Reality and the New Romanian Theatre
Following fifty years of Soviet-style theater in which the director was king and new plays were either hacked to bits by censors or left to gather dust in secret drawers, young Romanian playwrights are reclaiming their stages. On July 10th, the Obie-award winning Immigrants’ Theatre Project, with support from The Trust for Mutual Understanding, will bring three of these playwrights to New York for a series of readings and presentations in a project titled, After the Fall: Reality and the New Romanian Theatre.
For ITP artistic director Marcy Arlin, the project is a natural evolution of her life’s work. Since 1988, Arlin has directed and produced playwrights from all over the world, creating an “inclusive” international theater that focuses on how political realities affect the individual. She is passionate about the young Romanian playwrights, whom she and project curator Roberta Levitow met while teaching in Romania. As the granddaughter of Polish and Latvian immigrants, Arlin says she has “always been fascinated by how people survive cultural upheaval.”
Under communism, Romanian playwrights faced a choice: they could write straight-up Socialist realism or attempt to elude the censors by hiding controversial ideas underneath layers of poetic symbolism. To avoid problems, theaters often stuck to producing visually scrumptious productions of the classics, creating a director-driven theater in which the truth was often coded.
New York-based Romanian playwright Saviana Stanescu says that after 1989, young theater artists—fed up with this duplicity—dedicated themselves to creating a theater of radical honesty.
“My generation, we were students during that time, so we participated in the revolution and tried to change things after that, during the ‘90s,” says Stanescu who is now in her thirties. “We made a transition to language that was more direct: let’s talk about forbidden things, let’s talk about sex, let’s talk about reality.”
Stanescu adds that playwrights in their twenties now are even more adamant about this new candor. “The younger generation is going further than we did. They are writing about how fucked-up things are.”
Romanian journalist and theater critic Iulia Popovici agrees. “Their characters are the ‘sacrificed generation,’ young people of their own age, always forgotten when it comes to talk about the future of the nation. The new playwriting gives this generation the right to speak its mind. That is its main goal.”
Both Popovici and Stanescu say that the new Romanian playwriting has been influenced by contemporary British and American writing for the theater—particularly, Stanescu notes, by London’s Royal Court Theatre writers, including Sarah Kane, who taught a workshop in Romania in 1994. Stanescu also notes the contribution of new German drama, specifically Marius von Mayenburg, whose play Fireface is about a brother and sister who kill their parents.
“Kill the parents,” Stanescu says. “That’s a big influence.”
Popovici is quick to point out that although much of the new writing is committed to honesty, and is often political in nature, it is not homogenous. She says that writers are trying out different things and are still in debt to writers like Ionesco.
“There are new plays—such as Gianina Carbunariu’s which are in a large sense very critical. Gianina believes in a very specific form of poetical realism. There are others such as (most of) Peca Stefan’s or Ioan Peter’s plays—that prefer to rediscover the critical potential of the absurd theater.”
Roland: A girl convinced me to go the theater once, she said it was “reeeally iiinteresting,” that’s exactly what she said, “reeeally iiiinteresting.” We saw the show, I took her home, we kissed goodnight and I never called her again.”
“Stop the Tempo”
In the spring of 2004, After the Fall curator and Theatre Without Borders co-founder Roberta Levitow traveled to Bucharest on a Fulbright grant to teach at the National University of Theatre and Cinematography—which at the time had no playwriting program. Theater professor Nicolae Mandea asked her to teach a class on American political theater. Levitow puzzled over this for awhile. “We don’t have a lot of writing questioning our actual system of government. It’s not what we mean by politics, though it is politics.”
“The most dynamic political drama we have in the United States is this notion of the American identity in relationship to what might be called subcultures,” Levitow continues. “Immigrant cultures, African-American, Latino, sexual preference subcultures. It’s the body politic trying to adjust itself to subgroup identities. So that to me is our politics.”
Levitow chose to teach, among others, the writing of Anna Deveare Smith, Tony Kushner, Suzan-Lori Parks, and Guillermo Gómez-Peña, an artist based in California who creates performance pieces in and about Mexican border culture, and Naomi Wallace’s In the Heart of America.
“The students were attracted to how our writers could respond openly to things, particularly Anna Deveare Smith and Suzan-Lori Parks,” Levitow remembers. “They also felt drawn to the Latin writers like José Rivera and Caridad Svich, and not just because they see themselves as a Latin culture (which they do). They liked Neil LaBute because they understood the meanness. They appreciated the fight for survival in those plays and the moral ambiguity. Eric Bogosian they loved.”
While in Romania, Levitow met a number of young playwrights, most of whom were originally directors. She noticed that although there was no program for playwrights, all of the directing students were anxious to write. In fact, Saviana Stanescu had left her country in 2001 to get an MA in performance studies and an MFA in playwriting at NYU because there was no place for her to study in Romania. Levitow and Mandea decided to rectify the situation by establishing the first MFA playwriting program at the University of Theatre and Cinematography in Bucharest. It officially opened this year.
