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Virus variants, online shows and intermittent closures: What prospects for the Romanian theater sector in 2022?

Article by Ipazia

In recent years, the Romanian theater sector has undergone several changes. As a mirror of society and its mutations, new realities and social categories have appeared in the theater that had never been represented before the 90s. The theater scene mediated themes and topics absent from the public debate that thus entered society. Theater remains in Romanian society, in essence, a phenomenon of elites and it depends on the availability of the public and reaches a small number of spectators. It does not change in Romania the course of time, but theater can “tame them through catharsis”.

The Romanian theater was transformed by the competition of two main forces. On the one hand, the new generations of artists have generated the emergence of independent theater. In turn, the young artists were involved in the process of stimulating and writing new dramaturgy and associated forms of representation (educational theater, political theater, documentary theater, Art Theater). On the other hand, the audience also segmented and diversified, as a result of the multiplication of the theatrical offer. There were also “audiences” interested in the new performing forms of the independent area, which often do not intersect with each other. Another mutation that has influenced the aesthetic diversification of the Romanian theater in the last 30 years is the opening of the Hungarian and German language theaters in Romania to the Romanian public: new collaborations has been born and influenced the quality of the theater in Romania.

But the tornado triggered by the pandemic had to be faced. Romanian culture was one of the hardest hit areas by coronavirus in recent years. Theaters, cinemas, performance halls or concerts have been closed and the last ones have been reopened to be quickly closed again. In the spring, with only a short period of half-return to normal, a very small respite in fact during the summer, theatrical life froze. The closure of the theaters due to the measures taken by the authorities with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic changed the way the actors carry out their activity and forced them to reinvent themselves and find new ways to reach the public.

Instead of being supported by the state, the artists claim that they have had to do their best. The independent cultural sector was not helped at all and state funds went mainly to the entertainment industry: if subsidized theaters were financially secured in the pandemic anyway, independent artists, whose essential contribution to thematic diversification and theatrical aesthetics in recent decades (generally accepted today), were not supported by public policies. And the gap between public and independent theater has seriously widened. The pandemic has accelerated in Romania the urgency of finding solutions that will make it possible for independent theaters and artists to survive, which in any case represent a different audience that must be seriously taken into account and calculated by cultural policies.

During these years of pandemic, shows have been registered and new forms of relationship of the theater with its audience has been experimented.

Once activities were suspended, as first phase, big theaters opened their archives and broadcasted online shows which before were inaccessible for the majority of theatregoers. In this phase, online or filmed shows were broadcasted but lots of them were often misleading, because in most cases there were “working” footage, in which there are not many close-ups, many essential details are lost – from facial expressions to gestures or reactions and so on – so that some of the meanings of the show disappear. On the other hand, many theaters distributed anthological productions, masterpieces, shows that in their time created a notable public echo and which were not performed in too many festivals, so many spectators took the opportunity to follow them. After all and in a crisis time, it’s always better to watch a movie than not watch it at all.

Then, an “online season” stage followed with tickets at an affordable price for everyone. The pandemic favored artistic experiments, produced especially for on-screen transmission. Hybrids have emerged from this, which in time remain to verify their viability. These productions do not compete with the show in the hall, they have other aesthetic stakes, they target another audience and they communicate with a different language. Watching online theater has helped many to overcome the limits of the screen, to recreate the three-dimensionality of the experience and to imagine the atmosphere of the scene that is now disturbed by the discontinuity of attention and civil space. The convention substantiates the “stage-hall” pact, and the online theater definitively destabilizes it, placing us at the same time in two different spaces: mentally in the fiction of the show and physically in our civil reality.

The fact that during this period the public migrated from theaters to “online” is the expression of the real need for theater. This period taught us to transcend the boundaries of access to geographically inaccessible theatrical spaces through online theater. At the same time, online we felt 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.
Beyond the frustration of fractured dialogue, we are lucky to be able to meet, however, even remotely in the age of device communication. Ideas circulate freely and will fuel future shows. Life fuels theater, and the online environment is a pre-pandemic reality. It is therefore natural to find a place on stage, not just as a communication tool.
We all have the nostalgia of direct meetings, at the theater, but in time we will recover the theater “face to face”. But imagine what the year of the pandemic would have looked like without our connection to the screen-mediated theater. The theater in Romania 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. It is obvious that when the theaters will definitively reopen, we will happily return to the halls. But the path of creative exploration of intermediate communication will also remain open.

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