Interviewed by Ioana Moldovan
The Romanian actor and theatre director Ion Lucian was born on April 22, 1924 — a time when Romania was a different country, and its capital city, Bucharest had just begun to resemble Paris, the marvelous city that captured the imagination of Romanian high society.
The country was a monarchy, and the city’s most glamorous artery was Calea Victoriei, a strange cross between Broadway, Pennsylvania Avenue and Fifth Avenue. On Calea Victoriei was the Grand Theatre of Bucharest (later known as the National Theatre), which had been inaugurated on the last day of the year 1853. The Grand Theatre was completely destroyed on August 24, 1944 by a Luftwaffe air bombing, one day after Romania switched sides and left the military alliance with Nazi Germany.
Member of the Hall of Fame of the National Theater in Bucharest, Lucian is now 87. A legendary figure, Lucian is one of the few people still around who can talk about the glamorous days of old, when the Romanian theatre was owned and managed by private companies. His artistic maturity — which he speaks about in this interview — happened during the harsh years of communist terror in Romania.
Lucian’s escape from Communism was to fall in love with children’s theatre, a passion that materialized in the opening of two children’s theatres in Bucharest — one of them, called Excelsior, being his latest endeavor. Excelsior Theatre for Children, which was founded in April 1989, has re-opened a new building on May 4, 2011; it is the first theatre in Bucharest since the 1989 Revolution to be built completely from scratch. With a capacity of 181 seats and laid out on three floors (a total of 600 square meters usable space), Excelsior has a theatre hall and foyer situated on the first floor, balcony and booths on the second floor, and administrative offices on the third.
In 1942, during wartime, the National Theatre of Bucharest hired you as actor. How does a young man end up in a theatre when the world is crumbling down all around him?
My beginnings in theatre were the game of fate. Looking back now after seven decades of theatre activity, I think this is the right approach to the matter. Although it was a happy encounter right from the start, I was interested in theatre only because it was a way of earning some money. You see, my father wanted me to become an engineer. But on September 7, 1940, Romania had to give up Cadrilater, a territory located in between the Danube and the Black Sea. It became part of Bulgaria. My father was trapped there and could not return home to Bucharest. Being a young man, I’ve felt I had to contribute to the financial stability of my family until his return. So I applied for a job as an extra for the National Theatre. Everything was going smoothly until one day the Minister of Education, Petru Andrei, gave an order that high-school students were banned from entering places where sport events, cinema and theatre happened. His order was forced by a terrible crime committed by a schoolmate of mine from Lazar High who killed a teacher in cold blood. It wasn’t a political crime, it wasn’t a hate crime, just a moment of madness that came upon my mate and that forced the officials to press for urgent and strict acts. It was the end of 1940, and I found myself unable to go to theatre and earn my honest living due to a very harsh decree that was banning my presence in the theatre.
The financial stability of my family was in jeopardy, and I had to find a way to keep going to the theatre, but in a legal way. Soon I found out that the Conservatoire (the academic institution that was training actors and actresses) was awarding student IDs even without having graduated from high school, the only requirement being to pass the entrance exam. So I went to the Conservatoire, and I passed the exam. This changed my life completely. During my first year as an acting student, the National Theatre needed five new actors as Romania entered the war (June 22, 1941); some actors of the theatre decided to join the army. So they were short on actors! But I was not allowed to attend that casting, as I was only a first-year student. The casting was for final-year acting students and those who graduated within five years.
On the day of the casting, George Calboreanu (great Romanian film and theatre actor, 1896–1986), saw me, and as everyone there knew me as the young kid of the company, he asked me why I was not trying my hand on the casting, too. I told him I was not allowed due to my age and early stage of studies. He thought otherwise and intervened on my behalf. So I was allowed to try. The jury was made of Liviu Rebreanu (president, great Romanian novelist), Maria Filotti, Marioara Voiculescu, Ion Manolescu, George Calboreanu and Pop Martian (all great actors). I placed third, out of 136 wannabes. The fact that I was selected without having received a proper acting training for more than a few months encouraged me to keep on following the acting/theatre path. I was hired in 1942; I was almost 18 years old, and during the first three seasons I was cast in 74 different performances. My greatest exit then was being awarded the part of Hlestakov in Nikolai Gogol’s The Inspector General directed by Ion Sahighian.
What did it mean to be an actor in wartime working for the most prestigious theatre establishment in the country?
It meant a lot. Getting hired by the National Theatre, as in any theatre of those times, was a difficult thing, but the real competition started once you were hired. One success meant all eyes were on you. Romanian theatre then, as now, did not function with the help of agents. But we had a marvelous group of theatre critics who would not miss a talent and would write in support of anyone they spotted, lobbying for them publicly. If you had a second success as an actor, the theatre managers began to inquire about you. If you succeeded a third time in a production, that was when serious negotiations begin. You were regarded an established actor only after nine or 10 great consecutive successes. But if the 10th production was a failure, you had to consider starting all over again, as people in the business were quick to bury you; they would say you had disappointed everyone or that you might not have star qualities after all.