Levitow also taught a workshop at the independently-run Act Theater, where a group of students had recently formed a group called dramAcum (Drama Now). Levitow says they shared a “remarkably cogent” point of view about the kind of theater they wanted to make.
“In Romanian society there are many taboos about what you can say,” Levitow notes. People are so used to old notions that art is for escaping a terrible world through transcendence and beauty. The playwrights I met wanted to find the beauty in a terrible world.”
Mr. Neagoe: And yes, I love all those things that Westerners hate so much. Yes, I spit sunflower seeds, and yes, I love to slaughter my own Christmas pig, and yes, I prefer to solve my own problems in my own way and avoid the nosy fucking caring community.”
“Romania. Kiss me.”
The three visiting playwrights—Gianina Carbunariu, Bogdan Georgescu, and Vera Ion, are all in their twenties—the writers who came after Stanescu and her colleagues and who, Stanescu says, “don’t have the burden of communism and are free to fly.” Arlin and Levitow are encouraging the playwrights to have a “conversation” with American theater while they’re here. They’ll be seeing “all kinds of theater,” meeting other playwrights and directors, and talking with artistic associates at several theaters including the Public and the New York Theatre Workshop. The staged readings of their own plays will happen at the Martin E. Segal Theatre Center at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center in Manhattan on July 10 and 11.
Iulia Popovici, who will moderate discussions following these readings, noted the different aesthetic preoccupations of the three emissaries. Popovici says Gianina Carbunariu, who often directs her own work and has been in residence at the Royal Court, “has sort of an anarchic view of the meaning of theater.”
Carbunariu’s play, _Stop the Tempo—_which contains scenes in which actors voice surly complaints about the state of the theater—was first staged in a loud, smoky café in Bucharest with the actors using flashlights as their primary lighting instruments. Levitow saw it while teaching in Bucharest and says, “it was wonderful.”
Bogdan Georgescu, whose play, Romania. Kiss Me calls for a live orchestra that plays smells (lots and lots of onion) as well as sounds (peeing, spitting, crunching sunflower seeds) is more interested in new aesthetic forms. “He likes to experiment but in a similar frame of socially-oriented theater,” says Popovici. “Red Bull author Vera Ion takes advantage of her poetic experience to write the sad saga of a confused young generation.”
Saviana Stanescu, who will also moderate discussions following the plays, is excited about the playwrights’ visit and has dedicated considerable time to “making a place for the playwright in Romania” by bringing American directors and playwrights to her native country. One of her goals is to concentrate not only on the young, but to reach out to older Romanian playwrights as well, playwrights who have been largely forgotten. “These poor guys, they didn’t have anything,” Stanescu says. “My parents’ generation, they didn’t have a real chance.”
“I want to bring together the generations.”
Popovici believes that all of the playwrights are in a “first phase”—that they are beginning to take their first baby steps towards the creation of a new Romanian theater, and what might come of this new movement is impossible to predict.
“A great Russian theater critic, Marina Davidova, said that before 1990 the theater was at the same time the Church, the Parliament and a forum for the civil society. Now the Church and the Parliament have regained their due place, and the civil society invented its own forums, so the theater has to find a new, different place for itself. And nobody knows, for the moment, what it will be.”
HE (staring at the Redbull can): I’m very sorry to inform you that you can’t buy that. This product has expired. If you want an energy drink, you must look in another supermarket. We apologize for the inconvenience and we offer you a chocolate because you made the effort to come here.
Program for AFTER THE FALL:
July 10 at 6:30 p.m.
Martin E. Segal Theatre Center at the CUNY Graduate Center (365 Fifth Avenue, Manhattan). Stop the Tempo by Gianina Carbunariu, directed by Melanie Sutherland. Q&A with Dr. Mandea & Iulia Popovici, moderated by Marcy Arlin and Saviana Stanescu. Reservations suggested: Call 212.817.8215 and mention code 5775.
July 11 at 6:30 p.m.
Martin E. Segal Theatre Center at the CUNY Graduate Center (365 Fifth Avenue, Manhattan). Red Bull by Vera Ion, directed by Marcy Arlin and Romania. Kiss Me. by Bogdan Georgescu, directed by Kaipo Schwab. Q&A with Roberta Levitow and Saviana Stanescu. Reservations suggested: Call 212.817.8215 and mention code 6776
July 12 at 1 p.m.
LaGuardia Community College (31-10 Thomson Ave., Long Island City)
After the Fall: Creative Writing in Romania. Speakers: Professor Nicolae Mandea with journalist Iulia Popvici and playwrights Gianina Carbunariu, Bogdan Georescu, and Vera Ion.
July 12 at 7 p.m.
Romanian Cultural Institute (200 East 38th Street at 3rd Avenue, Manhattan)
After the Fall: Reality and the New Romanian Theatre. Multi-media presentation by journalist Iulia Popovici. Reservations suggested: Call 212.687.0180
Heidi Schreck lives in Brooklyn and is the proud member of two playwright collectives, Vinegar Tom Players and Machiqq. Her most recent play Creature was developed in the 20052006 SoHo Rep Lab.