Friday, March 6, 2009

March 2009 - Saviana Stanescu


This year, we’re focusing in depth on what Lark community members have to say about where we’re headed as a society and the tools we’ll need to get there. Every month, we are inviting a guest essayist—theater artists as well as people from fields outside theater—to share a unique perspective on some important strategic questions we’ve been asking ourselves lately about the purpose of live theater in the twenty-first century, what the field has to offer society as a whole, and what we can learn about how to shape the theater of the future.

Most of all, we hope that you will read these essays and take part in our online blog conversation with us so that we can begin to get a sense of what ideas are in the ether.

This month’s essay is by Saviana Stanescu, a playwright of global stature whose work and perspective are particularly resonant for American audiences now. Saviana arrived in America the week before 9/11, which has, I think, had a significant impact on the stories and themes she has explored in her plays since then. She was a Fulbright scholar and award-winning Romanian playwright who completed the MFA program in Dramatic Writing at New York University where she now teaches. She has developed a number of plays while in residency at the Lark, in our Playwrights’ Workshop and in other programs—and several have gone on to critically-acclaimed productions. She is a core member of the Lark community who, three years ago with the support of a TCG New Generations Grant, created Lark’s American-Romanian Theatre Exchange program.

Saviana’s singular voice, clear vision, humor, and profound understanding of the human condition, as well as her professional discipline, prolific output and ability to work as a member of a creative community, are some of the reasons why she is making a unique and essential contribution to the field of theater and to society. In this essay, she contemplates her journey from child of communist Romania to revolutionary artist to global citizen, and her experience in America since she arrived here one week before the attack on the World Trade Center in 2001. What she sees, from her vantage point between two cultures, is hope for the future.

We look forward to reading your responses to Saviana–and to one another!


®Evolution: Topdogs, Underdogs, Slumdogs - unite!
by Saviana Stanescu

Let’s face it: global diversity and interconnectedness can’t be ignored anymore. Even the Oscars were more global this year, pouring awards over Slumdog Millionaire and acknowledging classy Spanish actress Penelope Cruz, German and Japanese filmmakers, and a French man-on-wire, among others. Moreover, President Obama gave us the green light and a nudge to finally debate race, class and gender issues in the open—a vital act for any society attempting to be truly progressive. In this blog, I will add to the mix my personal experience and a little slice of subjective East-European history. All wrapped in my belief that we still need strong socio-politically aware playwrights, deeply invested in the stories they invent.

We are all constructed by the stories we tell and the stories we are told. Yes, nowadays powerful moving pictures and digital images are very rapidly able to tell a compelling and widely distributed narrative. But nothing can compare to that shared live experience, with roots in ancient ritual, which performers and the audience breathe together during a live theatrical event. However, the time for only one paradigm in playwriting has long passed and we recognize diversity not only in social terms but also in the way we tell our stories. After Shakespeare, August Wilson, Brecht, Beckett, Ionesco, Lorca, Genet, Koltes, Grotowski, Pirandello, the Greeks, African performances, Balinese dancers, Japanese Noh, Chekhov, In Yer Face Theater, devised, multi-media, site-specific, cross-ethnic, feminist and queer performances, surrealism, expressionism, post-dramatic and environmental theater, etc., etc, we can’t only rely on the linear cause-effect plot-driven way of telling a story. It ceased to be only about unity of time, place and motivation long time ago. Aristotle is dead. And if he was still alive I bet he would have honored the diversity we achieved in dramatic forms and tried to document it in a serious theoretical way.

