by Savas Patsalidis*
Raluca Rădulescu is a theatre journalist, translator, and curator. She has a PhD. from The University of Bucharest. Since 1999 she has worked for The National Romanian Radio, currently producing the radio show Scene and screen @Radio Romania Cultural. She worked as a curator and advisor for several theatre festivals across Romania, a showcase of independent theatre in Bucharest, also workshops and laboratories with foreign artists in Romania.
Since 2005 she is translating theatre books, classical and contemporary theatre plays by Chekhov, Gorky, Ivan Vyrypaev, Marina Davydova, Marius Ivaškevičius, Mikhail Durnenkov, Andrei Kureichik, Natalka Vorozhbyt, Andreiy Bondarenko etc.
In 2014 she was awarded the National UNITER Prize for her translation of Stanislavski’s An Actor’s Work, also nominated for the best translation of the year. In 2020 she was nominated for the National UNITER Awards in the Theatre Criticism category.
She is a member of The Union of Professional Journalists, The Romanian Association of Theatre Artists and ITI.
Raluca, how did you come to work in the theatre? Were there any particular individuals who influenced you?
I grew up less than 100 km away from Bucharest, in one of the few large Romanian towns without a theatre. As a child, I didn’t see much theatre on stage. Instead, I watched TV plays and listened to a lot of radio dramas, which shaped my taste for both theatre and radio. While I was at the university in Bucharest, I saw as much theatre as I could. I took diction lessons with a great actor who taught me to be a critical viewer. Then I translated my first play: Chekhov’s Seagull. A colleague from Radio France who was directing a performance in Bucharest asked me to help him with the pronunciation of some names, and thus I was able to attend my first rehearsals. The same colleague also sent me to a theatre festival, which set off a kind of theatrical avalanche in my life: festivals, opening nights and interviews. I was also asked to translate Stanislavski, and afterwards, I received an important award for my translation.
For the next 10 years I worked on reports, interviews and theatre news; I also attended performances, but without expressing my opinions publicly. In communist Romania, this was called “learning on the job.” Only after I had seen a good number of performances, had translated books on theatre theory, approximately 20 plays and also translated rehearsals on stage, did I start to express my opinion publicly.
As a reader, what do you look for in a review?
I read reviews less and less because I often see inaccuracy, lack of references, hearsay writing, unverified information, and excessive subjectivity. When I read reviews, I would like to find reliable information that doesn’t require verification, and I would like to find comparisons with other famous or failed productions in Romania and from around the world. I would like to find a clear-eyed and honest view of theatre and the performance itself.
After what you have said, I am tempted to ask whether there are any critics you admire?
A few years ago, I read everything I could by one of our famous critics and I was struck by the long descriptive texts about the weather and meetings in the lobby and, at the end, two give-and-take paragraphs about the performance. No matter how interesting those paragraphs were, they were getting lost among the rusty leaves and friendships…
Generally speaking, there is a lot of self-sufficiency in reviews and the limits of the reviewer’s objectivity are often quite obvious. I can see when a critic likes an actor or a director or how shows are judged by the theatre that produced them etc. I sometimes appreciate a certain review, but my positive response is very random.
Unfortunately, I can’t say that I admire any particular Romanian critic.
Since you raise the sensitive and controversial issue of “objectivity,” let me ask you this: Do you write about the work of artists who happen to be your friends? Do you write about the work of people you dislike? In other words, how do you, as a critic, keep your objectivity in check?
I tend to be more critical of friends and of work that I like. It is easier for me to praise the work of someone I don’t like and criticize the work of a friend than the other way around.
I usually do interviews before premieres; I rarely write afterward. We all know we’re in a profession with a built-in component of subjectivity. But I think it’s manageable as long as we have clear standards and we keep our wits about us.
I think it is much harder to keep subjectivity in check when the theatre pays your travel expenses to go see and write about one of their performances or festivals. This is how it happens in Romania, but there is no other way.
Yes, I know what you mean; this is a very delicate (and international) matter; a kind of Catch 22. Presently, how many people are regular reviewers in Romania? Do you know how many of them make a living from writing?
Probably 50 to 60 people write about the theatre, but I don’t think there’s anyone who makes a living from writing. Most critics work in theatres or universities, in radio or television, in publishing houses or even in city councils. Many are retired, while others have changed career paths. Others see and write exclusively about what interests them personally.
