Interviewed by Ioana Moldovan[1]

Dragoş Buhagiar, Romanian stage designer. Personal archive of Dragoş Buhagiar.
Dragoş Buhagiar, Romanian stage designer. Personal archive of Dragoş Buhagiar.

At 44, Dragoş Buhagiar is the most prolific Romanian artist involved in the process of theater-making. He completed his stage designing studies with the “Nicolae Grigorescu” Arts Academy in Bucharest, where he studied for six years (1986 — 1992). In 1992, the third edition of the National Theater Festival bestowed upon him the prize for best costume design for the production of Jacques and His Master by Milan Kundera. Since then, he’s been awarded five national UNITER (Union of the Theatre People of Romania) Prizes and numerous other distinctions and rewards, including the 1996 IATC-Romanian Section’s Prize for stage designing. His last UNITER award was dated 2007.

Buhagiar has been engaged in some of the most interesting recent collaborations in the Romanian theatre. In 2008 he worked with director Andrei Serban at L.S. Bulandra Theater in Bucharest for an all-female production of King Lear. In 2009 Buhagiar had his first chance ever to work with director Silviu Purcarete for the unfinished play by Luigi Pirandello in the Romanian town of Iasi. In that same year, he teamed up with the Ukrainian director Andrey Zholdak with whom Buhagiar has been working in Sibiu at a Turandot production.

Dragoş Buhagiar. Photo by Ioana Moldovan.
Dragoş Buhagiar. Photo by Ioana Moldovan.

Having worked in all the major theatres in Romania, Buhagiar is the set designer with the greatest number of prizes and nominations. He is presently involved in theatre both as a practitioner and as a member of the theatre bureaucracy in his capacity as UNITER Senate member.

In addition to making his mark in the Romanian theatre,Dragoş Buhagiar is the creator-designer of the Thalia Prize trophy which the International Association of Theater Critics awards every two years, first recipients being: Eric Bentley (2006) and Jean-Pierre Sarrazac (2008).

1. In your country or city, is there any major issue (for example, a contemporary social problem) that artists have failed or neglected to address?

I think we are about to experience a tremendous fall in Romanian theatre. Without meaning to be a skeptic, I think that realities are pointing to a collapse of the whole theatre system which is in bad shape as we are speaking. On the other hand, in my opinion, there is no aesthetic concept towards which Romanian theatre is headed. The worse, I think, is that actors have problems with speaking onstage; they have difficulties making themselves heard by the audience. I mostly blame this on schools that train the youngest generation of actors. Otherwise I have no explanations for such faults, which is visible in Romanian films as well. I’ve recently seen two to three film premieres, and it was difficult to understand the words they were saying. It’s very strange what is going on.

As for artists—here I am referring to stage designers mostly—I can’t offer an opinion, since there is very little activity in this field, at least not enough for me to rightfully offer some conclusions about it. I am personally desperate. I mean I am trying my best to move around, to see things, but I’m afraid that in these harsh times few people can afford to spend on books and to see performances. It’s sad what I am confessing here, almost apocalyptic, but it’s an issue that originates in schools as well. If there is awareness on the limited market demands for theatre professionals, why are our theatre schools graduating hundreds of young people?

Stage design for Turandot after Carlo Goldoni. "Radu Stanca" National Theater in Sibiu (Romania). Directed by Andriy Zholdak. Stage Design Dragoş Buhagiar. Premiered on 30th September, 2009. Photo: courtesy of "Radu Stanca" National Theater in Sibiu.
Stage design for Turandot after Carlo Goldoni. “Radu Stanca” National Theater in Sibiu (Romania). Directed by Andriy Zholdak. Stage Design Dragoş Buhagiar. Premiered on 30th September, 2009. Photo: courtesy of “Radu Stanca” National Theater in Sibiu.

