The Romanian Theatre of the Last Thirty Years or the Theatre of Paradigm Shift
Without intending to be exhaustive, this essay presents an overview of the main trends in Romanian theatre during the past thirty years. The year 1989 is a turning point, a year of paradigm shift, marked by liberation from the coercive ideology and action of the communist regime. Such widespread transformation has freed the theatre and the artist from all forms of constraint by engendering freedom of expression. It has also accelerated the development and diversification of themes and aesthetics in terms of both performance and dramaturgy, as well as in conceptualizing and creating theatre.
Keywords: paradigm change, post-communist, performance, dramaturgy, diversification, aesthetics
In recent years, social communities with established conventions have experienced a concentrated timeline of crises, some involving health and humanitarian sectors, others affecting political and social ideologies. Some crises have a more immediate impact on the members of a community, while others are less visible in effect. It is often said that progress and catastrophe are two sides of the same coin, and current issues clearly illustrate the truth of the adage. Every crisis brings about a break from the past and leads to the rejection of outdated principles and modes of thought and behavior, or at least a recalibration of all of the above. This pattern of crisis leading to paradigm change can be observed on many levels of social and cultural interaction and understanding.
The Romanian theatre of the past thirty years clearly reflects the enactment of such a paradigm shift, which marked a turning point in the recent history of Romania. Romanian history of the past three decades is not dissimilar to that of other Central and Eastern European countries, as the latter also belonged to the communist bloc and won likewise their independence from coercive communist ideology in 1989.
During the years of socialist domination, the political elite of Romania exploited cultural expression, particularly that of the theatre, by promoting rather than limiting the development of national theatre as a means to disseminate state propaganda. Political leaders invested in the infrastructure of theatre by building and modernizing a number of theatres, developing theatre education and maintaining a consistent production of theatrical performances. The trade-off was reflected in the imposition of thematic constraints, unidirectional limitations on aesthetics and permanent control over all aspects of production. All texts to be staged were required to espouse the officially determined unique truth, which reduced reality to a sum of officially approved theses and required performances to fit within the stylistic approach of psychological realism. Hovering ominously over all productions was the permanent threat of censorship which could ban a performance at any time. Yet, a subterranean movement was born in Romanian theatre, one that used allusion, suggestion, a complicity between the creators and the public and double-speak inserted into the work presented on stage. These were the only forms of freedom available to artists, and they were utilized extensively, especially in the 1980s.
Consequently, in 1989, when the communist regime imploded, the Romanian theatre longed to live in freedom and synchronize with the times by claiming its place in the European community. Romanian theatre was ready to manifest itself organically, to experiment and diversify its aesthetics. Inevitably, an initial moment of confusion transpired, but it was mixed with enormous enthusiasm; clearly, a transitional period was necessary in order to transcend the logic of the fixed model, system, form and mentality, but the transformation was undertaken rapidly and dynamically.
The Theatre Performance in Its New Reality
In the fall of 1990, director Andrei Șerban, having returned to Romania after a 20-year absence, staged An Antique Trilogy at the National Theatre of Bucharest; the trilogy featured Medea, based on texts by Euripides and Seneca, Electra, based on Sophocles, and The Trojan Women, based on Euripides. Such a symbolic performance repositioned Romanian theatre and represented a new start with the acute force of a cathartic gesture. Catharsis was achieved by arousing an emotional response to the archetypal models of the plays and a visceral response to classical theatre and tragedy. At the same time, the performance marked the reconnection of Romanian theatre to the world stage, as it mirrored Andrei Serban’s experience during the 1970s at LaMama in New York, where he had first staged his Trilogy.
Indeed, the entire decade of the 1990s marked the return of Romanian theatre. Several directors who were living in self-imposed exile returned to stage plays in the capital and elsewhere in the country, including major figures such as Liviu Ciulei, who was linked to the aesthetic reinvigoration of Romanian theatre in the 1960s, Vlad Mugur and Alexander Hausvater; in fact, in 1991, Alexander Hausvater staged Fernando Arrabal’s play And They Put Handcuffs on the Flowers at Odeon Theatre in Bucharest, using striking language devoid of any metaphor. He took the viewers out of their comfort zone, got them involved and included them as parts of a whole. But even more shocking was the pragmatically violent manner in which the director chose to develop the themes of the play. His bold innovation constituted new proof, by means of a different aesthetic approach, that Romanian theatre was ready to break away completely from its previously cryptic style and create a new approach to performance.