How was the theatre public then?
Bucharest had 1,000,000 inhabitants and 22 theatres — all but one owned by the state. All the rest were private businesses, and the theatres were filled to capacity every night. Romanians have since then been forever in love with theatre. That’s why we’ve always had great theatre and great performances that could stand in competition with any other acting school in the world. Romanians are the only people who have given five sociétér for La Comédie-Française. We were the only nation granted this privilege of having Romanian actors awarded memberships with La Comédie-Française. Romania was on the map for any serious theatre company in Europe; every summer, a great European actor was having a grand tour in Romania, stopping over in Bucharest.
During wartime, I remember the theatres were packed. Cinemas were popular at the time, too, but people were more attracted to theatre, as they loved the live proximity to actors. This is why during the war, despite the air raids and bombardments, the theatres were packed. Theatre was a nonstop activity in those days. In 1944, after the National Theatre’s building was bombarded, the actors were split into three smaller companies, and they toured the villages around Bucharest.
Since there was no such thing as a National Theatre at the time, which path did you take?
After three seasons, at the age of 21, I had the honor to see my name printed in neon letters as big as my body on the buildings next to the Athénée Palace, the most famous hotel in Bucharest then (and nowadays, too). My name was next to the name of Maria Tanase, the great Romanian music legend. We were cast in a Noël Coward play together. All theatres were interested in me, but I chose to go to Budapest to make a film. When I returned in the beginning of the 1945/1946 season, the only place I could find work at was at the Operetta Alhambra Theatre, where I worked for the next two years (1945 to 1947).
And what happened to the film?
The film was a flop, but I was interested in that experience. It was my debut in a film directed by a Romanian from Timisoara. The director rented the film studio in Budapest and filmed three versions of it: one in Romanian, one in Hungarian and one in German. In all three films, the leading lady was his daughter. I did not care too much about these arrangements, as being part of that film project put me into the proximity of such actors as Theo Lingen (1903–1978) who had my part in the German version and was an actor in more than 100 roles in films, half of those in films directed by him. The part I portrayed was played in the Hungarian version by Latabár Kálmán. Lingen was interested in me as an actor, and he showed me a few tricks. My film training on the set lasted for three and a half months. So at my return in Bucharest, the season was on, and only the Operetta Alhambra had work I could take. But I see that as another fortunate kick, as I can say about myself I’ve performed in all genres of theatre.
What can you say about theatre before and after the Second World War?
I remember that almost all the foreign playwrights would visit to see the opening nights of their plays in Bucharest. A lot of them were so excited about what they saw that eventually they took the Romanian productions of their plays on European tours. Those were good times, when Romanian actors could afford a month of vacation in Paris, even if we all were low-income people. All of us were having these trips for artistic reasons, to tour Paris’s artistic scene, to get inspired and discover new texts and playwrights. It was a time of great cultural effervescence.
Romanians have lost a great deal due to Communism. Even through the Second World War and the German Occupation, we could still manage as theatre professionals. The German-imposed theatre repertoire was of high quality. In late the 1940s and 1950s, the communists forced us to play only a limited number of texts and authors. But this forced us to be better at acting, as revenge for what we could not perform. We’ve developed a whole new way of acting, the how-we-wanted way. Communists loved theatre, but they did not figure that protecting the theatre they’ve protected an institution that fought for the moral well-being of the nation. Under communism, theatre was the star of the Romanian culture.
Can you recall how it happened: the nationalization of private theatre companies?
In 1945 we still had private theatre companies. In the autumn of 1945, it was decided that all theatre would become state-owned, and so in 1947 there were no private companies anymore. The masters have changed overnight! In 1947, I was freed from my contract with the Operetta Alhambra. I was a bit worried about my future. One day I received a called from Mrs. Lucia Sturdza-Bulandra who was designated to establish the first communist theatre: the Municipality’s Theatre. Mrs. Bulandra had two lieutenants, her helpers, both with strong communist pasts: Jules Cazaban and Beate Fredanov. She called me and told me she wanted me to join the new company. The only thing still in question was my fee. We started to negotiate. Inflation was starting, so I suggested that I be paid with the equivalent of 20 seats for every night I was performing. Mrs. Bulandra went to the Mayor of Bucharest, General Victor Dombrovski, to see if my request would pass. The theatre belonged to the municipality now, so he had a word in any decision. He laughed at my proposal and apparently he said: “Mrs. Bulandra, let it be his way as he is a smart fellow! But feel free to keep negotiating the number of the seats involved!” So from 20 seats, we came down to 10 seats.