Nowadays, theatre critics write mainly because they love the theatre or because they see theatre as a hobby, maybe? Writing criticism is no longer a profession through which one can earn money, so a certain lack of commitment or half-hearted sense of responsibility is hardly surprising.
More recently, we’ve seen engineers, economists, doctors and others who are passionate about theatre and who also write about it, and in two or three years they’ve become known as critics. They are invited to premieres and festivals, even to sit on juries, to hold workshops or moderate talks. Some write exclusively on Facebook, and then they are quoted by theatres because there are no professional theatre reviewers.
And my follow-up question: does criticism have any impact on Romanian theatre? Does it trigger any conflicts, controversies or public dialogue?
Conflicts, controversies or any events that would require a debate in Romanian theatre are now discussed on Facebook, where any exchange of views is buried after a few days. I remember a competition organised by city council for the management position of the local theatre. The local press announced the winner before the deadline for submitting applications had passed. People commented about this privately and I discussed it on a radio show, but then afterward everyone forgot about it completely.
In 2023, the nominations for the national theatre awards (UNITER) were very controversial, petitions were submitted, a lot was written on the topic, it seemed the system was being shaken up, but by the time the awards gala took place, everyone had forgotten, as if Romanian theatre was one big happy family.
Basically, I don’t think we have any critical perspective on the current situation of the Romanian theatre, except perhaps in private conversations. We have some critics who are well aware of the situation and are able to comment on it, but at the best, they do what I am doing now, which is to comment on problems in interviews.
Nowadays a theatre critic in Romania writes out of passion and functions as a partner of the theatre, attaining the status of promoter. This diminished role of the critic demonstrates the lack of meaningful investment in the profession for the past 30 to 35 years; the absence of authentic and pertinent criticism allows for self-referential writing, complacency and the increasing provincialism of Romanian theatre.
Looking back, do you think that the theatre you experienced in your early days as a journalist differs from Romanian contemporary theatre?
Fifteen or twenty years ago, there was probably more political interest in culture, theatre had a larger budget, and monumental performances were produced. The festivals organized after 1989 were stable and highly successful.
At the same time, independent theatre started to develop and introduced new themes and aesthetics that were adopted by the mainstream. Nowadays actors are much better paid, as compared to the past, but there is no money for production. Budgets are shrinking while expectations are increasing, and theatre professionals are searching for new directions. There is a return to simplicity and a focus on the actor.
Would you say that Romanian theatre does not have the international exposure that it deserves? And if this is the case, who is to blame?
In any theatre around the world, when I say I’m Romanian, the reaction is always “Sure, Silviu Purcărete. Yes, Andrei Șerban.” Sometimes I may also hear the names of Radu Afrim or Gianina Cărbunariu.
We have entire generations of directors, set designers, choreographers and sound designers who are no less important as compared to colleagues from other countries. And here we can go back to what we’ve said before about theatre criticism and curatorship. No one in Romania will take it upon themselves to promote internationally the local artists or cultural products; there are only personal networks and interests.
Pretty much everything happens by chance.
Yes, I know what you mean. And what about plays written by Romanian playwrights? Matei Visniec is a name that comes to mind. Any others that you can share with our readers?
We have Romanian contemporary playwrights translated and performed abroad. Many of them are also directors. The current generation has produced more female authors, and Gianina Cărbunariu is the most well-known. Her plays have been translated and performed in over 25 countries. Alexandra Badea, a Romanian-born director, writer and playwright, based in France, received this year the French Academy’s Theatre Award.
Another Romanian playwright well-known in Europe is Elise Wilk. Mihaela Michailov’s plays are also performed in several countries. Peca Ștefan and Bogdan Georgescu are Romanian playwrights and directors based in Berlin. Székely Csaba is a Romanian playwright of Hungarian ethnicity who received a BBC award and whose work has been produced by the BBC.
I am curious to hear who is the most frequently staged Romanian playwright currently. And what about foreign playwrights? What makes these writers popular? Is it their style, their ideas, or something else?
