In October 2019, the International Theatre Festival for Young Audiences in Iași, Romania entered the 12th edition. To celebrate the 30th anniversary of the fall of Nicolae Ceaușescu’s dictatorship, the organiser took the theme “Freedom”.
The pursuit of freedom is universal, and is articulated in a myriad of ways. While activists march on the streets to promulgate it, in the safe space of the theatre, the idea takes detours, channelled into different shapes and forms, before it settles in a body.
For young audiences in particular, freedom finds its way often in roads less taken. Children, who mix up facts and imagination to create their own realities, are the most improbable receivers of a textbook idea. For teenagers, they would simply not let the idea of freedom imposed upon them by adults, as this would mean doing the opposite—constraining them with moral tethers. Theatre that aims to “teach them a lesson” is therefore barking up the wrong tree.
But it is exactly the adults, the ones with the executive power and sources of capital, who are able to hold a theatre festival for young audiences. The festival is often calibrated in such a way that the expectations of parents are managed and the box for educational value is ticked. Gradually, children’s theatre is outside the scope of artistic evaluation. And eventually, the festival is subjected to top-down programming from overbearing organisers, and becomes an uncontested, marketable event for parents who welcome it so much because they think it is “good for the kids”. (A case in point is the International Arts Carnival in Hong Kong.)
So, when the IATC (HK) gave me the chance to fly to Romania and participate in the International Theatre Festival for Young Audiences as a critic, I was under the preconception that the shows would more or less display an air of didacticism presented by orthodox theatre practitioners under the banner of “benefiting the child”. Not to mention that Romania is still a conservative country that has not fully detached itself from the Communist ways of doing things, in terms of how they allocate funds to the cultural sector and embrace the diversity of voices.
But I was wrong. As my two-week trip in Romania has shown, the International Theatre Festival for Young Audiences proves to be a valuable experience and an important learning curve for Romania. Its curatorship was clever; the representations of Romanian youths are intimate and sincere; the way the artists work under constraints was inspiring. On the other hand, this theatre festival, being surprisingly relevant to Hong Kong, has also been the entry point for me to tap into the complicated dynamics of this Balkon country, one that is so culturally profound, where the people, especially the young, are eager to articulate their voices.
For me, this trip was an intensive sampling of a culture. Unable to simplify it with a coherent narrative, I can only offer a few keywords that hopefully highlight the gist of Romanian theatre today, while also leading you to ponder the possibilities of theatre in Hong Kong—a land that is also scrambling for freedom and experiencing an identity crisis.
Teatrul Luceafărul. Photo credit: Terence Li
A Morning Star
Over the course of eight days, my footprints centred around Teatrul Luceafărul in Iași, the theatre that organises the annual event and where most performances are held (while a few took place in other venues across the city). Together with other young critics, we followed the programming closely. The morning and afternoon slots were mainly for puppet shows and circus acts intended for children. During the day, we also did the young critics workshop to review what we had seen. In the evening, the festival featured much bigger productions with more mature themes targeted at both youths and adults. The festival brought in a diverse range of performances from all over the world, from South Korea and Japan, to Egypt and Senegal. And of course, a large part of the programming belonged to Romanian productions, which involved theatre troupes from across the country. Last but not least, Teatrul Luceafărul also produced two shows themselves for the event.
Luceafărul means “The Morning Star” in Romanian and is the name of one of the most important poems of the Romanian literature written by Romantic poet Mihai Eminescu. The founding of the theatre dates back to the Communist days when the Theatre for Children and Youth, then a theatre troupe, started adapting Romanian folk stories into puppet theatre. Later on, they started doing bigger productions with more elaborate scenography. The construction of Teatrul Luceafărul was completed in 1987, a piece of brutalist architecture that houses two performance halls: The big one has 450 seats, designed for plays in the Elizabethan, Italian or arena style; the small one has 150 seats and a relatively low ceiling, providing a cosy atmosphere tailor-made for puppet shows.
