I Am Not Exotic—I Am Exhausted*

This series presents perspectives on contemporary theater in Romania. It is curated by Iulia Popovici, who recently concluded a month long ArtsLink residency at HowlRound.

Communism. Anti-communism. Post-communism. State subsidy. Theater as public service. Actors as civil servants. Emphasis on physicality. Emphasis on the visual. A “director’s theater.”

A decent (in terms of length) journal article will never exhaust the themes of identity that surround a particular “national” theater. Writing about a national theater as far away from the United States as the Romanian one means, in the end, performing exoticism—playing the monkey for the zoo visitors that do expect a monkey. Because, in the end, it’s not about the theater—a specific economic and aesthetic system designed to produce and share artistic work—it’s about how a society, in this case Romanian society, is perceived at an international level.

Because theater is an art form with deep roots in its community, we look to it to explain our view of a particular culture. Things that sometimes contradict, but most of the time confirm our expectations. The United States is the country of playwriting and expensive musical theater. Eastern Europe is Stanislavski and amazingly rich reinterpretations of classics. (What would you say if I told you that until this very year, the only edition of Stanislavski’s writings available in Romania was one published more than half a century ago that antiquarians were selling for $100-$150?)

There is a very simple narrative covering, more or less, the whole of Eastern Europe: a bunch of countries got rid of communism in 1989 and have been struggling ever since to build a true democracy on the basis of sustainable capitalism. To loosely quote Boris Buden, one of my favorite European cultural critics, whose Post-communist Condition has not, unfortunately, been translated into English: Eastern Europe is kept in a perpetual condition of infancy, waiting for its parents, the Western democracies, to give it license to “grow up.” In the meantime, citizens of the West visit, in all good faith, the Eastern European maternity ward where democracy is about to be born, sometimes with the feeling that they have the unique chance to see an early stage of their own society. Just as if you had a chance to travel back in time and see yourself as a child, confident that the erratic, dirty toddler will become the accomplished adult you are today.

It’s as valid to ask, “Is all new theater in Romania about communism?” as it is to ask, “Is all new theater in United States about capitalism?” The answer is pretty much the same in both cases: “Yes, from a certain point of view.” The problem is in the phrasing of the question. Would any American theatermaker deny, in good faith, that, let’s say, Angels in America is, indeed, a play about capitalism? And so our cultures meet—Romanian theater speaking to a society where communism (whatever that means, exactly) is part of a contemporary identity, and an American theater infused with the experiences of racial segregation, decades of civil rights movements, a sexual revolution, and the subprime mortgage crisis.

The things that we—we being the reflection of this author’s self-identification with a new wave of local Romanian theater artists, with less access to resources and more access to ideas, logically challenging the current mainstream—find the most interesting, the most alive in the Romanian theater is a branch of theater that is politically and socially engaged and that very much aesthetically resembles what you see on Western stages these days. Our interests lack the exoticism Westerners expect from Romanian theater, and are also pretty embedded in the local realities. It makes sense to me that people in France and the United States might not have the interest and the patience to learn the many details about the Romanian-Hungarian interethnic conflicts in the nineties or even the impossible truth hidden in the surveillance files of the former secret police. But maybe potential audience members in the United States would find a surprising similarity between how a son feels when discovering that his father, a CIA spy, has lied about his entire life in the name of a greater good, and how another son, thousands of miles away, feels when finding out that his beloved dead father was a longtime informant of a different secret service, also fighting for his version of a greater good. (These are books, not theater productions: one is Scott C. Johnson’s The Wolf and the Watchman: A Father, a Son, and the CIA, the other is Peter Esterhazy’s diptych Celestial Harmonies and Revised Edition—unfortunately, as far as I know, the latter has not yet been translated into English.)

The Romanian theater that “we” don’t like so much—because we think it’s dull, conservative, and totally detached from real life (some of us also think that it spends way too much money on sets and costumes and takes advantage of cheap actors and technicians)—is the kind of art that the tourists look for when coming to Romania (or Eastern Europe in general—I strongly believe that we share here a common social and cultural identity). Westerners come looking for the big-scale, director-driven, image theater, the “auteur theater,” the most important product of the state-subsidized repertory system, itself an emanation of communism. And this theater has definitely influenced what all the things produced on our stages look like—including the political theater and the minimalist productions that further a certain psychological form of acting, a certain directness and realism and a certain keen interest in scenic visual beauty (no matter if you only have three actors and some chairs on stage).

