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Gabor Tompa of UTE interviewed by Dana Rufolo

1 September 2019

Gábor Tompa is a celebrated director who belongs to the Hungarian minority living in Cluj-Napoca, Romania. For fifteen years, he has held down a professorship at the University of California at San Diego as head professor of directing in the theatre department while also remaining the Artistic Director of the Hungarian Theater in Cluj. This theatre is a mere thirty-minute walk away from the National Theater of Cluj, which hosts the annual festivals I have reported on earlier in 2018 and 2019. Tompa’s The Tempest, an original otherworldly and dreamy version of Shakespeare’s world solidified Tompa’s reputation as an award-winning director, and was a principal attraction of the festival discussed in my 2019 article. The conversation recorded here, rather, focuses on Tompa’s presidency of the Union des Théâtres de l’Europe (UTE).

As Tompa tells us below, the UTE is not, as one might be forgiven for thinking, a European organization started bureaucratically for the sake of propagating European culture. Quite the contrary, the Union was the dream-child of Gorgio Strehler, director of Il Piccolo Teatro in Milan, back in the 1990s. Tompa tells us that subsequently, the Union went through organizational shifts that did not always support Strehler’s initial vision. During his current presidency, Tompa plans to reinstate the features of the UTE that Strehler championed and that he considers to be intrinsic to its fundamental raison d’être.

Gábor Tompa, President of the Union of European Theatres, in conversation with Dana Rufolo


Gábor Tompa, you are a famous Romanian director of Hungarian origin, known for your daring production style and sensitive work with actors. Can you tell our readers something about your career?

I have been running the Hungarian Theatre of Cluj as its artistic director for twenty-five years. During that time, l also directed elsewhere and taught directing. Back in the 1990s and the early 2000s, I directed Hamlet at the Tramway in Glasgow, Waiting for Godot at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast, and The New Tenant by Eugene Ionesco at the Newcastle Playhouse… l was head of directing at UCSD (the University of California at San Diego) as of 2007 for eight years. Then l stepped down as head of directing and taught as a faculty member, and then l retired. l am an emeritus professor now, but there are these call-back programmes where they need somebody to teach a course so l am going to teach a field course this spring 2020. Once I started teaching in the U.S., l couldn’t accept other commitments outside. But now l have taken on the presidency of the Union des Théâtres de l’Europe. l was elected president nearly two years ago (on May 14, 2018).

l know about the Union des théatres de l’Europe (UTE) as a Luxembourg citizen, because the Théâtre National du Luxembourg run by Frank Hoffmann joined the Union as of 2013. But now, as the editor of Plays International & Europe, I’d like our readers to learn about the history of the UTE.

The Union des théatres de l’Europe was founded in 1989-90 principally by the Italian director of ll Piccolo Teatro in Milan, Giorgio Strehler. There were only seven founding theatres, and they always organized a yearly festival which was a big project — but remember Jacques Lang was the vice president and the co-founder, and he was the French Minister of Culture. People in France used to say he gave all his budget to the theatre. Those were great days. Totally different from today. In those days for the first couple of years the festival lasted two months. A company came and had the days they needed to set up, rehearse, and perform three times. Then they left and another member theatre came. There was Budapest; there was Bucharest; there was Porto, Rome, Torino – all these theatres.

What changed?

A lot of theatres left for certain reasons. There was a conflict, a very tense moment in 2007, there was a break and some of the members like Dramatin (The Royal Dramatic Theater) in Stockholm, the StaryTeatr in Krakow, the Budapest Katona József Theater – they left the Union.


Well, in some cases, like the case of the Teatre Nacional de Catalunya in Barcelona, they were in a financial crisis and were not able to pay the membership fee.

How much is the membership fee?

It’s only €13,000 a year. And now we have sixteen member theatres. (The four personal members and eleven honorary members do not contribute funds.)

Were annual membership fees always €13,000?

It increased a little bit over the years because there aren’t available any longer the French ministry of culture and the EU Funds that were permanently supporting the UTE as a kind of cultural ambassador of Europe. We have had to increase the fee because the only permanent funding comes from the membership fees. We presently have seventeen theatres, more than in the 1990s when there were seven or eight. It was a little more closed, Strehler wanted to open it. He died, and the new president didn’t want to open it. lt is an interesting dilemma because membership cannot be endless. Fifty members or so would not be possible.

The core of the UTE had been the permanent exchanges between member theatres. One of the last of these exchanges was in 2014. The Hungarian Theatre of Cluj had an exchange with the National Theatre of Prague. We brought Waiting for Godot, The Marriage of Figaro, Leonce and Lena to Prague — to the Estates Theatre (Stavovské divadlo) where Mozart conducted Don Giovanni. We had seminars. Usually, we hired a master director or a master theatre teacher to hold a workshop for two or three weeks somewhere… Venice, even in Russia in St Petersburg, once. We had Thomas Ostermeier, Simon McBurney — some great people, and we kept doing this — a workshop for young directors, a workshop for actors … We even ran a workshop with Csaba Antal, a Hungarian from the 1990s, a founding member; he did a workshop on stage design. The summer academy or the workshop is a supplementary school – an education programme that we want to keep.

That sounds like the summer theatre academy in the Venice Biennale.

