Through theater, performance, community theater and empowerment theater programs, Mihaela Drăgan focuses her practice on creating space for the multitudinous representations and voices of the Roma people, both within her native Romania and across Europe. I met with Drăgan at Maxim Gorki Theater in Berlin, just a few hours before that evening’s performance of Roma Armee – which I also had the opportunity to see. The production emphasized a few of the points Drăgan had made during our conversation – specifically, highlighting the utility of humor and performativity as vehicles for communication of important issues, and the recognition of diversity amongst the Roma people as vital in the breaking down of stereotypes. Drăgan spoke about this, as well as her current and upcoming projects, and the important work of making space for the Roma both on stage and off.
PEN WORLD VOICES International Playwrights Festival, New York 2018. Photo by Shao Wen Liang.
Julianne Cordray: You’re engaged with theater on different levels – you write and also act. How did your interest in theater emerge?
Mihaela Drăgan: I think I always wanted to be an actress – even as a child. I’m part of a Roma family of musicians, so I’m used to performance. For me, it was always fascinating to see them performing. Even though they were musicians, I always felt that, in front of an audience, they became characters. Then, in 2014, I founded my own theater company, called Giuvlipen. It comprises professional Roma actresses from Romanian. We needed to represent the Roma minority in the cultural arena, because, for the most part, people only know the stereotypes. So, we wanted to invent a progressive, contemporary, feminist Roma theater. We actually tried to invent the word for feminism and the name – Giuvlipen – is what came out of it.
JC: Can you talk a bit more about the foundation of your theater company?
MD: At the beginning, it was very difficult. We were always asked whether or not we were professionals. People really couldn’t put a label on Roma professionalism. We had to work really hard to constantly explain ourselves and be taken into consideration. Now, we’ve influenced a lot of the local scene in Romania. Though we work mainly within the independent scene, we’re always invited to festivals, as well. For us, it is really important to be professional and to experiment and bring in new ways to express our identity in theater. It is very important to not just be Roma who are speaking about discrimination, but to also bring a high level of quality. We don’t define ourselves as activist theater, just because we speak about Roma identity or our identity as women. Our plays are not dramas or conferences where we speak about how the non-Roma should accept or integrate Roma people. We use a lot of comedic mechanisms to express the inequalities amongst our community, as well as a lot of music, dance and cabaret, while approaching provocative topics. This work has not been done before, which makes it difficult, because people don’t have any other example of Roma theater in mind. A lot of people were a little bit shocked that there are Roma actresses that are feminists and are speaking about sexuality and queerness, even amongst the conservative community in the movement. But we have to do this work; we have to speak about all of these topics. Our movement has to be intersectional. We don’t want to be perceived as a homogenous group – we are all very different in our community. We need more representation. That’s why we need to do this.
JC: Can you elaborate on your use of humor and comedy as vehicles to communicate these issues?
MD: I think criticism works better through comedy. Because if you just outright tell people that they are racist, what you get is a defensive reaction. People will be defensive – this is how we are built. So, I use comedy, because I think that, through comedy, criticism is better received and the message is clearer. You can understand, through these other mechanisms, what is wrong with your way of thinking. It’s also because people like to laugh – we all like to be entertained. It’s very difficult with theater, because TV, film and cinema have largely replaced it. In order for theater to be at the same level and to continue to be entertaining, it must incorporate new performative methods. People don’t listen anymore – they are always on their phones, tablets or laptops – so you need to do something very important, very visual and very simulating in order to get their attention. And they definitely don’t want to hear that they are bad people, or that they are not doing enough. We also all need more fun in our lives. Besides all the tragedy, there are also people who want to live and have happy lives. Tragedy is not our whole existence – it doesn’t define us. We are whole human beings, and we need to laugh, as well.
JC: How many members does Giuvlipen have? What is the dynamic like amongst the group?
MD: People tend to come and go, depending on their other jobs or beliefs. We define ourselves as feminists, but not every Roma actress does; so, when we approach topics like abortion, if someone is against it, then it may come down to the fact that we can’t work together, because we have different beliefs. In general, we’re around 10 members, though. Now we’re involving men, as well.
