Theatre is Like a Vintage Music Box: Old and Fashionable at the Same Time – Interview with Silvia Ghilas

by Savas Patsalidis*

For Iasi, the absence of theatre leaves an emptiness that cannot be compared to anything else. It is as if the town had been left in darkness, its intellectual life erased, its life force consumed by trivial amusement and frivolity which could never begin to enrich its character.

These lines are extracted from a letter received by the Romanian Ministry of Culture in 1888, when The National Theatre building burned down and the troupe had no place to perform. The theatrical tradition in Iasi is very old and thus very strong, dating from the 17th century, when the first published information about theatrical representations appeared as a monograph.  As one of the seven national theatres in the country, The National Theatre in Iasi (TNI)  is the oldest Romanian national institution of its kind, dating from 1840. Set within an astounding historical construction designed by the well-known Austrian architects Fellner and Helmer, it was designated by the BBC in 2015 as the second most beautiful theatre in the world. In light of its uninterrupted artistic activity for the past 183 years, the National Theatre in Iasi is considered a landmark on the Romanian cultural map.

The National Theatre in Iasi (TNI). Photo: Courtesy of the National Theatre

Silvia Ghilas, with whom I had the pleasure to have this conversation, is a graduate of Ion Luca Caragiale National University of Theatre and Film in Bucharest, with a Bachelor’s degree in Theatrology, Cultural Marketing, and Theatre Journalism. She started working as Literary Advisοr at The National Theatre in Iasi in 2001.  During the years 2002-2006, she worked as a directing assistant at several shows produced by The National Theatre.  She was a member of the organizing team of Avram Goldfaden International Theatre Festival, 2003 – 2005, A.P. Cehov International Theatre Festival, 2004, Europa Est de Tot International Theatre Festival, 2006, and Iasi National Theatre’s Day, 2022.  Since 2017, she has been in charge of The Black Sea Route within The European Route of Historic Theatres. In 2020, she implemented the project TNI 180 – Uninterrupted National Seasons; in 2022, she coordinated the international project 44 X Mickiewicz which was carried out in partnership with the Stefan Żeromski Theatre in Kielce, Poland, founded by the Adam Mickiewicz Institute in Poland.  Since October 2022, she has been a member of the Board of PERSPECTIV, Association of Historic Theatres in Europe

Silvia Ghilas. Literary Advisοr at The National Theatre in Iasi. Photo: Courtesy of Silvia Ghilas

Since many of the readers of Critical Stages/Scènes critiques may not be familiar with the philosophy and approach of a repertory company, I would like to begin our interview with a discussion of this topic. As you are part of a state repertory company, you oversee a permanent group of actors, actresses, directors, and other theatre professionals. How many theatre professionals are currently on your payroll, and for how many years do they usually stay with the company?

In Romania the largest number of companies are state institutions, which means they are funded by the Ministry of Culture or by the Municipality and in most cases, they have a permanent troupe of actors. This is also the case for The National Theatre in Iasi, which at this moment has 2 directors and 35 actors, half of them being hired for an unlimited period of time, while the other half, mostly the younger ones, have fixed-term contracts. In the past few years, the authorities have been trying to depart from the eastern system, preferring instead to offer fixed-term contracts. Most of these artists stay with the same theatre until retirement. Once employed in a state institution, very few theatre professionals transfer to another company or change their field of activity.

In Iasi there is a top theatre faculty that represents an important source of collaboration, in that our theatre invites many students and freelancers for its productions who work on projects on the basis of a copyright contract.

The main hall of the National Theatre in Iasi. Photo: Courtesy of the National Theatre

Watching your first wonderful showcase I noticed that some actors participated in two, three, or even more productions. I would like to ask how extensive a workload an actor in a repertory theatre like yours can or is expected to shoulder in a week of a rotating program? If I could venture a wild guess, I would say a five maximum, maybe? Or would it be fewer or more?

The National Theatre in Iasi has four venues, each with a specific identity, and performances are scheduled every day except for Wednesdays. Due to the different starting times of the various performances, situations have arisen in which an actor ran from one hall to another and completed two performances in the same evening. Some actors perform in five or six shows in a week. It doesn’t happen often, but it is possible.

