When Hamlet Is in Charge — An Interview with Ion Caramitru, Romanian Actor, Director and General Manager of the National Theater in Bucharest ShareThisfrom Interviews 2012/06/29 05:20
When Hamlet Is in Charge - An Interview with Ion Caramitru, Romanian Actor, Director and General Manager of the National Theater in Bucharest
Every year, in April, Ion Caramitru presides over the UNITER Gala, an event that celebrates the best of Romanian theatre both in state-theatres and on independent stages. Now 70 years old, Caramitru looks just as dashing as always. Only his professional achievements make you wonder about the time passed. For a lot of Romanians, he is still Hamlet - a part he performed as a graduate of the Institute of Cinematographic Art and Theatre back in 1964. For others he is a great reciter of poetry, which was not at all a safe job during the period of communist Romania; he is still remembered today and greatly respected for his powerful rendition of a 98-verse poem entitled Evening Star penned by Romania’s Romantic poet Mihai Eminescu. Caramitru’s terrific interpretation of Eminescu’s poem apparently upset Nicolae Ceausescu, the late communist ruler of Romania.
Still others relate to Caramitru as if he were a politician. He was one of the most recognizable faces that kept hope alive during the first days of the Romanian Revolution of December 1989. Since then Caramitru has held important posts. He served as a Minister of Culture from 1996 to 2000. Since 2005 he has been the general manager of the “I.L.Caragiale” National Theater in Bucharest, a position he assumed after undergoing a rigorous interview in front of an official delegation headed by the late director Liviu Ciulei. Caramitru is also the president of UNITER, a body that organizes the administrative life of all theatres and theatre festivals in Romania. Seen by some theatre people as an absolute dictator of Romanian theatre at large, Caramitru is a man of action with a lot of plans for the near future: the complete renovation of the National Theater in Bucharest has been in the works since 2008, a modernization of an old European building that is worth 40,000,000 euros.
Your name appears in a book  of interviews with all major theatre directors of the 20th century. These directors include Augusto Boal, Peter Brook, Lev Dodin, Robert Lepage, Peter Stein, Giorgio Strehler, Robert Wilson and a few others. How did you make the editor’s cut?
By the end of the 1970s, I attended post-graduate classes in theatre directing with Radu Penciulescu at the Institute of Cinematographic Art and Theatre. Actually, I was interested only in studying theatre directing, but in the year I was supposed to enter university, the theatre directing class was suspended for two months prior to examination time. We were told that for a year there would be no theatre directing class at the Institute. The situation went on for many more years. This is how I ended up enrolling into acting classes. When theatre-directing classes opened again, I was already a fourth-year acting student, almost a graduate. As a stage director, I am better known abroad than in Romania. I’ve directed both theatre and opera, and I’ve always had good reviews. I couldn’t give up acting for directing, so I have directed only in my spare time.
Do you feel any differences in your life as an actor during the communist regime and after?
Yes, of course. The differences are huge. If I may say so, I think that after 1989 Romanian theatre, actors and directors alike, have lost a privilege. This is a paradox, because before 1989, theatre reached the status of being the only space in Romanian culture where one could come, buy a ticket and see forbidden things such as freethinking ideas and political criticism. Romanians had invented a language that included visuals as well as speaking styles that directed the public to the truth that was banned in Communist Romania. We could not talk then about dictatorship, about freedom and power, about stupidity. But theatre addressed all these issues through the choices in constructing characters and situations onstage. These aesthetics, born out of need and from our will to fight in our own ways against what was going wrong in Romania, gave us the privilege of being ourselves in times when it was forbidden to be such. The public loved to come to theatre and used the three hours seated in front of the stage to be themselves too - to learn to hope again.
We, the actors, really felt the satisfaction of well-executed work. I’d like to quote the British director Deborah Warner. She was once asked which Romanian Shakespeare performance she liked best. Her reply was: “Hamlet.” She explained that she loved the translation. The obvious next question was: How was she able to establish that fact without knowing the Romanian language at all? She replied: “I’ve figured this out by observing the public’s reactions. I know this play by heart. And the Romanian public reacted in places I’ve never thought people could be made to react.” This made me understand that to translate a play and to perform it demands the freedom and liberty to exploit situations that are only slightly hinted at. Translating plays into Romanian meant more than just words; we were also translating the realities in a language at hand for the public. Playing in translation, we had this amazing freedom. Today, we are bound to be rigid, and we perform only the original play - no more interpretations of it! But I feel right now that little by little, we have been sliding back to the temptations of reinterpreting a play, but the process is not at the same high intensity, since there is no more censorship in the theatre. Political dictatorships give birth to cultural resistance and masterpieces.
