Theatre as a system, after 20 years

The present work is not a vote of censure on the present-day Romanian theatrical system. It is not even a criticism. However, it is a look from the outside, through the eyes of the people who should be part of this system and yet they are not. This happens not because they lack any attribute necessary in this world, the world of theatre, but because the absorption mechanisms of the system seem, and are likely to be, faulty.

            ‘Although I am not a sceptic, I believe we are heading for a collapse of the theatrical system which at this moment does not work as it should. It is the fault of the system, as the institution of theatre should normally be built on a system of contracts. The present system buries us because everything is left to chance, and theatre cannot be performed in this manner. Theatre must be performed in a time frame, for I think theatre is energy.’ (Dragoş Buhagiar, scenographer)

            Twenty years after the political censorship was suppressed, the Romanian theatre has not managed to find its place and sense in the Romanian society. The majority shareholder of the Romanian theatre is the State. The few private theatres are not examples of independent Romanian theatre, but more likely joint-ventures formed either with money from commercial activities such as bars and restaurants, or with public money invested in the ‘private’ sector on the basis of political preferences and in a form the ambiguous Romanian law leaves to the interpretation of the first person who uses it.

            Theatre modernization started with providing the theatres with air-conditioning, changing the furnishings and whitewashing the buildings. But rehabilitating the building of a theatre is not always the recipe for a new start. The building of ‘Vasile Alecsandri’ National Theatre in Iasi has been in repairs since 2007. In an attempt to cover the absence of the stage, Cristian Hadji-Culea, the manager of the theatre since 2006, did a remarkable thing: he purchased a European architecture project. A cube with sides of 20 metres which had been put up by a handful of people in a few months brought an unconventional space for a theatre in the city’s heritage. In this space, director Silviu Purcărete, with Dragoş Buhagiar as scenographer, staged Pirandello’s ‘The Mountain Giants’. What started as a solution to a crisis became a new space – a different space for the Romanian performance, a space that would certainly remain open even after the completion of the modernization works at the old building.

            The negative example is what happens in Oradea. The State Theatre in Oradea has been in repairs since 2008, while its performances have been hosted by the House of Culture. A theatrical performance can be seen and felt better on a theatre stage. Moving to a different type of place, even if it has a stage of its own, must be carried out with great caution, otherwise the show risks losing all the attributes that makes it a theatre show. In Oradea, the theatre has no longer an audience and no money from public support either. Out of religious reasons, one of the most important officials in the local administration only sustains the Philharmonic’s program, while the theatre is a… sinful art.  The city which was on the route of every major performance of the Bucharest theatres and of those all over the country in the 80’s has lost every type of support and interest. Therefore, the Short Theatre Festival in Oradea is only a memory, while the annual calendar of the “Oradea Fall”, a cultural marathon of tradition, has become a sequence of motley acts, such as: swimming competitions, cross-country races, auto shows, autumn harvest fairs, some book launches and pop music concerts with blonde “stars”, half-clothed no matter the season.

            2009 is a difficult year for all fields. Instead of taking advantage of this year to become aware of its deficiencies and come up with a feasible strategy for the future, the Romanian theatre continues to act as if the system could not be improved, and the arguments are solved in a way which evokes ‘tradition’, holding tight to the quantity of events at the expense of the human factor. 

            Therefore, on its 24th edition, the Theatre Festival in Piatra-Neamţ, organized by the Youth Theatre, chose 23 theatre shows out of the 77 signed up for selection. Only two of these do not belong to state theatres, but to associations or companies of young actors and directors who have put together their talent, time, energy, passion, respect and sensibility, in powerful performance-manifestos. The actors in these shows are not employed in theatres and do not receive wages. Their survival is ensured by the fees they are paid for performing wherever they are invited. This year’s Festival in Piatra-Neamţ could only offer money for transport, lodging and meals or a pay of 13 lei per day. Young actors are reduced to the state of medieval troupes when a good contract meant a bed and a hot meal.

            Do we have the right to treat our young actors in this manner? If their names are not familiar to the public is because these young actors never appear on television. They are people who rehearse in unhealthy halls, in improvised spaces, far from everyone’s eyes. They sweat in sports clothes, just like high-performance athletes. They take care of their bodies, their voices, their minds. You can only discover them if you go to the theatre.   