This is quite impressive, considering the long hours of preparation needed for each role. Is there a significant difference in the workload of younger and older actors?

Yes, the workload among younger actors is greater, as they are involved in more productions than older artists. But I don’t think age is the main reason, but rather the choices made by the directors for the plays they decide to stage.

I would like to discuss in more detail the advantages and disadvantages of permanent employment. I am from a particular type of theatre culture in which the kind of permanence you offer is unthinkable. On the one hand, I understand the more obvious advantages of permanence to an artist. It somehow lessens the psychological burden and the job insecurity one feels, especially as s/he gets older. It is not easy to struggle for a lifetime in the market, chasing after a new contract every five or six months. On the other hand, could it be that job security somehow diminishes an artist’s personal energy and weakens their passion to push things forward, to take risks, to experiment in order to stay alive in the market? And last but not least, do you think that spectators tire of watching the same artists repeatedly, or do you think that their familiarity with particular performers is what brings them to see the shows?

There are advantages and disadvantages on both sides. For an artist, financial stability is a prerequisite to the process of creation. It’s hard for me to believe that an actor who works at night as a taxi driver or in food service at Macdonald’s can give everything on the stage during rehearsals or performances. Clearly, the freelancer’s life is rough and stressful. Maybe it’s more exciting, but it’s not very comfortable.  Until recently, in our country, if someone was unemployed for an unlimited period of time, s/he couldn’t get a loan to buy a phone, much less a house or a car. Now, if someone is hired on a fixed-term contract for two years, s/he can establish credit with a bank. Within the broader institution of the theatre, the advantage of stability is that it facilitates the education and development of a powerful, professional, and reliable team. Of course, a contract for life may generate a certain sense of complacency, offering actors a so-called warm place for work, but these situations are very rare. Artists are passionate beings who live through their art.

Tied by the Leg by Georges Feydeau, directed by Cristian Hadji – Culea, is the production that ran the longest period of time in the theatre’s repertoire. Photo: Courtesy of the National Theatre

Bearing in mind the number of artists you have, how many productions do you undertake annually, with what criteria and for how long?

Our theatre has four venues. Alongside the previous productions, twelve new performances are added each season. At this moment we have 30 plays in our repertoire. There is no set period of time for how long we keep a show in the program; public preference and interest are the guiding criteria. Therefore, when the revenue starts to fall, the show is removed from the repertoire.

Your repertoire includes a rich collection of titles, no doubt. Could you tell me which production ran for the longest period of time and perhaps explain its popularity.

Having a brilliant mix of outstanding acting, inspired direction and a very good text, Georges Feydeau’s comedy, Tied by the Leg, is the oldest production in the repertoire. It is important to mention that audiences are drawn to good-quality comedy, so maybe this explains why comedies last longer. In the history of our theatre, we have a record for longevity of a performance: the play Why Catinca Remained Single, which premiered in 1979, was performed 1876 times total, locally and on tour.

Since you mention touring, I’d like to ask how many of your productions go on national tour and how many are staged abroad. Does the fact that you are far away from the national center of theatre in Bucharest play any role?  In particular, how difficult is it to circulate theatre news and productions across the country? For example, when you travel to Bucharest, do you think your productions get the attention they deserve, or is your company viewed as peripheral and therefore ignored, regardless of the quality of your work?

For the past 15 years, TNI has been part of the most important festivals in Romania; the National Theatre Festival in Bucharest, the International Theatre Festival in Sibiu, Oradea International Theatre Festival, and the International Festival of Contemporary Drama in Brașov are just few that come to mind.  Although we receive numerous invitations regularly, we cannot honor them all due to budgetary constraints, scheduling, or technical difficulties.

We also participate in international festivals and perform in large productions as well as more modest performances, and we often return with honors and awards. I don’t think the fact that our theatre is outside of the national capital has anything to do with artistic merit, and I have not noticed any preconceptions or biases because we are from Iasi and not Bucharest.

