“The immigrant tries to take a new identity and get rid of the old one. That doesn’t really work. In order to be able to go further, I think we have to face and confront our past. Sometimes, the more we try to get rid of it or deny it, the more it starts to haunt us. Follow us. We have to make peace with the former identity, our roots, and our traditions.”
by TOM PROVENZANO
Conversing with internationally renowned Romanian stage director Gábor Tompa transports the listener to the theatrical tumult of Eastern Europe—in a time when the Cold War was unraveling and democratic revolution was permitting subversive art to emerge from the shadows. Born in 1957, just as the Soviet Union began its lead in the space race and was crushing revolution in Hungary, Tompa was a child of totalitarianism. He turned to theatre early in life, embracing subversive social ideals, while learning to obfuscate his principles in theatrical terms: “I hoped and believed that theatre can be a force of opposition because its language can be metaphorical and not explicit.”
Through his journey from post-Soviet Europe to his recent swearing in as a proud U.S. citizen, Tompa has held to his notions of theatre as an art of allegory and symbolism, rather than representational reality. In a break from his duties as professor of directing at UC San Diego, Tompa is exploring his theories of non-linear, figurative performance in the Los Angeles premiere of a reworking of New York-based Romanian playwright Saviana Stanescu’s TOYS: A Dark Fairy Tale. He recommended Stanescu when actors Tunde Skovrán and Julia Ubrankovics asked for his help as they were forming a new company now known as J.U.S.T. TOYS Productions.
Stanescu, who has a long standing artistic relationship with Tompa, has created several different versions of this play that ostensibly follows two women through starkly different experiences as immigrants from Eastern Europe to America. There is a more fleshed-out script with many characters, but Tompa suggested to the producers, who are also the performers, that they work on a two-person rendition in order to explore the duality of human nature.
The play focuses on a young woman adopted as a child from Eastern Europe by an American couple. As an adult, she is a PhD candidate working on a dissertation about extremist wars. Her research brings her into contact with a new immigrant, a woman from her birth country. The script initially presented a very specific relationship between the women, but Tompa argued for, and realized, a much more ambiguous approach.
Although he had previously ventured into the small theatre scene in Los Angeles, Tompa was enticed to help Skovrán and Ubrankovics in their new enterprise because of their passion and their interest in the subject of immigration, which is of personal and political importance to the director.
“I am not part of the company, but I really support them because they are brave and dream big,” he says. “The whole thing started by them asking me to propose [for] them a small scale text.” Tompa suggested that they find something by Stanescu, “who is herself an immigrant and is interested in this subject.”
Tompa’s immediate attraction to the play was its extraordinarily human take on the emotional and intellectual toll of immigration. The play spoke to Tompa’s own duality as a new American citizen and as an intellectual artist steeped in his former culture. “Being a foreigner or immigrant or refugee is something which we all deal with,” he says. “To find a new identity without giving up all our traditional values is a delicate balance which we need to find all the time. To be a foreigner, even in a welcoming country and society, is a complex situation. It is possible, especially here, to develop a new identity without really being obliged to give up what was valuable.
“Receiving citizenship,” Tompa said of his own experience, “was a great ceremony because there were 1,211 people from 93 countries, and it was great to see how the U.S. is a country of immigrants. This unique diversity makes it so rich and offers you the possibility to have your own voice” and the freedom of “your culture and identity.”
The line between assimilation and loyalty to traditional heritage guided the artists as they explored the play. Tompa chose to obscure the literal relationship of the two women. “These characters are a little lost in an exaggerated attempt to get rid of something which is actually part of their own history,” he explains. “The characters, at least as I look at them, are almost not two characters, but two sides of the same character. The immigrant tries to take a new identity and get rid of the old one. That doesn’t really work. In order to be able to go further, I think we have to face and confront our past. Sometimes, the more we try to get rid of it or deny it, the more it starts to haunt us. Follow us. We have to make peace with the former identity, our roots, and our traditions.”
