A little while ago, I have received a cordial message from the C.A.E.S.A.R. Foundation (details about the foundation’s activity and members can easily be found online). They were inviting me to write an article and provide a ‘diagnostic’ for the state of theatre in Romania. I was also asked to propose objective solutions to the identified problems.
With a certain degree of regret, I could not respond positively and this happened for two reasons, the first being that in the very short timeframe given, I would have not been able to reach an objective point of view. Secondly, I was afraid that the distances (both of time and space) that had developed between myself as artist and the Romanian theatrical movement might have shown me as rather detached and therefore might have prevented the emergence of the needed credible, objective solutions.
However, the slight sense of regret that I was mentioning did not go away and it was now mixing with an internal tension provoked by the topic. This provoked me to meditate further on the problematic of Romanian theatre nowadays and on my true relation to this problematic. An initial thought was that I could not go ahead with writing the article because I had not settled – on a psychological level – my personal accounts with this ‘Romanian theatre’. Thus, I have discovered that even though I had left Romania eight years ago, all this time I had been living on a knife’s edge vis-a-vis this problematic, which now appeared to me as fundamental. And even though I lead an artistic life in Britain – researching and teaching Theatre Studies and also producing theatre – it was only now that I was feeling the need to write about and exorcise the background mechanisms of my departure – mechanisms that have been inextricably related to theatre.
This is how the idea of the present ‘unofficial’ and non-academic article emerged. I entitle the article Upon departure, although I am writing it eight years after.
I thought it better to begin with a short rendition of one event that has been decisive for my and Ileana’s (my wife and colleague) departure from the ‘Romanian theatre’.
Immediately after graduating the U.N.A.T.C. (National University of Theatre and Film, Bucharest), we had started to collaborate with several theatres in Bucharest, but for mysterious reasons, we did not feel, artistically speaking, fulfilled. That was how we got into the idea to make (a) theatre precisely as we had imagined it ourselves – therefore an independent theatre and an as-if-there-had-not-been-any-theatre-before-us-two theatre.
For about two years, we focused on retranslating Chekhov’s The Seagull, with specialist help. We wanted a new Romanian translation, one that would differ from the melancholic poetry of the past translations and mise-en-scene’s.
Finally, after a long series of personal efforts and other sacrifices (adapting the text for six characters only, finding rehearsal space, readjusting the cast several times, negotiating with potential host-theatres, sponsorship for costumes and set, and many others), the project looked set to take off. We had been invited by Teatrul Mic (a top theatre in Bucharest) to rehearse in one of their spaces and to showcase the production. If liked by the artistic management – we would have been seriously considered for the theatre’s permanent repertory.
Following this unexpected push forward (owed exclusively to Ileana and to her negotiating skills; a success that seems more so extraordinary now, in the light of how things were looking in theatre at that time) we were right to think that the cast would unite even more and produce the expected new, interesting and of high artistic quality work. The exact opposite of what we were hoping for happened: the rest of the cast started to behave chaotically, acting completely self-centred and with a clear aim of showing themselves as individual artists in the best light possible, irrespective of the production itself. The impression was that they were caught under a sort of trance. It became clear for us that they had mimicked their interest in the project all along and that reality was coming to the surface now in a grotesque and painful fashion.
It is enough to say that all and every single one of them started to have ‘informed’ and radical opinions regarding everything: text, scenography, costumes, directing, etc. transforming all intentions to organise the rehearsals and to move forward with the project, in a sinister farce. Useless to add that they did not stop at only expressing opinions and they were taking all possible steps to impose those onto the project!
Reliving all that process of degradation, now I understand that, in fact, things could be summarised in a simple phrase: I think that they (the rest of the cast) started to get excited a little too early. Or more plainly: the whole affair went quickly to their heads. And I also think that, overexcited as they were, they could not have imagined that everything could suddenly be stopped. And so it happened. Two days before the showcase with the artistic management, Ileana and I simply left the rehearsals. I can vividly remember how, standing in front of the theatre’s box office Ileana looked to the sky, crossed herself and said: ‘God! If you love me, please allow me to never return here!’ The prayer was listened. This was all happening around noon. In the evening, we received a phone call from the rest of the cast in which we were informed that we were no longer needed in the project and… That was that!
All our work – text, adaptation, sponsorships, negotiations, all those years spent working – were just being taken from us remorselessly and disposed of. Even the literary secretary of the theatre would pretend now not to know us. THAT was the moment when we knew we would leave. No longer than six months later we left the country.