The theatre has a very balanced and diverse troupe, and directors such as Silviu Purcărete  and Radu Afrim who usually stage at The National Theatre in Iasi are outstanding professionals, both at home and abroad. The combination of talented actors and gifted directors in our company has distinguished our productions for their artistic quality and high professional standards.

Three Sad Plays by Maurice Maeterlinck, directed by Radu Afrim. Photo: Courtesy of the National Theatre

That having been said, I’d like to ask about the critics, in both Iasi and other cities. More specifically, do critics cover your productions? If they do not, why not? If they do, are you satisfied with their coverage? In general, do you think a meaningful dialogue takes place between the community of critics and the community of artists?

To answer your questions, the local critics come to all of our premieres, and they usually write in the local newspapers as well as the national theatre magazines. Critics from other cities have the chance to see our productions in festivals, as members of the audience or as members of juries for certain competitions. However, dialogue typically stops at that point; it rarely occurs as open, face-to-face discussion in which both sides are present.

Despite the challenges we have all experienced worldwide in the past few years, and particularly during this year with the waves of intimidating news emanating from the war front in Ukraine, you have decided to launch your first showcase, a risky move, no doubt. May I ask you to explain your rationale? Do you think your showcase will enhance your international presence? What are your aims in undertaking this showcase and do you plan to keep it? And finally, are you satisfied with the feedback you have received thus far from your first attempt?

The last thing that occurred to us as we were planning the showcase was that it was a risky move, taking into account that a showcase has never impacted us negatively. Rather, we saw it as a springboard for artists searching for a platform to launch discussion, for artistic directors in charge of selecting festivals, and for other professionals, not only from Romania but also from abroad. Mobility is key in today’s society, not only in one or another sector, but in most of them, even theatre. Promoting the free movement of artists, concepts, and ideas is one of the objectives of our showcase.

In addition to performances, our schedule for Iasi National Theatre also included related events such as conferences and book releases. The festival certainly brought us greater visibility, and if we are talking about feedback, then yes, we are satisfied. The festival promotion campaign, created by September Studio, an advertising agency with which The National Theater in Iasi collaborates for a long time, was taken over by Ads of the World, the most important advertising portal in the world. The opinions of the critics and other professionals were quite positive, and they appeared in publications or materialized as invitations to festivals other than those in which we usually perform. We also learned a lot in the process and improved in many areas. Having gotten off to such a good start, we really want to keep this showcase going.

Iasi National Theatre’s Day. Photo: Courtesy of the National Theatre

That is good to hear. Clearly, you want your productions to participate in international festivals, and rightly so, because your work has great merit. At the same time, however, I wonder about the challenges of selling a production with large numbers of people on tour, especially at a time when the festival circuit is undergoing severe budget cuts. How do you manage under such circumstances?

It’s not easy to sell a big production, but it’s definitely not impossible. We are familiar with the financial aspects of taking a big show on tour, as we have participated in various festivals abroad and have managed the expenses successfully. Of course, in other situations, we have also undertaken smaller productions which have required greater budgetary constraints.

Iasi National Theatre’s Day. Photo: Courtesy of the National Theatre

In addition to the quality of the plays selected, I was also impressed by the audiences who attended. No matter what time the performance was scheduled, all houses were full. I was told that in this respect you are second only to the National Theatre in Bucharest, with its 8 stages and its much larger population. Could you please explain how you manage to bring such large crowds to the box office?

As an important cultural and academic center, Iasi is a town with a historically solid theatrical tradition, dating back to 1840 when the first national theatre was established here. From childhood, people are used to going to the theatre and because of that, we have a mature audience, artistically speaking. Take the example of my own children. They usually go to see a performance together with their teachers and colleagues three or four times in a school year.

Furthermore, there are five universities in the city, so that a significant number of students form a large part of our community. Besides the high quality of our productions, as you previously mentioned, we also offer the public a wide repertoire of options with diverse cultural themes. Whether young or old, our audiences can be fulfilled with an array of themes, topics, and styles, crafted to suit each one.

How would you describe your audiences, both young and old? For example, would you say they are tolerant or intolerant, enthusiastic or unimpressed, supportive or critical, curious and encouraging, or demanding, nagging, and sulky, or some other traits, or a combination of traits?