In Romania, the taste for the classics persists and in every repertoire there is at least one play by Caragiale, probably the most staged Romanian playwright, one by Shakespeare and one by Chekhov. There are also times when a certain play or a certain author is staged everywhere and then quickly forgotten. I think, however, that these trends are generated by directors and translators. Nowadays, I think Elise Wilk is the most staged Romanian contemporary playwright.
As for foreign playwrights, for several years we’ve seen many performances of contemporary plays from Poland, Spain or Scandinavian countries. The Romanian audiences are very familiar with Jon Fosse, for example. Russian theatre was also a favourite, but as of 24 February 2022, the situation has become a bit more complicated.
Of course, the style, ideas and themes are important, but I’m not convinced that these are what makes an author popular in Romania. I think it’s more about the story and the way plays resonate with the directors who are quite sought-after.
Marius von Mayenburg, Roland Schimmelpfennig, Ivan Vyrypaev, Yasmina Reza, Sam Shepard, Neil LaBute, Martin McDonagh, Conor McPherson, Donald Margulies, Edna Mazya or Florian Zeller are just some of the foreign playwrights often staged in Romania.
Besides Purcărete and Serban that you already mentioned, are there any other Romanian directors who currently enjoy an international presence?
Tompa Gabor is also well-known internationally. Vlad Massaci has worked extensively in Germany, and while Radu Afrim has limited experience in the international community, his Romanian performances have been staged at many international festivals. Gianina Cărbunariu has worked in Germany, Spain, Italy, Poland and she has been invited to present her work in Avignon, Wiener Festwochen and other European Festivals.
Also, a substantial number of younger directors have worked abroad, including Catinca Drăgănescu, Eugen Jebeleanu, Botond Nagy, Andrei Măjeri, Vladimir Anton, Andreea Gavriliu, Ioana Păun…
Are there any trends that dominate theatre practice and writing in contemporary Romania?
It is a chaotic time of crisis and change. Some managers invite directors because they’re famous or by hearsay. The struggle between the need to sell tickets and the artistic interests of the director and the theatre begins only later. I think ideally, you’d have a famous title/author, a classical comedy debating current issues, maybe some social theatre touches. Definitely a visually spectacular performance, perhaps musical or non-verbal!?
Romania has a very rich and varied festival circuit. How does the presence of a strong festival tradition impact local theatre practice?
Almost every theatre has its own festival. However, some of these have been buried by the pandemic, such as TranzitFeszt in Satu Mare, or by managerial changes, such as Festin on Boulevard in Bucharest, yet others have appeared or been revived under new names, such as X-Fest in Bucharest or the Festival in Brăila. Small festivals are an opportunity for exchanges between theatres, paying off debts where production budgets are insufficient. Many festivals invite “friends” or VIP performances from Bucharest. We have children and youth theatres organising festivals for young audiences up to 99 years old, taking advantage of the inertia or disinterest of dramatic theatres (Iasi, Bucharest).
Major international festivals sometimes invite directors who were at the peak of their careers 10 or 20 years beforehand. Our benchmarks are still the great directors of the late 20th century or early 21st as Lev Dodin, Robert Wilson, Krystian Lupa, Thomas Ostermeier, Oskaras Koršunovas, Alvis Hermanis and Krzysztof Warlikowski, among others. Their performances are always part of the Sibiu International Theatre Festival, the Shakespeare Festival in Craiova, Interferences in Cluj and the National Festival in Bucharest. It’s difficult for new artists, the future Ostermeiers, to break through because we tend to play it safe and invest in the past, which in the long run can only be detrimental.
I think that in Romania, Suzanne Kennedy is still viewed as an emerging artist. It could be that festivals can’t afford to scout for what is new, innovative, remarkable or otherwise high risk and they know that famous actors are a box-office hit. While selections are made by hearsay or by video, or with a little help from friends. I’d say that most festivals in Romania need a change; they need a stronger connection to the present.
To be relevant, we can no longer focus on quantity; but on context, coherence, meaning and message. Otherwise they’ll become irrelevant.
The National Festival (FNT) has begun to include a curatorial statement that sounds great; but the festival operates on representational criteria, every theatre and director is invited with a performance, and this puzzle becomes a lottery. In 2023, the chosen theme was Laboratories of the Sensitive, and the statement was about the need for research in theatre. There are debates about innovation, research and experiment, but in the end, laboratory performances are not included in the program. And I can’t help wondering what is the point of such discussions, which the audience doesn’t take part in usually, if we don’t encourage and support experiemental performances?
