Romanian theater and Covid emergency: what is happening in Romania?

Article by Ipazia

The years 2020 and 2021 were traumatic for the performing arts. Theaters, cinemas and concerts closed at the first in March 2020 and were the last ones to reopen, to be quickly closed again. Instead of being supported by the state, Romanian artists tried to go ahead and get by on their own, doing their best. In the context of the crisis, the artists mobilized and discovered suitable formulas to be with their audience. Especially the independent theaters, but also the state ones, had the courage to resort to new solutions, they experimented. Online communication formulas, online shows, theater-film shows – projects initially tailored for the stage – were transferred online at the time of the crisis.

At the end of 2020, the situation improved: a good part of the independents and public theaters decided to regularly broadcast online shows (Sibiu Festival, Craiova, Bucharest, also from 2020 until today), some even VR, recorded or in regime “live streaming”, the latter meant not only to support the “here and now” character of the theater, but also the morale of the actors, who have the opportunity to play “live”, even for an invisible audience. Online has shifted its focus to Romania, so actors have performances on social networks or online platforms. The shows started to equip themselves technically with everything that a good live video transmission entails and actors started to collaborate with teams of very skilled technicians and professional in audio-video field, so that shows started to be properly filmed – for the first time! The festivals have been transferred online, some really successfully, like: FITS, Cluj Interference Festival, DebutanT, Political Theater Season, Replica Stories 2020, etc. While hanging their “Closed by Pandemic” label most of the year, Romanian artists sought solutions for their own survival and that of the theater, managing shows and creating new formats. The health crisis is forcing a change in the theater field. The independent sector is struggling to survive as its activity, and therefore its income, is severely restricted.

In the majority of cases, and in the absence of widespread experimentation with additional proposals to the form of the “live show”, the Covid-19 emergency has prompted in Romania the use of already tested technological solutions. The combination of video and social channels was the main expedient to “maintain a relationship” with the public, but it was especially successful as a placeholder to mark a space that was suddenly emptied. The technologies have allowed the commissioning of an avatar / a kind of autopilot with the task of “ferrying the theater towards the end of the pandemic”.

The pandemic favored the appearance of shows or rehearsals on Zoom that simulates show conditions because it puts people in the same virtual space, albeit at a physical distance. In general, you can move any show online (you can do “live streaming”, you can share a recording of a show, you can play on a platform such as zoom, etc.), the question is whether it is worth making this effort and who exactly are you addressing. The online environment can feed the need for theater and reduce the anxiety of isolation, and the theater, although it does not change the course of time, can tame them through catharsis. Another effect of blocking theaters favored artistic experiments designed and produced especially for transmission on screens. Hybrids have emerged from here, which in time remain to verify their viability. These productions do not compete with the show in the hall, have other aesthetic stakes, target a different audience and communicate with a different language. It is obvious that when the theaters reopen in Romania, we will all happily return to the halls. But the path of creative exploration of intermediate communication will also remain open. The artists of the new generations are here on a familiar ground, they have communication reflexes and they master a language in which they were formed, which is expected to capitalize artistically in the future.Theaters will reopen, but what will they produce and what will be their role in the new reality? The pandemic could be a chance for the Romanian theater, which is stubborn to perpetuate outdated work practices and aesthetics, to produce the proper turn towards contemporaneity, at least in terms of technology, if not in discourse, but things are difficult to move. But let’s be careful: the reference to product innovations does not define a trivial, albeit important, digital translation of the services and products already offered by cultural organizations. That’s an extension of the distribution channels. Product innovation therefore implies the will and the ability to extend its activities to better satisfy, at least this is the intent, the needs of current and / or potential consumers. To be clear: putting a show online is not, in itself, a product innovation. It can be, of course. But this digitization operation must be accompanied by other “additional” services and new ways of working.

The fact that during this period the public migrated to “online theaters” is the expression of the basic need for theater. This period taught us to overcome through online theater the boundaries of access to geographically inaccessible theatrical spaces. Online theater or new experimental shows can help the viewer to overcome the limits of the screen, to recreate the three-dimensionality of the experience and to imagine the atmosphere of the room that is now disturbed by the discontinuity of attention and civil space. The convention substantiates the stage-hall pact, and the online theater destabilizes it, placing the viewer at the same time in two spaces: mentally in the fiction of the show and physically in its own civil reality. The hardest thing is to make them overlap and this is the main condition for receiving online theater. At the same time, we all feel in the reception of the online theater the absence of intimacy and involvement in the direct contact with the stage and its artists as part of the “stage-public pact” that defines this art. In conclusion, we think that the theater continued during this period to offer us the space for reflection and stability of the cultural values ​​that we seem to need more in times of crisis. So how can this lockdown be useful for the theater sector in Romania? It can be used to exploit the moment of “necessary” rethinking of the artistic product, so that the “theater” returns to being, even in Romania, a secular cult of man, a moment of reflection on humanity that few other arts allow to maintain.

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