Therefore, starting from these key moments which reflect the paradigm shift on the Romanian stage, the era of the 1990s was dense in events. During this period, the original work of a young generation at the peak of their creative force reached an eager audience; many of these directors first appeared in the 1980s and later gained a deeply appreciated artistic freedom brought about by the collapse of the totalitarian regime. Many of these theatre professionals would shift the direction of Romanian theatre for the next thirty years; for example, Tompa Gábor, Alexandru Darie, Mihai Măniuțiu, Cătălina Buzoianu, Alexandru Tocilescu, Alexandru Dabija and Victor Ioan Frunză. Each one succeeded in creating landmark performances for the Romanian theatre and culture, each one approached and experimented with various aesthetic formulas, moving toward expressions of art theatre, image theatre, dance theatre and symbolic theatre. These artists were highly regarded by a wider artistic community that transcended the national boundaries of Romania, as they were invited to work abroad, to direct theatres and organize and consolidate their own theatrical troupes.
The undisputed leader of this generation, however, is clearly Silviu Purcărete.
The poet director, as critic George Banu has designated him, created several memorable performances, in close succession, making the invisible become visible with his artist’s touch. Silviu Purcărete is connected to peak moments in the development of Romanian theatre, from the Craiova phenomenon, as it was called in the international press of the 1990s, to his most recent projects. He delighted the entire theatre community with his interpretations of Ubu Rex with Scenes from Macbeth, based on Alfred Jarry’s adaptations of work by William Shakespeare, Titus Andronicus by William Shakespeare and The Danaids based on Aeschylus, staged immediately after the fall of the Iron Curtain which had isolated the formerly communist countries of Eastern Europe. Silviu Purcărete was thus able to call attention to the creative work of theatre professionals from a lesser-known country such as Romania. Performances staged by Purcărete at the National Theatre in Craiova, with both the local theatrical troupe as well as with great actors of the day, were invited to Edinburgh, Avignon, Amsterdam, Vienna, Sao Paolo, New York and other international capitals.
From the year 2000 and onward, Silviu Purcărete’s work has been performed most often at the National Theatre of Sibiu and the Sibiu International Theatre Festival, a highly regarded event in the cycle of international festivals. As was the case during his Craiova period, during his later years Silviu Purcărete toured the world with his Sibiu performances, which were warmly praised and honored with many awards. However, his most emblematic achievement in recent years and a landmark of Purcărete’s universe is the masterful Faust, based on the text by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, which has been playing continuously since 2007.
From the generation who appeared at the beginning of the 2000s, the most prominent director is Radu Afrim. Entering the world of theatre as a rebel, he shocked viewers and critics alike with his bold interpretations and de-canonizing texts that seemed intangible at the time. He has since developed an ethereal, fluid style, based on refined poetics of the image. Marginalized at first, Afrim has gradually gained recognition and has been invited to direct on the most important stages of the country. Although he is currently one of the most sought-after directors, he still maintains distance and independence from the broader community.
Compared to the previous generation, young directors and actors in recent times have faced far greater difficulty in achieving prominence in the post-2000 theatre. With an infrastructure already developed since before 1989, Romania has kept most of its theatre system public-based and financed by local budgets or by the Ministry of Culture, but without, of course, any political or ideological interference. This type of system confers safety, allows for the staging of big budget performances and promotes creative freedom. At the same time, though, it is highly impermeable. Since these theatres have a fixed troupe of performers and contracts are signed for long periods of time, it is quite a challenge for young actors to enter such closed communities. Because the investment in young directors also involves risk, more established directors are preferred. Whether or not the state theatre is open to young artists depends largely on individual theatre managers and their vision of what constitutes theatre, and most follow established norms. Two of the most long-running performances operate according to the status quo; for example, 9G (nouaGenerație) or 9G (newGeneration) at the National Theatre of Bucharest and Comedia Ține la TINEri (Comedy Cares for the YOUng) at the Comedy Theatre of Bucharest do not openly seek or encourage new theatre professionals.