I would describe the audience as tolerant, supportive, curious, and maybe a bit too enthusiastic sometimes. Perhaps they could be more involved and critical at times, as they sometimes lack engagement and broader awareness.

Do you recall any production that really provoked or angered your audiences? Were your performers ever booed, and if so, at which performance, and why?

A few years ago, at one of the performances in which the language contained some vulgar words, completely justified, a class of high school students and a teacher were part of the audience. The teacher was extremely disturbed by the language. And if I remember correctly, he left the room during the performance and a few days later he sent a letter to the theatre expressing his dissatisfaction with the show. It was an isolated incident. Although often considered unfairly conservative, the public in Iasi is quite open.

Poster advertising the reading of the play Insulted. Belarus(ia) by the well-known Belarusian playwright Andrei Kureichik, organized by TNI. Photo: Courtesy of the National Theatre

Do you think the TNI repertory reflects what is really happening in the world? Are the plays chosen for production concerned with war, politics, ecology, sexuality, gender, and so on? How would you describe them?  Do you think that this group is critical and receptive enough? Would you say that they are daring, or non-conventional?

Theatre plays an active role in contemporary life, as its main purpose is to reflect social and political realities, no matter how it chooses to do so, or which plays it selects to explore relevant issues in the framework of the present. The National Theatre is no exception to the rule. It’s hard to describe it in very specific terms, and I don’t really know how healthy it is to say whether or not it’s bold or daring or critical enough. In my opinion, through performances staged by the National Theatre, present realities are depicted as problematic, and aesthetics are central to the productions.

In 2020, following the political events in Belarus, The National Theatre in Iasi organized for the first time in Romania a reading of the play Insulted. Belarus(ia) by the well-known Belarusian playwright Andrei Kureichik, who actively participated in the political protests in Minsk. Andrei Kureichik’s play was part of Belarus(ia) Worldwide Reading Project, a program that aimed to express solidarity with the inhabitants and the theatre community of Belarus. Then the model of our theatre was taken over by a very large number of Romanian theatres and institutions that also organized readings with Insulted. Belarus(ia).

Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, the theatre from Iasi has been actively involved, and not only artistically, in supporting the Ukrainian people. Last month we had a reading in the Readings Project with a play whose theme was closely related to the war in the neighboring country. These are just two examples that come to mind, but there are more.

With regard to crossing or not crossing lines, I would like to ask you, as a literary advisor affiliated with the state theatre, if you feel you must be careful not to cross certain sensitive lines, that you must somehow acknowledge the support of taxpayers. That is, do you exercise any form of self-censorship? If there are sensitive areas, could you possibly discuss one or two?

In my opinion, artistic choices shouldn’t be viewed from this perspective. Theatre is meant to be a free space. In this case, if the boundaries are crossed or not crossed, the ball is in the director’s or the artist’s court. From an artistic point of view, I don’t think I have ever witnessed any form of censorship since I’ve been working in The National Theatre.

How important/influential is the role of TNI in the city’s cultural life? For example, in addition to its productions, is the theatre involved in other cultural events, activities, or initiatives?

The National Theatre in Iasi can be considered as the ground zero of the cultural life of our city, and also for the region of Moldova. Every year, around 50,000 people, either spectators or visitors to the historic building, cross our threshold to attend shows and other events organized by the theatre. They are not only from Iasi, but also from other cities. The cultural life of the community has always been closely related to the theatre, in both the past and present, and will definitely be so in the future, both short and long term.

Our numerous invitations to national festivals and the prizes that our productions are awarded indicate the quality of our performances. For example, this year, the production Antonin Artaud. The Cenci Family by Antonin Artaud, after Shelley and Stendhal, with Silviu Purcărete as director and Dragoș Buhagiar as set designer, was nominated for awards in four categories, i.e., best performance, best director, best actress in a leading role, and best scenography, at the most important theatrical award ceremony in Romania sponsored by UNITER Association, the Romanian Theatre Union.