As he explains his thought process about immigration, Tompa is also explaining his dramaturgical process as a director. The rehearsals for TOYS: A Dark Fairy Tale began with an exploration of immigration as an issue. “This is how I usually try to approach performance. First there is a problem for us as theatre artists—a problem about which we would like to speak. I find the play for this problem. This time, what interested me is discovering that being a foreigner doesn’t always mean being in a foreign county. You can also be a foreigner in your own body or your own family.
“One of the problems this play talks about is not assuming. We are wearing a couple of masks all the time. In a Freudian way, we lose our real identity. Because of these masks we get frustrated, or we [become] scared of our own real identity. This play talks about trying to run away from that identity, instead of integrating it into everyday reality, which is always changing.”
TOYS required a strong relationship with the playwright. Although Stanescu was in New York throughout the Los Angeles rehearsals, there was constant communication between writer and director. Tompa found that he needed a minimum of rewriting for his concept to materialize, but he kept Stanescu constantly updated on the action in the rehearsal room. “When I work with contemporary playwrights, even when they are in the rehearsal room, they cease to be a playwright,” Tompa says. “The best way to rehearse is as if they are not there, so they can see and hear the thoughts of the group of actors and directors and designers [as] they read the play.”
Tompa is hard pressed to find a distinction between the contributions of the writer, the actors, and himself. “We don’t have this kind of credit for any idea—this is mine, this is yours. We all try to serve the main idea. We make sure we speak the same language, the show speaks the same language. We have to make strong choices and be consistent with those choices.”
Tompa rose to prominence in Romania as artistic director of Cluj-Napoca Hungarian Theatre, the world’s oldest Hungarian theatre company, formed in 1792. He also became a prominent professor of theatre. This was in the depths of the Cold War and his fame led to several invitations to defect to the West, but Tompa had a young daughter in Romania and held on to the hope that his theatrical work might be a valuable force in opposition to the regime. It was this opposition that formed his symbolic style.
Censorship, Tompa says, taught Romanian theatre artists and directors “to express themselves in metaphoric ways which were visually strong.” That’s why, he says, censors would at times miss the point of “very strong ideas” in the texts of plays. “We were kind of infiltrating subversive ideas against the regime and against the communists.”
It was not the communist regime that led Tompa to stop teaching in Romania, where he still maintains dual citizenship and continues to be a major theatrical force, but the result of a sweeping educational system reform known as the Bologna Process. It was designed to integrate university education throughout Europe, but Tompa felt that it weakened artistic integrity. “I am really passionate about teaching directing, but the Bolagnese system allowed a lot of non-competent people to teach,” he says. The bureaucratic system was at odds with the “art of education, so I stopped teaching in Romania.”
Tompa’s ideas about teaching and developing theatre directors included a very strong curriculum and long years of study. He thinks of the stage director as far more than an interpretive artist, but rather as the artistic and intellectual center of the theatre.
“I strongly believe that only a strong concept can make a theatre performance work. Some say a play realizes itself on stage, but if that would be true, then all the Shakespeare performances would be fantastic. And the reality is that 95% of the Shakespeare performances we see are totally boring. So there is something that makes these plays work or makes them collapse. I believe very much that the theatre performance is an art of its own. It’s an independent language, relatively independent of the text, from the play as literature.”
When the European system began to fail his vision of theatre, Tompa found a new artistic home at UC San Diego, where he spent most of the last decade as head of directing, and where he continues to teach. He believes that good plays “can have hundreds of different approaches, and that makes them more attractive. And that, I think, is the benefit of the playwright, whether they are classical or contemporary. I am approaching teaching from the point of view that the director’s work is somehow close to authorship—we are the authors of a performance.”
NOW PLAYING: TOYS, A DARK FAIRY TALE, through December 13 at the Hudson Theatres.
TOYS is a dark fairy tale about two characters, who have led very different lives, undertake a surreal journey discovering their past when some unexpected truths come to light. With suspense and humor, the artists bring the powerful imagery of European theater to LA. Through the exploration of identity, TOYS ultimately asks what it means to belong.