A naked man is standing in front of a wardrobe. It’s not his own though. He chooses a pair of pants, tries them on. In a weird way, closing buttons seems like a first. The shirt he picked is too big, definitely needs adjusting. A voice tells him “wear those shoes”. “—But they don’t fit, the man says. — Put them on, they will stretch”, the voice insists. The man complies. His feet hurt. “— Please mister, can I try a new pair? I could bring my own!”
Now replace the clothes with human traits, emotions and gestures. And the voice with a director. The man is building up a character. He is an actor.
It’s the theatres’ dressing rooms, their hallways that bear witness to all the commotion or the quiet times before the play. To the actors’ fidgeting while they are trying to calm their nerves, to their strain that sometimes feels like it could push back the walls and also to the common things like putting on make-up or arranging their costumes. They see the raw transformation, the one before stepping on stage, before meeting the public’s eyes and senses. Night and night again, as actors become someone else.
A warm ray of light drawing a diamond-shaped mesh pattern on the carpet makes the glittery purple dress look even shinier. Matching high-heel shoes lie waiting under a chair. On another chair, Ruxandra Maniu is preparing for the play that is about to start in less than two hours. Her hand is carefully spreading foundation cream. Ruxandra is a 26 year-old actress working with the Odeon Theatre. She’s been doing professional theatre for four years now and one of her greatest satisfactions is that she succeeded to work with important directors that she admired while in university. Her hand’s steady movement is caught in the reflection of a few mirrors. It’s not one hand now, it’s not just one face. There are more, imitating each other in a perfect way and with precise timing. The crayon leaves thin shades of colour beneath her eyes. It’s the visible kind of transformation.
But there is more. There’s noise, actors rehearsing their roles or just chatting, joking around to alleviate the atmosphere. Or there is silence filled with concentration, as the actors insert themselves deeper into the character and what they have to do next. There is chaotic bustle or disturbing calmness. Or everything in between. And there is tension.
No matter how far the character falls from one’s true nature or how much the actor tries not to distance it from himself, “the magic in this line of work is that you end up playing another living person. It’s not you, but is you who fills it up”, says Ilinca Manolache, a 30 year-old actress. Ilinca grew up in a family of actors. She learned at an early age that this life is not all glamour, but requires rigour and a lot of self discipline. The characters she plays are alive, spending their childhood while she and the director work on putting skin and muscles on their bones, standing as adults on the opening night and becoming more of a grown-up with every single show.
And the more different from the actor’s person, the more challenging it is. “It makes you probe within you and find facets that you either tried hard to burry deep inside or never had in the first place”, Ilinca adds. And the character is not only about her. Ilinca wants to play in shows that are well anchored in the social life, that make the public think and wonder and investigate more.
The actor needs to believe in his character. The clothes in the naked man’s wardrobe need to fit perfectly. So he can make the audience believe the acting, accept him as his new self. “You need to defend your character, to find justifications for who he is and arguments for why he does what he does”, says Lari Giorgescu, a young actor in his 30s working for the National Theatre, but also playing in independent theatres. “For example, if you are playing a murderer, you don’t think ‘Oh, I would never do this’, the main thing you worry about is how you justify the fact that he became a murderer, what motivated him. If you can’t find arguments for your character, you can’t believe in him.” And Lari has fallen in love with all his characters.
“You either truly love your character or truly hate him”, says Alexandru Voicu. “There’s no middle ground, there’s no ‘I like it’. You have to find something that stimulates you.” In the latest show he plays in, Alexandru, now 22 years old, rediscovered his teenage self in the character, a kid too sensitive to admit he’s got problems, building walls around him with induced arrogance and dark humour. “When I met this character, I rejoiced. I realised it’s my chance to deal with some unsolved personal issues. And I truly did.”
Working to become someone else, to shape your character in a play “is like detective work”, says Lari. “You have all kinds of information from the text that you piece together, information from the director that you piece together. You build a psychological track of your character that you embrace and it becomes yours. If a character is born it’s because the research work before has been done thoroughly .”
