Tomasz Wiśniewski: There is a strong representation of the Romanian theatre. Professor Maria Zărnescu from Bucharest, can you please elaborate more on theatre in your country?
Maria Zărnescu: I will concentrate on my contribution, a sort of egotistic intervention but that will be a tribute to the work of Gianina Cărbunariu. It is not for nothing that I have entitled the chapter “My Name Is Gianina Cărbunariu: I’m a Lioness,” because she really is a lioness. Not just because of her birth sign but as a professional. The idea behind the title came from her 2003 production My Name Is Isbjorg. I Am a Lioness but this was one of her last shows based on a text not written by her. Nowadays, Gianina Cărbunariu is a well-known Romanian playwright-director, a concept put into words in her PhD thesis. We are talking about East European directors, but Andrei Serban is a very American figure, Silviu Purcărete has had a long French career, and Gianina Cărbunariu’s productions and plays are frequently staged at home and abroad. Her mission was and still is to reshape the Romanian theatre, and I think she succeeded.
Now, since 2017 she is the manager of the Theatre of the Youth in Piatra-Neamt, her native city. It is one of the most important cultural institutions of the country and a true landmark in Romanian theatre. It also holds a well-known festival in Romania. I was glad to hear Octavian’s comment about the theatre festivals in Romania, such as the ones in Craiova and Sibiu, which are very well-known, international festivals. It seems that we were, and I hope we still are, a country with a lot of national festivals which, for sure, are a good way to show productions from one city to another.
Coming back to Gianina Cărbunariu, she is a lioness, and she displays the strong, fiery characteristics of her zodiac sign. She has a terrifying candor and an irreverent humor. She puts things plainly both in her theatre and in society. She was the first woman director to win the Romanian Association of Theatre Professionals UNITER awards seven years ago. She was shortlisted by the Romanian media as one of the one hundred most influential women in Romanian society today. It is not a surprise that her shows originate from contemporary themes and are inspired by present-day topics or by recent history. Solitarity and Mihaela, the Tiger of Our Town were a part of the official selection of the Festival d’Avignon in 2014 and 2016, but you will find her story in the book regarding ground-breaking directors from Eastern Europe. Gianina Cărbunariu is a name to be remembered!
Wiśniewski: Maria, thank you so much for such a precise introduction to the director you discussed, and let us now move on to Michal Zahálka from the Czech Republic.
Michal Zahálka: I just want to say that both myself and my colleague Kamila Černá were immensely happy to have had the opportunity to submit contributions on Czech theatre. We feel that – even though we have tried to promote Czech theatre for many years in our work at the Arts and Theatre Institute in Prague – Czech theatre or Czech drama are not exactly well-known in the context of Europe or even in Central and Eastern Europe. So this is a great opportunity – and I am really looking forward to reading the entire book.
Kalina mentioned that it might be fun to have more volumes of this project in the future. I can assure you that we have a number of directors I would like to include. My essay deals with works by Daniel Špinar, who is one of the most distinguished theatre directors in Czech theatre at the moment. At the age of 42, he is currently the head of the National Theatre’s Drama Company in Prague. For the other European theaters, he might be interesting as an opera director: although his background is in drama, he has directed several opera productions with great success, which is one of the reasons why he might be worth broader attention.
To end this brief introduction, I would like to invite all of you contributors and all of the theatre scholars in attendance. We hold a festival in Pilsen that you may have heard about. Kalina is one of our distinguished, frequent guests. This year’s festival will take place, starting on 15th September, and it lasts for 5 days with a number of performances every day. It might be an opportunity for all of you to get to know the Czech theatre, as well as see some interesting international projects. One of the great Czech directors, who is almost 70 now, but who makes some of the youngest theatre that I know, Jan Nebeský, will be present with two brilliant productions. He is, for instance, one of the directors we would definitely want to include in a future volume.
Katarzyna Kręglewska: Thank you Michal for this introduction, and for the invitation to your festival. Hopefully, we will be able to visit the Czech Republic and experience Czech theatre. Let me start the general conversation − the Q&A part of our meeting. There are two very interesting chapters in this book that you have already mentioned. One of them is called “An Attempt at Drawing an Artistic Family Tree,” and the second is regarding the challenges that face the theatre nowadays. I have a question to the editors of the volume: is it possible to find any regularities or common tendencies among directors from Eastern Europe? After editing the whole volume, could you say that the directors Eastern Europe show some traces of similarity?
