Carnivalesque Theatricality, Cultural Literacy and the Wonders of the Human Spirit: Sibiu International Theatre Festival at Thirty

Octavian Saiu*

Abstract

This article explores the recent development of a significant European cultural event: Sibiu International Theatre Festival. It starts with an analysis of what a festival is, in any context, and affirms the idea that there is an inherent theatrical dimension manifestly present in all such experiences. It highlights the specificity of the modern tradition of Western theatre festivals, which started in 1947 with the simultaneous birth of two iconic institutions in the immediate aftermath of WWII: Edinburgh International Festival and Festival d’ Avignon. It ends with the conclusion that Sibiu has become an important platform for joy, creativity and cultural literacy.

Keywords: festivals, theatricality, carnivalesque, Sibiu, Edinburgh, Avignon

The Τheatricality of Festivals

What is a festival? What is a theatre festival? Such simple questions are usually forgotten, left out by the organisers of such events and not likely to be entertained by their participants either. Seemingly, having a programme or a selection of programmes should be enough, and thus granting them the title of “festival” suffices. Yet, it is only through such an elementary line of inquiry that the true meaning of an experience as old as time can be found. Not only found, but also affirmed. Not only affirmed, but also realized, concretised, embodied. Before any exploration of history and any assessment of the present, geography seems more compelling. Indeed, the same word of Latin extraction—festivalis—has been widely employed to underline socio-cultural realities that are radically different from East to West, and from North to South. The phrase itself has become nothing but a sweeping generalisation, an attempt to turn any sense of specificity into an umbrella term, a form of globalising the local.[1]

In Asia, for example, a festival is primarily a celebration of nature’s sacred rhythm. It is, and will always be, part of a certain tradition of feeling and thinking about the dynamics between the transient human existence and that which transcends its ephemerality. There, any such practice is implicitly, if not explicitly devoted to the universe itself.

In Europe, the Greeks laid the foundational idea of a festival, and that theoretical underpinning remains as significant as the vibrancy they attach to them: individually and collectively, people need to be reminded of their aspirations through revelries centered around quality, virtuosity and beauty. In the South Pacific, every such occasion relates to the energies of water, considered the sacred source of anything and everything. In Scandinavia, humans borrow the power of sunlight and turn it into the vitality of togetherness. In Latin America, ancestral ceremonies and Christian rites merge into some extraordinary forms of partaking. Entire communities are galvanised by them, and hardly anyone can stay indifferent when they take place. The global variety of all these forms of communion is astonishing, and yet they are all called festivals. Is language more formidable than reality, or are we all bound by some preestablished notions that determine our perception and thus narrow our views of all these advents of creativity, joy, hope, love, faith, magnificence?!

Spectators being inspired by beauty in the streets of Sibiu, 2022. Photo: Călin Mureşan

Alternatively, another explanation finds its way into this silent debate, not altogether elucidating its mystery but, at least, facilitating a sense of potential clarity: festivals of any sort are adventures of being, acting and watching. The enhanced theatricality of participation is the sine-qua-non condition of their existence and continuity, whether in the form of a complete identification through embodiment in the case of Tahitian Voodoo and Brazilian Candomblé or in the semi-detached fashion of attending a concert in a classical European auditorium.[2] Anthropologically, every festival is based on the principles of representation and spectatorship, although they are both reversible and interchangeable, fluid to the extent that transitioning from one stance to another can occur at any given moment in time and in almost any given place. To be part of a festival is to avail oneself for the possibilities of this transformation.

Regarded in such a way, all festivals from everywhere display the same, clear commonality. They all invite individuals and communities to be together, by either acting, watching or both. If, as Shakespeare beautifully suggested and as the Erwin Goffman demonstrated, we are all actors on the stage of the world, then it follows that under certain circumstances the density of that dimension is accentuated and amplified. It is emphasised, strengthened, boosted. Festivals are exactly that sort of circumstance, whether they derive from religious beliefs in South-East Asia or emerge as cultural gestures in contemporary Western Europe. They are possibilities of acting and enacting the inherent theatricality of being human at magnified proportions, so that the ordinary becomes extraordinary for a limited duration, the flow of the everyday is interrupted, and the rigidity of usual timelines is completely abandoned. Set apart by gapping substantial and aesthetic differences, great cultural events from either Australasia or Scandinavia share this concentrated interplay between acting, watching and being.

