I recently saw Memodrome:Exile

I’m an Englishman whose knowledge of Romania consists of little more than childhood memories of the exotic Romanian stamps in my fortnightly delivery of the “Stanley Gibbons Catalogue” assortment of World postage stamps.   Eventually of course I grew up.  I discovered there were fascist regimes, such as Ceausescu in Romania and Nixon in the USA.  I also went to Poland in the early nineteen eighties and in 1985 went to Russia and the Ukraine.  To this day I remember with pleasure the time I asked my Soviet minder if he was not frightened of Solidarnosc in Poland.  “The Polish people are scared of the Russian bear”, he replied.  History of course has shown that while the peoples of the Warsaw pact countries might have been scared of the Russian bear they eventually brought him down.

The title of the play is very apt.  Nothing oppresses more than memory, presumably even more so in a state where memory is airbrushed.  The Forum theatre performers are not actors.  They are real people, Romanian “exiles” living in London.  On stage they play a version of themselves.  It’s the birthday party of one of them.   They use the celebratory occasion to moan to each other about their fate.  One character has only topic of conversation: the hated old Communism.  He’s like some Japanese soldier still hiding in a tree, decades after the Second World War.  Another character is you might think a good role model for a post-Ceausescu Romanian, an entrepreneur in one of the country’s leading industries.  Unfortunately, the industry in question is cybercrime.  Another character has resolved her Romanian past by becoming a sophisticated London girl.  When offered Romanian wine she says she would prefer “English”.  A fourth character is Romanian and black. His dilemma, as he points out, is that in Romania he couldn’t get work because he is black but in London he can’t get work because he’s Romanian.  All the characters are disconnected from each other.  The one thing they have in common is that they are all suffering from what you might call P.C.S.D:  Post-Communist Stress Disorder.

The facilitator then stops the play.  Does anyone in the audience think they could step into the role of one of the actors and cause a more positive outcome?  The rule is only one actor can be changed at a time and if the audience accept the character change the original actor returns and adopts the new characteristic.  One member of the audience replaced the guy who talked about communism all the time with one who didn’t talk about it quite so much.  The positive effect was immediate.  The London girl was replaced by a London girl was cool about drinking Romanian wine.  Then in a daringly optimistic character-change the guy who can’t find a job in London because he’s Romanian becomes a guy who could possibly find a job in London, even though he’s Romanian.  However the show-stopper turns out to be the policewoman who in the original story comes to arrest them all for cybercrime.  A member of the audience transforms her into a joke policewoman who is a birthday prank.  The point is of course that post-Ceausescu Romanians have got nothing to worry about.  As I said, they brought down the Russian bear didn’t they?

Anthony Roger Greatorex

Open Arena Launching Talk

It is said that if you want to see a tall building you have to take a proper distance from it. This is what happened to me.  While living in Romania and having been trained as a theatre artist, I acted for social change with the help of Forum Theatre. Forum Theatre is an applied drama technique that helps people act against oppression and social shortcomings by taking distance to understand the source of oppression and by finding means to act against it.

But what happens when the the source of oppression was annihilated?  And what happens further with the victims of oppression? How will they be able to come it terms with their new state and deal with their new identity? I learned there is a gap between the actions of people who lived in a state of oppression and those of people who were free to take their own decisions.

By coming to UK and engaging in a Phd research in theatre and cultural studies, I tried to take visual distance from my country in order to understand better the “action” gap between Romania and the West. I met Romanians who left the country and took action against the negative issues in our country. We are here today in the home of one of the most active Romanian fighter for democracy, Ion Ratiu. I also met and interviewed people who came here to act against the shortcomings of our political system.

As theatre artists, I and theatre director and visual artist Cristian Luchian wondered what we could do to celebrate those Romanian models of action. Therefore, trough Immersive Theatre company, we started the “Open Arena “ creative research platform aiming to explore the life of our community in UK by creative collaboration and open dialog. Therefore we invite you all, those of you who were forced to take distance or who chose to take distance from the country, to share your memories of the “golden era”, to testify and tell the world who we are. As testimony is the first condition for “action”, we named our project “Open Arena – Theatre of Testimonies”.

