Sites in Motion. Prague To Bucharest: Alternative Theater Initiatives in Eastern Europe

LONDON- FRANKFURT- BUCHAREST On this long haul over the land coach voyage where miles are devoured in darkness and discomfort, time has no relevance now measured in neon petrol station stops, highway tollgates, and border crossings. Changing coaches in Frankfurt brings a change of pace-now slow and erratic with contrasting intensified excitement.

Final destination: Romania and a meeting with Nona Ciobanu—Theatre director and director of TOACA cultural foundation in Bucharest.

Now accompanied by a new congregation of Romanians returning to the homeland, the bus promptly breaks down. There is a general acceptance of this fact; an acceptance to be the subject of further jokes as delays increase and roads become more pockmarked. Dawn. Dusk. Darkness. We share it all accompanied by egg sandwiches, whisky bottles of strong sweet coffee and tales of tax rebates and free public transport on production of certificates of merit issued in the revolution. The coach becomes suffocating in the midday heat prompting the ominous “you will feel the concrete burning your feet in Bucharest.”

5.30am. The Hungarian Plain. Approaching the border, money is collected for no apparent reason explained by a (to be repeated) comment “you are now entering the land of possibility” and an interpretation linked more to “anything can happen” thanto an essential freedom.

A progressive change of scenery that began on leaving Austrian territory is now reaching completion and is echoed in the whirling gypsy soundtrack of the coach tuned in to local radio. Passing stalls of hanging garlic on colorful parasols, rusting pipes following the open highway, vast fields of dying sunflowers, blue Carpathians, shining Orthodox churches, gypsy mansions in construction, haystacks—all part of a setting sun as darkness falls once more… stop Bucharest, “the jungle.”

“Welcome back to hell.” The wry humor of fellow passengers is repeated in discussion with Nona and an idea for a play: The devil on a mission to Bucharest in the form of a photojournalist discovering that a similar force has beaten him to it—Poverty, begging, corruption, packs of wild dogs (no exaggeration)—they already exist. This is of course one real perspective within an increasingly cosmopolitan city.The reality that “times are hard” remains but as in most cases the situation is more complex. Here, no claim is made to an in depth investigation of the political and social system of a country in transition.

This is primarily an article on specific eastern and central European Arts Initiatives and their quest for artistic independence within and outside of this structure.

Over coffee behind Bucharest’s Piata Universitaire I learn about the origins and aims of TOACA Cultural Foundation, a non-governmental non-profit organization established in 1996 by Nona Ciobanu and Julian Baltestescu-actor and set designer. The name TOACA has variety of potent meanings.

Toaca can be the name for a religious instrument producing a primal beat used by monks as a call to prayer with mythic origins in Noah’s call of the animals to the ark—A parallel to TOACA’s cultural rescue mission? It is also the name for the peak of a mountain in Moldavia reached by a rickety stairway, and in verb form means to hack to pieces.

To quote from their own brief description, TOACA’s ambitious intentions are: “to provide an OUTSIDE THE SYSTEM framework for contemporary art, to offer young artists cross disciplinary training and support for independent projects, to promote communication between Romanian freelance artists and between national and international cultural values, to create a space where art, politics and social issues can interact, and to broaden the scope of cultural projects into the community.”

In order to fulfill these aims TOACA is part of a partnership program with MAPA (Moving Academy of Performing Arts),Amsterdam, MAMAPAPA, Prague and The Contemporary Dance Association, Bratislava.

It was as a student of Scenography at D.A.M.U. Academy of Performing Arts in Prague that I first came into contact with this network through a course program entitled “space as a partner” led by Tomas Zizka of mamapapa organization. Their own mission statement draws on the same beliefs as TOACA as they are also a non-profit independent artist run initiative for theatre performers and artists.

A philosophy of freedom is articulated by MAMAPAPA emphasizing an active harmony and balance. This balance becomes precarious when surrounding government structures and cultural policy neglect or negate the value of such cultural initiatives. Both TOACA and MAMAPAPA incorporate a key educational role in organizing continuous local and international exchange programs hoping to bring about changes in the cultural climate in which they are working through active participation.

It becomes clear from each organization’s manifesto that an expanding communication network is crucial to this process and it is here that MAPA plays a pivotal role as illustrated in the apt title of their publication. Moving Minds. A network of Talent.

In brief, MAPA began in Berlin in 1983 when a theatre collaboration project entitled Amsterdam-Berlin prompted the founder, a Dutch theatre director, Ide Van Heiningen, to see the potential in the development of Eastern Berlin and eastern European Performance Art.

During a meeting with Mirna Zagar of Dance Week Festival, Zagreb highlighted the regions difficulties and the lack of support behind such talent. At this time the EMF (European Mime Federation) had also come into being and the war between Croatia and Serbia became a reality. This lead to an increased urgency in establishing a general professional support strategy.

MAPA was officially established in 1993.Since then the network has increased and stabilized, fuelled by a concept and tradition of Dutch export and the creation of an organized circuit of alternative theatre spaces.

The emphasis has remained on small scale, multidisciplinary training and all around entrepreneurship. This is achieved through workshops, a summer academy, and the defining MAPA academy on wheels “Karavan” tour, in which the summer’s production is packaged and toured to host partners in the mobile studio/office/theatre. This achieves an exchange of ideas and information, transports necessary equipment, and offers a controllable and efficient environment in which to create professional theatre.

The aim is to create a sustainable future for it’s active partners in local and regional development. It also exemplifies the Slavic origins of the word MAPA as both road map and portfolio: A traveling showcase.

The above information is culled from associated MAPA press and publications. More personal involvement and increased insight comes through direct information exchange with MAMAPAPA and TOACA respectively.