You’ve experienced the great changes in Romania as it moved from a closed society to a more open society, and you played an active role as Minister of Culture during a four-year mandate in the 1990s. How did you perceive these changes in culture generally and in the theatre in particular?
I’ve witnessed changes in two separate historical moments. At the beginning of 1990, I was appointed one of the vice-presidents of the provisory new Romanian Parliament, directly responsible for cultural affairs. It was then that I started to approach all Romanian artists and intellectuals living abroad and asked them to return home. I negotiated with Emil Cioran and Eugene Ionesco, for instance. Both promised to return but never held to their promises, since in June 1990 Bucharest was invaded by violent mine workers; it was an event that raised serious concerns in the West. But other people did come. Director Andrei Serban’s return to Romania served the theatre well and the rising interest in theatre that followed the fall of communism in 1989. Director Liviu Ciulei also returned, and he directed plays, but he was not interested in managing a theatre company. Lucian Pintilie also returned, but he was more interested in making films than making theatre. All these people came back, because I had the idea of inviting them and organizing their return to the country they once left behind. All things went smoothly until the economic crises hit. In six years Romania had 7 to 8 different Ministers of Culture. In 1996 I was asked to become the new Minister of Culture, and agreed. I’ve tried to improve the lives of all Romanian artists, not only theatre-related people, and I’ve initiated pieces of legislation much needed for a healthy cultural environment.
What does theatre look like when it’s a department of a ministerial body?
Theatre is not even a department in the architecture of the Ministry of Culture, since most of the theatres in Romania are subordinated to local administration and not the Ministry of Culture. For example, Bucharest has 14 theatres that depend on the city government, and in the country 99 percent of theatres are financially supported by local authorities. However, the Ministry of Culture is responsible for the whole body of legislation regarding the theatre life in Romania. Unfortunately, each newly appointed minister of culture did not succeed in their attempts to improve the status of theatre as an institution. They did succeed in creating legislation that was not always coherent or that excessively bureaucratized the theatre institution as a whole. Theatre has three major components that determine its success: the repertory, the public (i.e., the number of spectators), and the critics. No matter how sophisticated the means for measuring the success and for teasing the public to come to theatre, there are only two ways to appreciate theatre: by going to see theatre and by not going at all. There cannot be theatre without an audience! Today a management contract for a general manager of a theatre contains percentages for public attendance, a business plan, and other elements that make state theatre look like a private business.
What were your priorities during your first term as general manager for the “I.L.Caragiale” National Theatre in Bucharest, and how are you approaching your second term, that has started this year?
I am very familiar with the National Theatre as an institution. I made my début as an actor on the National Theatre’s stage. I spent my first year as a professional actor, after graduation, with the National Theatre‘s ensemble. I had leading roles in three different plays during the 1964–1965 season. Even if I had good work to do, all I wanted was to leave that institution. It was a theatre with a fake image; it was not the best theatre of Romania, as it should have been since it was called the National Theatre. Of course there were great actors who performed there, great stars, but the repertoire was weak. The National’s repertoire was below the programs of Bulandra Theater Company, for example. I was desperate to be part of the Bulandra Company. Eventually this did happen; during the last shooting day for The Forest of the Hanged, Liviu Ciulei asked me if I were interested in coming to play at Bulandra. I was quick to say yes. Ciulei warned me that I should forget everything I’ve ever done as an actor at the National Theater if I were to join Bulandra. Ciulei had a poor opinion of what was going on in the National Theatre then. So, after a season at the National Theatre where I had three leading parts, I started my work with Bulandra Company where I played an extra. So this was my first contact with the National Theatre; it was a place I wanted to escape from, no matter what!