Grande Cantagiro Barattoli, Italia, parading on Nicolae Bălcescu Street and spectators becoming performers in 2022. Photo: Călin Mureşan

Primarily in this sense are festivals theatrical, all of them, from religious ceremonies to musical fiestas: they offer the chance for participants to adopt one of these two forms of subjectivity that are each determined by inner choice and not imposed by any external agency. The very fact that in some cases the choice itself changes is proof that, as Shakespeare knew better than anyone, being an actor means having a spectator. If indeed he was right when he said that we are “merely players,” then no one can deny that we are also, all of us, merely spectators as well. During a festival, these two hemispheres of the theatrical globe are brought together and harmonised in the same thriving microcosm of experience. Formal or informal in its atmosphere, a festival is indeed an ecosystem of living and thriving theatricality.

Acting, Watching, Being

Even in the case of a spiritual ceremony in the heart of Asia, in which every single inhabitant of a village is invited to take part, this principle remains valid. Mircea Eliade, the great historian of religions, was right in his hermeneutics of mystical processes when he defined the manifestations of the sacred as a ritualised series of acts that are seen, visible and, ultimately, watched.[3] Without this particular component, without Berkley’s philosophical idea that “to be is to be perceived,” concentrated in a setting that carries spiritual values, all religious ceremonies would be unspectacular in their nature. Because they assume the existence of spectatorship, because they assert the dynamics between what is enacted and what is witnessed, because there is an implied sense of witnessing, every such an experience becomes performative. For Victor Turner or Richard Schechner, such ideas are vital (Turner, The Anthropology of Performance). Yet, they are not usually related to the ethos of a festival, whether it is a ritual dedicated to the sacred energies of mother nature or to any specific deity.

Understood in this particular way, events that seem organically non-theatrical—in the sense that they are not meant to provide an immediate spectacle for any clearly established audience—become compatible with the broad definition of theatricality that Shakespeare, initially, Goffman, subsequently, and Schechner, finally, have suggested. By celebrating humanity, whether in relation to the earth or to the sky, whether dedicated to tangible realities or to the impenetrable transcendence, traditional festivals manifest the same implicit theatrical strength that can be found more explicitly in modern or contemporary events.

The very delicate balance between genuine belief and absolute participation, on the one hand, and the craft of organising the actual experience, on the other, is as important in the great traditional festivities that have existed for centuries in the East as it is in is their more recent events from the West.

In the cultural texture of a Balinese ceremony that occurs only at a specific time of the year, because it is dictated by the chronology of the universe itself, the intensity of joy, beauty and faith is determined by the fine-tuning of this balance. The same principle applies to a Tibetan celebration of the ancient Buddhist tradition. Whether they are intimate or large-scale, all those events involve acting and watching, as derivatives of being. All of them coalesce the energies of what might be a very tiny or a huge community of people by offering them the chance to embody something that takes them away from their own usual predictable selves. Without this emphasis, festivals become exercises in dogmatism and formality. They are live, alive, because they stimulate the true instinct of theatricality, present in each human being in a latent form and ignited by circumstances that allow the transformation to occur. The meaning of a traditional procession in Bali is religious. However, the pleasure that it entails is actually theatrical. This basic element grants it a social value thanks to which it appeals to people of all generations and, in fact, transcends the realm of religious belief. It becomes human, in the deepest Shakespearean sense of what it means to be human.

Behind the curtain: theatricality floating in the air, 2022; Sibiu. Photo: Călin Mureşan
1947: The Birth of a Modern Tradition

If this is true or, at the very least, acceptable as a cultural perspective, what, then, can be said about theatrical festivals per se? That is, about those performing arts events that have been bourgeoning since a particular moment in history when their importance was properly stated. Revisiting that historical context may hold the key for any proper answer, somehow. It was 1947. Two iconic institutions were established then, each serving a similar cause, albeit in different places and in distinct socio-cultural settings: Edinburgh International Festival and Festival d’ Avignon. The former was created at the initiative of one of Great Britain’s and indeed Europe’s and indeed the world’s greatest minds, Winston Churchill. The latter was the dream dreamt by a poet, Rene Char, and a theatre artist who understood this art form as profoundly as anyone could, Jean Vilar. Was it a coincidence that both these festivals were inaugurated in the same year,1947? Possibly. Still, nothing in culture is truly accidental. If so, then something in the air of Europe motivated a double occurrence that would change its cultural configuration for decades to come. It was the need for hope, the necessity of escaping the grim after-war reality, but, above all, it was the human compulsion towards theatricality as an advent of grace and as an adventure of joy.