When I graduated stage designing, a class would have 3 or 5 students at a time. I’ve failed twice before being admitted into such a class. The competition was fierce then. One had to be better than 28 other students who were competing for the same slots. How many theaters are there in Romania? How many stage designers can, therefore, be employed? A lot of young people are carried away when they decide to become a theatre professional. They see a performance they love and get the impression that theatre is a wonderful place. And they all try it but without a profound motivation, without really having a strong feeling about it. I may have started it the same, though. I’ve seen some amazing performances in the ’80s in Cluj, with actor Marcel Iures performing, directed by Mihai Manutiu. They attracted me in that direction. But pretty soon I’ve became aware about how abrupt everything was. It’s not simply about wining and dining with artists and making conversation. No! It’s a lot of work, and the situation for us is complicated.

The Bourgeois Gentlemen after Molière. National Theater in Bucharest (Romania). Directed by Petrica Ionescu. Design Dragoş Buhagiar. Premiered on 28th September 2006. Photo by: Maria Stefanescu (www.mariastefanescu.ro). In the photo: Victor Rebengiuc (as Monsieur Jourdain, high-center) and the Ballet Ensemble of the "Ion Dacian" National Operetta Theater in Bucharest.
The Bourgeois Gentlemen after Molière. National Theater in Bucharest (Romania). Directed by Petrica Ionescu. Design Dragoş Buhagiar. Premiered on 28th September 2006. Photo by: Maria Stefanescu (www.mariastefanescu.ro). In the photo: Victor Rebengiuc (as Monsieur Jourdain,
high-center) and the Ballet Ensemble of the “Ion Dacian”
National Operetta Theater in Bucharest.

Do stage designers have specific roles as cultural citizens in the global world of theatre?

Theoretically, stage designers should not be restricted to a country or a culture—well, not only them, but all artists in general. There are artists that bring into their works the ethnic layer very strongly, but this is not the case with me. I think it’s complicated to explain what’s up with me, who I am and where do I come from. But I can’t deny that I am the result of good theatre performances here in Romania. I can’t overlook what the Romanian theatre has achieved so far, either through what I have seen live or read about in books and in articles. All these have influenced me, of course. I can’t define myself without relating to everyone I’ve met personally or through their works. I am mentioning here: Florica Mălureanu (stage designer), Aureliu Manea (director), Alexndru Dabija (director). Dabija was my best theatre professor. I am lucky I’ve been close to him in a time when he was willing to share and somehow was blessed with a special creative mood and enlightenment, I dare to say.

Can your personality be pinpointed in your work? Is there any Romanian touch in your creations?

Most defiantly, there must be. I can’t deny the influences I’ve experienced and incorporated. I am referring now to such artists and professionals as: Mihai Tofan, Dan Jiteanu, Helmut Sturmer and Lia Manţoc. These are people I’ve been seeing since I was student and when I was growing up. I’d point to performances directed by Cătălina Buzoianu and with Lia Manţoc as stage designer, which I saw while I was apprenticing. Then there are the performances staged by Dan Jiteanu, who was an architect. I have probably assumed this Romanian area, but on the other hand, I can’t say I am 100 percent Romanian in my work.

The Bourgeois Gentlemen after Molière. National Theater in Bucharest (Romania). Directed by Petrica Ionescu. Design Dragoş Buhagiar. Premiered on 28th September 2006. Photo by: Maria Stefanescu (www.mariastefanescu.ro). In the photo: The Ballet Ensemble of the "Ion Dacian" National Operetta Theater in Bucharest.
The Bourgeois Gentlemen after Molière. National Theater in Bucharest (Romania). Directed by Petrica Ionescu. Design Dragoş Buhagiar. Premiered on 28th September 2006. Photo by: Maria Stefanescu (www.mariastefanescu.ro). In the photo: The Ballet Ensemble of the “Ion Dacian” National Operetta Theater in Bucharest.

2. What, if anything, is difficult for you in communicating with the director? Why? How early and how often do you exchange views about the coming production?