Antonin Artaud, The Cenci Family (after Shelley and Stendhal), directed by Silviu Purcărete. Photo: Courtesy of the National Theatre

The theatre is also involved in related events, other than performances, such as exhibitions, book releases, and conferences. It also has artistic partnerships with other cultural institutions not only from Iasi, with which it carries out projects. Last year, for example, The National Theatre in Iasi had the project 44 X Mickiewicz which was carried out in partnership with the Stefan Żeromski Theatre in Kielce, Poland, founded by the Adam Mickiewicz Institute in Poland. The result was a production that was staged both in Romania and Poland

If there is anything missing from TNI, what would that be?

I strongly believe that nothing essential is lacking in The National Theatre. There is a vision, a solid and extensive repertoire, a very gifted and professional team, and highly involved people; technically, the venues are at the highest level, so all the components of a first-rate institution are present. Obviously, there are things that need to be improved; there is always room for something better.

We’ve been talking a lot about the National Theatre, so I’d like to shift our focus to the independent theatre in the city and the region in general. Could you tell us a few things about the independent theatre? For example, is it very expansive, and does it have a following? How does it survive financially? In your estimation, does it offer anything that differentiates it from the National Theatre? In brief, how difficult is it for an artist to survive outside of the TNI?

Unfortunately, in our city the independent theatre is not showcased very well. This is not due to a lack of human resources or enthusiasm, but rather because of a lack of funding. Some time ago, there were several independent theatres, some with their own spaces, while others were itinerant. The Fix Theatre, which was founded in 2012, was very active with several projects, many of which won awards and prizes.  Even though The Fix Theatre had its own venue, it was forced to close in 2019 due to financial pressures. Since then, it has reappeared as an association supported by particular types of funding, and their team undertakes projects from time to time in various venues.

At the moment, there is only one independent theatre, The Theatre in the Oak.  It was founded in 2019, just before the onset of the pandemic, and since then, it has been struggling to survive.  Performances are staged in a rented venue with 80 seats; the most expensive ticket is 10 Euros, while students are admitted free. The theatre is completely self-financed, as local authorities do not provide any type of financial support or tax-deductible donations.  In order to access external funding, the only possibility is to apply to certain local or national funding programs. Of the 10 productions staged this season by The Theatre in the Oak, only one is the result of a project financed by the Iasi City Hall. The artists who participate in productions at The Theatre in the Oak are either students or freelancers with other jobs.

To survive as a freelancer in our town is impossible. In Bucharest it may be possible since a young actor has more opportunities. There are over 15 state theatres, movie production companies, and several independent theatres which receive support from local authorities.

Theatre Cube Hall. Photo: Courtesy of the National Theatre

What are the future plans of the National Theatre, and the Romanian theatre in general? What are your thoughts about its current state and future possibilities?

Art is the keyword for communication. Art, in general, and theatre, in particular, don’t set borders; they erase them, no matter the language, religion, politics, gender, complexion, or economic or social status. I do not know a better, simpler, more creative or more absorbing way of expressing innovative or untold or forbidden ideas. While the world is constantly changing, theatre stands still. It’s like a vintage music box, old and fashionable at the same time, which needs its mechanism to be updated from time to time to keep working. As for future steps, I’d say, let’s keep the mechanism working! 

*Savas Patsalidis is Professor Emeritus at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. For many years he also taught at the Drama School of the National Theatre of Northern Greece and the Hellenic Open University. He is the author of fourteen books on theatre and performance criticism/theory and co-editor of another thirteen. His two-volume study, Theatre, Society, Nation (2010), was awarded first prize for best theatre study of the year. In 2019 his book Theatre & Theory II: About Topoi, Utopias and Heterotopias was published by University Studio Press. In 2022 his book-length study Comedy’s Encomium: The Seriousness of Laughter, was also published by University Studio Press. In addition to his academic activities, he writes theatre reviews for various journals. He is currently the president of the Hellenic Association of Theatre and Performing Arts Critics, a member of the curators’ team of Forest International Festival (organized by the National Theatre of Northern Greece), and the editor-in-chief of Critical Stages/Scènes critiques, the journal of the International Association of Theatre Critics.

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