Avignon’s destiny was to become the battlefield of experimental performance, but it all started with Vilar’s thought of having an elite theatre for everyone. Accessibility and openness merged with the high exigencies of quality. It was never quite like that before, and the possibility of good quality popular theatre became the basis for an entire tradition that was never challenged, even when it was brutally interrupted Wehle 52–61). The On and the Off still complement each other, as do the indoor and the outdoor sections of their respective programmes. Ultimately, the city itself is at once the background, the stage and the protagonist of a festival that brings artists together in order to ask questions about what their works mean for the world. To be part of the Off is a rewarding venture. To be part of the On is for any theatre creator a pedigree that grants her or him access to so many similar events from everywhere. What separates these two streams seems more significant than what they share, since Off is virtually available for any production, whilst On is only for the chosen ones. Yet, no one can ignore that their symbiosis is the great strength of Avignon, torn between its own contradictions as a hosting city for one of Europe’s most fascinating revelries. Democracy and exclusiveness meet.[4] They coexist. They reinforce each other’s import in the world of theatre, which does originate in the free Athenian Republic and yet has never forgotten that context’s often coercive hierarchies. Every year, at the time of its much-anticipated festival(s), the city that was once the seat of the Catholic Church reminds everyone of this paradox.

Edinburgh has developed into a different sort of cultural phenomenon. A simple parallel drawn between these two quintessential festivals, the one taking place under the sun of Provence and the one in rainy Scotland, reveals an essential cultural dimension. Although they are both international events, aspiring towards a sense of universality, they are each grounded in a spiritual tradition that is exponentially local. It is thus unsurprising that the ethos of Edinburgh derives from a rather different approach to the core values of human communication. Its initial motto is equally touching and ambitious. It may sound obsolete in the age of fragmented SMS language and emojis, but it is still charged with the same poignancy that inspired artists from everywhere to gather for the first time in 1947 and offer the spectacle of their creativity. Once read or heard, that motto cannot be easily forgotten: “a platform for the flowering of the human spirit.” If any event was to commence in this day and age with a similar aim, it would be considered too idealistic by anyone at all—from funding bodies to potential media partners. Yet, back then, the message resonated with everyone.

In a devastated Europe, in a Great Britain that could not host a similar event in many of its devastated cities, Edinburgh International Festival came to be recognised as a beacon of hope in times of hopelessness. It offered something that confirmed and reaffirmed the solidarity that made victory possible in the war itself. However, it was a different type of unity, different from the camaraderie acquired on the frontlines of defence, different from the resolute pact around shared values. It was the solidarity of joy. An anecdote about the people of Edinburgh hosting touring artists in their own homes and even cleaning their stage costumes, encapsulates that extraordinary singularity. At peace, togetherness was as imperative as during the war, thanks to the power of the arts to send the same message to everyone.

Theatre and dance, like the world itself, have changed so much since. The festival has become a series of festivals coinciding in the same month of August, The Fringe being almost uncontainably large in its liberalised, liberal configuration.[5] Yet, the motto of that first edition still has an immediacy beyond its initial context. Its meaning is safeguarded by everyone who is there to savor the widest variety of performances, but—more importantly—to be part of a tradition that regenerates itself through constantly renewed resources of talent.

Longing for the other’s touch: Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company presents its poignant performance at Sibiu Festival in 2022. Photo: Sebastian Marcovici
The Wonder of Sibiu

The lesson of continuity is perhaps most valuable when contemplated in relation to origins. Was it not Levi-Strauss who praised beginnings for affording any human venture the authenticity that is later compromised or at least faded? Both Avignon and Edinburgh had their share of challenges and even threats. Both have been contested and even detested. Nevertheless, they arguably continue to remain the milestones for the global universe of performance because of so many reasons, one being arguably more significant than any other: they are more than cultural programmes put together by either inspired minds or petty bureaucrats. They are festivals.

One similar festival was established in another part of Europe, in another period of time. From its inception as a small-scale programme of student theatre productions, it aspired to emulate the great models of Edinburgh and Avignon. It somehow tried to imitate them at the same time, proving that cultural mimetism can turn into a source of genuine development.

Sibiu International Theatre Festival has celebrated its 30th edition in 2023, under the motto of “Wonder.” The sheer size of Sibiu Festival objectively surpasses anything encountered in similar projects from Central and Eastern Europe, whether they are old or new. Its statistical figures—such as the seventy thousand spectators per day—are all the more surprising as the place itself is not as prominent as the urban settings of its two Western counterparts. What accounts for its successful story? Apart from the ambitious vision of its founder and leader, Constantin Chiriac, the two key ingredients are, in fact, the same as those of Edinburgh and Avignon, respectively.

