you think about when you think of success? Good question! That is a big question, and I think it depends on the stage in life you're at.
Before, I felt success was joining a theatre company that I really wanted to work with. And then I achieved that. It's like, "Amazing! Success!" Now, at the moment, I feel success would be to find that balance between financial stability, security and still doing stuff that I want - and not also being too stressed out. Because, as a freelancer, you do work so hard, and, especially in London, you work even harder because everything is so expensive. I think achieving that work/life balance, and maintaining it, that's something I see as success. It sounds like you've switched from success being achieving a goal to being a state of being, which sounds really healthy. Yes. The thing is, all these goals, you kind of just achieve them, you can't keep achieving them. And there's always something else. Like, I do write things that I want in my life and I enjoy crossing things off a list, but then you realize it's never-ending. And it's just finding that balance. What advice would you give to someone who's starting out a career either in acting and filmmaking or in event management? I guess, ask why you want to do that. Firstly, acting is not an easy industry: there are lots of actors. So, see what really drives you, and why you love it. And then surround yourself with good people. Regarding events management, I feel it's about you being a good leader, and trying to find a way to tell people what to do without being sounding too bossy, and getting things done. It does take time sometimes to get there - it feels like there's a big confidence thing with finding your leadership style and overcoming that fear of being seen as bossy, when what you're trying to do is get the job done in a respectful way. Bossy is not a negative word - it's a positive word. But some people can maybe sound harsh or aggressive, while some people have a better approach. That's what I learned from my mentor. She was amazing with that. There tends to be a lot of advice available to people who are trying to begin a career in a new sector. But acting is notoriously hard to get into. And I imagine that for some people facing constant rejection, or that constant struggle must be really wearing. What would you say to someone who's been really struggling to get paid work and you're thinking about leaving the profession? I do feel that, you know, if you're coming from on privileged background in this creative industry, it can sometimes be hard because living this unpredictable and unsustainable life can also be damaging for your wellbeing or your mental health. I know many creatives do give up eventually. I think there is a way to find the balance, but it does require time - so don't give up too soon. But, if you have to give up, then don't feel guilty. Because you might be able to do something way better somewhere else. You never know when the opportunities will come to do something. That's a freelance life - sometimes, you feel you will never work again. And then literally opportunities come and you have time for nothing! So, that's the crazy thing about this industry. And there are times when it's amazing - I guess maybe I'm just the type who likes that? But it does get hard. Absolutely. It sounds like an incredibly rewarding and incredibly stressful industry to work in. Exactly. Prepare yourself for the quiet times, try to enjoy them, and write or do things that you wouldn't be able to. But also, financially, try to always save up so it's easier!