And for those of you more curious, The Seagull was continued for another two years or so because the people who remained in the project were desperate to steal it to its very end. But we later found out that the whole project eventually collapsed.
I’m sure that Ileana and I are not the only ones to have experienced such an ‘episode’. And normally, I would have not mentioned it at all, because I find no pleasure in exposing such moments (not even when we’re talking about self-exorcism). I would not have mentioned the episode had I not considered it to be symptomatic for what is happening in the ‘Romanian theatre’ and in Romanian society at large.
I’m asking you now: What could I have talked about in the article for C.A.E.S.A.R.? And to start where? What solutions could I have come up with, since I am not at all capable to overlook the desolated image of more than a decade (I start counting in my adolescence) of continuous drifting of all structures in Romania, both social and artistic? To start with what?
With the verdigris and fog in the UNATC, where a veritable infection of opportunism (financial and artistic) has corrupted what could have persisted as a streak of authenticity in the Romanian artistic education and pedagogy? Shall I go forth and criticise the crumbling of the Theatre Academy through an oversaturation with mediocrity? When I say mediocrity, I’m not necessarily pointing at second or third-hand artists and their sons and daughters, who very easily got to run courses, departments or even institutions. I am not primarily aiming them, although…
Rather, I am referring to an absence of a pedagogical or artistic ideal in any form, except of the morgana of fast, superficial and conjunctural success. The idea of success always shadowed by the random, by the occasional, by the aleatory – on a backbone of artistic provincialism and amateurism – that is what leads now the Theatre Academy.
More recently, I have learned of the confrontation between the ‘old’ and the ‘new’ at UNATC. I confess, I was not surprised by the stillness and dinosaur-ism of the ‘old’ as much as I was shocked by the rapacity of the ‘new’, who seem so ready to see themselves installed in various positions – to take over. I felt frightened, I confess, thinking of how violently a change of generations might occur.
The lack of an authentic connection between generations, between working methods and visions, to which are added the aspirations of the kind ‘I just want to get up there and that’s that’: all these make impossible a smooth and profitable passage from a stage to an other, from a time to an other. There are a lot of purifying rituals and fake revolutions being staged nowadays and for what purpose? Is it not only for masking the void behind the slogans for change, renewal and so on? Is it not only so that some can take the places of others?
In theatre, this state of putrefaction and decay is even deeper and more unpardonable. Theatre managers and artistic directors, whom you’d expect to innovate and to open new horizons, end up in benumbing as tableaux vivants (assorted by their sinister bureaucratic corteges), perpetuating a devouring tradition of small acts, staged by provincial actors (artistically speaking) and recycled directors. If I may, ‘Romanian theatre’, in these times, is exhibiting its numbness and somnambulism in deplorable fashion. It has ceased to be what Shakespeare wanted theatre to be (a mirror) and it has become the unfortunate and ugly prolongation of a society that has no ideas and no ideals to fight for but entertains itself adrift on the shady waters of mediocrity. But until when?
Romanian theatre remained a mix of what was once a strong (but I don’t know how authentic though) anchor in a Stanislavski-an system (the Russian school of acting), more recently assorted with superficial and fetid imitations of Western contemporary theatre (and I have serious doubts regarding ‘contemporary’, because generally, things tend to arrive rather late in Romania).
To sum it up, let’s gather some of the left overs, mix them up with what we can borrow from here and everywhere and let’s go for it – pretend we have a theatre – that’s the working philosophy! A sad cacophony betraying a deep lack of sense in society at large, state which is reverberated though in this kind of extremely dangerous and perverse artistic dolce far niente.
In the light of these, what solutions can I come up with? What solutions can be envisaged for a theatre in the middle of a cheating and self-cheating society, feasting perilously in its own sordid and frightening drifting?
Upon departure… Because I’m leaving (I told you, didn’t I, that I am leaving?)… I can only say that this is the age of bile… bitter bile overflowing slowly whilst dragging the whole social and artistic body through a horribly long and painful crisis.
I am writing upon departure (eight years later) somewhere in an airport between two flights. I’m here in-between two countries, two languages and worlds. Here, I feel saved… because I am released from the world of bile and safely lodged in the passage route of in-between two flights.
Therefore, I intend to remain here: in-between two countries, languages and times. What possible solutions could one like me have?