Firstly, it is the city itself. A medieval town with fortified Christian churches of various denominations and a central square large enough to accommodate grandiose outdoor performances, Sibiu offers the ideal compact environment for a creative adventure of large proportions. It proves the unwritten rule that all great festivals happen in small places, an apocryphal adage not comfortable to consider by the organisers of so many festive proceedings from so many capitals of so many countries.[6] With a population of around one hundred and fifty thousand inhabitants, this small municipality boasts more than seventy thousand festival spectators during every single one of the festival’s ten days (Chiriac).

Secondly, it is the dynamics between the local and the global. This is, as generally known and admitted, the hardest balance to strike for any cultural programmer in charge of such an enterprise. In Sibiu, it has occurred organically and never led to any of the tensions surrounding Edinburgh International Festival at the time of the Scottish Independence Referendum or to the political contradictions of nationalism versus cosmopolitanism in Avignon’s often turbulent history.[7] The fact that Sibiu Festival was established in post-communist Romania meant that it became a catalyst for old and new universalist desires in a town that once had a substantial percentage of German population. In 2007, it became the European Capital of Culture, ahead of a few more glorified contenders from the European Union, into which Romania had only just been accepted.[8] The election of its former mayor as the president of the country in 2014 was part of a similarly unprecedented socio-political narrative, since he technically represented a provincial caucus’s ethnic minority.

The maze of lights conquering the Central Square of Sibiu, 2022. Photo: Dragoş Dumitru
A Festival Challenged by the Pandemic

The 2020 crisis brought the world of all theatre festivals to an abrupt halt. The raucous atmosphere of Edinburgh in August and Avignon’s famed effervescence were suddenly silenced. Sibiu carried on, however, with an entirely online programme that presented both live events and recordings, sacrificing little of its already recognised diversity. It was a swift decision that implied a cultural and anthropological adaptation, in tune with the main organiser’s immediate strategy: the National Theatre of Sibiu founded an online platform called The Digital Stage.[9] At the time, many considered theatre’s survivability in the internet galaxy a dubious and even dangerous hypothesis, as no one was used to what would soon become the norm for a period stretching longer than initially expected. Yet, the impact of the exclusively online edition of Sibiu International Theatre Festival was far from negligeable. Its public covered all continents, and thus its global community of supporters was reaffirmed even more powerfully than before.[10] Not concentrated in a place, but still determined by the parameters of the same duration, this type of cohesion is ultimately the trademark of any theatrical event that wishes to be more than a pretext for fundraising and worldliness.

The question of whether or not theatre could survive through its digital exile found an improbable answer in a few gestures of defiance in 2020. In the case of Sibiu, its online spectators were predictably far fewer than the ones that would fill the main pedestrian street or the central square of the city, but the energy and the spirit they invested in their act of participation appeared somewhat significant. More than a compromise and less than a real form of communion, the series of online experiments from 2020 proved that the joy people experienced within the context of a festival could survive, albeit vicariously, the challenges of distance and isolation.

Despite this disguised triumph of hope, the emptiness of Sibiu’s streets and venues during those ten days was incongruous with what everyone effortlessly associated with the most prestigious event in the town’s cultural calendar. The territories once conquered by theatricality and performativity, however defined, were again the non-places of banality. This reinforced the principle that a festival from anywhere is a system, which means that it is unique and irreplicable, but also—and more importantly—that it is not, and could not be reducible to the sum of its programme’s components.[11]

Kreatur by Sasha Waltz, reminding everyone about the isolation brought about by the pandemic, presented in 2022; Sibiu. Photo: Sebastian Marcovici

The moral of the 2020 plethora of online festivals remains debatable, particularly in the striking absence of any dedicated research. Can a festival be held online? One answer was provided before the pandemic, in the form of an online programme that was clearly structured and argued as a means to disseminate theatre beyond the borders of its classical perimeter.[12] Its success was recognised much later, but only from the perspective of the internet culture. From a purely theatrical standpoint, its success is still not as obvious. Ultimately, the above question is more important than the adjacent and more basic one, which refers to whether or not theatre itself can survive in an online disguise. This latter notion has been at least to a certain degree clarified, and the fact that hundreds of thousands of people have watched certain stage productions from the comfort of their own living rooms proves the validity of the claim that indeed it can. Performing arts festivals, in the sense defined by the tradition started in 1947, are far more complex ventures. Also, they depend upon the actual, tangible, real participation of various communities in order to assert their spiritual legitimacy in the same way that a religious event in Asia does. Therefore, the question refuses to go away, as it carries more meaning than it may immediately seem: can a festival be held online?