Tucked at the back of the theatre are dressing rooms and control rooms, and narrow corridors and corner spaces jammed with all sorts of macabre costumes and colourful props from previous shows over the years, altogether giving off an air of a fantasy underworld. There also sits the office of Oltiţa Cîntec, the artistic manager of Teatrul Luceafărul as well as the curator of the festival.
Oltiţa is always curious, enthusiastic and resourceful. She has carved out a niche in a rather closed, conservative society, and has chosen to dedicate it to the young people of Romania. Although it is Romania’s fourth biggest city, Iași is as of today relatively secluded with few foreign visitors. When I landed at the Iași International Airport on the first day, the customs were apparently doubtful about my visit. I was not allowed into the city until they saw someone from the festival was to pick me up (this was against the policy that anyone with a Hong Kong passport could spend 90 days in the EU zone without a visa). Very often I would unwittingly become the centre of attention since the people there, especially the children, seldom see an Asian face around.
Apart from the difficulty in drawing audiences to contemporary theatre, it is not entirely easy to hold a festival of that scale every year. One major hurdle is the availability of funds and bureaucracy. The yearly event is mainly financed by the County Council, and Luceafărul has no other means of funding than doing a few productions on the side each year. Comparing it to the Vasile Alecsandri National Theatre which is just a five-minute walk away from Teatrul Luceafărul, one could easily spot the discrepancy. The National Theatre, which hosts more traditional dramas by state theatre companies, is always better funded and maintained.
Furthermore, thanks to the bureaucratic red tape, the budget for the festival for the upcoming year is always announced with delay, usually in March or April. Meanwhile, unexpected shrinks in the grant size are not entirely unfamiliar. Given that the tax year needs to end on December 15 the latest, the only available window of holding the festival is around October. This has put the organiser in a very difficult position because it clashes with the beginning of a school term.
Despite the government’s half-hearted support and various constraints, the festival is able to grow in terms of scale and audience participation. In recent years, the festival has gained recognition in Europe as one with the “Europe for Festivals, Festivals for Europe” (EFFE) label awarded by the European Commission . One of the ways to entice a bigger crowd is to time the festival with the Iasi International Festival of Literature and Translation, one of the most important literary events in Eastern Europe that brings writers, translators, publishers, literary critics and book distributors together. Theatre and literature always go hand in hand, and the two festivals can therefore benefit from each other through synergy.
Oltiţa would spend the whole year preparing for the festival, scouring all corners of the world for different performing art forms and introducing them to the locals. But there is also one thing that Oltiţa would never shy away from doing: She never forgets the critics. As a theatre critic and researcher herself, she believes that critics are essential in that they serve as the bridge between artists and audiences. (This was why Hong Kong was included in the list of participating countries on the main event poster to acknowledge my participation as a critic.) No matter how hard the external circumstances are, Oltiţa and her team have proven that theatre can always find a way out of difficult circumstances, and curiosity and perseverance are the keys.
Much of Romania’s past and present revolves around a fate linked to its inevitable geographical location. Located on the edge of Europe, it had been a frontier state connecting the continent with Africa and Eurasia since the Ottoman years. Fast-forwarding to the Cold War era: We see Romania as the ideological frontline between communism and capitalism; and moving on to the present: Romania, as in the case of some other Balkon states, now functions as a zone of human passage, and, in particular, a stepping stone for asylum seekers from the Middle East to enter Central Europe.
Thus, as a victim of geography, Romania is always synonymous with drastic upheavals and a national identity crisis. Still haunted by the legacy of the Soviet rule and somehow left behind by the progressive capitalist West, it is now being confronted with stagnated development, structural corruption and an exodus of the productive young population. According to a UN International Migration Report, as many as 3.4 million Romanians have emigrated since the country joined the European Union in 2007, placing the country on the second place globally by emigration growth rate after Syria .
