Interview with the director of the Tudor Vianu Theater in Giurgiu, covering the social mission of the theater in peripheral areas, the international collaborations of the theater that contributed to the opening towards the Opera in Ruse, and the practice and philosophy of cultural management in Romania
Cosmin Crețu, the director of the Tudor Vianu theater in Giurgiu, born in a family of actors, graduated from the Academy of Theater and Film in Bucharest (today UNATC) in 1995. He attended postgraduate courses in communication, at SNSPA and is about to achieve his doctorate in theater. He worked both in the theater in Giurgiu, but also in Bucharest at the Masca Theater. In the spring of 2019, he began his third term as director of the theatre in Giurgiu, where he has also directed several plays. An energetic character, Cosmin Crețu created in Giurgiu a young, dynamic theater, revered by the locals.
It is well known that the Giurgiu Theater and its activities have a strong social orientation – as a director you organise debates, a theater school, etc. What can you tell us about these accomplishments?
I believe that everything we do, starting with the politicians and continuing with us, managers of state institutions, must have a social component. If we forget who we work for, we are in big trouble. And unfortunately sometimes, especially in the artistic, cultural field, people tend to isolate themselves in an ivory tower and to perform for themselves, for their own spirit. But the policies of the institution must be designed in conformity with the requirements of society.
When I first started here as a director, I was faced with a distressing situation: there were only three performances per month! Today we have five shows per week. We had four premieres only in the past month, Someone I Loved (after Anna Gavalda), directed by Antonella Cornici from Iași, Eugen Ionescu’s The Lesson – a project made in collaboration with UNATC, a boulevard comedy directed by Mr. Mihai Panaitescu, the director of the Art Theater in Deva (What sorceries my wife’s been up to?), and a children’s show (The Story Factory), directed by one of our actors. I want to encourage my actors to direct. Just as every soldier can one day become a general, I think every actor can easily become a director, so I want to give them that possibility.
Therefore, I could not easily accept the idea of there being only three shows per month, and I was aware that the only way to increase the audience’s appetite for theater had to be a natural one, otherwise it was not a healthy one. And then, inspired by the Masca Theater, I thought about putting on street shows; so we staged street shows all summer, and people got used to the actors’ faces and, slowly but surely, they started coming to the theater. We didn’t stop there, I took my actors to visit high schools, we went from class to class and talked to the students. And we chose not to tell them the truth about the shortcomings of an actor’s situation, or of art’s status in Romania, our goal was to make them fall in love with theater. And I talked to them as much as I could, I fascinated them, we started the theater courses, and now we’ve been operating for four years.
As soon as you forget who you work for, especially when you are a state institution, you have a problem. In the end, we are financially supported by every person who passes by. We have a duty in this sense; not everyone comes to watch theater, but everyone, through the taxes they pay, contributes to the proper functioning of this institution. Therefore, I have to think about them when I design the repertoire strategy and when I think about the performances I will propose, as well as when we decide to play on the street or when we play for free free for the children in hospitals, for the elderly in care homes or for the inmates in the penitentiary.
How do you learn about your audience, how do you know what plays they will like?
There are a few principles which guide me: first and foremost, it is a feature of our institution, we are a project-based theater. In Romania there are four project-based theaters, Metropolis in Bucharest, the theatre in Buzău, the one in Deva and the one here, in Giurgiu. Metropolis has a wide reach; the theatre in Buzău does not produce any shows, they only buy them and they play there. And then there are two more, Deva and Giurgiu. Such a theater can only bring together a group of artists to work on a project, which has a finite number of performances. My challenge was to not become like the theatre in Buzău, to only buy shows; I wanted to produce them, because I realized that if I did not produce them, one day the public will be bored and will choose to go to Bucharest. I had to have a group of actors popular with the public; on the other hand, I was aware that a show of value needs actors of value – unfortunately in Romania (but also in Bulgaria) value and popularity are beginning to overlap, and then I thought it was better to create my own dimension. And today I can hold my hand up and say that we have a strong theatre group, they have been playing here for three – four seasons, and even if I can’t pay them full time, because I do not have the right, they are loyal to this institution. And they also make up the youngest state theater team in Romania, with the average age below 30. And this is how we started to become known.
Regarding the public, I found that the local public wants to be surprised; we always try to show them something new. Due to comparably predictable TV productions, people turned their attention to theater. I have my obsessions as well – for example, as long as I’m the director of this theatre, no stand-up comedian will perform on that stage, because it wouldn’t do justice to the audience. Stand-up comedy is a modest form of artistic discourse; while in a theater performance there is a wide range of artistic expressions, from stage design, costumes, props, the acting which involves breaks, movement, verbal and non-verbal relations, in stand-up there is none of this. It’s a form of fast food, if you will.
