This four-part series documents the experiences of a young, Fulbright fellow, avidly exploring theater and life in Bucharest, Romania.
“Is all new theater here about communism?” I ask my friend and host, Ioana Moldovan, after seeing yet another play about the fear, terrible transgressions, and bloodshed that Romania went through between 1945 and 1989. “Yes,” she replied, “because it’s still happening, it’s the only thing we know.”
It’s a huge generalization, but as I round my first month in Romania, it rings true. As a young American theater director, communism is a history that I have utterly no context for, but here I am, calling Bucharest home for the next nine months: I’m here to create some context, to understand a completely foreign mindset, using my Fulbright research grant to explore Romanian theatrical traditions, new play development and collaboration.
The day to day of the grant means that I’m teaching a grab bag of classes at the University of Theatre and Cinema (U.N.T.A.C) in Bucharest, the première theater university in the country. These classes span from introduction to American theater, masters playwriting courses to director/playwright collaboration and possibly a class on devising and company creation. My long term goal for being here is contribute to the two way path between American and Romanian theater artists, a path that directors, playwrights, and educators such as Ioana Moldovan, Roberta Levitow, Marcy Arlin, Peca Stefan, and Saviana Stanescu have recently helped to deepen, many through the Fulbright program.
As a director and dramaturg, based in New York and at the Vineyard Theatre for the past two years, new play development has been my sole theatrical occupation; it’s what made me move from the small town Juneau Alaska to New York. But, in the spring of 2012, I began to crave another move, something else that would force me to grow as an artist and a person.
Social media and the ability to cross borders through the internet has made it easier to crack the world of the other, but I feel that this isn’t enough. Being on the ground, in a foreign culture and immersing myself in the theatrical traditions and history of another country have forced my American self to think outside of the box—from small issues, like how to ask for directions in another language, to big questions that I have about my role in the world as a theater maker.
I’ve realized that I want to be an international artist, not just an American one. To make a long story short, in researching ways to get overseas, I came across the dreamy, fully supported Fulbright grant, and being a “go big or go home” kind of gal, I began the long and tedious application process.
Through my research, knowing absolutely nothing about Romania, I stumbled across a book of plays, roMANIA After 2000 and was blown away by the gritty and visceral way that these playwrights were writing about Romania in the present day. Their lack of fear, something that I see very rarely in American playwrights is what brought me here, to see what is really happening in this fairly isolated country.
So, what does play development look like in a nation that has a history of the “director as the auteur?” Playwriting has existed here, on and off, for years, but the directors tend to be the stars of any production. And how can I collaborate with Romanian playwrights, especially when I don’t have any concept of what this country went through, don’t really speak the language and have only a basic understanding of the structure of the theater system over here.
It’s not an impossible task, but it’s a tough challenge to take on in a relatively short nine months. I’ve been seeing more shows than I ever thought I would—from the state supported level to the independent “theater in a store front” and everything in between. I attend festivals, literal theater binges that present fifty plays in ten days. I talk with theater artists, students and staff members about what they do, create, hope, and fear. And I’m trying to learn Romanian as fast as I can.
This past month had already led me to many questions, about the role of theater and art in remembering a collective history; I wonder if countries have a national aesthetic and if the political questions are more important than the entertainment value? As stated above, every new play that I’ve seen so far has (as far as I can understand) had something to say about Romania’s fairly recent history: the lack of trials for the Communist party, the corruption that still controls the politics here, and as a result, the issues that the country faces today in the form of racism against the Roma people, lack of jobs, the shrinking middle class, and the apathy and pessimism that many youth feel towards their country and it’s future. It’s similar to some of the problems faced in the United States.
But here there is a slight glimmer of hope; Romania is currently going through the largest political rallies that the country has seen since the ‘89 revolution, pro-environment, anti governmental peaceful marches for Rosia Montana. Some are even calling it the “Romanian Fall.” It’s an exciting time to be an artist here, to see a country that is still in the process of becoming a democracy and how the arts reflect and respond to the changing social landscape. It’s my hope that the next eight months are only the beginning of a long term collaboration.