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Viewpoints for Achieving Authentic Representation of Roma Communities on Stage

The Roma are not only the largest, but also the most disadvantaged ethnic group in Hungary and throughout Europe. They face numerous prejudices and discrimination by the non-Roma, white majority. The representation and self-representation of Roma on stage can both help and hinder Roma and non-Roma citizens in forming an authentic image of the diverse Roma communities and issues that affect them. It can also have a prominent—negative or positive—effect on the formation of an inclusive society.

In autumn of 2022, together with Roma and non-Roma theatremakers, critics, academics, and students, we explored the questions of Roma (self)representation on stage in a series of workshops titled What Is Theater Worth If It’s Roma? The initiative was a collaboration between Independent Theater Hungary, Theater Magazine (Színház folyóirat), and ELTE University. Through the collaborative work of the participants from different (but related) professions, we have gathered a list of viewpoints on the topic.

A group of people sit in a circle on chairs.

Who Can Speak and What Do They Say?

If you’re considering working with Roma-related topics, it might be helpful to ask yourself and your team the following questions:

What is my point of view? What can I speak about?

During our workshops, we explored the questions of European Roma theatre. All participants agreed that any artist, regardless of their background, has the freedom to create art on any subject. For example, a non-Roma theatre director can make a performance about Roma-related topics, and vice versa. At the same time, it is important to be clear about the relationship of the artists to the topics or stories they want to work with. It is important to be aware of the extent to which we have real knowledge and experience on the subject and the extent to which our perceptions are determined by incomplete knowledge, prejudices, and stereotypes. What is my relationship with the community, and with the history I want to present? In order to make conscious artistic decisions, it is worth answering the questions: what is my point of view? With what knowledge and preconceptions am I starting this work?

Do I need to obtain further knowledge? Should I involve an expert in the field?

If you suspect that your knowledge on the topic you want to represent is incomplete and that your creative work would rely on half-truths, then start researching: find out the factual information by reading available documents and contacting stakeholders, like academic or empirical experts.

To what extent do I treat the members of vulnerable groups as data subjects or as partners?

Nowadays, more theatre initiatives are working with disadvantaged Roma people, both as data subjects and as participants in the rehearsal process. Sometimes they even include them in the final production as performers. In these cases, it is particularly important to consider whether or not the member of the vulnerable group has the right information about the effects and opinions that can be triggered by sharing their stories on stage. In the case of someone who is both a data subject and a performer, it is important to assess if they are ready to share their own story on stage. During the data sharing or rehearsal process, we need to be attentive that they themselves don’t bring up overly sensitive or stereotypical content that can have a negative impact on their lives. Self-stigmatization often occurs among many Roma communities—in these cases they are more likely to adopt a pose or say what the majority "expects" them to say. For example, young Roma boys are often eager to pose in a boxing position or as a boxer when their picture is taken, signaling that they are not to be messed with. Awareness and appropriate management of this process is very important to help young people see themselves and the outside world in a different perspective and to not reproduce—in this example—the stereotypical image of an aggressive Roma boy.

A group of theatremakers take notes on their conversation.

Márton Illés and Orsolya Balogh during a What Is Theater Worth if It’s Roma? Workshop. Photo by Alina Vincze. 

Am I conscious enough?

All of our workshop participants agreed that there is no singular Roma community or experience. In any type of art piece, we can only represent diverse individuals, communities, and the issues affecting both Roma and non-Roma people. If an artist believes they can depict the reality of the Roma people, might this lead to anything other than a stereotypical portrayal? We do not think so.

If we discover a story that we wish to explore through theatre, it's useful to question our attraction to it: why does it draw us in? What message do we intend to convey? Presenting social issues and vulnerable groups on stage has become trendy among artists. Beyond showcasing an exciting, impactful theme that will provoke thought or controversy, do we possess any deeper motivation for telling such a story? When portraying a poor individual, are we focusing solely on their misery and vulnerability, or are we also highlighting their values, dignity, and joy? Furthermore, when aiming to draw attention to the responsibility of the majority or the institutional system, are we or should we consider additional focal points? Is the ethnicity of characters, distinguishing which are Roma and which are not, crucial to our story? Should we aim for characters whose identities are not confined by their ethnicity and present a diversity of Roma characters that includes sympathetic, intelligent, and active individuals, as well as those who are unfriendly, less informed, and passive—mirroring the variety found among non-Roma characters? In a society where many are unaware of their origins or come from mixed ethnic backgrounds, is it feasible to depict characters as 100 percent Roma or non-Roma on stage? Furthermore, if our performance projects a relatively uniform image of Roma, are we inadvertently reinforcing a stereotypical and homogeneous perception of the Roma community?

Who can portray a Roma character?

The choice of actors for portraying Roma characters frequently sparks debate regarding representation in theatre. Some argue that only actors sharing the same ethnic background as the character can deliver an authentic portrayal. However, in Eastern Europe, there may be a lack of adequate Roma or Black artists within a company, or even across the country’s theatre scene, to fulfill this criterion. This raises the question: how can we ensure support for different ethnic groups to participate in the performing arts? Some possibilities to do this are through cultivating young talents or providing specific university placements for students from diverse ethnic backgrounds. We can also ask ourselves and the theatre establishment if artists without a performing arts degree can be involved in professional productions.

A group of people sit in a circle listening to a speaker.

Participants of the What is Theater Worth if It’s Roma? workshops. Photo by Alina Vincze.