The National Theatre was incapable of escaping its academic dullness. After 1989, all the general managers who occupied the office at the National Theater experienced great difficulties pulling the institution out of this dullness. Andrei Serban and Ion Cojar succeeded in reviving the stage for a little bit, but their stays as general managers were too short to be truly meaningful. When I became general manager in 2005, the theatre was in a pretty bad shape, artistically speaking. The problem wasn’t only a management error as much as it was a lack of respect from the body of actors toward the institution itself. Since working at the National was a low-paying job, the actors started to find other acting work, mostly in TV, neglecting their National Theater’s schedules. So, our situation is such that we cannot creatively unite a cast committed to work for one theatre project. Rehearsals start with actors asking for free days to commit to their filming schedules. I think this is one of the reasons why theatre that happens outside of Bucharest is better than what happens in Bucharest. In other Romanian cities actors are not tempted with television offers. It’s impossible to fight it. Moreover, the undetermined time contracts that actors sign do not help at all in disciplining the actors. Romanian theatre needs to be reformed; I think now would be a right moment for such major changes. In theatres, actors should be hired only on a limited time-based contract, so that actors would be always fighting for their place in the company. However, over 80 percent of all contracts in Romanian theatre are limitless time-based contracts.
In Romania and Bucharest, is there any major issue that artists fail or neglect to address on stage? Why? Is this due to censorship, or to a blind spot in the community's shared perception of the world? — or to a community’s consciously or un-consciously avoiding it?
There were performances, after the fall of Communism, that were censored. For example, A Lost Letter by I.L.Caragiale, directed by Alexandru Tocilescu. Ion Cojar was the general manager of the National Theatre then. It was a very transparent performance; a mid 19th-century subject was updated to today’s Romanian society. It was a very alive theater, and the success was immense. Once the general management changed, the play was deleted from the repertoire, and the stage design and costumes were all destroyed. I wanted to revive the performance once I became general manager myself, but I could not, since everything that belonged to that production had been destroyed. Recreating all of it would have been too expensive and not economical. So there was a kind of censorship, an issue that the artists failed to address, but it was a censorship coming from within the institution and not from outside, as it was during communist times.
In today’s Romanian artistic world, anyone can propose anything and would be able to do it. I can confess that there is a project that unfortunately remains undelivered due to the death of the director. In November 2011 the National Theatre agreed to a project based On Carnivalby I. L. Caragiale, and the idea was that the whole carnival scene would happen in the day the of Soviet occupation of Bucharest in August 1944. Actors in Soviet uniforms and on horsebacks were to fill up the stage. The whole action was conceived to have taken place on the eve of August 23, 1944, the day in which Romania switched sides during the World War II, breaking the alliance with Nazi Germany and joining the Soviets and Americans. Such a performance could have probably upset the Russian Embassy today, but we would have strongly stayed to the idea of playing Caragiale but also debating our recent history, too.
What, if anything, is difficult in communicating with the designers/directors/actors/playwrights? Why? How early and how often do you exchange views about the coming production? Have you designed shows yourself, and if so, does that make communication easier?
If we debate Romanian theatre, we actually debate the Romanian directorship in the theatre. Great directors such as Liviu Ciulei and Lucian Pintilie always succeeded in surrounding themselves with great artists and communicating in ways that added to any initial performance ideas. If the director is uncertain and fails to add pedagogy to his rehearsals, the performance would be average and unable to communicate further on with the public. When everyone is focused on one theatre project, as often happens in the Western World, great things can happen in 3 to 4 weeks of rehearsals. I’ve directed 140 people in an opera, and I did not need more than a month to do so. Communication is better when everyone is focused on that one thing and not involved in many other projects. Disasters in theatre happen because of too many people involved in too many other projects.
In your creative process, which part do you enjoy least? Why? How do you tackle it?
I do not enjoy administrating the theatre, but I have to do it. It is a time killer. Secondly, it’s easier to be strictly an artist than being an administrator and a bureaucrat as well, but someone has to do the bureaucrat’s work. For example, I had this idea about establishing UNITER. It’s hard to delegate the managing of tasks to someone else. I’ve tried to distance myself from UNITER and the work that comes with it. But I failed. I failed, because I believe that if one loves to do something, one should make time for it.
During your career, have you ever received a particularly insightful piece of criticism? When, and what did it say? What made it especially important for you?
Theatre criticism helped me especially during my early years of my career as an actor. In my opinion, during the past year, Romanian criticism has declined a lot. Not that there aren’t any intelligent or good Romanian theatre critics, but I do not think Romanian criticism has 100 percent objectivity. Most of our Romanian theatre critics have their own interests in the theatre business, and this includes theatre festivals as well. To illustrate what I mean: I always tell the story of an Irish theatre critic Fintan O'Toole. While on tour with Hamlet, he wrote an enthusiastic review about my acting. We became friends when I met him in the 1990s, while he was also touring to see theatre in Eastern Europe and he came to Bucharest. Five years ago I got cast in a Brian Friel play. The play was scheduled to be performed in Dublin, and so I called my friend, Fintan, who by then was the drama critic for The Irish Times. He replied to me coldly: “Just forget you know me!” I was puzzled by his reaction and did not understand it. He confessed: “You are about to perform, and I will have to review you. I am not allowed to have any kind of relationship with any of the cast members. When the tour is over, we’ll be friends again.” His reaction may seem excessive, but there is a certain morality that Western drama critics obey and comply to.