Kalina Stefanova: Perhaps we should leave it to the readers to find that out, so that we do not spill all the beans. Now, maybe one of the tendencies which gets outlined in the book is a general attitude towards classics. At first glance, the very frequent cutting, editing, etc. of the classics could seem like irreverence, but it is not irreverence. It is rather an attempt to find and present on stage the essence that is behind words. This could be viewed as some kind of a tendency. For instance, directors speak about Nekrošius as somebody who has been a teacher in that kind of treatment of the classics, a teacher in a so-to-speak non-linear type of theatre. There are also other common traits, like the devised theatre, but that is very popular not only in Eastern Europe. Then, a kind of looking at politics through another prism – not only directly, as the Romanian Gianina Cărbunariu does very strongly, but kind of indirectly, exploring so-to-speak the politics of the soul. Again, I’d better not spill all the beans. One thing that should be mentioned at this point is a drawing Krystian Lupa sent us in response to the question about his artistic family tree. This is a very nice addition to the illustrations included in the book, which are 20 photos from 20 shows.
Marvin Carlson: I find this a fascinating question, especially as an outsider in Eastern Europe. Yes, I feel certainly that despite the enormous variety in Eastern European theatre, as a Westerner, especially as an American, I do find that there is a kind of commonality. We talked a little bit about that earlier. Theatre as a way into another, deeper level of reality, a conscious understanding of politics and the human condition, and it seems to me, once again, as an outsider, that this goes back to the great Russian directors at the beginning of the century. Meyerhold particularly, but Nikolay Okhlopkov, all that entire generation. It seems to me their vision of theatre as something that is not like life – it elevates life into another dimension, spiritually and intellectually – is something that I find in the Eastern European theatre. Of course, there are many varieties of this, but almost none of them are the standard American approach to theatre, which is by and large realistic, psychological theatre.
I am very conscious of and appreciative of Kalina’s point that one way of doing theatre that’s common across Eastern Europe is reworking the classics, using the classics in surprising new ways that open up other dimensions. One of the great advantages to someone like me, who only knows Western European languages, by and large – I know a little Romanian, but that’s because it’s more Western… I’m almost always an outsider in Eastern European theatre, and I’m watching Shakespeare, Ibsen, Chekhov, Brecht, Turgenev, people I know, and plays that I know. And even when they’re being interpreted in a very odd way, I really have a way to get into them.
I have to tell you a personal story about this. Years ago, it must have been in the 1970s, my wife and I took our first extended tour through Eastern Europe. We were on a guided tour, because we didn’t know our way around any of the countries or any of the languages. Normally, I would go on my own, but we had a guided tour; however, in the evenings the other members of the tour were always taken out to folk dancing or something of the sort, and I would always get the papers and pour over them and find out what was going on in the theatres, because, even if I didn’t know the language, I could figure it out, pick out Ibsen, Shakespeare, I knew what was going on.
One night, when we were in Budapest, we went to see a play by Ben Jonson, not a playwright often done, even in England. Bartholomew Fair – a very odd, peculiar play. We went to see this, and as we were leaving the theatre my wife, who, like me, knows only a couple languages, having sat through a Hungarian production of Bartholomew Fair, turned to me and said “You know, that’s the first time I have ever understood that play.” I’ve treasured this story because it speaks directly to the question of what is done to the classics in Eastern Europe, and also the level that Eastern European theatre and I think the best theatre everywhere is operating on, which goes far below the verbal level of theatre. Anyway, that’s an outsider’s reaction.
Kręglewska: I do not know if it is surprising or not, but among the figures mentioned in directors’ family trees, I spotted not only the names of other theatre makers, but also some names of composers and painters. My second question is related to these family trees. I am convinced that you must have had some specific ideas a priori of what you might find in these family trees. The question is, whether anything struck you as unexpected there while editing the book?
Stefanova: I do not find it unexpected when theatre makers point to musicians and painters, etc., as their artistic fathers. What was a very nice surprise was to find out that Jernej Lorenci answered this question nearly in verse. A lot of the directors also talk not only about artists but also about people from their life, not having anything to do with the theatre or the arts, as pivotal for their professional development. This is something which I would like to underline. Alvis Hermanis, the great Latvian director, said once (at a discussion at the Spielart Festival in Munich) something which I like very much: “What’s important for a theatre-maker is not so much to be interested in theatre as much as it is to be interested in life”. It is something which applies to many of the directors in the book, as it can be read in their confessions about who has affected them en route to their becoming the artists they are today: different life stories, different people who have influenced them, along with the artists whom they have been infatuated with.