Consequently, the need to create an alternative to the state-financed system has inevitably led to the advent of various independent theatres and companies. The first such spaces/theatres were set up in the capital in approximately 2000; these include Green Hours, which functions as a café-bar, and the Act Theatre, founded by the highly influential Romanian actor Marcel Iures. Over the past 20 years, the presence of such theatre groups and stages has continued to fluctuate. Although 90% of them are concentrated in Bucharest, some are located in other cities such as Cluj-Napoca, Timișoara and Iași. These theatres were established with various purposes in mind, such as targeting the commercial, but their primary aim is to offer a platform for artistic expression.
Of the latter category, three companies stand out. One such group is Replika Centre for Educational Theatre, based in Bucharest, “a platform of pedagogical creation and participatory art, through which marginalized categories of the public can gain auto-representation and create the art that defines their needs and expectations. Free access is a fundamental value for the philosophy of the Replika Centre.” UNTEATRU, also in the capital, is a space which challenges the concept of commercial theatre. It functions as a host theatre that aims to facilitate the visibility and promotion of young artists who find it difficult to access the traditional theatre system” (UNTEATRU). Finally, REACTOR of Creation and Experiment, Cluj-Napoca, was recently established as an alternative to commercial theatre. Founded in 2014, this group has gradually increased its aspirations and projects, focusing primarily on supporting young artists and contemporary playwrights, as well as encouraging audience development and social awareness” (REACTOR).
This type of theatre company is also characterized by a particular restriction of size, similar to that of an off-off Broadway model, in that performances take place in small-sized venues. Many productions have been adapted to one theatre hall, a choice which imposes a certain performance aesthetic as well as the selection of particular types of texts. For this reason, in recent years specific playwriting has been translated or especially written for this type of stage. As a result, young directors are being shaped within the genre of room-sized theatrical performance, and the experience is precisely what draws attention to their work and lays the ground for their future career development.
The New Playwriting and the Questioning of One’s Own Story
For those who view theatre as an institution or an art form, efforts made in the early 1990s brought about a quick pivot and adaptation to the natural laws of a constraint-free society, rather than a sharp rupture from the past. At the same time, the art of playwriting had reached an impasse. As officially sanctioned ideology was no longer the only means available for interpreting reality, playwriting found itself adrift, somehow alienated from its own original essence. Playwrights felt the sudden lack of imposed themes and familiar topics which had guided their work in the past and realized that stylistic devices they had created for expressive purposes had suddenly become outdated. Faced with their own freedom of creation, they surprisingly found themselves at a loss. Nevertheless, after a short period of hesitation, Romanian dramaturgy gradually found new resources, not by reclaiming authors established during communism but by supporting a new generation of artists that breathed and expressed themselves freely.
The first of the three decades of post-communist playwriting was dominated by dramatists who had lived their childhood and part of their youth under communism and found it impossible to break with the past. In an almost vindictive gesture, they tore away the curtain covering the past in order to analyze and interrogate it, boldly and unapologetically. Clearly, a system is not an abstract construct, and one’s father, mother, friend or neighbor, hidden under the cloak of anonymity, may carry the blame of acceptance or even worse, of subservience and regimentation. The voices of these dramatists, outstanding among them Alina Nelega’s and Radu Macrinici’s, are acute, direct and accusing.
However, the more stable dramaturgy of the decade 2000 adopted a new approach which moved beyond direct confrontation with old traumas and focused instead on the present. The range of expression and language style became more diverse, and authors enjoyed experimentation, ranging from modern intellectual tragedies to postmodern narrative structures or the offensive radicalism of an “in-your-face” theatre which relied on the force of the direct uncensored message and the effect of shock value. This new generation of playwrights endeavored to discover their own stories, to interrogate and to impose them. A few of the prominent names of the period are Vlad Zografi, Saviana Stănescu, Ștefan Caraman and Petre Barbu.
