Features Published 4 July 2019

Romania’s divided political theatre landscape

Lily Levinson writes on the seismic generational divides in Romania's theatre scene, and the embattled political companies that are fighting for change.
Lily Levinson

The entrance to Reactor Theatre, Romania. Photo: Lily Levinson

“They call us ‘the unemployed’,” Oana Mardare, founder of the independent Romanian theatre company Reactor, tells me. Reactor stages original, experimental productions in a ramshackle building down a side street at the edge of Cluj city centre. It runs a residency programme supporting young graduate directors working in new theatrical forms. Every Saturday morning, it presents performances for children. On the evening I visit, I watch a preview of Baladele Memoriei (Memory Ballads), in which an ordinary 68-year-old woman commands the stage in front of a packed house. But despite constant activity, an expanding audience, and a commitment to creative experiment, Mardare seems downbeat about Reactor’s future. “As time passes I’m starting to realise that unless something changes structurally and importantly, and we get the recognition and support we need, at some point I’ll be too tired to carry on.”

Under Nicolae Ceaușescu’s communist dictatorship, theatres in Romania were well-funded by the state because they served as an effective means of spreading propaganda throughout the country. Following the 1989 revolution, this function is now redundant, but the older theatres continue to receive large government subsidies. Nowadays, they produce opulent but depoliticised productions of ‘the classics’, still reluctant to bite the hand that feeds them. During my week in Bucharest, the National Theatre of Bucharest stages Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap and two domestic comedies. “The state institutions are totally afraid of social or political issues,” the director Radu Apostol explains.

The newer independent theatres are different: from Teatrul Luni at Green Hours Jazz Cafe, founded in 1997, onwards. Their money comes only from grants, ticket sales, and occasionally private funders. Their productions tend to be directly political, addressing contemporary issues facing Romanians today. They are often run collectively, in non-hierarchical structures. And the artists working in them are largely ignored or derided by the rest of the industry.

Everyone I speak during my stay in Romania has something to say about the unfairness of a system that enables the state theatres to continue to produce huge spectacles with nothing to say, while independent theatre-makers live in constant financial precarity. The main body with funds available to independent theatres is the National Cultural Fund Administration (AFCN), but it only has two calls for applications per year – and if your company is not awarded one of these grants, then, the writer Mihaela Michailov states bluntly, “you cannot exist.”

Sitting next to her on a bench outside Replika Educational Theatre Centre, Apostol nods emphatically. He and Michailov founded Replika in 2015, and it is now run “like a kibbutz”, in a collective of seven artists. Apostol is puppyish and energetic, bouncing on the bench, chain-smoking, his phone beeping all the time. Michailov is quiet and gentle-voiced, and considers her answers carefully. They are both deeply invested in their work. Apostol’s frustration bubbles up when he talks about how the financial situation thwarts Replika’s ability to achieve its aesthetic ambitions. “Having only four lights puts a limit on your lighting design. It’s a constant problem, trying not to make all our shows look the same. It’s a joke in Romania: if you don’t know whether it’s an independent theatre performance or not, just take a look onstage. And if you find a mic on a stand, that’s an independent theatre piece.”

The self-deprecating joke resonates with other artists I talk to. Bogdan Olteanu, who has written and directed two productions for the privately-funded theatre Apollo 111, meets me in the theatre’s bar. The venue is industrial-hipster-cool, lit by a huge pale pink orb hanging from the high ceiling. But productions there struggle to break even on the income from ticket sales. Olteanu tells me that his first play was staged with “two people sitting on two chairs.”

Ruefully acknowledging that this is another cliché of the Romanian independent theatre scene, he shrugs. “I mean, it was nice, it was well-written, but it doesn’t look very sexy when you show it in photographs – two people sitting on two chairs can’t compete with [Alexandru Darie’s production of] Coriolanus at the Bulandra, which had two hundred people on a huge stage, with historical costumes and special effects. And the Bulandra’s tickets were cheaper than mine, because they’re state-funded.”

Another problem comes up repeatedly in conversation: “Romanian theatre, for ages, has been considered ‘directors’ theatre’,” Apostol explains, “and because of this, we had this awful attitude towards the playwright.” Older, established directors – the gatekeepers of the state theatres’ repertoires – rarely seek out young playwrights or new plays. “People are not encouraged to write because nobody is staging them,” says Olteanu. This lack of encouragement manifests as a lack of training opportunities. Playwriting is not taught in university theatre departments, and theatres don’t offer script development support. “Contemporary playwriting is in crisis,” the director Ioana Păun tells me plainly.

In 2002, Radu Apostol was one of a group of graduates from the directing course at the National University for Theatre and Film in Bucharest who founded the programme DramAcum, “to encourage young people to write for theatre, to reflect the reality they saw and translate it to theatre.” It led to the working partnership between Apostol and Michailov, and launched the careers of a number of significant Romanian directors and playwrights. The cultural critic Cristina Modreanu has written about how the influence of DramAcum helped form the independent theatre scene in Romania, with its focus on contemporary socio-political issues, its collaborative working methods, and its use of documentary and verbatim. And yet, seventeen years later, there is still a sense of “crisis”.