The Cyber-festival as Virtual Nostalgia of Actual Presence

Putting aside any data and statistics, whose persuasiveness is limited in the field of anything as ethereal and even metaphysical as theatre can be, the only genuine answer to the above question is a subjective one. In cognitive science and developmental psychology, the limited efficiency of learning through screens—as opposed to direct human contact—has been demonstrated with utmost certainty.[13] Brain scanning and other sophisticated techniques may reveal something similarly definite about watching online theatre and, by extension, about participating in a cyber-festival. Such results, coupled with markers of attendance listed in ample tables and similarly precise measurements, would probably reveal the truth. Still, no one could convince a firm believer in the principle of “being there” for the duration of a great festival that the same experience can be attained in front of a screen. Conversely, no one could take away the joy suddenly afforded to someone from a remote province of a developing country by the previously unimaginable possibility of watching online a show by Wilson or Ostermeier live, of attending a conference that is also livestreamed, of participating in a Q&A session on a meaningful theme.

Clearly, the ontological value of presence in the agora of theatre is amplified during a festival to an extent that simply cannot transition to the format of online communication. Nonetheless, something of that spirit salvages itself in the pixeled masquerade of digitalised events. If it is still there, it is thanks to an entire horizon of expectations shaped by the tradition to which the new trend appeals as a prerequisite, as an indispensable reminder. In other words, one can only appreciate the possible vigour of an online festival if one can relate to what a proper festival is. Otherwise, the experiment might be either informative or entertaining, even both, but it will never animate its audiences in a fashion that remains compatible with the spirit of what it should be.

The liveness of spectatorship in the Central Square of Sibiu in 2022. Photo: Gligor Nicolae

This notion of previous exposure to festivals is of paramount significance. It grounds any discussion of any online programme in the firm territory of cultural memory. It anchors it in a context of commonly shared references. Without this necessary background, everything would be a formal experience. Entertaining, probably. Enlightening, possibly. Yet not substantial enough to lead to a genuine sense of joy and to a true celebration of the human spirit. The cultural politics of the pandemic involved the wide web in an often organic way, but it cannot be ignored that all the connectivity emerging from it would have been unfeasible without pre-existing landmarks. In the case of festivals, these references are granted by an entire tradition, which has spread from Edinburgh and Avignon to places all over the world. Therefore, it was almost an incalculable combination of memory and curiosity that has generated interest in their online avatars. In the case of Sibiu, this was even more obvious: the process of networking was possible thanks to a solid database already formed and manifestly present on various social media platforms.[14]

Was that also a form of cultural nostalgia? If so, it is worth exploring how it reaffirmed the interest in the festival once it took place in a hybrid fashion. During the strict lockdowns of everywhere, nostalgia was clearly a feeling experienced by the vast majority of people. Everyone longed for that which was taken for granted before, from the simple pleasures of private daily face-to-face conversations to the explosive circumstances of collective enjoyment. If the experiences in the former category could find echoes in contexts of isolation, access to the latter type was demonstrably impossible. It follows that not being able to attend concerts, shows, religious gatherings and so on created a frustration directly proportional to this sentiment of acute or mild nostalgia. Those who really knew the atmosphere of a theatre festival missed it with intensity, and they were mainly—although it cannot be empirically demonstrated yet—the ones who tuned in to sample some of the offerings of an online festival programme. They could link the dry succession of performances and talks on a screen with the memory of being there and attending similar gigs live, in the most immediate possible way. Everything mediated by the digital technology was but a surrogate by comparison, yet it became more than that exactly because a comparison was possible. Without the remembrance of the extraordinarily hot ambiance of Sibiu during the ten days of its most iconic yearly event, the ten days of online would have been a cold assortment of videos devoid of any trace of vibrancy. The connection between an entire tradition of liveness and the oddity of converting it into a computer-delivered selection of cultural artefacts rendered everything meaningful and enjoyable. The two adjectives are inseparable for any festival, as the weight of its messages cannot reach any discernible impact in the absence of the participatory exhilaration felt by its spectators.

The Festival as Carnival

This insinuated sense of memory embedded in any festival relates to a tradition that first Avignon and Edinburgh and later Sibiu and other European festivals have rescued from oblivion in an oblique but compelling way: that of the European carnival. Powerfully defined by Bakhtin as the revenge of human liberty upon the dogmas of the medieval catholic hegemony, the carnival was for an entire epoch the only option to be free, to suspend restrictions, to overcome the constraints of daily existence. Although carnivals still exist, their estheticized determinations and/or commercial ambitions have almost annihilated that original social function. Stylistically, they resemble the original. Visually, they preserve the same patterns. However, they do not allow for a similarly impactful liberation of individuals and communities. At their best, festivals fulfill that role. They suspend the predictable flow of existence and offer an escape into a different territory. Indeed, their respective programmes are decisively significant, but the already discussed ambiance, the atmosphere of uninhibited joy matters as much, if not more. It matters because it asserts one’s right to celebrate certain values and to cherish the opportunity to be together with others under the auspices of a great event. When a festival starts, that feeling is palpable, and—at least in the cases that are worth noting and discussing—it continues throughout its entire course.