However, the most coherent and innovative theatre movement of the 2000s decade was the project dramAcum. Initiated by a group of young directors who were students at the time, together with their directing professor, dramAcum immediately distinguished itself as the freshest movement of its kind, influenced by contemporary trends in theatre. Founding members include students Andreea Vălean, Gianina Cărbunariu, Radu Apostol, Alexandru Berceanu and Professor Nicolae Mandea, who coordinated their efforts. Their manifesto was centered on two key ideas: “the development of the team director/playwright, as an active creation team all through the production process, and of the team director/translator, as a research team for the innovative tendencies in contemporary theatre. They believed that success is commensurate to one’s strength to persevere and not give up; their slogan was compelling: Have an idea? We’ll stage it for you!” (Mandea). The group was later joined by playwrights Peca Ștefan and Maria Manolescu and by the director Ana Mărgineanu. DramAcum was the energizing force that recalibrated the playwriting of the young generations of the era, as it introduced a direct, raw and, sometimes, acerbic style of writing.
In contemporary Romanian theatre, dramaturgy is still being shaped by the efforts of new generations of playwrights; this has engendered many new projects, some of which have been failures, while others more successful. In terms of theme, style and aesthetics, diversity stands out as a shared characteristic. For example, the work of Csaba Székely, Mimi Brănescu and Alex Popa utilizes structures of classical playwriting so that reality is reproduced through fictionalization, according to the Aristotelian cannon. Other trends include devised theatre, as well as docudrama in diverse fields; for example, the political theatre of David Schwartz and Mihaela Michailov and the social activism of Catinca Drăgănescu, Bogdan Georgescu and Alexandra Felseghi.
Plays by Matei Vișniec have also been prominent during this period and have been staged across Europe as emblems of both Romanian and French culture. His writing itself has developed in stages with respect to thematic content and approach, and it utilizes a wide range of forms, from existential metaphors to probing explorations of social realities which have unfolded in a European setting: the trial against communism, the war in the former Yugoslav countries, the massive migrations of recent years and their consequences.
However, in order to express itself most fully, to become a compelling voice, national dramaturgy needs support. Various programmes have been developed in recent years for this purpose: residencies, workshops and contests. Still, I would argue that such efforts, while encouraging, are not sufficient.
A Short Retrospective of the Past Two Years
During the past two years, we have all lived through a new crisis, that of the pandemic. Taken by surprise, we wondered whether or not it would affect the theatre and change its form. Would the pandemic prompt a generation new aesthetics? At this point, we are able to answer those questions in the negative.
Throughout the period of the pandemic, Romanian theatre, most of it subsidized, has never stopped its activity but, rather, adapted it; in particular, theatrical professionals used the online space as a platform to stream projects or reduce the number of live spectators, depending on events. Certainly the most original but, at the same time, the most stable project carried out during these two years is the Hektomeron of the National Theatre of Craiova. Its starting point, Boccaccio’s Decameron, is a text inspired by the plague that ravaged Florence during the fourteenth century. The source of inspiration was obviously far from random. But this project is much more than a tribute to classic theatre; indeed, “it is an X-ray of the contemporary world, a manifesto as an artistic creed—the world is the sum of our identities and actions.” The 100 stories/episodes of the project were played by the Craiova actors with help from 100 directors from as many countries.
Beyond its symbolism, the project involved an extraordinary effort of outreach and organization. Rehearsals took place online, as did conversations related to production. The changes brought about by the pandemic could be measured by the widespread acceptance of this communication mode as part of our lives. The episodes were livestreamed and accessible to the general public for over 100 days. Now, as both production and audience return to the playhouse and stage, The Hektomeron Day consists of a twenty-five-hour marathon for the actors, technicians and the public alike. Regarding the symbolism of the project, we suggest that once again, artistic innovation and flexibility empower people facing crisis and trauma to regain their humanity and develop bonds of solidarity with others. We should never forget the cathartic power and resilient nature of theatre.
Breaking news: The Theatre of Mariupol, Ukraine, has been bombed. People are buried under its ruins . . . Alas, history repeats itself . . .
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*Oana Borș (PhD), a Romanian theatre critic, is Assistant Professor at the National University of Theatrical Arts and Cinematography “I.L. Caragiale” in Bucharest. She is the author of Balkans: Victim? Executioner? andco-author of two theatre anthologies: Marioara Voiculescu: Memories and Contemporary Dramaturgy from Bessarabia. She has also published several theatrical studies and essays in Romanian and international publications. As of March 2022, she was named editor-in-chief of Theatre Today Journal. She is also the artistic director of FEST-FDR Timișoara/European Festival of Performing Arts in Timișoara—Romanian Drama Festival and Production Director of the National Theatre Festival Romania.
Copyright © 2022 Oana Borș
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