Nicoleta Lefter stands in the dark, behind a paravane in the Studio hall at Odeon Theatre. She can hear footsteps approaching and she gets glimpses of silhouettes coming closer. Before each play, the 33 year-old actress recites Our Father and crosses herself. But this time she feels like doing something else on top. She raises her hands and starts digging through the air. She pulls her hands towards her body and then pushes them back towards what’s behind the paravane. Back and forth. It’s almost like an imaginary hug with continuously changing hug givers and takers. It’s the energy swap she needs to make that step and feel beautiful on stage.
After 45 years an actor, Vladimir Gaitan still feels the fright and the rush of adrenaline that come with the gong. That gong that he spends the whole day before thinking of. For him it’s like throwing yourself in a pool. “You know how to swim, but you don’t know how hard it will be, how large the pool is or if you’ll make it through”, says Gaitan. But all that goes away the moment he feels he has won the public over, when the audience accepts him as his character and listens to him. And when he successfully made it through, when the play is over, Vladimir Gaitan first calls his wife, to tell her everything went fine.
It is on stage that the becoming truly happens. It is where the actor completely forgets all his civil issues that all people have, the arguments with his spouse, that he has instalments to pay or his cat is sick. There, on those dozens of square metres, is his “chance to live things that he normally wouldn’t, to do things differently than he normally would, to relive them or experience them more intensely”, Vlad Birzanu, a 25 year-old actor at Odeon Theatre, says. “He can change his destiny and he is not judged for what he does. He gets to love somebody that he could never love otherwise. Or hate someone. He can play when the world would not let him play anymore. He can be irresponsible or he can make his dream come true. Even if only for a couple of hours. And that is brilliant!” For Vlad, being a character on stage is like living in a parallel universe, a different version of himself in a different life, a sort of “what if…”.
But there is one thing that the actor can’t do, for his own good. And that is loose grip on reality. “That must not happen on stage”, says Florin Piersic Jr. “I believe in the power of the angel that descends upon the actor helping him with his artistic act. But that is more of a metaphor. The actor is not allowed to lose control and to skid into areas he can not return from in a split second.”
He must return. Because at the end of those couple of hours on stage, he has to put those clothes he borrowed back in the closet and be naked again.
I have talked to Ada Gales, Alexandru Voicu, Emilia Dobrin, Florin Piersic jr., Ilinca Manolache, Lari Giorgescu, Nicoleta Lefter, Ruxandra Maniu, Vlad Birzanu and Vladimir Gaitan to get a better understanding of the process behind building a character and acting. I would like to thank them for their time, patience and their contribution to this project.
I have shot the photographs before the following theatre shows and I would like to acknowledge the actors that accepted to be part of this:
Marea iubire a lui Sebastian, Godot – by Mihail Sebastian, Director: Diana Mihailopol, Cast: Rodica Mandache, Marius Manole, Ana-Ioana Macaria, Istvan Teglas