If there is any question of belonging it is that Theatre belongs to those who create it and this does not and perhaps should not extend to property.

Originally signing a 15-year lease agreement under the new communist government, the stability of the TOACA cultural center is again under threat. Nona acknowledges that there will be a point when they will unashamedly move on, in recognition of the importance of conserving energy. Their commitment to the production of new and innovative theatre will force this move, along with the doomed battle with authorities for space access. It all boils down to the power play involved in such spatial politics.

The TOACA center is housed in Casa Eliad, a 19th century building that functioned as a cultural house during communist times. “Culture” was then limited to the symbols of the official arts: a typewriter, a sewing machine, a folk ensemble, etc. The TOACA center now faces resistance and outright resentment from all sides.

The site is also home to the local Mafia who operate a car wash under the arches of the forcibly redundant outdoor theatre as a front for another kind of laundering. Nona has refused to bargain with such factions but such opposition goes beyond, or indeed hand in hand, with the local government and the blatant refusal to recognize the vibrant creative community growing from this location on B Dul Mirces Voda in Bucharest’s sector 3.

Part of “Bucharesti Frumos”(beautiful Bucharest) façade project, the historic value of the site also presents its own difficulties. Building on the philosophy of the multi-skilled performer this group of committed artists transformed the building from dereliction to cosmetic splendor.

The now palatial office and performance areas have become a double-edged sword. A common local authority policy of demolition has been swayed as the property now possesses increased real estate value and the gained position of heritage-listed building is once more coveted.

Saved from the wrecking ball to face different forces of change.

Despite the value placed on the function of acultural center as a solid base camp and centralized meeting point the logistical difficulties in this strategy have contributed to another movement. A move towards a concept and practice of the moving site employed in order to create continuously expanding, changing autonomous zones.

The very roots of the MAMAPAPA organization,(a grounding in Meyerhold’s bio-mechanical training and theatre as a mobile space with Constructivist elements coupled with a tradition of squatting in preparation of artistic occupation) has made this an obvious move for the Prague group.

The literal threat of eviction has been continually faced by Tomas Zizka and MAMAPAPA.. Their office and meeting base at Studio Citadela, Prague 1 is relatively stable as it remains under the auspices of the Linhart Foundation (influential property owners also supporting the infamous Roxy nightclub set up in an old Jewish Cinema.

Also set up by Tomas Zizka the upstairs is now being reborn as an alternative arts venue in the form of No D exhibition/performance space). However, MAMAPAPA’s ambitious collaborative space projects have often met an abrupt end in their early stages.

A recent example of this is the proposed Kotelna Partnership. This aimed to combine the resources of MAMAPAPA, pimac (Prague international media center),Tri-media lab and a meeting space/cafe bar for the Linhart foundation under one roof.

This roof was to be the Kotelna boiler factory (past host to 4+4 days in motion festival) but this plan has quite literally fallen through. The surrounding industrial quarter is undergoing rapid urban regeneration in the form of real estate Karlin. A progressive interdisciplinary cultural centre fostering international links apparently has no value within such a scheme and is now added to a long list of “disappearances”.

The transitional has been forced to work as an advantage prompting intensely site-specific collaborations and events. This was seen in the previous use of the old factory as the site for a four-day festival of European performance and such a strategy presents a means of survival and ethos for such groups made homeless within a state of cultural drought.

Money poured into Prague as a labeled city of culture 2000 but little fell on such small scale independent initiatives and they in turn work in direct reaction against the state funded repertory system.

Just as much of the site specific work emerging in western countries in the 1970’s came about through doubt and reaction against increasingly canned mass consumption, economics have overtaken politics in the new multi- party environment of the Czech Republic only serving to compound the politics of space. Is this a new state of emergence or emergency?

In Prague’s Letnin park the monumental statue of Stalin has been blown to pieces and replaced by a giant metronome beating it’s ponderously slow time over a city in which countless times exist and which keep on moving at a faster pace. There may be set backs, interruptions but it is still possible to speak of an underground movement operating on the edge of state culture.

Beyond the “heart of Europe”, described as “between occidental and oriental”, Bucharest obviously has a different tale to tell, yet, in both situations one cannot escape from, or help but be impressed by, a certain utopian spirit present in the passion of such groups in the face of varied adversity.

A Utopianism quite apart from that of these countries political past…a harmony of individual voices in the creation of both a center and a catalyst for change.

Making our way towards the main train station through the streets of Bucharest a curious stance between faith and irony emerges in the walking discussion between Nona and Vlad Zografi. Gushing into French and the age-old argument ofclassicism versus romanticism Vlad accuses Nona of romanticism, which is freely admitted to if it can be said to strive for a new and innovative approach to artistic work.

Passing the white tables of a pavement cafe he falls into reminiscence of pre- revolutionary discussions with an old and dear friend. “In those seats many great ideas were……….destroyed.”

It is hard to escape the destructive thread woven into the fabric of this traveler’s tour of the material basis of these ventures-Plagued by policy, instability, corruption added to all the usual pitfalls of any artistic organization. However, they are on the way, with each step reviewing and recreating the relationship between theatre and society and striving for a real and sustainable relationship within a plural Europe.

This article serves only as a trace left behind in space of each of these steps, an imprint of people and places open to future exploration and collaboration.

Hilary Powell is currently studying for a phD in Cultural studies at Goldsmiths College. University of London. Combining theory and practice she is investigating the processes involved in the artistic appropriation of the spaces and sights of the wasted margins or junk spaces of the city. Her own installation practice incorporates such elements as seen in a recent project – “cold turkey”, involving the creation of an artificial forest of London’s left over Christmas trees as part of a large scale installation in a railway arch under conversion.