When I start working on project, the truth is I never do more than what I agree with the director in the first place. But a rather unpleasant thing is happening mostly when I am working in Bucharest. I am sad to say that a lot of craftsmanship related to building stage designs is slowly disappearing. So my work becomes the object of a contract with people and businesses that are not at all related to the theatre environment. Most of the time, I get what I’ve applied for. The quantity of compromises in building my designs are scare. Unfortunately, all the other elements that form a performance have to be compromised more in today’s Romania. In Bucharest, for example, a theatre director works with actors who are forced to take lots of artistic projects, mostly in the TV and entertainment area, so they spend more time on film sets than in theatres. And a theater performance can’t be built with only 2 to 3 hours of rehearsals. The work should consist of 8 to 10 hours spent onstage rehearsing, trying, discovering, discussing. In Romania, rehearsal time is daily 11 a.m. to 1.30 p.m. The worse is when high expectations are linked to the performance produced in such limited circumstances. Some even think that masterpieces are created this way. I doubt that! Theatre implies tenacity, hard work, change. And mostly, to hold onto and maintain the concepts we’ve started with. In Romanian theatre today, we tend to forget how a serious project is supposed to start. I think a performance is a very honest energy balance—what you get into is what you get out of. Theatre is energy, nothing else. So let’s be serious about this!

Oblovov after I.A.Goncearov. Bulandra Theater in Bucharest (Romania). Dramaturg Mihaela Tonitza Iordache. Directed by Alexandru Tocilescu. Stage designer Dragoş Buhagiar. Premiered on 7th June 2003. Photo by Paco Pascal Pamfil. In the photo: Luiza Cocora, Irina Petrescu, Mihai Constantin, Mihai Verbitchi.
Oblovov after I.A.Goncearov. Bulandra Theater in Bucharest (Romania). Dramaturg Mihaela Tonitza Iordache. Directed by Alexandru Tocilescu. Stage designer Dragoş Buhagiar. Premiered on 7th June 2003. Photo by
Paco Pascal Pamfil. In the photo: Luiza Cocora, Irina Petrescu, Mihai Constantin, Mihai Verbitchi.

3. In your creative process, which bit do you enjoy least? Why? How do you tackle it?

I think 95 percent of Romanian theatre directors do not see enough theatre performances. They are badly informed about what’s going on in the world’s theatre, and they continuously gather together in dangerous clubs—dangerous from the point of view of performance arts. Why dangerous? Let me explain: I am sure that everywhere people with similar orientations gather together into groups. But those groups have a real productive purpose. Our groups only defend its members, without trying to inform one another about what’s going on in the world, theater-wise.

Oblovov after I.A.Goncearov. Bulandra Theater in Bucharest (Romania). Dramaturg Mihaela Tonitza Iordache. Directed by Alexandru Tocilescu. Stage designer Dragoş Buhagiar. Premiered on 7th June 2003. Photo by Paco Pascal Pamfil. In the photo: Virginia Mirea, Mihai Constantin.
Oblovov after I.A.Goncearov. Bulandra Theater in Bucharest (Romania). Dramaturg Mihaela Tonitza Iordache. Directed by Alexandru Tocilescu. Stage designer Dragoş Buhagiar. Premiered on 7th June 2003. Photo by
Paco Pascal Pamfil. In the photo: Virginia Mirea, Mihai Constantin.