On the other hand, I myself was surprised by the local public; for example, this institution was established in 1981, when Nicolae Ceausescu wanted to bridge the gap between Ruse and Giurgiu and decided to make a county here, and Giurgiu a county seat – which it does not necessarily have the potential even today, from no point of view of a county residence. And among many other town planning initiatives, the late theater “Ion Vasilescu” was brought from Bucharest to Giurgiu. The respective actors were already considered as belonging to a regional theater, they were still playing in Buftea, they were playing in Giurgiu, but then they were forcefully moved to Giurgiu. They had no choice, and their only form of resistance was to restrict the performances to week days only, they would never perform Saturdays and Sundays. And the local audience got used to never coming to the theater on Saturdays and Sundays. When I became director three years ago, I wanted to change that and proposed for the first time a show on a Saturday. Everyone smiled sheepishly at me, but I advertised the shows aggressively, and people started coming. And for the past three years, we have had many performances at the weekend.
And how do you evaluate the audience’s reaction to these shows?
Our themes are not exclusively social. I believe with all my heart that these people want what it’s written on the theater building – and on all the promotional posters, “I go to the theater because I respect myself”. These people want respect, wherever they are, whoever they are. Respect them, and they will know it. I had an attempt 20 years ago to go into politics – I think I have slightly left wing views, but I have no problem with people who have right wing views. I am being antagonistic, but I do believe that a cultural producer can only be a left wing, because we create for the public, just as an executive creates for personal gains. We see things differently, but progress evolves from both ways of seeing things; we can co-exist gracefully under the same umbrella.
But when a man of the theater starts to think like an executive, then he has a problem, because he starts to obsess over personal gains – and certainly when an executive starts to think too left-field, he also has a problem, because then he starts losing.
Speaking of management – how do you see the situation of the cultural manager?
I was having a conversation with Carmen Croitoru about the need to do something about cultural entrepreneurship, I think cultural entrepreneur should be a profession, explicitly.
I took this institution in Giurgiu from almost zero to a certain level, and then I should be able to let a manager take over and develop it further, while I go wherever I’m needed. Because starting a business in the cultural arena is no joke, it is a very tough task, with its own laws. For example, if I need a good tailor for my theatre, the best tailor I can find in Giurgiu is not automatically a good designer for theatre. Because a good tailor who will make a suit for me knows that the suit must fit me. A theater designer knows that in that costume, I have to move, I have to perform certain gestures, wide movements, so he thinks differently. Consequently, cultural management is a very special task and yes, my opinion is that the legislators will have to focus on this aspect sooner or later. Now, based on Maslow’s pyramid of needs, our society is not settled and relaxed enough, our society has not yet reached that stage. When we reach that level, economically, mainly, but also socially, then surely we’ll have proper cultural management.
Besides being the youngest theater group in Romania, it is also looking outwards, for example, let’s talk about the International Festival of Danube Theaters – what are you preparing for this autumn’s edition? And on the other hand, what criteria guide you in your international collaborations?
Going back to what I said, that I want to do things step by step, in my first term as a director, I wanted to take the theater out in the country and out into the world. And we managed to have tours nationally, which is a great accomplishment if we think about all the costs involved: transport, accommodation, renting out space, fees, all of which would translate into an astronomical cost. But through mutual exchanges, we managed to go to certain cities and to perform there, the institutions would host us for free and from ticket sales they would pay all our expenses; and we did the same for them when it was our turn. The financial gain was zero, but the satisfaction of the artist and of the local audience, who were able to see other theater creators, I like to think it was very big, because the feedback has always been positive.
With this new mandate, I have proposed we cease the Danube Theater Festival and instead do two other events in its place: the International Caravan of Small and Medium Theaters, and in May 2020 we will have a Student Theatre Festival. We got in touch with four universities, with a theatre direction department and we want to bring to Giurgiu the productions of that year, within a festival. Why did I cancel my beloved Danube Theater Festival? First of all, the selection range was very small; each time we addressed the same institutions. On the other hand, the Danube had no real connection with the festival, I didn’t even play on the Danube and it was not a touring festival, as my father, the initiator of this festival, wanted years ago. I tried to persuade the managers of the institutions, but failed. And then I asked myself, how do we choose our shows? We are a medium size theater; as a result we do not have the financial potential to make this festival a competition festival, nor the financial potential to receive very large theatre companies. Then how about we select performances that do not involve very high costs and select them from all over the world. This is why our colleagues in Krakow are visiting us today, and next month we’ll have as guests a company from France, from Alones.
Nevertheless you have found very interesting partners in recent years with this festival, the Youth Theater in Novi Sad…
Yes, yes, and some very interesting theatre companies have visited us, and now this new freedom, because we are no longer constrained by geographical boundaries, the fact that we can go to countries like Poland or Greece, which we have not thought about before, gives us some extra opportunities that I hope we can use.
And what do you look for in your partners, how do you select them?
We are mainly looking for companies with a similar financial potential and characteristics to our own. When we started talking with companies in Greece, Athens was keen to come. Nice, but when I saw what theater we had to put on, I refused.