Geography is default; nothing can be done about it. But while we see the predicament brought by the geopolitics of this peripheral nation, on the other hand, we see the theatre of Romania rise to the challenge, shaping an alternative identity unbound by geography. Instead of directly enunciating a resistance against this external geopolitical predestination, what I have gleaned from this theatre festival is more of an evocation of confusion, or a detour into the intimate, personal world.
A Home away from Home
Thematically, quite a number of shows in the festival deal with the ideas of migration and national identity in the disguise of a fantasy tale. One of the programmes, Apolodor (produced by Teatrul Ţăndărică Bucureşti), is adapted from a famous children’s book, The Tale of Apolodor by Gellu Naum. It tells vividly the story of a homesick penguin from a circus in Bucharest and traces its journey to the Artic where it belongs to, during which it meets some strange characters such as a thief in Connecticut, USA, and a secret association named “Friends of the Nuclear Weapon”. When he eventually reaches the Pole, he starts missing his friends in the circus and decides to go back.
The dramatic text makes use of the lyricism of the Romanian language to immerse children in a fantasy world that is at once familiar and foreign. Content-wise it is surreal and abstract, but, language-wise, intimate and down-to-earth. Language undoubtedly plays an important role in shaping the freedom discourse in Romanian theatre. Through drama, the wisdom of an ancient Latin language is crystallised and collectively shared (Romanian is a close cousin of ancient Latin). At the same time, it also establishes a fortress against the attrition of foreign cultures, given the uniqueness of the language as producing the only Latin-language literature in Eastern Europe. Through combining the exoticism of an adventure story and the familiarity of the lyrical text, the play makes a colourful and heart-warming detour into a realm where the idea of “home” can be negotiated and reimagined.
Safe Space and Personal History
Meanwhile, theatre also brings people to a safe space, a refuge that is governed not by geography but shared values and ideals. This safe space is visualised and augmented in the closing performance, Radu Afrim’s Under each of our steps is a mine yet to be triggered from an unfinished war against you. Radu Afrim is a household name, and there are people who travel all across the country just to see his works. This time, his dramatic text was a product of a seven-week collaboration with the actors of the Youth Theatre in Piatra Neamț, and an attempt to perform an anatomy on contemporary loneliness. The premise of this lengthy-titled work: several characters stop at a “thought-cleansing” clinic, a sort of quasi self-help and quasi spiritual-health organisation that provides a safe room for people to be alone with themselves and confess their inner emotions. The confessions are to be recorded, preserved in a time capsule, and released to people sometime in the not-so-near future.
One by one, the characters take centre stage and share with us their secrets, insecurities and ideas about living alone. A cross-dressing disco-obsessed gay cop. A young lady who feels that her perfume is slowly suffocating her. A mother who finds herself expanding like a balloon due to repeated Botox injections. Someone who wants to be so close to a person that she goes right through him. Someone who sings a rock song so emotionally but does not want others to sing the refrain with him. These are characters that are not sure about what they want, asking the existential questions: Why am I lonely? What should I do about it?
The minimal set propels the characters to focus on their own feelings, and highlights the seismograph of these tumultuous interior lives. Hanging above them is a big “RECORDING” light box which would be powered on when the recording starts. Also present is a line of light bulbs that shine some clinical, unforgiving beams down upon the characters. The dramatic irony is that these characters think they are in a private room where nobody is watching, so they can behave however they want. But, of course, the audiences are silently peeping into the inner world of the vulnerable ones.
In an era when it is increasingly hard to spend time with oneself, this personal work from Radu Afrim proves to be political, leaving a repercussive footnote on freedom. Freedom is a force from within, an innate tendency to break free of external assumptions and predetermined associations, but it undoubtedly comes with a price—loneliness. What is an optimal distance that we should keep from the outside world? How much individuality is worth giving up for the sake of solidarity?
The era of polarised ideologies and centralised nationalism which characterised the last century is now gone. Political theorist Michael Walzer said that “the self is more naturally divided, [...] it is capable of division and even thrive on it.” Nowadays, identities are multiplied, and passions are divided. Because of this, one cannot “speak for anyone” anymore; for theatre to be safe, we need more personal works. After all, being personal also means being truthful and relevant to the world at large. To quote from Thomas Mann: “A man lives not only his personal life, as an individual, but also consciously or unconsciously the life of his epoch and his contemporaries.”