Carlson: I think Kalina has expressed it very well – that any artist draws on their entire life experience and certainly that any artist is very much aware of artists in other arts that are working, ultimately, towards the same goal, which is opening up the soul to something larger than life itself. But then you’re part of all that you have met, the poet says, and that includes everybody that you work with. My understanding of the theatre constantly grows with my exposure to everything around me in the world, including all of you, wonderful people today. One draws on the totality of one’s experience. I think that not only makes the work more universal, because we’re tapping into something that everybody shares, but also richer and more complex, because we are universally engaged in rubbing up against and bouncing off of different experiences, those of everyday people, and the great artist, who engages and brings out these questions. All of that contributes to who we are and what kind of art we produce, and how we experience the art that we encounter.
Wiśniewski: I would like to read a comment from Professor Artur Duda, another contributor to the volume. “I agree absolutely with Professor Carlson that this book is so important as a starting point for publishing more and more about contemporary Eastern European theatre. I can say that there is, in fact, a huge disproportion between the latest Polish-language books and articles on e.g. theatre directors and English-language publications. After 1989 it is a great challenge for us Slavic scholars to make this knowledge ‘visible’ in the world.” In addition to this, we should – I think – talk about the contemporary perspective: for the last thirty years, directors from this part of Europe have been given opportunities to work in the West, with Western actors, with theatre-makers from various parts of the world. This is another dimension which makes their work recognizable all around the world.
Stefanova: I would like to take this as a springboard for something very important. Thank you, Artur, for your comment. I think you are right that it is our mission to work in that respect so that we can make the situation balanced. What I would like to underline is that, whereas in the realm of literature in Eastern Europe we do not know each other so well, since we have lost connection within the last 30 years, in the theatre the situation is quite different. We have kept pace with what is happening in other Eastern European countries, which is an enormous achievement in comparison to literature. For instance, I am now reading Olga Tokarczuk’s book Prawiek i inne czasy and maybe I would not have discovered her work, had she not received the Nobel prize. It is the same with many other writers. Yes, more and more we do get to know each other, but in theatre it is different, thankfully, so we can concentrate on making us known outside of Eastern Europe.
Michal Zahálka: Just a final note on what I am looking forward to. The book has also a look at how different authors address audiences who are not familiar with the context that they are writing about. That was for me one of the challenges, trying to present the works of Daniel Špinar but also the context of Czech theatre in such a short space. So I am looking forward to seeing how others have managed.
Maria Zărnescu: I am waiting for the second volume. I think it is needed because my contribution now with the name of Gianina Cărbunariu responds to the question Tomasz launched at the beginning of our meeting. They try to respond in their own ways – I am speaking about Romanian directors – regarding their identity, our identity, and Gianina Cărbunariu through her theatre gives us a very clear answer. But for the second volume, I would like to propose another Romanian director whose irreverent attitude towards the classics is almost a classic attitude now in the Romanian theatre. He is in his fifties now, but as Michal said, he is younger than many of younger directors and his name is Radu Afrim. Maybe some of you have heard about him.
Marvin Carlson: I’m struck by Maria’s comments, and it occurs to me that a very interesting volume, a very interesting collection, it would be a collection that had to do with this phenomenon of reworking the classics, of directors that have done that. This is, of course, a very, very common phenomenon in Eastern Europe. In Central Europe as well – the Germans, Austrians do a lot of this. But not only does this raise a very interesting question, which I don’t think has been really fully explored, which is what is really going on – theatrically and philosophically and politically – in the classics being reworked this way? And there’s a variety of different answers. The way to get out of it would be, I think, by looking at the strategies of different directors. But the other thing is, that if you’re writing about Eastern European directors that are doing Sophocles, and Shakespeare, and Chekhov, that is more attractive to publishers in general than just writing about Eastern European directors. It gives another angle to this, so I think that is an idea. I guess I spotted a claim worth thinking about, I believe.
Transcript: Anna Głuszek.
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This post was written by Tomasz Wiśniewski and Katarzyna Kręglewska.
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