Refugiul, Odeon Theatre – by Jennifer Haley, Director: Horia Suru, Cast: Mugur Arvunescu, Nicoleta Lefter, Cezar Antal, Sandra Ducuta, Ionut Grama, Mise en scene: Maria Miu, Costumes: Diana Sav
Doua liniute, Metropolis Theatre – by Lia Bugnar, Director: Lia Bugnar, Cast: Marius Manole, Ilinca Manolache, Irina Antonie, Lia Bugnar, István Téglás, Anghel Damian, Cristian Bota, Costumes: Dorin Negrau
Bucuresti. Instalatie umana, ARCUB Theatre – Concept: Florin Fieroiu, Director: Radu-Alexandru Nica, Performers: Nicholas Catianis, Ada Gales, Dumitru Georgescu, Flavia Giurgiu, Denis Hanganu, Ilinca Manolache, Ioana Marchidan, Dana Marineci, Ciprian Nicula, Drama: Ada Lupu, Florin Fieroiu, Radu-Alexandru Nica
Casa cu pisici, National Theatre Bucharest – by Radu Iacoban, Director: Radu Iacoban, Cast: Emilia Dobrin, Andreea Gramosteanu, Ilinca Manolache, Mise en scene: Mihaela Ularu
Svejk, Odeon Theatre – after Jaroslav Hašek, Director: Alexandru Dabija, Cast: Pavel Bartos, Cezar Antal, Ioan Batinas, Mircea Constantinescu, Sabrina Iaschevici, Dorina Lazar, Ruxandra Maniu, Paula Niculita, Alexandru Papadopol, Gabriel Pintilei, Anda Saltelechi, Mihai Smarandache, Silvian Valcu, Veronica Gherasim, Dan Iosif, Mise en scene and costumes: Andrada Chiriac
Secretul fericirii, Godot Theatre – by Alexandru Popa, Director: Vlad Zamfirescu, Cast: Vlad Zamfirescu, Irina Velcescu, Dan Bordeianu, Mise en scene: Bogdan Spataru
Noi 4, Godot Theatre – by Lia Bugnar, Director: Dorina Chiriac, Cast: Ilinca Manolache, Maria Obretin, Marius Manole, Lia Bugnar
Poezia visului, Unteatru – by Miriam Raducanu, Cast: Lari Giorgescu, Mise en scene: Vladimir Turturica
Intre noi totul e bine, National Theatre Bucharest – by Dorota Maslowska, Director: Radu Afrim, Cast: Dorina Chiriac, Marius Manole, Liliana Ghița, Natalia Călin, Istvan Teglas, Cezar Antal, Florentina Tilea, Mise en scene: Irina Moscu
Versus Romania, Replika Theatre – Director: Ioana Păun, Cast: Zory David, Text: Smaranda Nicolau, Mise en scene: Mihai Păcurar
With a Little Help from My Friends, Excelsior Theatre – by Maria Manolescu, Director: Alexandru Mazgareanu, Cast: Alexandru Voicu, Irina Antonie, Vlad Balan, Andrei Catalin și Beatrice Rubica, Mise en scene: Romulus Bonciu
Vestul singuratic, Bulandra Theatre – by Martin McDonagh, Director: Cristi Juncu
Cast: Florin Piersic jr., Vlad Zamfirescu, Andi Vasluianu, Ioana Calota/Corina Dragomir, Mise en scene: Carmencita Brojboiu
Efecte colaterale, Teatrul Mic – by Alexandru Popa, Director: Vlad Zamfirescu, Cast: Gheorghe Ifrim, Vlad Zamfirescu, Alexandru Repan, Dan Bordeianu, Nadiana Salagean, Luminita Erga, Diana Roman, Ioana Calota/Laura Vasiliu, Mise en scene: Bogdan Spataru
Poker, Comedy Theatre – by Adrian Lustig, Director: Alexandru Tocilescu, Cast: George Mihaita, Valentin Teodosiu, Vladimir Gaitan, Simona Stoicescu, Mise en scene: Puiu Antemir, Costumes: Anca Raduta
Family affairs, Odeon Theatre – by Rosa Liksom, Director: Radu Afrim, Cast: Cezar Antal, Antoaneta Zaharia, Marius Damian, Pavel Bartos, Vlad Birzanu, Ruxandra Maniu, Nicoleta Lefter, Virginia Rogin, Mihai Smarandache, Rodica Mandache, Dan Iosif, Nicu Coman, Mise en scene: Tudor Prodan, Costumes: Cosmin Florea
Kafka. 5 vise, Odeon Theatre – Director, script, mise en scene: Dragos Galgotiu, Cast: Ionel Mihailescu, Radu Amzulescu, Valentin Popescu, Laurentiu Lazar, Mihai Smarandache, Anca Dumitra, Gabriel Pintilei, Ruxandra Maniu, Sabrina Iaschevici, Silvian Valcu, Relu Poalelungi, Anda Saltelechi, Anca Florescu, Simona Dabija, Costumes: Lia Mantoc, Choreography: Razvan Mazilu