To write a good story you need strong, worthy characters – the narrative then flows by itself. Alexandra Andrei is everything a writer can wish for. She has a voice. And so her story – moments of verve and youth of an actress in training – wrote itself. I was even tempted to publish the raw text, just like I transcribed it after I interviewed her in a Bucharest café, strolling down the street, and in between two metro stations. But it would be a shame not to share certain small details and descriptions. Though I usually respect the chronology of the story and I place events in order, for Alexandra’s story, I felt like mixing them up, and NOT start with her first character on stage. Apolodor.
Friday 30th of March, around 13:30, Alexandra was listening to grime in her headphones, almost breaking into dance as she was waiting for me at the metro exit in Victory Square. And just a couple of weeks previously, she was on stage. In London. She was playing Geralda in The Piranha Lounge, a pastiche of stories written by the Brazilian author Murilo Rubiao. It was one of many theatre shows that Alexandra has been a part of, at the end of a new semester of World Performance, third year, at East 15, University of Essex.
“This story starts with Geralda and Godofredo seated at a table in a restaurant. He has no idea that the woman sat in front of him is his second wife, whom he’d invited out for dinner. He doesn’t remember his past, and the fact that he killed his first wife as well. He’s stuck in a cycle of mistakes he keeps making in his relationships that end up haunting him. But the interesting thing is that the other actors on stage, two by two, also sat at tables, are playing us – Geralda and Godofredo. And everyone speaks the same lines at the same time. Imagine all the girls are speaking at once, and all the boys, and everyone is making the same physical gestures and movements. This lounge is inhabited by all the characters from the stories that are told in the play, and even from those that aren’t told. The lounge is the imagination of Rubiao, and the audience is sat around tables, exactly like in a bar.”
The description you just read captures the essence of the course Alexandra has undertaken for almost three years – World Performance. All the stories from all the theatre of the world in one place. A course of the future. At East 15, University of Essex, the students are trained as theatre makers, not just actors, but also people who create theatre, who write, who direct, and who can use music in their shows, as well as masks, puppets, stilts, and samba or African musical instruments – or even the gamelan: “We studied Balinese dance-drama in depth – theatre from the island of Bali. It’s so beautiful and complex! I’m lucky to have gotten the chance to play the gamelan, a traditional musical instrument like a mini-orchestra, a combination of xylophones and gongs. It has a metallic sound, not at all ‘traditional’. Balinese dance-drama means a lot of dance as well, and visually it’s very different from any kind of dance that I’ve seen in the Western world.”
Alexandra really wants to go to Bali. It’s not just the Balinese art and the gamelan that captivated her, but also their way of life. Their mentality and spirituality. She tells me that there’s more openness and peace and quiet there, as opposed to the tired West, always with one eye on the clock. There would also be the dancing. And the music. She only lasted three ballet lessons when she was a child, but now she’s purposefully looking to be in motion. “From when I was about 15 to about 20, I listened to a lot of rock music. Then I started liking reggae and dub reggae. I’m being more and more attracted by music I can move to. Lo-fi, trip-hop, no disco! I love grime and EDM. They’re styles based on syncopation, where not every beat in a measure is emphasized. It has a rhythm that makes me move and puts me in a dynamic disposition.”
And so Alexandra doesn’t just speak lines on stage, she can read music, and feel it too. She played the piano for ten years and understands how rhythm functions. It helps her enormously on stage. “I can play Toccata by Paul Constantinescu on the piano. It’s my favorite piece to play. It’s so cheerful and cheeky, and so Romanian, it has some absolutely fantastic scales and trills.” Although she hasn’t had formal singing lessons, she’s been using her voice since high school, when she’s been cast in musicals for international theatre festivals.
“Theatre doesn’t need to take place in a stiff auditorium, where you’re firmly planted in a chair, you watch the action unfold like on TV, and you clap at the end. We can do so much more than that!”
I don’t know how you imagine the future of theatre, but listening to Alexandra I’ve realized that she’s right. We need more in order to be present, to enter the story. We live in a time where people are on their phones even in the performance space, and if the audience were really moved by the piece, maybe they’d give up their smartphones and experience the play differently. How many of us would be tempted by immersive theatre? How many of us would be willing to not know what we’re walking into, to be surprised? Are we willing to experiment with another kind of theatrical performance? To abandon our selves?
One of the theatre companies Alexandra admires is Punchdrunk. Many of her favorite actors are part of this company, who are really dancers specialized in Immersive theatre, a concept that is having more and more success. The basic idea behind it is to involve the audience – to use the fact that the audience member is there, and is part of the moment.