Before World War II, only a handful of big cities had theaters—usually a public one (a National Theater, of model of such would be the famous Commédie Française in Paris) and several private companies, most performing French boulevard plays. There was only one puppet theater company, performing every now and then in Bucharest, and mostly only rich people had access to theater. But after World War II, when Europe was plagued by hunger and trying to rebuild its destroyed cities and dead industry, in Eastern Europe, the new Stalinist regimes were throwing innocent people in jail and building theaters. Theater was a sort of Eastern European Marshall Plan: it was an ideological investment in (re)inventing a society, a larger community working together for the country, the party and the glory of socialism. As the United States found a level of economic prosperity after World War I during the glory days of vaudeville with the spreading of theaters throughout the country, selling tickets at prices affordable to pretty much everyone, so after the second World War theater in Romania was a communist ideological maneuver of Soviet inspiration and theaters opened in each and every town. Shows were touring everywhere and people that had never been to a performance were occupying the auditoriums and learning how to watch theater. This was part of the communist recipe for the democratization of culture and we are still feeding upon its success (while, slowly but visibly, theater moves aesthetically and financially further and further from general accessibility and affordability). 

This is, in fact, the biggest difference between the state-subsidized system and the private grant-based theater: the subsidy is meant to cover the price of the ticket up to an affordable limit for virtually any taxpayer. Grants and donations, by contrast, are meant to make the artistic work possible. Subsidy is aimed at the audience; grants and donations are intended for artists and theaters.

The subsidy model creates an irrepressible temptation towards grandeur—having an ensemble, large technical teams, costume and carpentry workshops, generous stages, and ushers and managers paid for by the state (including health insurance and social security). Why keep costs low when you have all these resources at your disposal, almost for free? When the Iron Curtain fell, at the beginning of the nineties, the Romanian theater discovered that not only had a sexual revolution taken place in the West but that the Western welfare state had led to increased production costs in the theater, shorter rehearsal periods, and a shorter number of performances for a show. But in Romania, the wages were small and the ensembles were big (and this ratio remains the same to this day). Because production costs were cheap, Romanian shows had large casts and sumptuous sets (or lights), a scale of theater that could only be found in Eastern Europe or on Broadway—but Broadway was expensive. There were plays from the classical repertoire, staged in a metaphoric language, with dozens of people in the cast, lots of extras and yet, easy to tour—yes, there were a lot of hotel rooms to pay for, but the fees were low. Silviu Purcărete’s Danae, might not have pleased some US critics, but it was one of the most internationally successful Romanian theater productions after 1990—generally described as “visually impressive.” Later, Purcărete’s Oresteia enjoyed a similar success. Faust, by the same director, with a cast of around one hundred actors, live pigs, flying objects, and open fire, has been touring the world since 2007, labeled as an “extravaganza.” Performances in its hometown, Sibiu, cost the equivalent of $9 or less, while at the Edinburgh Festival, where this show traveled in 2009, a seat was worth $32 (the financial support of the Romanian cultural authorities for the tour in the United Kingdom notwithstanding).

All these shows are admittedly landmarks of the contemporary Romanian theater, and yet one cannot have but ambiguous feelings about them, since they “sell” an illusion: the illusion that this is the real thing, the true reality and identity of the Romanian/Eastern European theater. A British critic, in talking about a first-time, small Romanian festival presenting political (and minimalist) contemporary theater, lamented the lack of a strong visual dimension (and a cathartic narrative) in the shows he was seeing. But while the large-scale theater based on metaphorical interpretations of canonical texts offers an extraordinary training for actors, it tends to exhaust the human and financial resources of a subsidized art that is about to become too metaphoric for regular audiences and too big for there to be room for the experimental, postdramatic, political, and socially-engaged theater to have enough space left to develop.

Purcărete’s Faust is the exception, not the rule—but above the essence and aesthetics of the show itself, its international success offers to the hardcore of traditional theatrical institutions in Romania many apparent arguments for the preservation of a performing arts model with no interest in or connections to the contemporary world.

As the conditions of theater production get more sophisticated and expensive in the West, the possibilities to explore the limits of theatricality can be hindered. The secret of the Eastern European theater lies equally in the state subsidy, the system of universal health coverage, and the lack of strict rules and regulations. It’s a Wild West of performing arts, with a large coefficient of “survival of the fittest.”

There are times in life when one wishes that some things didn’t reach capitalist standards too soon, but instead went back to the old cultural democracy of socialism when theater seemed less exotic but also less exhausted by constantly performing this exoticism.

*The title belongs to an exhibition by the Romanian visual artist Dan Perjovschi that opened at Kunsthalle Basel in 2007.


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Thoughts from the curator

This series presents perspectives on contemporary theatre in Romania.

Romanian Theatre

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This is a very rich article, in its details. However, you speak of Westerners in much the same way that you claim "Westerners" speak of Eastern Europeans. We too are not a monolith, neither of culture, nor of perception, nor of theatrical expectation.

Actually, it's sort of stated at the beginning of the text (that in general cultural perception is schematized). It's a very interesting comment, I think - since the idea of the article is not to do justice to the under-represented Western culture, which is mentioned as such far less than the main subject... But I suppose that Edward Said was also misrepresenting the diversity of human nature in the Western world. (I had an earlier comment suggesting you to ask any theatre student in, let's say, Romania, to name an American theatre artist and then do the exercise the other way around. But then I saw the word 'claiming' and I realized I was not looking for reinventing the wheel.)

I'm finding this fascinating as I had a translated play open in Romania in late November. And it's about swingers.