Apart from Radu Afrim’s poetic work, Teatrul Luceafărul’s own production History in the First Person as well as Ioana Paum’s 153 Seconds are works that rewrite Romanian history from the perspectives of young people. While the former talks about how the Romanian history books are different from the verbatim collected from witnesses of history, the latter is an examination of the Colectiv nightclub fire that killed 64 and injured 146 in 2015 based on the testimonies of survivors. Both documentary theatre works evade a dominant central narrative and insist that history should always be contested and revisited in the present moment.
Enough has been said in the media about this tragedy which was mainly a result of corruption—so the nightclub could get away with being overcrowded and not adhering to the safety regulations on that night. Also, enough has been said about the dysfunctional medical system that failed to save some of the victims in time. So, instead, 153 Seconds offers a not-so-common perspective: It personifies the nightclub who in a solemn voice laments on what could have been different. In one remarkable scene, each of the young actors holds a Coke bottle and drinks from it. Then, they stuff one end of a handkerchief into the bottle and attempt to light it up on the blacked-out stage. The sparks from the lighters ignite the dangerous anticipation of a Molotov cocktail that never really materialises. One might have assumed that the youths of Romania, when given the whole stage to themselves, would have resorted to direct accusation. At least a “How dare you?”, to borrow from Greta Thurnberg the recently popular icon of climate change. But the show takes on a much more meandering and subtle route, focusing instead on the psyche of an unfulfilled, unannounced and self-mocking generation.
Under each of our steps is a mine yet to be triggered from an unfinished war against you
Photo source: https://fnt.ro/2019/actrita-catalina-balalau-si-domnisoara-data-cu-parfumul-insingurarii-pe-la-incheietoarea-bratarii-intr-un-spectacol-de-radu-afrim/?fbclid=IwAR1MG2TRN99pU0edAqmZd4YLyR4RDqhOH2bPqm2uSv1iG5RZEmdcaonUmEc#galerie-video)
Puppet theatre, which has a long tradition in Romania and its neighbouring country Bulgaria, used to be the sole preoccupation of Teatrul Luceafărul. Now the International Theatre Festival for Young Audiences has incorporated other forms of theatre into their programming, but puppet shows remain the staple, as is the case with many other theatre festivals for children and youngsters.
Children, who are transfixed by a world made smaller for them, are often the target audience of puppet theatre. It is a realm where shape-shifting quasi-humans, animals and monsters come to life, all happening in a shrinked set operated by puppeteers as if they were invisible giants.
Meanwhile, for adults, there is yet another way to appreciate puppet theatre—to let the confusion take over you. In puppetry, objects become embodied, and then go back to being dormant again. This constant switching of roles between a signifier and a signified, the shift between belief and disbelief, creates a sort of confusion and a multi-layered narrative: There is the world of the puppets, and there is also the world of the puppeteers, but there is no fourth wall in puppet theatre to clearly delineate the boundaries of both worlds. When the puppeteer pulls the strings of a marionette, do we focus on the mechanical figure and assume it is a conscious character with flesh and bones, or do we instead pay attention to the puppeteer who operates and manoeuvres them?
Thus, puppet theatre is an exercise of freedom because of the inherent confusion among narratives, and the ambiguity created by birth and death of signifiers. It, of course, has so much to say in a theatre festival whose theme is “freedom”.
Yun Hyejin is a South Korean artist who was invited to the festival. Her performance, titled Beside You, is an intimate journey into the emotional world. With her instrument gayageum, a traditional Korean board zither with 12 strings, she personifies her feelings with a puppet named Heart, who is content and healthy at the beginning, but gets injured when a string is suddenly broken and hits it hard. Revenge is then attempted at the villain Hurt. After a journey of self-discovery, the story culminates in mutual understanding and reconciliation. In the microscopic world of the puppets, the gayageum assumes the treacherous terrain that Heart must traverse to find itself. At one point, the instrument stand is covered with a white cloth and backlit, and Yun enacts Heart’s darkest thoughts through shadow play. Beyond this epic journey, we also witness Yun’s delicate handling of the puppets and hear her songs which present her own emotional struggles and ultimate hope.