Open Arena is a work in progress project. On our website you will see our next events and activities and we hope you will be able to join us and help us share our community’s stories. Through performances of the kind you have seen today, we aim at learning and sharing the experiences of Romanians.
I particularly want to invite those of you who feel the need to bring your contribution by sharing your memories and testimonies of our past, and want to get involved in spreading the word about us Romanians. Also I invite you to join the Forum Theatre workshop starting with 26 of March and finalizing on 6th of April at Rich Mix with a forum discussion with the audience. We will explore some of the traces left within our education by the shadows of communism and try to find solutions for improvement. Forum Theatre is a theatrical tool designed to offer the audience the possibility of acting out solutions and debating on the subject presented to them.
While in traditional theatre the artistic content is created by an individual author, Immersive Theatre’s practices reunite multiple testimonies as a source for performance and the audience is part of the authorship process.

Anca Doczi
Open Arena, Project manager

Every story must be told

I have always wondered which is the right way to tell a story and if some stories are not to be told. I come from a tradition were I was taught that “There are things we never talk about”. And I didn’t ask “why”. Despite teaching me some of the most important lessons in life, my grandmother told me once: “never tell anything about yourself” and this was something I carried with me for many years like an old heavy baggage. Memories were stuck somewhere so deep, that at one point I completely forgot who I was. My identity was falling apart. I lost any sense of understanding why or how to do things. I was training to become a performing artist but I was not ready to share my identity, my thoughts or my emotions. I thought telling someone else’s story will fill the blanks of my own story. How wrong I was.

Then I left my country searching for a different experience. The exploration of memory and identity expended from looking at my own roots as an individual, to trying to understand my roots as a Romanian. If I would have stayed there, I might have never asked myself what being a Romanian means for me. But the strange feelings of alienation and isolation and in the same time of being “on top of the world”changed the scene for me. “Where are you from?” is the question on everybody’s lips, a form of established social convention you need to perform with the shop assistant, with a stranger on the buss, with the old man walking his dog in the park, with your neighbours,  with the lady from the bank, with strangers in the pubs, with everyone.  Does it counts? Apparently yes. It counts for what it tells about you.  And the prejudices of being a person from a marginalized country, the social exclusion, the political rejection of my country, the demonized image from international press have affected the way I relate to all these issues in a way that I never thought it would be possible. It made me want to scream; It made me want to testify; it made me want to tell the story of my identity through all the voices I was hearing around me …so I could understand.

I looked all around me, at how the identity of the West was shaped by incredible stories and how nations are regarded as ‘imagined communities’’ with their wisely constructed stories, hidden histories being challenged, established cultures and more important with a patrimony of collective memories. Every successful community has a patrimony of narratives that confirms its existence, and furthermore, the identity. So I realised we Romanians also have some stories we need to remember, to commemorate and most important, to tell.

I become aware of the impact of performing your own story within a participatory theatre experience, first through the amazing work of Augusto Boal and his forum theatre also known as“Theatre of the Oppressed”, then through my own experience. I have seen people being transformed and happy to escape the burden of their untold stories. I learned that one’s true story might be more fantastic and unbelievable than any story I could ever imagine. The level of intimacy and yet of understanding the most fundamental meanings of life came from really listening people’s stories or seeing them performed by the former ‘owners ‘of the story. I say ‘former’ because once you tell a story, the story chases from being your story; it becomes the story of each listener and a collective patrimony.

Therefore I realized that as an artist, I am just a medium of one’s narrative. I can only design a situation in which a narrator can start telling his/her story and the narrative unfolds in front of us, as a living entity that is both singular and universal. The artistic product is not the story itself, nor the virtuosity of the narrator, but the process in which someone tells and someone listen, a testifier and a witness.
And this amazing process opens infinite channels of understanding identity by revealing memory, for me, for the narrator, for the audience.  And moreover, it forms a successful community.

And this is the story of how “Open Arena” was born.
Anca Doczi