How receptive is the general audience to radical, experimental or politically provocative stagings?
I believe that the audience receives experimental, challenging productions better than critics or politicians or even theatre managers. Perhaps audiences, especially in smaller towns, still react to the language. On stage, one must speak ‘elegantly’. There are also exceptions. A performance about teenage pregnancy and sex education caused a scandal (of all the EU countries, Romania has the highest number of underage mothers). Without having seen the performance, the local press and parent committees concluded that it was a form of corruption rather than education.
In another town, with a very strong religious community, a performance with religious themes was poorly received because the audience refused to consider any perspectives on the topic which differed from their accepted patterns of belief. These types of performances have much smaller audiences than those the ‘nice’ ones.
Do audiences support local plays as much as they support foreign plays?
I don’t think the text is essential for spectators when making their choice. Maybe for managers or directors. When the Theatre of Romanian Playwrights was founded in Bucharest 6 or 7 years ago, we expected to see new programs emerge that supported contemporary writing. Instead, they mostly stage plays written in our grandparents’ time, or our parents’, and their main purpose seems to be selling tickets, or serving the interests of guest directors and not at all the development or promotion of Romanian contemporary theatre.
The latest trend, at least in Bucharest, is to conduct workshops on dramatic writing. I have no idea what prompted this sudden interest or what precise purpose these workshops serve. No one is asking the audience what they want or what their interests are; in other words, no attempt is made to get to know the audience, so the only measurement system is still ticket sales. But today, with good marketing, you can sell tickets for anything, so all we can do is guess.
As far as I know, most theatres in Romania are state-funded with actors and directors who are hired on permanent contracts. How does that impact the theatre market? For example, how does this affect young actors who graduate from various drama schools?
For many years, there were no openings in state theatres, which led to the development of independent theatres. More recently, state theatres have opened up to young actors and directors, some of whom are permanently employed, others who collaborate on various projects. The independent theatres are fighting for their survival. Although an independent musical theatre recently opened in Cluj, at the same time another one closed in Iași.
These developments explain why many young actors are turning to film, yet many young directors who recently graduated have a better chance of working in a state theatre than those who graduated 8-10 years ago and never the attention or opportunities the extremely young ones have. Maybe it’s also about luck, timing, context.
Following up on the previous question, do you think permanence in the theatre affects innovation and experimentation?
I would say yes, theoretically, but practically, I don’t think two identical cases exist. In a stable ensemble, for example, comfort and routine quickly become the norm.
Innovation and experiment don’t sell tickets, they don’t generate visibility and they are somehow excluded even when they are supposedly foregrounded. So, one might ask, what is appealing about them? Who would be enticed by innovation and experimentation?
How many state theatres currently operate in Romania, and what is their budget? I understand that the National Theatre in Bucharest is the largest and most influential. Is this correct?
In Romania approximately 100 theatres are operational. Fifty of these are dramatic theatres. Fourteen state theatres are located in Bucharest; in Cluj, there are two national theatres, one Romanian and one Hungarian. Approximately 10 minority theatres are actively staging shows, and include Hungarian, German, Jewish, a German section in Sibiu and a Serbian section in Timișoara. We have theatres with small ensembles of 3-6 actors, host theatres operate in Deva, Buzău and Giurgiu, and we have more than 20-25 theatres stage shows for children and young audiences. About 25 independent theatres are active in Romania, in addition to many independent companies with no fixed venue.
The National Theatre in Bucharest (TNB) is the largest, with 7 venues and an annual budget of about 10 million euros. However, I don’t think it is influential.
Why do you say that? What do you mean?
For two years now TNB has been struggling with a provisional management, numerous scandals and other types of problems. The search for a new management team that was organised by the ministry succeeded only in generating scandal and was never finalised.
Presently, directors representing a range of genres, generations and calibres work at TNB and a clear vision or strategy has not been defined. Through their association with TNB, great directors validate precarious leadership. Performance spaces are rented to private companies whose shows may include TNB-employed actors. As a result, I don’t think the audience can distinguish the two anymore, apart from the difference in the price of the tickets.