The unity of time, place and action might be obsolete in the theater, but in life we still share the same place—the Earth—along with the same time and action of going through our human journeys. Nevertheless, we are at different stages in our lives, we have multiple needs and dreams, and specific local circumstances shape our daily routines. Dramatic living and dramatic writing are interconnected but one does not necessarily lead to the other. There are great playwrights who never experienced hardship but are able to tell a powerful story about people and places burdened by trauma. And there are writers who went through a lot but feel the need to employ gallows humor, to invent parables or fairy-tales aimed at helping people escape their gritty reality. There are playwrights who need to provoke and shout stories in your face, forcing the audience to feel the proximity of the violence they watch on television or in thrillers. And there are dramatists who are still exploring the forests of traditional family relationships, while others write about dysfunctional or alternative families. And the list goes on and on. I wish mainstream producers would become more aware of this variety (in form & content) of stories longing to be shared with audiences. And of the impact that a playwright’s vision and imagined world can still have on people. Theater is not just entertainment but education too. Let’s not underestimate the spectators. The desire to continuously learn is embedded in our genes. We can choose to be ready to question and shake old beliefs and paradigms, and explore the Other.

In America’s patchwork society (a phrase that many, like Obama , favor over the classic “melting pot”), the exploration of the Other translates—more often than not—into an un/conscious form of segregation. Yes, people are willing to lend an ear, an eye—from time to time, on a break from their busy daily schedules—to the concerns of other racial/class/gender/sexual/ethnic groups. But they still seem to see each minority in a pink or black box, with a red or yellow or purple label. It’s easier to look at those boxes when time allows, to store them -for free :) - in the basement of your mind. It’s harder to integrate all those voices in the “garden” of your front yard. It’s easier to condescend and look down at those guys, while feeling superior because you looked, at least. It’s harder to accept that sometimes they are more sophisticated than you are or have more interesting things to say, even if they are poorer or of a different color or have an accent.

At this point, my personal hi/story kinda feels entitled to kick in :) - I am a product of communism—or so I once believed. I spent my formative years under the totalitarian regime of Ceausescu. I learned that all people are equal but—as the joke goes—some are “more” equal than others… Growing up, I realized that words were not always telling the truth even if they were declaimed with conviction on the National TV. I learned what propaganda, censorship and hardship meant but also that, despite everything, your mind can and must be free and your thoughts can reach unexpected heights of knowledge and understanding. And I became convinced that that was the role of the artist in society: to be able to think and express what other people couldn’t. To awaken their sleepy consciousnesses through her/his creative power and imagination. To be subversive. I believed (and I still believe) in the Arts as our means of redemption and tool for creating a healthier society.

My school years passed with good grades and mandatory work in factories and in the field. Years with shortages in food and electricity. Years with my mom waiting in line for milk and bread. Years when Romanian television showed 10 minutes of cartoons followed by hours of political propaganda. BUT ALSO years with books, intellectual conversations, dance lessons and… American television Westerns and series like Dallas Ewing Oil Company. So we could see how rotten capitalism was. Rotten or not, we were fascinated by it. Got our nicknames from Dallas in elementary school. I was Sue-Ellen (Linda Gray) while all the other girls wanted to be the pretty Pamela (Victoria Principal). Yes, hard years in terms of food, electricity, heat and money but full of family love and close friends. The years of my youth. Bitter and sweet. With dates that began with the phrase: “Come to my place on Thursday, my parents are not at home and I have hot water from 4-6 pm!” :)

When the revolution came in 1989, I was there, in the streets, with my fellow students, shouting: Down with the Dictator! The blood, the wounds, the corpses ceased to matter in our collective euphoria: things must change. And they did. I started to work as a reporter in the new free press. My first assignment was to write about pulling down the big statue of Lenin. I worked as a journalist for 10 years, I published books of poetry, I wrote plays, I even became a TV talk-show host. A new and never expected “VIP” life—like Paris, London or New York! A second-hand or, rather, third-hand Hollywood-like glamour. But I had always wanted to experience things first-hand…

So I got a Fulbright grant to study in New York in the fall of 2001. I was in my early 30s. My life was starting again. “New York, the center of the theater & performance world wants me there. What else can be better? This is not the golden dream of communism, but my own super-golden dream. And I’m widely awake!”