I think the act of criticism is a fully individual business. I do not believe that theatre critics gathering together in associations can help criticism move forward. I think the nature of criticism requires the critic to be a kind of a lonely referee. In such a position, a critic is not allowed to favor a theatre company over another company. I think criticism can be constructive or destructive, or just too subjective, and I’ve dwelt with all these manifestations during my career. I am sure you’ve also done such acts of criticism, too.
Now that the National Theater is going to have more performing spaces due to the new construction plan, do you think the institution you are managing can become a leading figure in the fight towards a reactive and active society — attributes that characterize a community with good theatre, connected to people’s issues?
I am more prepared to reply to this question then you may think I am. I was the first promoter of this philosophy through UNITER. I’ve started the idea of having young actors performing in orphanages, and this project is still a work-in-progress. I’ve also tried to add theater as a study subject in schools. I’ve met with three different ministers of educations, and my proposal was at least to get it started in a few schools, as an experiment. One such experimental school was “I. L. Caragiale” High. More schools now have drama circles, an activity that students like to get involved in after classes, but it’s not yet an official activity — it’s more a classroom hobby. In the U.K., for example, drama is an examination subject that students can choose, along with sports, in order to graduate from high school. Of course English drama is an important chunk of the history of English Literature. I think all changes operating in the Law of Education in Romania have overlooked theatre.
Theatre is a powerful tool that teachers and educators can use to make students learn more and also to express themselves more. Theatre can teach students to speak correctly, to be more literate, to speak up and to communicate. But so far this fact hasn’t been yet fully understood. In Romanian society, theatre is seen as part of culture but not yet of education. Romanian education system is at fault. If Luciano Pavarotti had wanted to be a professor in Romania, the Law would not have allowed him to become one, since he does not hold a PhD. In the artistic university education system, I do not believe in the necessity or need for professors to hold a PhD. Liviu Ciulei, Radu Penciulescu, Lucian Pintilie have taught for years in prestigious international universities and no one there dared to stop them because none of them held PhDs. The PhD of a great artist is his work itself. What it is required for an artist to teach others is talent, and talent is something an artist possesses right from the start. Theatre in schools can make students feel privileged.
 Ioana Moldovan has been a member of the Romanian Section of the International Association of Theatre Critics since March 2007. She is a theatre critic for Revista 22, a political weekly magazine. Since March 2007 she has been a member of the professorial staff of the “I. L. Caragiale” National University of Theatre and Cinematographic Arts in Bucharest – Department of Theatre Studies, Cultural Management and Theatre Journalism. Between 2006 and 2009, she was involved with ACT Theatre in Bucharest, the first independent theatre stage in Romania, where she served as a cultural manager. She is also a 2010-2011 Fulbright Junior Grantee with the University of Southern California–School of Theatre, in Los Angeles, where she pursued research on the topic of “Open Society Theatre.”
 UNITER means the National Association of Theater Professionals in Romania.
 Liviu Ciulei (1923 - 2011) was a Romanian theater and film director, film writer, actor, architect, educator, costume and set designer. During a career spanning over 50 years, he was described by Newsweek as "one of the boldest and most challenging figures on the international scene." He is the first Romanian to receive the Directors' Award at the 1965 Cannes Film Festival for The Forest of the Hanged. He is the only one Romanian theater personality to receive a Tony Award.
 In Contact with the Gods? Directors Talk Theater, edited by Maria M. Delgado and Paul Heritage, published by Manchester University Press, 1996.
 Radu Penciulescu (b. 1930) is Romanian theater director, adept in the Stanislavsky style of acting. He emigrated to Sweden in 1973.
 British theater director who visited Romania in 1988 as head of a delegation of British theater professionals who were in charge of seeing all Shakespeare plays performed in Bucharest.
 I. L. Caragiale (1852-1912) is a playwright, short story writer, poet, theater manager, political commentator and journalist. He is considered one of the greatest Romanian playwrights and writers ever.