The elephant on the stage: what happened to Romania’s performing artists?

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by Miriam Tepes-Handaric

 

COVID-19 might be the last straw for Romania’s performing art sector.

 

Applauses covered the last words of the actor Horatiu Malaele, while he advertised his latest book, film and show. The performance was a success, despite the 40-minute delay caused by the Coronavirus tests. The audience got what it wanted, an evening with the artists. So did the performers. They reminded the public that they still exist.

Two technicians and an administrator hurried to see everything put back in its place. Backstage, guitar strings echoed while Radu Captari packed his instrument. That evening, he felt again the magnetic bond that tie the public and the performer. He longed for this during the months when the cultural venues and activities were shut down, and when he was unemployed.

For artists like Captari, the road back to the stage was not guaranteed. Romania’s cultural sector was the first one closed and the last one to reopen. Until now, the Romanian government has been unsupportive of the cultural sector as it still, nearly two years into the global pandemic, lacks a state aid scheme

The government distributed 100 million Euros from European funds, SURE, in the form of indemnities, which are supposed to be financial aids that are not taxable. Then it took back 41,5% for taxes such as unemployment benefits, healthcare, and public pension. These are aids that artists are not legally entitled to in Romania.

Captari was one of the lucky ones, who had unemployment benefits. Even so, it was not an easy time for him. “Instead of helping the artist, you are bringing them to their knees and you also stab them in their back,” said Captari about the government’s lacklustre response.

Until last July, eligible artists either accepted the indemnity or lost it if they tried to earn money through their art.

Captari encouraged struggling artists to persist, an advice that he did not get in his time of need. “I don’t know how to do anything else,” Captari said when somebody told him to give up his art. “I wasted half of my life to reach this level of mastery.”

The pandemic highlighted an enormous gap that Romania has compared to other EU countries. Not only that it lacks a tax forgiveness program for its Covid-19-related support, but it also highlighted the failure to develop a public policy on the status of artist, even though UNESCO recommended European countries to adopt one in 1980. This means that artists don’t receive medical insurance, unemployment benefits, and public pension.

Initially, artists were not included in a planned state aid plan. Big names in the industry spoke on behalf of the cultural sector, making the problem public. They wrote an open letter to the government administration at that time, which promised to include them as well.

The Muze Association displayed a manifest video on the facade of the National Theatre of Romania. It was a public call for help, featuring several well-known members of the cultural sector. Here, a screenshot of the video. It can be accessed here.

It is difficult to pinpoint the number of performing artists who gave up their careers during the pandemic, or of the closed cultural venues. The official page of the Ministry of Culture does not convey this information. When asked, we received no reply from them. The official pages of the associations that represent the artists don’t have any numbers either.

There are intense discussions inside the industry about performers who gave up on their art to pursue more financially rewarding jobs. In Romania, this includes carpentry, food delivery and online teaching.

Few artists wanted to talk about the likelihood of hitting rock bottom. The ones that did hit it, did not want to go public. However, when artists came to protest on the streets they called it ‘The day of survival’.

“There can’t be a bigger frustration than seeing that during the pandemic the state had huge budgets and you struggled alone.” (Razvan Ailenei, president of the Muze Association)

The Alliance for Culture and Events was formed during the pandemic to force the governments to take into consideration the cultural sector. It participated in the discussions held by the Ministers of Culture, Finance and Labor, which are responsible with developing the state aid scheme for the cultural sector.

The Muze association represents the rights of the performing artists, within this group. One of its most important campaigns was to educate artists on how to maintain their royalty income, instead of ceding it, as it is the general practice in Romania.

“The government was supposed to protect a large professional class,” said Razvan Ailenei, the president of Muze, “it did not”. Ailenei believes that only 10% of the artists received that indemnity, the rest being left to fend for themselves. That is why he blames the government as the main culprit for what is happening in Romanian culture right now.

Ailenei said that when the indemnities were given for the first time, the government did not disclose the source of that money. After several written solicitations from Muze, and questions during public debates, some politicians started saying that it came from European funds and why it was taxable.

There was much frustration in the way the ministers dealt with the Alliance. For Ailenei, many times the result of long discussions seemed to be a waste of time. However, a great victory for Muze was to achieve the extension of the granting of the indemnity, which from July forward works as an unemployment benefit. Even so, Ailenei believes that without the aid plan, nobody will truly be helped.

When asked if the cultural sector can survive another lockdown, Ailenei answered: “it did not survive this one.” He later added, “tomorrow we will all be working with amateurs.”

“I am now at a point where I either walk away from everything or keep going forward without great expectations.” (Teodora Filip, independent actress)

Teodora Filip, actress. Here in her last play, Crime and Punishment. The picture was featured on her social media.

In 2015, Teodora Filip was awarded the Hop Gala award for the best actress, one of the most prestigious prizes for Romanian theatre. Filip collaborated with several theatres in the country and with famous directors, before the pandemic.

“I did not survive doing art”, said Filip. “I survived by working other jobs and with that indemnity that now I need to pay back”. As an independent actress, she did not receive unemployment benefits, so she started working outside of her domain.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, Filip has had several jobs. She taught kindergarten children English and worked in sales. To make ends meet meant that sometimes she worked two jobs in the same day. It was hardly the life she prepared for.

Her most recent play was Crime and Punishment, where she played the role of Sonia. That was two months ago, but Filip considered herself luckier than those who don’t have the chance to play at all.

For her, the pandemic was only the cherry on top. The system was not working for a while, according to Filip. To be an independent actor meant to work in challenging conditions, to accept less money only to be able to play.

She said how shocked a director was when she asked if the rehearsals are paid. “A stage is a place where you come with your soul, you open yourself to it, you come with beauty”, Filip said, “and you are surrounded only by filth”.

She wants to continue doing theatre, but she battles with the idea of giving up every day. “I have never thought that I could do anything else than theatre, but I can,” Filip said in an interview. “It is tough, but you can live without it”.

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