The litmus test for this postulation is simple. When descending into a municipality that calls itself a festival city, is it immediately obvious that the event is in full swing? Is there something in the air that captures the pulsations of all the enthusiasm that it supposedly fosters? The answer can only be “yes” if certain conditions are met—from the relatively small size of a town to the effectiveness of publicity mechanisms. Above and beyond those conditions remains the key notion of joy, inextricably linked to that of freedom. Where both conditions are absent, a niche festival can be remarkably successful, and cases of that sort do exist. Where and when both are met, the miracle can occur. Bakhtin famously analysed the main tendency that the European carnival favoured: a subversion of social and theological hierarchies by means of turning everything upside down, by allowing the beggar to become the pope for the transient tenure of the event. That is no longer possible today. From the carnivalesque tradition, festivals like the ones in Edinburgh and Avignon retrieve only the hallmark of absolute freedom. It is the simple reason why all the great examples can only be discovered in societies that accommodate freedom of expression or in those enclaves defying the ones that do not.

It does not come as a surprise, thus, that its supporters were looking forward to the return of Sibiu Festival in 2021. For them, it was a much-anticipated moment, the prolonged expectation of which was mitigated only by the general caution involved in any form of social interaction during the pandemic. Held in a hybrid form with a strong online section, observing the rules of social distancing for each of the in-situ events, that edition was a celebration of freedom.

The drone show opening Sibiu Festival as a carnival of lights in 2022. Photo: Călin Mureşan
Cosmopolitan vibes

One other crucial dimension of festivals must be evoked for a clear understanding of Sibiu’s 2021 revival. It illustrates a tendency that particularly small communities can harbour: an aspiration towards that which transcends the local and gives people a sense of belonging to a larger picture. Cosmopolitanism is the understated value of all great festivals, at least of all the great ones that are hosted by smaller cities, far from the flashlights of big capitals. More than multiculturalism, which may be a very passive acceptance of otherness, cosmopolitanism is an active statement. It is based on the acknowledgment of local boundaries precisely so that they can be relativised and overcome. It is not dependent on the size of the community or its international visibility, as it is possible to encounter fetid parochialism in the most famous of large cities. It is only fuelled by a certain mentality whose articulation is never too far from the idea of creativity. Richard Florida’s concept of the “creative class” feels less apposite than the notion of the “creative city.” Impossible to measure, hard to pinpoint, the creativity of an urban society is a concerted attempt to escape routine. In this sense, festivals are superlative options as they offer a way out of the predetermined patterns of reality and, at the same time, they cherish all things creative.

The social transformations of Sibiu over the past three decades are indebted to its continuously growing cultural footprint. The general taste of its population, although admittedly an elusive notion, has evolved from the punishing grey provincialism imposed by the communist regime before 1989 to rediscovered Europeanism. Indeed, it has been a rediscovery because Sibiu’s history is marked by the presence of a strong German minority that blended in with the locals in the heart of Transylvania, a province in which traces of Austrian and Hungarian culture were also present. If Avignon is the French capital of world theatre during the On and the Off, it is also because of its past as a European centre of faith and civilisation. If Edinburgh has claimed the title of the host of the world’s greatest cultural events in August, with tickets sales surpassed only by the Olympic Games and the Football World Cup, its former days filled with glory have been as much of an argument as anything happening from 1947 onwards. Conversely, notwithstanding the differences in both geography and history, Sibiu is their potential counterpart in Eastern Europe because of the thousands of foreign performances presented on its stages for the last three decades, but thanks to its cosmopolitan traditions to no lesser extent. This universal vocation was the basis for its recognition as Europe’s Capital of Culture in 2007. More than that, still, it is the foundation for the festival’s constant line of accomplishments.