Vowels, Verbs, and the Wooden Language
In Western traditions, the mise-en-scène on the part of the director was often thought of as practices subservient to the text. But in recent years, devised theatre, in which the director, the dramaturg and the actors collaborate with each other to create the text, has become more common . In other words, the vertical hierarchy of the artistic team was replaced by a horizontal equalisation of the creative attributes.
On the Roof’, one of the highlights of the festival, is a dance-theatre work from renowned Romanian choreographer Gigi Căciuleanu, originally conceived as a piece for the Magic Amphitheatre on the rooftop of the National Theatre of Bucharest. Using the method of devised theatre, he and his company Ad-Hop have invented a new theatre language through multiple auditions and workshops, mastered by a special group of performers labelled “dance-actors”. The language is neither verbal nor physical, but a hybrid of both. The result is: 14 young dancers with sporty attire perform expressive yet clown-like movements and toy with utterances that straddle between meaning and nonsense.
The dance-actors produce various vowel sounds and couple them with corresponding movements of hopping, stretching, freezing and other stunts. Next, several strange words are introduced: Introrunning, Giumbusbullet, Whirligig, Ricosluc, Spinwager, Flylost, and etc. They are verbs that entail a physical response. At a certain point, the dancers are divided into seven pairs; one from each pair challenges the other to a bodily and kinetic enactment of those words. Moreover, projected on the cyclorama are doodles of kings, which are often very abstract to the point of being indiscernible.
The show prioritises vowels over consonants, verbs over nouns and projections over real objects. The new language is therefore fluid and liberating, inspiring action, engagement and attachment. Theatre is always vigilant and on the lookout for new languages, and it is perhaps a counter reaction to the stagnation of language that those in power are always accused of doing. (For example, the wooden language that was frequently used by Nicolae Ceaușescu even in his last televised speech before his death )
After spending two weeks in Romania, I was led to think that this Balkon country and Hong Kong actually share a lot in common. Both lands have always been a victim of geopolitics, on an ideological frontline and bound by the inevitability of an identity crisis. We see an increasing trend of people who want to abandon their homeland and migrate elsewhere, because the future looks gloomy. In Romania, the remnants of Communism have continued to haunt the country, preventing people from influencing political decisions through participation; while in Hong Kong we see the government failing the people again and again.
I came to Romania at a time when Hong Kong was on the front-page of international news: In a matter of months the youths of Hong Kong went from protesting against the extradition law to an all-out revolution against China’s tightening grip and intensifying police brutality. But let’s be honest, theatre does not necessitate changes.
The International Theatre Festival for Young Audiences in Iași has shown that instead of hoping theatre can make big changes, we should simply do it. It is not about a grandiose plan for the future, and not a nostalgic remembrance of the past, but about the action of the present. The Hong Kong version of the youth theatre festival, the International Arts Carnival, still has a top-down curatorial approach, and there are very few shows in their programming that really engage the youths of Hong Kong. It just has so much to learn from Luceafărul.
And it does not have to be big. Romanian playwright Eugen Ionescu once said: “I would rather go for a great success in a theatre for the littles ones, than for a small success in a theatre for the big guys.”
My two-week trip in Romania has told me that freedom is always present, if you know where to look.
World Encyclopedia of Contemporary Theatre: Volume 1: Europe, Volume 1
edited by Peter Nagy, Phillippe Rouyer, Don Rubin
Romanian Theatre Directing, from Authorship to Collaborative Practices
edited by Oltiţa Cîntec
In Europe's Shadow: Two Cold Wars and a Thirty-Year Journey Through Romania and Beyond
Written by Robert D. Kaplan