That’s why some productions are failing. I’ve assisted in too many rehearsals not to notice that this process, I’d say, is at its worst in Bucharest: few hours spent on rehearsals, and I could also aDd that the whole process looks unserious, too. Seen from another perspective, perhaps I should not blame the director. Perhaps I should not hold any director responsible for the creative process, since a good argument could be made that what is happening is a system-wide failure. I think that, in normal circumstances, theatre should be an activity regulated by contracts. For things to go well, contracts are needed. I think the whole Romanian system is burying the whole creative process, because theatre is now being perceived as a random activity. But theatre cannot be done well in such circumstances. Theatre has to be a process that takes a limited time—because I think theatre means energy. It does not have to dilate for months and years. If that is allowed, performances will for sure turn out to be flops. In Romania, rehearsals should last for 6 or 7 or even 12 months, and the results would look more like theatre done in the ‘50s. I think all the artists involved in the creative process should work on specific time frames—not only stage designers and directors, but also actors, too. And theaters should care more to provide all the necessary conditions for developing a good performance.

4. During your career, have you received a particularly insightful piece of criticism? When was that? Do you remember it well enough to quote? What was so important about it?

I’d say that such insight happened when I was working with the director Silviu Pircarete. First of all, it came as a surprise, and all I can say is that a dream of mine came true. What Purcarete does is a kind of theatrical esthetics I resonate with. I did not want to work with him and, looking back, I consider working with him a kind of trophy for myself. But nevertheless, I realize I was given an award—the fact I am collaborating with him. Above all, I am interested in his way of working. And I was happy to discover that his creative process is just as I’ve thought it might be. He is such alive person, capable to create something instinctively. Of course we have ideas about how to start it. But we also solve things that happen in that exact moment on the stage too: what’s going on with the actor, what’s going on with the text, what’s going on with the text on stage. It’s a sort of workshop, I’d say, where we offer things to actors and actors offer something back, and so the shape of the performance builds by itself. But it is a real shape that belongs to a real performance.

To be perfectly honest, so far Silviu Purcarete is the only person I’ve met who works like this. And it’s a process I personally resonate with. We did not have a complete plan right from the start. We’ve got into the space, we saw the actors and we’ve been there, minute by minute, through all the rehearsals. The performance came alive from nothing. What I’ve learned from Silviu is that everything placed on stage has got to have not only an explanation, but it also has got to belong there! Nothing is to be decorative. All is integrated, assumed and is a part of an image that is being created in close hand with acting and stage design. Everything is related to the stage and not to an image, valuable in within. I find it very complicated to put it in speech, because I feel I have not mastered the words to express this idea, so I am describing only impressions here. But I strongly believe that this is a perfect way to master theatre. And it’s a model that suits me, which I feel and like, and also represents me too.

Thalia Prize, the trophy awarded every 2 years by the IATC, starting 2006, designed by Dragoş Buhagiar. Mahoney wood woth silver endings. Photo by Sorin Radu.
Thalia Prize, the trophy awarded every 2 years by the IATC, starting 2006, designed by Dragoş Buhagiar. Mahoney wood woth silver endings. Photo by Sorin Radu.
Eric Bentley and his Thalia Prize awarded by IATC in Seoul (2006) and Dragoş Buhagiar, the Romanian stage designer who has designed the trophy. Photo by Ioana Moldovan.
Eric Bentley and his Thalia Prize awarded by IATC in Seoul (2006) and Dragoş Buhagiar, the Romanian stage designer who has designed the trophy. Photo by Ioana Moldovan.

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[1] Ioana Moldovan, 33, has been a member of the Romanian section of the International Association of Theater Critics since March 2007. She started to publish theatre reviews in 2005 and is presently a regular theatre critic for Revista 22, a weekly magazine (www.revista22.ro). Since October 2008 she has been awarded a PhD Fellowship with the “I.L.Caragiale” National University of Theatre and Cinematographic Arts in Bucharest, with her research topic focusing on the *Open Society Theater.” She is also a researcher for the theater faculty in the same university and is involved in academic work as well. For almost three years (2006-2009), she was involved with ACT Theater in Bucharest, the first independent theatre stage in Romania, where she served as a cultural manager, discovered young actors and worked on productions that earned ACT Theater three UNITER National Theater Prize nominations.

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Interview with Dragoş Buhagiar (Stage Designer and Graphic Artist)