For all such reasons combined, this festival held in Eastern Europe has become a phenomenon with cultural, social and economic ramifications. The political dimensions are hard to overlook, particularly in relation to a certain part of the programme: that is, an entire section dedicated to the NATO bases present in the country (Vulcan). At times of peace, it was a pastime that soldiers and their superiors embraced with lukewarm enthusiasm. At times of war, during the pandemic, this initiative took a different form. Online passes were distributed to the soldiers by an unlikely partner of the event, the Ministry of Defence, so that they could be part of the festivities without physically attending it. It is not clear how many of them tuned in to watch certain shows, but the fact that they had the possibility to do so remains noteworthy. Indeed, since 2021, the feelings of joy entailed by the multiple facets of Sibiu Festival have been somewhat dampened by the regional and global circumstances. Hard to measure precisely, this reduced sense of excitement does not necessarily translate into ticket sales. It is a rather a subtle reflection, and an acknowledgment of a change in the texture of both the region and the world.

Amore by Pippo Delbono displaying a sense of melancholy and despair in 2022; Sibiu. Photo: Sebastian Marcovici

More implicitly than explicitly, this event has become a platform for messages that transcend its original mission, which—as Prospero would say—“was to please.” The pleasure of being there, the experience of street performances filling the pedestrian areas of its old center with lights and colours and the desire to experience something intensely performative . . . all these are still major incentives for its audiences. Alongside such never compromised festive connotations, Sibiu’s regained momentum after the 2020 online edition is based upon a new type of sensitivity. The threads of its own tradition are tied in the spirit of solidarity and defiance required by a geopolitical context that is so close to the Ukrainian war zone.[15]

The Maze of Lights, a requiem for the victims of all wars in 2022. Photo: Dragoş Dumitru
A Platform for Cultural Literacy

One aspect must complete a subjective picture of this festival’s impact. It involves a concept whose constant misplacement and distortion is perhaps symptomatic of the spiritual crisis of our times: cultural literacy. In its original definition explained by E.D. Hirsch in 1986, it means the level of general knowledge that could be measured in the case of either individuals or groups. Its misappropriation in various academic contexts has led to a different belief, seemingly more sophisticated, but lacking the clarity of Hirsch’s contextualisation. Whether or not related to critical thinking and its virtues, cultural literacy is the actual basis for the reception of any artistic act, the very starting point of the dialogue between artists and audiences. It is not a sine qua non condition of that dialogue, but it remains in many ways the basis for its occurrence. In the absence of any knowledge of theatre, the general person’s response to a performance can range from neutral to ecstatic, but it can hardly be informed and substantial. Sociologists clarify such aspects in their work, although not many approach the field of theatricality in an explicit manner.[16] A festival’s tradition may be distilled into data, tables and figures, but perhaps the clearest indicator of its penetrating legacy is how it shapes the cultural literacy of its community.

As an international festival community comprises both local and world-wide members, the traces of its impact are consequently harder to identify. Still, one of the undeniable markers of cultural literacy amongst them is the response to a section of the programme that in most cases is missing altogether. The conferences, the dialogues, the book launches: these types of series constitute a clear framework for public discourse at Sibiu. They occupy most of the mornings and early afternoons of each day. They are not for everyone, some snobs might argue. They are for everyone, one might reply.[17] In fact, an empirical analysis of their level of attendance reveal that throughout every single of them, the audiences’ keen interest expresses itself through the only gesture that matters: presence. People are present because they want to engage with artists and intellectuals, as much as they want to expand their knowledge of theatre, literature and beyond. This is a tangible example of cultural literacy, which integrates a longstanding tradition of active education that is never declarative and pretentious. It is built into the process of programming and curating the event, in the same way that the editorial component is: it consists of no fewer than 400 books, whose publication has been funded by the festival.

For all such reasons, Sibiu’s tradition has proved to be inspiring within the borders of Romania and even beyond.[18] The possibilities of development that it has revealed for its hosting city are tempting to consider by other similar cultural enterprises. It is only natural, in the series of mimetic processes that characterise the world of theatre: in fact, many features of this event copied those of its more esteemed predecessors, Edinburgh and Avignon, while other inspirations have been prompted by non-European ventures.[19] This enticement is not wise, nevertheless. It is in principle possible for any festival to curate a large number programmes and invite performances from everywhere. It is not difficult to merge street shows with public lectures. It is even easier to add an online component, accessible to everyone. All these dimensions may define the scope of a festival, but it is only their natural coexistence that ensures its impact. This is exactly what Sibiu offers, and the main reason why its loyal supporters braved restrictions and other challenges in order to be there in 2021 and thereafter.