            Lorena Zăbrăuţanu is a young actress who graduated the Masters courses at ‘I.L. Caragiale’ National University of Theatre and Cinematography this summer. In June, she received the award for best female performance at the International Festival of Theatre Schools in Warsaw. Playing the leading role in Paul Foster’s ‘Elisabeth I’, Lorena was in competition with performances from 13 other theatre universities in Austria, France, Iran, Israel, Italy, Latvia, Spain, Hungary, Poland. However, Lorena cannot find employment in any theatre. The institution of theatre belongs to the State, and the Government has cut off all the jobs. And even if the Executive had not enforced these restrictive measures, Lorena would still have no chance to be hired. Theatre managers and well-known directors avoid the most important institution of artistic education in Romania. The prejudice is that graduates are less prepared as time passes by. Nothing could be less true: every generation has its peaks, and among these there are 2 or 3 exceptional young people. Losing them is nothing but the decay of the Romanian theatre and the expansion of an enclosed system. ‘I believe that 95% of the Romanian directors do not watch theatrical performances, they are poorly informed and divided in dangerous groups for the art of show. Why are they dangerous? Everywhere in the world there are groups and parties, but they may be lucrative. Our groups only defend themselves. Unfortunately, they don’t get informed and, to my mind, their results are poor. I took part in so many rehearsals that I could not help but notice the situation in Bucharest is the worst: they rehearse a very small number of hours and in an unprofessional way, I might say. It isn’t the directors’ fault that we are talking about. It is the fault of the system, since theatre should be done on a contract basis’, Dragoş Buhagiar states.     

            There are contracts in the Romanian theatre, contracts of ‘collaboration’. Every major theatre has collaborators. However, their number is insignificant, since the legislation in force provides that theatres must normally manage their activity using the employed actors. When a talented young person is taken into consideration by a major theatre, for example the National Theatre, the institution plays upon its elitist and power position. The young actor behaves in a professional manner in everything he does, he works more than any other actor in the cast, and he is the first at rehearsals and the last to leave. But the fact is the young man does not get paid for the weeks of rehearsals, and if he has the courage to ask why, he will only be told that he was already privileged for performing on such a great stage and this exchange should have advantages for both parties. But this does not mean that a party gives money to the other. And when the actor’s performance fills the theatre with public and he is finally paid, he receives a small amount, especially because a performance is staged only 2 or 3 times a month.

There is no institution that protects the rights of young actors, and the Romanian theatrical system has nothing democratic or ethical, although it wants to be a part of this open society which persists in a philosophy of everybody’s interests.

            The system works in a precarious manner and sometimes the standard itself is beyond any logic. I am talking about the UNITER Awards. How come a performance (A.P. Cehov’s ‘Three Sisters” staged by the Hungarian State Theatre in Cluj-Napoca) received the best director (Tompa Gábor)  and the best performance award, but did not receive any award for the other five categories in which it had been nominated: leading actress, supporting actor, scenography, leading actor and supporting actress. It was as if a concert had been a success without having remarkable musicians, but by being conducted by a special person. At least one other category should have guaranteed the decision of best performance and best director.

The UNITER Awards’ diagram should contain at least one new category, to make young people’s activities visible and facilitate their access. This could be the Award for the innovative performance of the year, although this category may as well have veteran actors. But this should not be an obstacle, but a reason for the generations to know and watch each other; rather the well-known actors should get acquainted with the young ones, because in the other way around, the young actors have done their homework (those who matter).

            From the present Awards diagram, the least assumed is the award for Debut. The nomination and the award itself should mean more than a name in a program book or on national television in prime-time. The institutions which guarantee this hierarchy should assure honest contracts and serious agreements for the winner and for the nominees for at least one year.  Essentially, this means three young actors every year. If the Romanian theatrical system is not capable of such an ‘effort’, that means it is not a system, but an illusion.

            The 21st century has altered the “hero” category. Nowadays, the heroes are the persons caught by surprise in a cataclysm, its dimension and its unusual nature, as well as the impact on media being the signs which turn ordinary people who find themselves in the wrong place into heroes. Therefore, heroism rules out any relation with the ethics, the will and the personal values. However, the Romanian theatrical system makes a hero out of every candidate at theatre universities throughout the country. Whether they bet on exceptional qualities or on personal luck, these young people persist in wanting to call themselves actors, directors, art directors, choreographers.

            The Romanian society, which got rid of the ideological censorship in theatres twenty years ago, has invented new types of censorship: the legal, the economic, the censorship related to ages and generations, turning the theatre hall into a place where heroes can be seen. These heroes are all young and each one is a serious social case, but with the character of a winner.

P.S. At first, this article was meant to be a debate on Romanian theatre, from the perspective of the Chinese model: China, the country with two systems (public and private). The tones and the mutual limitations, the incompatibilities and the drawbacks generated by this undemocratic and forced living (since the state has the majority and is the only one with the right of decision) would have been a vague, technical discussion, that does not have a place in a country which still struggles to explain constitutional collocations.

The text was presented during this year’s edition of the National Theatre Festival

Translated by Cristina Caramaida, MTTLC, 1st year



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