It’s the same thing. The Biennale was started by Ostermeier and organized by us. Now it’s independent and not necessarily involving the UTE. What is new now is the theatre for young audiences, common projects with funds from the European Union’s Creative Europe grants. We had two very nice projects — one of them, Digital Natives in 2019, was with high school students. Five theatres were involved: the Vienna Volkstheater, the Comédie de Reims in France, the Kolner Schauspielhaus in Cologne, the National Theatre of Northern Greece in Thessaloniki, and the Hungarian Theatre of Cluj. We did the play Concord Floral by Jordan Tannahill. It was directed by one of our young actor-directors. The actors were students – from sophomore to senior high school. Not only did the participants learn more about theatre but on one special day all the theatres scheduled this and there was live streaming so all the others could follow, and there was a party in Vienna and elsewhere. That was a small €200,000 “Creative Europe” project — meaning that Creative Europe supplied sixty per cent and the remaining €80,000 had to come from contributions from each theatre. We also succeeded in getting a big Creative Europe grant from 2011 to 2012, with many partners involved, called Frontières liquides.

There were two other projects involving lots of theatres. Now it is more difficult for us to apply because only fifty per cent is supplied. If, say, the grant is for €2m, we would have to come up with €1m in matching funds on our own. If there are seven participating theatres, that makes more than €140,000 coming from each theatre. It’s not easy for the theatres to produce that kind of money.


Gabriel Răuţă as title character in Jonah directed by Gábor Tompa. Photo credit: Mihaela Marin.


What do you consider to be your goals during your presidency of the UTE? How long is your mandate?

Presidency of the Union of European Theatres is for a three-year or a six-year mandate.

I see it as one of my duties to bring back the UTE’s annual theatre festival. After eleven years of interruption, we organized a large festival of UTE Theatres here in Cluj from 19 to 30 November 2019.

l think we should keep the best from that early period, with the festivals which he (Strehler) invented. He took into the UTE theatres from Romania and Russia which were not in the European Union (Romania joined the EU on 1st January 2007). The Royal Shakespeare Company was also a member for a while then, but they couldn’t come to the festivals because of their season at Stratford and the Barbican. Adrian Noble was the last artistic director from the RSC with whom we were associated.

Europe has wonderful diversity but also is a unique cultural landscape. lt includes London and Dublin and Reykjavik. The European cultural identity is under threat right now. We have to prove that there is culture in Europe. We want to keep the old ideas in combination with the European reaction to the new realities.

One of the most important functions of the UTE is all its festivals and exchanges. The Union stipulates that all members have to have a venue where they can host other companies — not necessarily repertory theatres with their own companies, but they have to have an artistic programme. Strehler specified that he wanted the UTE to include the strongest theatres of art. Nowadays there is a controversy between theatre of art and other kinds of theatre, documentary theatre for instance, but l think that all the great theatrical performances happen in a theatre of art. As soon as it’s fiction, our goal is not to challenge reality. Our goal is to condense and hold up a mirror, as Hamlet says, to the world’s reality.


In the Age of the Gods, Ulysses Shoemaker. Credit: Masiar Pasquali.


In 2008 the last festival before the one in 2019 was organized. It was a Bucharest-Cluj partnership. After that, no city assumed the organization of a festival because of lack of funds. Fortunately, my goal as president was to move forward with a revival of the festival tradition. I convinced the local authorities, the minister of culture, the cultural governmental foundation from Hungary, some banks like Raiffeisen, some individual sponsors too, so even with a small budget, the 2019 festival was a revival. ln 2020 the festival is going to be in Moscow; in 2021, Porto — that will be the hundredth anniversary of the national theatre there; and in 2022 Cologne; and in Prague in 2023. So l think that this is one of my goals, and it is met.

Second, we have to try to change the structure of the office of the Union des Théâtres de l’Europe. The first office was at the Odéon-Théâtre de l’Europe in Paris, but they are no longer members. Under Strehler, 88% of the productions of the UTE were international co-productions. Under Georges Lavaudant, there was zero international cooperation, so the Odéon left. I have talked to the Odéon’s artistic director Stéphane Braunschweig and said I would like to re-open the office because we are a French entity; we operate under French law. So we have an office in Bobigny (outskirts of Paris) but the headquarters are in Düsseldorf.  We don’t need the Düsseldorf office. We have two assistants now who handle the two general assemblies a year and the four board meetings. There are five board members, the president and four others.

Third, we need someone to take on the job of fundraising, because now the only income derives from members’ fees and the money that comes in, for example from Creative Europe, when we apply for a specific project. So, one of the tasks of any new Executive Director would be to get more funds.

So you are fulfilling the promises you made when you were elected President, and you became president very naturally because of your early involvement with the UTE. (Tompa was an individual member of the UTE as of 2006 until his Cluj theatre became a member as of 2008.)

Well, it was natural because l have produced in many countries and speak several languages. But it took a while because of my involvements elsewhere. I encouraged my students to develop knowledge of theatre culture worldwide, to go to Avignon and Edinburgh, to come to Cluj. l have a bi-annual festival at my own theatre that has nothing to do with the Union, called Interferences, with the strongest productions worldwide directed by Simon McBurney, Heiner Goebbels, Ostermeier, Ilan Ronen, Klim Kozinsky; and with young artists worldwide — from Mexico, Africa, and so on. 2020 is the seventh edition. In this way, I hope that we can continue to involve America as well.


Portrait photo of Gabor Tompa by Axel Hörhager.