Roma Armee, Courtesy Maxim Gorki Theatre.
JC: What is the company working on at the moment?
MD: We’re currently rehearsing for a new project about the Roma Holocaust, which is really important for us, because nobody’s doing a theater piece about this. The Roma Holocaust was not recognized in Romania until much later, and we don’t learn about it at school; it’s not in our books. We don’t even learn about Roma slavery. It’s an important production for us, because it’s also difficult to deal with this historical topic and we don’t want to deliver it in a superficial or non-artistic way. We are looking for the most performative ways to deliver this information. It will also be the first time we have a production in the state theater – the Jewish state theater of Romania. This is another thing we’re always struggling with: we don’t have a space. The state doesn’t fund Roma theater. So, it is always an issue to try to find a place to perform. We have a couple of collaborations with the museum of literature and other theaters. But we usually have to pay to rent a space for rehearsals. In the past few years, we did a lot of lobbying in order to found a Roma state theater in Romanian. We’re the second largest minority – officially. Unofficially, I think we are the first, but not everyone declares themselves as Roma. We’re here, we exist, there is Roma theater, there are Roma actors, so the government just has to give us a space. All the minorities in Romania have theaters, but the Roma, who are victims of slavery, victims of the holocaust, and the second largest minority, have no representation, culturally speaking, and no institution. We’ve also traveled around to many cities in Romania in order to speak with the authorities. It’s a very difficult process. It’s work that will ultimately facilitate it, not for us, but for future generations.
Dom Alchemical Sisters performance, Photo by Nino Nihad Pushad.
JC: Since you started this in 2014, have you seen a lot of growth? How has it developed?
MD: It was difficult at the beginning, but, looking back, I’m very satisfied and have the feeling that it has been worth every investment of emotion, energy and time – without money or anything else. We’ve managed to have a lot of impact on the cultural scene. Now, we also receive invitations from international festivals, as well as media recognition – for instance, Reuters called us ‘revolutionary theater’. We have to do this – it’s not only a project. It’s about us; it’s about our community. It also brings comfort and peace of mind. I feel that I have to speak about these things otherwise I will die – metaphorically speaking, of course. Because speaking becomes a passion, when it’s about your life and the life of your community. There’s a lot of abuse all over the world. We have to talk about this. We have to make space to find solutions for this and come up with an alternative. We also need to reclaim space, because these are our countries, too. So, we need institutions for our art, and we need to have a voice. It’s something that burns us up inside.
JC: Outside of your work as an artist, are you also engaging in activism?
MD: I think it’s too much to say that I’m an activist, because I’m not able to spend enough time on it. I do go to protests, but I think the activists are the people that are working every day. I’m an artist – I have the privilege of being an artist – and I’ve been working a lot. But what I consider to be more within the realm of activism is the theater program we are doing with Roma women within different communities. We address specific issues within these communities – for instance, in communities living without electricity or water, we do a show about this and invite authorities and try to find solutions through theater mechanisms. Or, if they are dealing with early marriage, we do a theater play about this and invite the community. We discuss relevant topics directly within these communities. That is more related to activism, I think.
Gadjo Dildo, Giuvlipen Theatre Company performance, Photo by Andreea Campeanu.
JC: You also do some performance art outside of the theater. I wondered how you think about the distinction between performance art and theater – or rather the structure and institution of theater vs. the openness and public setting of performance art – within your practice.
MD: In theater, I know what I have to do. In performance art, I experiment a lot. This is something that I like about performance art. It doesn’t involve rules in the way that theater does. You don’t need a stage or lights. But I think my art performances are also very connected somehow to theater. I would like to develop this more in the future. We had a Roma Biennale at Gorki last month, and I did a performance that I want to continue to develop: about futuristic, Roma witchcraft. This summer, I’m going to Hong Kong for a one-month residency, so I have a month to first research this, to imagine how to combine futurism with witchcraft, and to put it into a performance. So, I will see what comes out of that. In general, I’m not doing so much performance art, but when I have the opportunity, I like to. I also don’t have so much time to write, and that’s something that I really miss.