LONDON AND BRASOV VIA EMAIL—In the last several years, Romanian culture has had something of a renaissance internationally. Their film industry has produced award winning films like “Beyond the Hills” (2012) and “If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle” (2010) while visual artists like Adrian Ghenie, Dan Perjovschi and Mircea Cantor are coveted by collectors and museums alike. On the music scene Romanian pop artists like Edward Maya and Inna have had success with their cheesy yet danceable songs and when Herta Müller won the 2009 Nobel Prize for Literature, it helped give a boost for the strong literature of Romanian writers both in country and abroad. But Romanian theater has, thus far, not met with the same global accolades and successes of these other cultural genres.
However, with a number of interesting young playwrights on the scene, that may soon change. One of the country’s most interesting young dramaturges is Elise Wilk, a 35-year old award-winning playwright and journalist. She was selected in 2014 to participate in the Forum of Young European Playwrights at the Wiesbaden Theatre Biennale, one of the biggest festivals for contemporary European plays and in 2015 she was one of four playwrights to participate in the hotINK residency program at New York’s Lark Theater in New York. That same year “Paper Airplanes” won the Romanian National Drama Prize. Her latest play “iHamlet” debuted at the Excelsior Theater Bucharest in September last year. Ms. Wilk and Ginanne Brownell Mitic discussed Romanian theater and her writing. EXCERPTS:
Brownell Mitic: Tell me how you first became interested in theater and drama? Did you always want to be a playwright?
Wilk: It was the idea of performing a story that I always liked. When I was four I was listening to fairy tales on audio tape that my uncle sent to me from Germany. Inspired by them, I used to invent all kind of stories and perform them behind a sofa, using plush animals as actors. Later I invented stories for the children in my neighborhood, inspired by some soap operas we saw on television. [However] I didn‘t like the real theater very much. My parents sometimes took me to see plays, but I always fell asleep during the performances. When I was eight, one evening I wrote a novel about extraterrestrials. From that day, I knew that I wanted to become a writer. In my childhood I wrote many poems and short stories, but in high school I went to a drama class and there I discovered dramatic literature. I immediately knew that it was the kind of writing that suited me best.
What plays/writers/playwrights were the biggest influence on you and why?
“The Physicists“ by Friedrich Dürrenmatt was the first play that I fell in love with. After reading it I decided that I want to be a playwright. I was fascinated not only by the play but also by the rehearsals–some older schoolmates were preparing it for a school celebration. I still know some lines of it now. Last year, I was in Vienna for a reading of one of my plays at the Volkstheater. I was standing at a stoplight and suddenly an advertisement for that play appeared on a big screen. Another big influence was “Sex Drugs Rock and Roll” by Eric Bogosian. I saw it performed in 2008, in my hometown of Brasov, and it somehow helped to get me rid a really bad writer´s block when I was writing my first play.
A play, like every literary work, is like a puzzle made of very different pieces–parts of the writer´s biography, parts of real conversations, things that happened to the writer or to their friends. Images, memories, old pictures, dreams, newspaper articles–held togethter by a magic ingredient.
You have also worked as a journalist—does that background help in play writing?
During the years, especially by the time I worked in investigative journalism, I met all sorts of people and I saw all kind of stories. My first play, “It Happened on a Thursday”, was very much inspired by people I met during that time. It’s a play about loneliness, but there are many different themes in it, and the impact of media in people’s lives is one of the strongest. When I wrote my second play, “The Life Expectancy of Washing Machines“, I was inspired by a story I read in a tabloid magazine. It‘s about a father from eastern Romania who disappeared from home. He left a letter in which he wrote that he went off to search for pop singer Madonna, the love of his life. Another play of mine, “The Green Cat”, tells a story that we unfortunately see in the news very often: a girl goes to the club on a Saturday night and never arrives back home. I think that while working as a journalist you learn a lot of psychology and that helps you to build characters.
You had a busy last year, getting more global attention for your work.
It was a very good year. In the spring, the U.S.’s National Public Radio adapted and produced my play “The Green Cat.” The radio play, directed by Mihnea Chelariu, received the Silver Medal at New York Festivals’ “World’s Best Radio Programs 2016”. In April I had a reading of my play “Room 701” at Stadttheater Ingolstadt in Germany. In the summer I had the opportunity to work with the young theater director Catinca Drăgănescu; we wanted to see how the life of Generation Z-Hamlet looks like. We created a story about a teenager whose parents get divorced and who feels betrayed. That became ‘iHamlet.” Also in summer, I was part of a bigger project at “Neue Bühne Villach” in Austria. They commissioned playwrights, novelists and politicians from all over Europe to write short plays on the theme “Where are you, Europe?”
How would you describe the theater scene in Romania at the moment? Is it quite strong? Obviously people know a lot about Romanian films but has Romanian theatre not received the proper credit globally as it should?
In my opinion it´s a pretty strong scene. There has been a whole discussion about “the crisis of Romanian playwriting” because many theater managers from here are afraid to bring Romanian plays on the stage (indeed, I think 80% of the plays performed in Romania are written by foreign authors). There are no residencies for playwrights or other programs to encourage playwriting. But there are some very good playwrights here–some of them are also directing their plays.
Do you find translation an issue–trying to get theaters outside of Romania interested in putting on your work (or other Romanian playwrights for that matter)?
I don´t think it´s enough to translate the plays and send them to theaters. The translated play must be part of a program and be very well promoted. For instance, an electronic book with a play of mine translated to Italian was downloaded in two years by three people. Because it wasn’t promoted at all. On the other hand, when you organize a staged reading of the play and you invite the playwright for a discussion with the audience, and you invite the right people to see the reading, a lot of good things can happen.
Photos: 1) Courtesy Alina Andrei; 2) “Explosive” (National Theatre Craiova), courtesy Florin Chirea