During our workshops, theatre professionals of Roma origin emphasized that Roma actors should not be confined to playing only Roma roles; they are equally capable of portraying non-Roma characters. In writing, directing, or casting for performances involving Roma characters, it's important to consider various aspects of the characters—such as body type, social background, way of speaking, and character traits—beyond their Roma identity.

Do I want to hold a mirror to reality, or do I want to portray a fictional, utopian world?

An important consideration is the balance between Roma and non-Roma characters in our play. If we feature a significant number of Roma characters, have we thoroughly explored the possibility of casting Roma actors for these roles? What message do we convey when a brown-skinned actor portrays a doctor without any mention of their ethnic background? How do we challenge or reinforce stereotypes if non-Roma actors are exclusively cast in roles depicting intellectuals, successful individuals, and decision-makers? Additionally, what does it imply about social mobility if Roma actors are cast solely in roles as criminals, offenders, beggars, or sex workers? These questions lead to the main question of theatremaking: what do I want to say with my performance? Do I want to highlight systematic problems, or do I want to draw attention to the challenges and successes of everyday heroes? Do I want to hold a mirror to reality, or do I want to portray a fictional, utopian world?

We should keep in mind that ethnic origin may not be relevant for every character. Can we depict Roma characters in a manner that prioritizes their individual characteristics over their ethnic background? Do we foster social inclusion by presenting complex Roma characters that emphasize their similarities with the non-Roma majority or by highlighting the differences that distinguish the Roma from the white, non-Roma majority? How can the members of a disadvantaged, rural Roma community be empowered if we present Roma characters in victimized, passive situations with stereotypical behaviors on stage? When considering our target audience, it's crucial to reflect on the significance of a character being portrayed by a Roma or non-Roma actor. We must ponder which characters the audience will perceive as Roma when their ethnic background is not explicitly mentioned in the play. To what extent is it feasible for artists to employ color-blind casting, and how capable are audiences of adopting a color-blind perspective towards a character, actor, or community?

What do we do with stereotypes? How do we relate to them?

Just like prejudices, stereotypes pervade our lives. Before we get to know someone, we perceive them as part of different groups (either recognizing or misinterpreting which group they belong to) and start to think and feel things about the person based on our knowledge about the group in which we classify them. This is inevitable. But we can be conscious about it and question the accuracy of our beliefs. When creating performances about the Roma or other vulnerable groups, it's crucial to consider our approach to the stereotypes surrounding them. Should we avoid these stereotypes entirely, and what would this decision suggest about our deeply stereotyped society? If we choose to incorporate stereotypes, whether in content or style, we must be deliberate about our reasons and methods. Which stereotypes are we depicting, and do we discuss their origins? Are we aiming to counter, caricature, refute, or scrutinize these stereotypes? It's essential to clarify our objectives.

What is our goal with our performance? Do we want the audience to question their views or do we want to reinforce them?

If we present Roma characters who don’t correspond with the stereotypes, can this lead to a change in attitudes of the non-Roma white majority population or will everything remain the same? After all, "the exception proves the rule."

Alongside a stereotypical/negative/ridiculous/petty portrayal of the Roma characters, it is important to examine if the non-Roma characters are portrayed in a similar critical/negative way. Is the style of representation consistent? Does every character get to be critiqued? Can the criticism of a high-status character raise similar ethical questions as the criticism of a low-status, marginalized group?

But most of all, what is our goal with our performance? Do we want the audience to question their views, or do we want to reinforce them? Do we want them to be embarrassed about their privileged lives? Do we want them to feel sympathy for the Roma characters? Do we want them to associate with the Roma characters? Do we want them to take action?

What is the form?

When presenting Roma characters or communities on stage, an important question we need to ask is what kind of theatrical form or language do we want to use? How does that form relate to the styles of realism, documentarism, ethno-cinema, or other types of abstraction?

If we want to represent a Roma community in a realistic way, we need to examine if we have enough information about how the community chooses to show themself, their way of dressing and speaking, their music, or any other cultural aspects. The European Roma communities are very diverse. If we are not aware of the specific community we want to represent, we might inadvertently mix up cultural aspects belonging to very different communities. This is especially important when opting to create a performance with a realistic or documentary approach.

A man listens intently to a speaker.

Rodrigó Balogh during a What Is Theater Worth If It’s Roma? Workshop. Photo by Alina Vincze

The form of the performance can also question or reinforce stereotypes. Do we want to show the ways in which Roma people are different from the non-Roma majority or the ways in which they are similar? Why and how do we choose to depict characteristics that originate from social status (for example, wearing dirty clothes due to poverty) or from education (for example, the incorrect use of words due to a lack of education)? If we choose to depict these characteristics, do we have to talk about the social context? Or is it enough to just show them without reflecting on them? In the latter case, do we wish to promote understanding by any other means or, on the contrary, do we rely on judging the character by their appearance? The answer to these questions can influence the choice of form. For example, in a comic form, we can choose to use stereotypes and exaggerate them to the point of being unrealistic.

The aesthetics of self-representation for Roma on stage may be similar to the mainstream portrayal or very different. For example, the presentation of heroic stories was the focus of theatre in most European countries during the nineteenth century, but by the twentieth century, this theme had fallen out of fashion. However, it is only in recent years that Roma communities got opportunities to share their heroes’ stories on stage. This development makes it understandable why a heroic focus remains important for Roma theatre.

We believe these various questions can aid artists in achieving an authentic representation of the Roma or other marginalized groups on stage. We want to encourage both Roma and non-Roma artists to be brave and explore Roma-related topics and stories. These can be steps towards a truly inclusive society. 

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