There are events that are larger, undoubtedly. The already mentioned Fringe, the OFF, the National Theatre Festival in South Africa, among many others, may claim that their respective sizes surpass it. There are others that are incontrovertibly more prestigious. Others that are more, far more renowned. Others that are more effective in setting global trends for the universe of stage performance. Others that are geographically more easily reachable. The list may continue, as the world of festivals is so rich and varied that it accommodates a multitude of rankings. Yet, all of those events display different traces of a single specific identity circumscribed to a place, associated with that place. Sibiu seems a mixture of many possible performative traits, and it amalgamates all of them into an organic system. That function is not easy to match, and this statement is not a value judgement swayed by subjectivity, but a clear recognition of something that is, at least in its own way, unique.

Vertigo Dance Company’s Pardes, conveying its uplifting message of hope in 2022; Sibiu. Photo: Sebastian Marcovici

Endnotes

[1] A recent exploration of theatre festivals from the perspective of the intercultural exchanges they foster is Ric Knowles’s International Theatre Festival and 21st-Century Interculturalism.

[2] During the Wroclaw Theatre Olympics 2016, both Candomblé and Voodoo were experiences by an international audience in a celebration of the Day of the Dead (Dziady). See Lauren Dubowski (2016).

[3] This theatrical, which is not the same as performative, dimension of myths has often been neglected even by Eliade’s admirers. Douglas Allen seems to ignore it in his survey of Eliade’s various types of contextualization for experience of the sacred (6–20).

[4] Certain scholars dispute the idea that Avignon is democratic. See Liana Giorgi et al. and Jean Louis Fabiani (95–108).

[5] An interesting analysis of the Fringe phenomenon, from the perspective of its “neo-liberal” impetus is provided by Jen Harvie (101–17).

[6] A mere survey of the festivals held in the great capitals of the world, from New York to Sydney, would reveal that neither the scope of their respective programmes, nor the ticket sales would compare to those of the three events mentioned in this article.

[7] For how Edinburgh International Festival chose not to remain neutral and not engage in the Scottish Independence debate see: Brian Ferguson.

[8] See The Romanian Journal of Cultural Management, nr. 1/2013, III, pp. 51–88.

[9] https://www.tnrs.ro/en/scena-digitala.

[10] The President of the festival proudly made this information available during a dialogue organized by Festival Tokyo in the autumn of 2020.

[11] This axiom would find an even more fervent expression in the 2021 edition of Sibiu, carried out in a “hybrid” fashion, but focus on the rediscovered joy of being together in a shared space. Even though they had to show vaccination certificates, despite the fact that were dispersed in order to obey the draconian rules of social distancing, people could be together.

[12] The International Online Festival of The Theatre Times was inaugurated before the pandemic and allegedly gathered more than one million spectators in its first three editions.

[13] See Kerai, Salima et al.

[14] The Facebook page of the festival has 32 thousand followers; See here. Accessed 11 June 2023.

[15] In some of the comments provided as feedback during the online sessions of the 2020 edition, a longing for the nightlong parties at the festival club was evident. This was even more intense than the general sentiment triggered by the fact that parties were not allowed globally, as Nicholas Holm explains.

[16] For an educational perspective, see Paul Atkinson (147–68).

[17] It must be mentioned, as a symbolic disclaimer, that the author of this article has been in charge of the festival’s conferences and daily panel sessions since 2004.

[18] The International Theatre Town Alliance in China was directly inspired by the virtues of this festival: http://eng.cnitta.com/. Accessed 11 June 2023

[19] As an example of this, the “Speed networking” sessions of Sibiu Performing Arts Market were inspired by the practice of “Speed Dating” promoted by Seoul Performing Arts Market. See Chung Ah-young.

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*Octavian Saiu is Professor at the School of Arts and Social Sciences, Hong Kong Metropolitan University, a scholar as well as a professional cultural and academic consultant. He is the President of the International Association of Theatre Leaders (IATL), a global alliance that gathers prominent figures in the field of performing arts. He is also a PhD Research Professor in the Doctoral School of Sibiu University, and has been Visiting Professor at universities in Tokyo, Hong Kong, Beijing and Lisbon. He was twice a Visiting Fellow at the University of London (SOAS) and he has offered Master Classes and Workshops at academic institutions in Europe, Africa, Asia and the Middle East. He has published academic articles in several international journals, as well as fourteen books on theatre. He serves on the editorial boards of various journals and publishing houses. His most recent book publication is Phèdre. D’Euripide à Racine, de Sénèque à Sarah Kane. He received the Critics’ Award in 2010 and the Award of the Union of Theatre Artists (UNITER) in 2013. In 2020, on the National Day of Culture, the President of Romania awarded him the Order of Cultural Merit.

Copyright © 2023 Octavian Saiu
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