All of this happened on August 13, 1947, and everyone was curious about the price of the seat (or the ticket price). On August 15, 1947, the Romanian economy had to face a drastic monetary instability. The Bulandra Company settled the cost of its theatre ticket to 125 lei per evening. [Author’s note: Due to inflation, new monies were issued. No matter how much money one had, everyone was entitled to only 150 lei. No changing of old money was allowed. Overnight, people lost everything. Bulandra’s 125 lei ticket price was pretty much the amount of money people received from the state.] My deal made me the most well-paid actor of the theatre, earning almost double than Mrs. Bulandra, the theatre manager. And this went on for almost a year! Then the mayor of Bucharest invited me to pay him a visit and advised me to sign a regular contract and submit to a monthly salary, no matter how many nights a month I would perform. So I did. I stayed with the Municipality’s Theatre until 1952.
How did you get involved with children’s theatre?
I am considered a real theatre founder, as I was part of the artistic crew that established the Municipality’s theatre in 1947, Nottara Theatre in 1952, the Comedy Theatre in 1960, “Ion Creanga” Theatre for Children in 1964, and in April 1989, I established Excelsior Theatre, another theatre for children. In 1964, the Municipality’s theatre had a Soviet play for children entitled Natasha and the Bear. One of the actors, a Mr. Dabija, was a great joker, and he was arrested for an innocent joke that offended the political regime. The next day the play was due to be performed, so Mrs. Bulandra asked me to fill in the last moment. For me it was a life-changing moment, as I fell in love with the public, all made of children. I’ve felt their love and seen their honest and warm reactions. I’ve found in the audience made of children something an adult public can’t offer to actors. So this has affected me, and I was happy when Mrs. Bulandra started to ask me to direct theatre plays for children.
Then in 1964, the Bulandra Theatre Company was placed at the theatre hall of St. Sava College in Bucharest until the renovation work at the headquarters of the company was completed. But Mr. Miron Constantinescu, the former Minister of Education, gave Bulandra the college hall with the condition that they do something in return: the promise of a children’s performance on June 1 that same year. Mrs. Bulandra forgot about it completely. On May 4, she received a call from the minister, reminding her about the children’s play. It was too short a time to stage one of the Romanian stories for children that made up the season of such children’s theatre events, so all I could think about was to write a simple play. I wrote it in five nights with the thought that it would be performed only for one night! But the play I wrote, entitled The Disobedient Cockerel, has been performed ever since without interruption for 54 years now. It has been translated into eight different languages. This was the final act that completely changed my life; it reoriented me towards young audiences.
You are a custodian of the next generation of theatre audiences. How do you see them? What do you think about the future of theatre generally?
What’s to come in Romanian theatre after my generation is gone is something I am asked constantly. I think Romanians have a great future in theatre, and I truly believe each generation has its uncontestable amount of talented people. All theatre people are trying to find new ways to express artistically. But I think 80 percent of all theatre experiments are parallel to the real thing and end up as a research papers in a library! I sense we’ve reached the point of the mechanization of the soul, when one pushes a button and one gets theatre. Now things are so different. No sooner than 30 years ago, when someone had tickets to a theatre performance, there was a whole ritual of dressing up with one‘s best clothing, showing up to the theatre and entering it as in a temple — almost a mystical experience. Now I feel people go to theatre in between a cinema break. It’s not right to see Chekhov’sThree Sisters with the actresses dressed as if they were circus people and asked by the director to use the samovar only for peeing in it. I want to see theatre that changes me, that makes me walk the streets afterwards in search of an answer! I am happy when I see a performance executed in good faith, with respect to the audience, playwright and the text. Experiments do not make me happy, just as I don’t agree with the politics of theatre.
 Ioana Moldovan, 34, has been a member of the Romanian Section of the International Association of theatre Critics since March 2007. She is a theatre critic for Revista 22, a political weekly magazine. Since March 2007 she has been a member of the professorial staff of the “I. L. Caragiale” National University of Theatre and Cinematographic Arts in Bucharest – Department of theatre Studies, Cultural Management and theatre Journalism. Between 2006 and 2009, she was involved with ACT theatre in Bucharest, the first independent theatre stage in Romania, where she served as a cultural manager. She is also a 2010-2011 Fulbright Junior Grantee with the University of Southern California–School of theatre, in Los Angeles, where she pursued research on the topic of “Open Society Theatre.”
 Sociétérs are members of an artistic community. For actors, this designation means to be so highly regarded that the theatre would pay their salaries for the rest of their lives or get a share of all the theatre’s income. It’s the ultimate gesture of recognition and appreciation for an actor.