Also on the subject of international relations, one hears more and more about the collaboration with the Opera of Ruse, which is a very prestigious institution internationally, not just regionally or nationally. How did this collaboration begin, what initiatives will this collaboration include?
Our collaboration with Ruse started in Bucharest. When I was attending a cultural management course, I met with Mrs. Felicia Filip, the director of the Comic Opera for Children, to whom I proposed a collaboration. To my great surprise, I found in Mrs. Felicia Filip a sensitive and highly cultured artist. And although this collaboration may not be a win for the Comic Opera for Children, they have agreed to bring children’s opera in Giurgiu, and we in turn perform there and everyone is happy. But, seeing that there is an appetite for this kind among children, I said – but why not try with adults? And, prospecting the market, I first went to Mr. Kyurkchiev (the director of the Opera of Rousse, editor’s note) to ask him if he agrees to pay us a visit and give us some costumes, because we needed them at that time, and they have a very large costume store. On the other hand, like you, I also had curiosities, I wondered what is out there, beyond the border. Yes, there is a language barrier, but we know English, some of us know Bulgarian, some of them know Romanian, let’s find what can bring us closer, not just what separates us, which in the end is nothing but a thread of water. When visiting the Opera in Rousse, we performed a ballet show, which was a compendium of several shows, the response of the local audience was wonderful. And then I said to myself that fate can surprise us, and now we are preparing for their next visit at the end of the year, but also for our visit to Rousse, because we are going to go to the Opera in Rousse to play the Venice Siege. I think the politicians could do more about bringing the two countries closer together, but if they don’t, then why don’t we do it.
How do you interpret to the idea of central culture vs. peripheral culture?
I’ve extracted an idea from a book on the history of culture by Hendrik van Loon, an idea that I liked very much, saying that art has always followed the money. The cultural potential of the institutions in a community will always be relative to the economic potential of the respective community. We will always have to rely on some financial realities. That’s why I preferred working with young artists. They are just setting out, they want to assert themselves, and I make this institution available to them, for their ambitions. If it so happens that I encounter a young Silviu Purcărete every two or three years, interested in directing here, that would be great. If not, we’ll keep looking.
I suppose not all international collaborations are successful, are there any misunderstandings, problems – what is your experience?
Problems occur whenever we encounter communication barriers, and they occur where the communication code is not similar. We always try to approach institutions similar to ours, but sometimes we get it wrong. There are exchanges and we work to create a strong relationship with serious partners.
And how does the collaboration with the Theater in Ruse develop?
The collaboration with the theatre in Ruse was perfect until last year – but we are very different from a financial point of view. As far as I know, in Bulgaria the law requires that cultural institutions have a certain income to qualify for state budget, much more drastically than in Romania. For example, I had a 1:20 ratio between income and the state budget. In Bulgaria it is not 5%, it is one third, and this forces managers to carry out a very careful policy regarding the selection of partners. We hosted them two years in a row, and once they hosted us, free of cost. I didn’t claim any fees, my only request was that there was no ticket cost for Romanians. We were also invited to a festival, with two street performances, and then the invitations continued in one direction only.
You had the premiere of the Bulgarian play “The Kingdom of Women” in October. How did you get to stage this play? What did the public in Giurgiu think of it?
I first encountered St. L. Kostov’s play on the occasion of the theater festival we hosted last year, in the wonderful performance of colleagues from Sava Ognianov theatre of Rousse. Initially, I was extremely tempted to stage it outdoors, during our summer season. There were several elements that changed afterwards, we delayed the performance and finally we decided to integrate it into our indoor repertoire. As we expected, The Kingdom of Women was well received by our public, due to the similarities in behaviour and relationships in the patriarchal communities, characteristic of both our countries. It was the element I relied on when I picked the text, which I wanted from the beginning as the basis of a popular comedy.
How do you evaluate the effects of these cross-border collaborations, how do the viewers, the actors, the organizers feel?
About this time last year, the theatre hall was half-full when we were hosting the performances of the Theater in Rousse and slowly people began to come more and more often to our partners’ shows. When I came here as a manager, I conveyed two things: first of all, that I didn’t need time to see the results, and so it was. And the second thing I said was that I won’t come here dressed in a suit, I will wear overalls instead. Because someone told me once, that in Giurgiu there is no need for culture, what Giurgiu actually needs is cultural worksite. So I complied. However, I do not expect miracles, I do not expect residents in Giurgiu to come rushing to watch the performances of the Opera in Rousse, after two or three years of cultural exchanges. I just expect them to come, not to break the doors.
I know that you offer free tickets to those in Rousse, or Bulgaria, for what purpose do you have this initiative?
Because it is interesting to break this border, it is interesting to break any kind of border. That’s what culture has always done. I try to break boundaries and make people aware that they have so many reasons to enjoy living close to one another, and to cut back on the reasons for being sad and misunderstanding one another.
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