How Mirjana went from pole dancer to playwright on her journey of discovery
She fled a moribund, post-war country and ended up as a pole dancer in a Dublin nightclub. But that's not the whole story. And she's telling her story to subvert our expectations of what those things mean.
Mirjana Rendulic is a 33-year-old actor from Croatia whose first play, Broken Promise Land, runs at the Theatre Upstairs on Eden Quay in Dublin from March 4 to 16 (at 1pm; see https://www.facebook.com/ theatreupstairs).
It is, in part, Rendulic's own story, mixed with the stories of others she met on her journey. But it is not a story of victimisation. It is, she says, a story of empowerment.
Rendulic grew up during the Balkan conflict of the early 1990s – though she was well away from the front lines, there were occasional air raids, and she remembers having to hide in basements.
With the war came corruption and economic crisis; in its wake, people were left "helpless" and lacking the kind of ambitions that "regular people" have. She and her friends would watch American TV and think, "That's how life should be: people worry about little things, like how to do their hair, and not just about life and death".
At 18, she managed to get out, only to become trapped again: she went to England as an au pair, but found herself living on the top floor of a house, working as both childminder and cleaner, for just £40 a week, from which she had to repay the cost of her ticket over. "It was a form of slavery."
She returned home but struggled to establish an independent life. Most young Croatians lived with their parents. There was little work. Even emigration wasn't much of an option, because of visa restrictions. She realised she had to leave again.
She applied for receptionist jobs in the US, Canada, Australia, but they never replied. "All I got was men sending half-naked pictures asking me on a holiday."
She had met some Irish tourists in Croatia; they told her to come and visit. She googled Ireland and learned she could come in as a tourist and that if she started an English course she could work on the side. So, in 2003, she arrived.
It was no panacea. She found it tough to get settled, tough to find work. There was no Croatian community to turn to for support. Colleges were expensive. Money was tight.
So she tried pole dancing. Though she has written a play based on the experience, she is coy about the details. Deep down, she thought it was wrong. "I wasn't brought up like that."
But she felt empowered by the fact that she was forging her own life. The dancing enabled her to study. She was making her way.
She was a natural athlete and the dancing came easily. On good nights, it felt like being out partying. She had always been a tomboy, and she learned to appreciate the femininity of dancing. She didn't feel under threat: the people who ran the operation were protective; the girls watched out for each other.
She met women who'd had bad experiences (and draws on them in the play) but she dislikes the tendency in the media to portray them, invariably, as victims.
Women from the US or Australia were able to be open about it as a lifestyle choice but women from eastern Europe were typically depicted as practically being slaves.
Instead, she saw them, often, as women with "a mission". "They're like men doing construction work in the US. They live in bunk beds, they don't go out, they don't spend any money so they can send it home.
"I wouldn't have done it if I'd other options at the time but I also want to say it has empowered me."
Still, she's not endorsing it as a career choice. "I wouldn't recommend it. The play isn't embracing it. Nor is it saying, 'we are victims'. It's just saying, 'this is what happens'."
Her studies led Rendulic to work as a drama facilitator and actor and, now, as a playwright. The journey of self-discovery and empowerment goes on.