Before arriving in Romania, I had been excited by the 2017 Satelit competition, run by Olteanu in conjuncton with Apollo 111. The competition aimed “to discover new texts and encourage more people to write.” The list of entries looked to me like an exciting preview of the work of a new generation of Romanian theatre-makers: Satelit as the new DramAcum. But when I ask if he would run it again, Olteanu says, “I don’t know. I think artistically it was a success, but financially it was very hard. If we want to do it again we have to find a solution to raise more money.” At Reactor, Oana Mardare talks to me about the Temps d’Image Festival, which ran from 2008 to 2017 at Fabrica de Pensule, a contemporary arts centre in an old paintbrush factory in Cluj. “I felt that it was something you don’t see in Romania, like the way of working, the content, the curating of the programme. It was such a good model for me. Unfortunately it was not sustainable, it was too niche, maybe, it had strong political content, and it was not mainstream, so…” She trails off.

I hear many stories like this, of independent theatre projects smothered in their infancy by lack of funding and an uninterested dominant culture. “The way the system is organised right now doesn’t allow emerging artists to fulfil their potential,” critic Modreanu says. “It’s criminal.”

I discover that I need to think about the idea of ‘generation’ differently. Most of the artists I talk to are in their mid-thirties or early forties. “I’m 40 years old and there is no gap either thematically or technically between me and the people that are 10 years younger, because we are all constricted by the same conditions. There is a gap between me and the people that are 10 years older,” as Olteanu puts it.

These ‘conditions’ are not only financial. The significant generational difference is still between those who took part in the 1989 revolution, and their children, who were raised in the transitional period of the early 1990s. There is a sense, articulated maybe most clearly by 34-year-old Ioana Păun, that the younger generation are held back by something other than lack of money: “The process of becoming an adult in Romania is kind of impossible. Even the state structures treat you like a baby.”

At Apollo 111, I watch 153 de Secunde (153 Seconds), directed by Păun. She describes the theme of the production as something akin to impotency: an inability to take responsibility. The condition is specific to her generation, as she sees it. “It was put on us by teachers and parents and society and, like drinking Coke, we just swallowed it,” she says. To the beat of a house track, a group of young people eyeball the audience, slowly lift bottles of Coca-Cola to their lips and drink deeply. They do it three times. The dark liquid spills down the front of their t-shirts but they don’t break eye contact or stop what they’re doing.

Although I couldn’t understand the Romanian in which the show questions its audience, I came away with a strong sense of having been confronted; obscurely guilty, energised by the bass and feedback that thudded through the production.

153 de Secunde is about a fire in the Colectiv nightclub in 2015, which spread through the building in less than two minutes. 64 young people were killed, and the ensuing protests led to the resignation of the Prime Minister Victor Ponta. I tell Păun that I’ve seen Ponta’s face on posters all over town, campaigning for the European Parliamentary elections with a new political party. “Everything was erased, diluted,” she says. “It is so hard to be political in Romania. Everyone has opinions, but effective political activism is exhausting.” 153 de Secunde seeks to start a reflective process amongst her own generation, to move its audience past the tragedy of the fire towards a deeper understanding of their inherited assumptions, prejudices, and identities.

At Reactor, Baladele Memoriei also explores the generational divide caused by Romania’s seismic socio-political restructure in the 1990s. Using a reel-to-reel recording device, a gramophone, a cassette tape-player, and a transistor radio, two performers in their early thirties and one woman in her late sixties try to find a way to speak to each other onstage. The typical audience at Reactor is aged between 16 and 30. Mardare explains to me that the performance’s goal is “to create a bit of empathy and understanding of the older generation and its background,” in front of these young spectators.

This desire – to create empathy and understanding – is shared by the artists at Replika. “We have a motto of our space,” Apostol tells me, grinning, “it sounds very good in English because it’s from your Shakespeare. From Hamlet. We call it ‘an artistic mousetrap for community issues’. We identify a topic and then we imagine a show and try to catch people there – their emotions, their prejudices.”

I was moved by the shows I saw while in Romania. That kind of politically-engaged performance is less common in UK theatres. The productions I saw were rooted in specific contemporary social issues, and all of them were concerned with the collective national identity. Many of the practitioners I spoke to shared a questing need to find meaningful ways of staging the potential for socio-political progress. I was inspired by Apostol and Michailov’s conviction that theatre can bring about systemic change, starting in the minds of individual audience members.

But without money and support the independent theatres and the artists working in them can’t move forward. They are struggling to survive in a cultural ecology that pits them against the behemoths of the state-funded theatres. The frustration expressed to me so often was the frustration of artists lacking the resources they need to experiment, to find new ways of making theatre. As Cristina Modreanu put it to me, “you cannot develop or innovate when you lack the minimum stability you need to just, you know, get out of your head.”

Lily Levinson’s visit to Romania was funded by one of the British Council’s first International Bursaries for Bloggers. Visit www.britishcouncil.org/theatreanddance for more information, and to hear about future bursaries and opportunities.

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Lily Levinson

Read more of Lily Levinson's work on https://malcolmmooney.wordpress.com/