There was a famous case of a show produced by a municipal theatre in Bucharest, with ticket prices set at 10-15 euros. They used to perform the same show, as an independent company, on one of the stages in TNB, but the ticket costs 25-30 euros. The chaos and lack of effective management, the uncertainty and the absence of a coherent vision have diminished the quality and are leading TNB towards derision which will, eventually, impact Romanian theatre in its entirety.
You also mentioned theatre outside Bucharest. What is the situation there?
There are several theatres in small towns which have a different type of management (compared to TNB), with a better formulated vision and clear-cut ideas: e.g. Theatre of Youth in Piatra Neamț, Andrei Mureșanu Theatre in Sfântu Gheorghe, Northern Theatre in Satu Mare. As for Bucharest, the programmes of Excelsior and Masca Theatres are worth mentioning.
In your view, does Romanian theatre look old or promisingly young?
Here, directors don’t retire, they work until they die. So do theatre managers. The 65-70+ generation is much busier than many young people. And although young Romanians are not as vocal as the Polish or Lithuanians in demanding their rights and waiting for time to pass and make room for them, I think a generational change is already being felt.
Today, theatres in Bucharest are generally surrounded by uncertainty. The council also wanted a generational change, but did not see it through; 12 out of 14 theatres are currently led by interim managers. Most of them are young directors, only one of whom is a woman, and their artistic programs are more in touch with current reality and present times. However, stability is imperative, but unfortunately, opening a search for permanent management positions doesn’t seem to be the council’s priority.
What about the State bureaucracy? Does that affect the operation of the theatre sector?
Theatres operate under an old, outdated and patched-up law. For many years now, the need for a new law on cultural management has been obvious, but all attempts to implement new legislation have failed thus far. Most artists have given up hope and have adapted, trying to find workarounds and pushing boundaries just to comply with the law.
Photo: Sorin Florea
Let us talk a bit more about independent theatres in Romania. In particular, I’d like to know which one was established first, and which are funded by the State.
Most of the independent theatres are located in Bucharest, with one or two in other large cities. In Bucharest are roughly the same number of independent theatres as state-funded ones, maybe even more. We distinguish between independent and private (commercial) theatre and then we have companies without a a fixed venue or spaces hosting independent performances.
The first independent theatre in Romania was Masca, established in the 1990s. It is also the only one that was given a state-funded status, and the only such theatre in Bucharest which operates outside of the city centre.
The oldest independent theatre is ACT, having recently completed 25 years of operation, and was founded by Marcel Iureș, one of the few Romanian actors who worked in Hollywood and was highly respected by well-known actors. Independent theatres operate for the most part with state funding, but without any long-term security.
Are there any taboo themes or off limit topics for Romanian theatre?
I’ve never thought about this very much, as it always seemed that Romanian theatre allows for open discussion on stage, but off-stage, there are many things we don’t talk openly.
In Romania, the #metoo movement captured people’s attention for three days, but with very little effect. Nobody talks about abuse or fraud committed in theatres and even worse, in theatre schools. Nobody talks about anachronism, incompetence or imposture, nepotism. And I admit that I also would rather discuss premieres and projects that make people happy on my radio shows, I’m tired of scandals. And as we say: in Romania, a miracle lasts three days. People forget very quickly.
In your opinion, what are the major problems that Romanian theatre has to overcome?
I would say that the main problems are self-reference, self-sufficiency, provincialism, and lack of connection with the present.
I think at this point we could end our conversation with a projection into the future.
I think the best thing we can do is to keep calm and remain optimistic. We are currently experiencing a crisis, and as many have observed in the past, every crisis has beneficial effects on the arts.
All things said, I truly hope that Romanian theatre will have a better future. It is imperative to let go of the past and move out of our comfort zone, but without forgetting what was good. To live in the present with an eye to the future.
It is difficult to describe and categorize what is happening nowadays in the theatre community, but perhaps it is from this diversity and Brownian movement that the future will be born. A new Big Bang?!
*Savas Patsalidis is Professor Emeritus in Theatre Studies at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, where he has taught at the School of English for close to 35 years. He has also taught at the Drama School of the National Theatre of Northern Greece, the Hellenic Open University and the graduate program of the Theatre Department of Aristotle 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 on the Executive Committee 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.
Copyright © 2023 Savas Patsalidis
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