I arrived in New York a week before 9/11 and my world was shattered again—along with America’s. For the next eight years I worked hard to be able to tell my stories in English and to be an honest witness to what was happening to people like me, caught in that inbetween space bridging two cultures: the immigrants, the “aliens.” We might have “extraordinary skills” (as my visa states), but we just want to have an ordinary life, to feel that we are fully accepted here.

When people let me down, the City cheers me up—and I feel that I belong here, to this New York that I saw wounded so deeply in my first week on American soil.

Recently, I learned a new slogan: Yes, We Can. Finally, a slogan I could believe in. This wonderful thinker and orator, Obama, made me trust the idea of a political leader for the first time in my life.

And a funny thing: after being required to declaim Marx’s slogans in Ceausescu’s Romania in a mechanical empty way, people are handing me flyers on the campuses of Columbia and NYU that “shout” Revolution and Marx is back! I google Marx and there they are: all the quotes that I knew. But in English. And the funniest thing is … this time I really understand his points. I’m not sure that we need a new revolution, but an evolution towards truly accepting and appreciating various voices, people and stories, we definitely need.

So… my new imaginary friend is Karl Marx. We go for dinner together and have lots of hot debates. He wants to be the man of my dreams. I tell him that my dreams got kinda shattered. He speaks about class struggles, I talk about my struggles. I like it when he talks about the women’s status being the measure of progress in society. Actually he talks about the “fair sex” and then he makes this silly joke: “the members of the fair sex, the ugly ones included, ha, ha”. I tell him he’s sexist, he replies: you’re beautiful. Oh, well. Who can resist that? OK, now he got me on a weak spot, I start rolling my eyes and flirting, wishing I had a push-up bra to make my breasts look “revolutionary”… But he mentions again that freedom is only the consciousness of necessity, turning me off. I reply that freedom is just another word for nothing else to lose. He doesn’t like that. You cannot treat freedom so lightly. I don’t, on the contrary, but I still believe in spontaneity and impulse, this thing with necessity doesn’t really ring true to me. Well, that’s why you’re poor, he looks down at me. You are not able to get organized, you don’t know how to make a profit, you only live on the payment for your labor, yes, arts, theater, teaching – labor. No profit. You are a proletarian. Workers of the world, unite! Religion is just an opiate for the masses. Revolution is the only solution. Oh my God. Here I am again. Where I started. A sexless member of the proletariat. With a new revolution on the horizons. Really? I thought my life was in some sorta evolution. It turns out that it only recycles in a loop. Loop-loop-loop. History repeats itself, Marx says: first as a tragedy, second as a farce—and this time I agree with him. Am I ever gonna break this tragicomic circle? He smiles for the first time. He gives me a hammer. He turns into Brecht and tells me that art shouldn’t be a mirror of reality but a hammer that shapes it. Wow. That’s quite a lot of pressure on a poor artist like me. Am I—are we—gonna manage to shape any reality? Maybe. Stay tuned.


  1. Lovely piece, Saviana. I was fascinated to learn some of your history and especially to read about you and your new best friend, Karl Marx. (Though I'll bet he hates being called an "imaginary" friend.)

    I was a kid during the 1950s when there was such anti-Communist hysteria in the U.S.In later decades, through my activism in radical politics, I came to know people who were Communists, Trotskyists, Stalinists, etc. But only in recent years have I come to realize how profound my ignorance has been about the actual impact of Communism on the former Soviet Union, eastern Europe, and other societies. I've been to Prague twice, may be going to Poland this summer, and have made friends in both countries.
    It's been sobering to speak to them and to begin to concretely understand what Communist rule meant in those societies. As you know, it's not exactly as glorious as when described by the people handing out the flyers at Columbia and NYU.

    So that is one of many contributions that you and other immigrants from eastern Europe make to our country and our culture: to help us understand what happened in your countries and what is happening there today. But, as people from the Lark and elsewhere are well aware, your work goes way beyond that in thousands of imaginative ways!

  2. A VERY interesting essay! Intelligent and well-written. I am an actress from Eastern Europe and I totally understand what Saviana is saying. But she's saying it better than me :)