“I’ve been to see a show called The Drowned Man. Before entering, I only knew this: that the show isn’t taking place in a theatre, that I won’t be sat down for its duration, and that I might see naked people. Well, I can’t put into words the effect it’s had on me. It took place in a four-storey building, in the middle of London. The whole building was the set – one huge stage. We got out of an elevator, where some characters gave us a spiel about the places we’d visit. I got out in the middle of a square, a piazza. There was a fountain in the middle, a lot of shops on the side, one of them for example sold broken TVs. We were taking a tour in smaller groups, and at the same time, there could be anywhere between 300 and 600 people in the building. Everyone wore identical masks and when you saw someone without a mask, they were definitely a character in the show. It was up to you to follow them in order to get the story. On the last floor there was a desert. Sand everywhere. In the middle, a huge motel sign buried in the sand, and a funeral. After I experienced this show, any limits I had placed on what theatre can do were shattered. It was huge! It shocked me to my core.”
“When you’re on stage you have to give it your all. The audience is going to see that show for the first time, and for the last time. You’re very lucky if they come back for seconds.”
Alexandra’s great luck is that she participated in drama courses since second grade, in school. First at Mark Twain, where she learned from Daniela Minoiu, actress at Nottara Theatre, and then at the American International School of Bucharest until the end of high school, where she completed the International Baccalaureate. Her first role on stage was Apolodor, at 8 years old. And when she was 11 she was in a show with famous Romanian actress Alexandrina Halic, at Ion Creanga Theatre. “She took notice of me in a show I did and she liked me. Alexandrina Halic is such a gentle human being, the most kind hearted I’ve ever met. She is incredibly compassionate. And we had an extraordinary chemistry between the two of us. She wrote a play called Good Evening, Mr. Andersen!, a two-woman play for the two of us. Young Alma doesn’t want to go to bed and her nanny is coaxed into telling her bedtime stories by Hans Christian Andersen.”
Alexandra told me that art can transform children. They need to have the chance to tell stories, to listen to stories, at school, and as often as possible. A theatre course is very useful, it develops their imagination and creativity.
World Performance, the course she’s studying in London, is geared more towards… un-specialization and open-mindedness. As I’ve mentioned, it has a vision about everything and anything that means theatre and the students are offered a tool box from which they can pick and choose: “I have a friend who graduated from this course last year, but she got a corporate job. She told me she needed the money, but she got the job no problem and it pays great. Maybe we’ll die of hunger in the industry, but with the skills that we’ve learned at drama school, none of us are going to have a problem to get hired in almost any field. After all, it’s about people skills and the way in which you can express yourself. In any company there’s a place for innovation and thinking outside the box.”
In her second year, Alexandra took a shot at playing the director and the writer. She held auditions, chose six of her colleagues, and devised a show – Ego – based on a novella by Ayn Rand, about communism taken to the extreme and a dystopian world where the word ‘I’ no longer exists. “There’s not much text in the show – it’s more physical theatre. We play with time and space by using light and sound.” Her and Carlota, a close friend in her year, have also written fiction together: For Harry, a story written specifically for and about six of their closest friends, using the Unrehearsed Cue Script Technique, a well-known Shakespearean method. The actors don’t know the whole script; they only get given their own lines, as well as the cue before they have to speak, and they speak their line only after they’ve heard their cue. “We wanted to make the actors pay attention and listen on stage. It was a live experiment on stage.”
“I’m not saying no to film, but I’m more fascinated by the variables that you can play with in theatre. It’s more organic and more vivid.”
Although she’s an artist, Alexandra is well grounded in reality. She’s thoughtful of everything that happens around her. She reads economy books, she’s fascinated by her recent reading Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, and when she hangs out with her friends, she debates on capitalism, the destruction of the planet, globalization, consumerism, or more esoteric subjects. “I really hate small talk. I want people to tell me about important things, that make them who they are. What they’re upset or concerned about, how they see the world around them.” Alexandra thinks that theatre is a great lens through which one can view the world.
If she’d change anything about Romania: “I’d introduce and epistemology course in schools. I’m so grateful that I’ve done Theory of Knowledge in high school. It’s a course about how we know what we know. It’s the most useful subject I’ve undertaken. It teaches you how to analyze and how to be critical of your sources of information. And I don’t mean just the media sphere, but also the senses, your hearing, your sight, the way your brain works.”
Alexandra misses playing volleyball in high school, but she compensates with long walks on the Southbank (of Thames), and dancing. She’s a regular theatre-goer because she wants to see as many shows as she can, and she makes music. It’s not difficult, when you’re sharing a house with four other actor/musicians, each one playing at least one instrument. Piano, guitar, flute, electric guitar… you can imagine the melodious dialogues between the flat mates. Her vacations, she spends at home, with family and friends. “During summer, when I come back to Romania, I go on road trips. Our country is a treasure trove.” Yes, I’ve asked her if she wants to return to Romania. She didn’t say no. She didn’t say yes, either. She just told me that it’s too early to make a decision. This is not an ending, because Alexandra’s story is just starting.
Alexandra Andrei translated the article wrote by Oana Țepeș-Greuruș into english. Click here for the romanian version.
Photographs: Piotr Pawarski, Liam Scarth, Carlos Moral Reis