Interview with Romanian Playwright Saviana Stanescu
We are so pleased to be presenting your work for the first time. Can you tell IVP audiences a little about yourself?
The short story:
I am a Romanian-born playwright with Balkan roots who spent her formative years during the totalitarian system of dictator Ceausescu. After the fall of the Iron Curtain and the Romanian revolution (30 years ago!), I worked as a journalist for the newly created free press. I was ‘on the wave’ as a poet and playwright. Two weeks before 9/11, I arrived in NYC with a Fulbright fellowship, and I started again, from scratch, as a graduate student at NYU (Performance Studies and Dramatic Writing). My creative work grew to revolve around topics of identity, displacement, and reinvention.
The long story:
In Romania I was a journalist for the most circulated daily newspaper – Adevărul (The Truth). We finally had free press. I was so excited to be a writer at that time! I was writing poetry, prose, theatre/film/book reviews for various cultural magazines. I was a contributor for Radio Free Europe. I even worked as a TV talk-show host for TVRi (Romanian Public TV – International channel). Our talk-show was called Necessary Polemics, I was moderating a sort of debate between two public persons. It was intense. But I’ve always been a little subversive, a rebellious artist, speaking truth to power…
After covering theatre productions/festivals and publishing two collections of poetry, the natural next step for me was to write a dramatic poem, The Outcast. It was translated in English and French, staged in Romania, and then made it to Théâtre Gérard Philipe de Saint-Denis, in Paris, for their Du Monde Entier festival in 1998. It was my first trip to the West, and that’s when I was called a ‘playwright’ for the first time. It rang totally true. I had considered myself a poet before that, a writer, a journalist, but I gradually grew to believe in myself as a playwright. I went to Germany to study playwriting in English at the International Summer Theatre Academy. I wrote my first play in English there – Final Countdown. It’s still getting produced around the world, most recently in Mexico City. Then I wrote The Inflatable Apocalypse in Romanian and it won the Best Play of the Year UNITER (Romanian Theatre Guild) Award.
In 2000 a Romanian critic named me “the hard poetess-playwright at the border between millennia”. The UK tour with my multi-media poetry performance Scriptease consolidated my reputation as a feminist poet-dramatist in Europe. A Fulbright grant followed. I chose not to use it as a visiting artist but to enroll in the MA in Performance Studies program at New York University, Tisch School of the Arts.
I was in my early 30s when I pressed ‘reset’ on my life, becoming a student again, and writing in a second language: hello, American-English! I was living uptown, at International House, thanks to a Women’s International Leadership (WIL) fellowship, and going to NYU downtown, when 9/11 happened. A new reset… A new perspective about life.
I started to write plays about immigrants as I became more aware of and concerned with that non-stop negotiation between the American Dream and the small (and big) daily “nightmares”…
I fell in love with this piece a few years ago and I am so happy to be directing it for IVP. Can you tell our audiences about this play. When and why did you write it?
In 2008 I was a playwright-in-residence for Women's Project in NYC, developing Aliens with Extraordinary Skills before Obama got elected as President. These days, before the 2020 elections, immigration is an even more concerning issue, as so many people are deported or not allowed to come to the U.S. … 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, powerful leaders are still building walls to keep people in/out, to divide and conquer… We don’t seem to learn much from history.
The play speaks so strongly to the current moment, don't you think?
Yes, the play speaks even stronger to the current moment…
Un/documented immigrants still experience the fear of not belonging, of being THE OTHER - a stranger, a foreigner with a funny accent, an alien who doesn't deserve to be in the U.S.A. The American dream can turn into a nightmare at any given moment. However, despite hardships, regular people are supporting and helping each other.
New York, with its special energy, is a microcosm of the entire world. Folks from abroad or small town America come to chase their dreams in the city that never sleeps. Their struggles are sweetened by the daily magic of community, hope, and resilience.
Aliens with Extraordinary Skills is based on some of those true stories of migration, explored and fictionalized by a playwright who tries to understand her own journey. Dramatic living and dramatic writing. Regardless of our roots and native language, we – immigrants – are here in the U.S. in search for decent work, recognition of our skills and talents, love, respect, and a place to call HOME. To quote a line from Hamilton: “Immigrants – we get the job done!”
More specifically, in Aliens with Extraordinary Skills I tried to dramatize the daily fears experienced by un/documented immigrants. I have two fictional characters INS 1 and INS 2 (these days they would be called ICE 1 and ICE 2…) who pop up in the main character Nadia’s mind each time she fears she might get deported. I also tried to show that love and friendship are part of the solution for these newcomers.
And the play is funny too, I hope. We have a saying in Romanian: one eye cries, one eye laughs… I like that laugh-cry way of telling a story. As George Bernard Shaw said: if you are to tell people the truth, you better make them laugh, otherwise they’ll kill you…
I hope to be able to tell people the truth in my plays and still live a long life full of love and good friendships. J
What projects do you have coming up? How can we learn more about them?
I realize that all my plays are still about “outcasts” - immigrants, minorities, the abused, the oppressed, the different, the Others…
I had a workshop production of a new play called BEE TRAPPED INSIDE THE WINDOW with Civic Ensemble. We hope to develop it further in NYC and get a good off-Broadway production. In this play I go deeper into the daily lives of immigrants of different racial backgrounds: a Russian mother, her black daughter, and an Asian undocumented domestic worker, all living in the suburbs of CT.
In May I will present my performative lecture NEW YORK WITH AN ACCENT in NYC as part of Between the Seas festival.
I got commissioned by the Hangar Theatre in Ithaca to write a play for kids/young audiences. I wrote the first draft, it’s called UNICORN GIRL, and it will be produced in July at the Hangar Theatre.
I am also working on a new play called GUN HILL – about gun violence in high schools - that will have a staged reading at The Kitchen Theatre late April, and further development in NYC with Women’s Project.
But most of all, I’m looking forward to my sabbatical semester in the fall. (I work as an Associate Professor of Playwriting and Contemporary Theatre at Ithaca College.) I will spend it in Romania, in residence at the National Museum of Romanian Literature. I will work on a new play about the Romanian revolution (again – we celebrate 30 years in December 2019!) and on a novel in Romanian. The prodigal daughter is going back home. Exciting!
Aliens with Extraordinary Skills has had multiple productions in the U.S. after the original production at Women's Project in NYC, and it's published and licensed by Samuel French:
It also had productions in Mexico City at Teatro La Capilla (translated as "Immigrantes con Habilidades Extraordinarias"); in Bucharest at the prestigious Odeon Theatre (translated as "Viza de Clown"), and in other countries around the world. There has not yet been a production of Aliens with Extraordinary Skills in Chicago.