Interviews with European Directors series:
Interview by Dana Rufolo October 2023
DR: “Plays International & Europe” has carried an interview with you in 2018 as the Executive Artistic Director of the Cluj National Theatre (Teatrul Naţional Cluj-Napoca) in Romania. In this 2023 interview, I’d like our readers to catch up on what you have been doing recently and to learn more about your auxiliary activities.
Portrait of Mihai Măniuţiu by Axel Hörhager.
Until you retired in 2019, you were a professor in the department of Theatre and Television at the Cluj University of Babeș-Bolyai. And, surprisingly, in addition, you are teaching at the Claire Trevor School of the Arts in the Drama Department of the University of California at Irvine. How many years have you been teaching in Irvine? Is there a connection between your presence in Irvine and the fact that Jerzy Grotowski had been teaching there from 1983 to 1986, having been invited by the same person who invited you: Professor Robert Cohen, the Founding Chair of the department?
MM: Jerzy Grotowski was before me, of course. He is a great director from Eastern Europe. But that I was invited there has no connection. I teach physical theatre, which means that my courses are about body language and of course, usually, words. For example, this year  at Irvine I will be preparing The Bald Soprano – La cantatrice chauve [by Romanian-French playwright Eugène Ionesco] so it is language based, but I will be teaching the actors to express meaning through the body. I am a Distinguished Professor there for the winter quarter, for three months, from January to March each year, and I work with graduate acting students. I started in 2009 as Visiting Professor, and then after two years I was appointed as Distinguishing Professor. Robert Cohen came to Cluj to perform one of his productions, and he came to Sibiu to the national festival and to Bucharest, and he saw my performances and invited me to move to California and become a fulltime professor, but I said no, so we came to this solution. I am general director of the theatre here in Cluj; Ştefana Pop-Curşeu takes over when I am in America.
How many productions do you do a year in the Cluj National Theatre?
Well, it depends on the budget, but five to seven on the 1000-seat main stage and five to seven on the 100-seat Euphorion Studio stage. But if the budget is low, we do only four or five on the main stage. This year Romania is having problems, so they asked for money back, meaning we have just enough for the one production we are working on now, in October 2023, until the end of the year.
But you do also go to Bucharest?
It depends. I was there some months ago at the national theatre, I did Les justes (The Just Assassins) by Jean-Paul Sartre. I started there. From time to time, I go to another theatre.
And how do you feel about “Rambuku”, your splendid performance in 2018, now that Jon Fosse has won the Nobel Prize for Literature?
I am very happy for Fosse, because he is a very very good writer, not only a playwright but also a novelist. I’ve done four plays by Fosse. There is a doctoral thesis on Jon Fosse and several books about Fosse in Romania; he is well known here.
How did you get your theatre through Covid? When I interviewed you in 2018, nobody knew Covid was coming, and only now only are we coming out of the pandemic. Your theatre survived; how did you manage?
Like all the theatres in Europe, I think, we offered, for free, recordings of our productions. Also, we produced some small shows for online. And we survived financially because the Ministry of Culture gave us subsidies. We had no cuts in salaries or elsewhere. I cannot complain.
Can you describe those first days and weeks when you began to understand that this was an epidemic and it was going to close your theatre?
We were in Irvine when it happened, and we were lucky to catch the last plane from LA to Istanbul, and then Istanbul to Romania. We had a lot of meetings on Zoom; I was in contact with the staff and actors immediately by Zoom. Each week we had a general meeting. At the beginning, each actor recorded from their own home on Zoom, and later the actors were allowed to come together on stage if they had tested negative for Covid that morning. We chose productions that worked well on Zoom. A Romanian text, In the Mirror. It was a monologue.
What are you most proud of?
Being alive. I’m very proud of being alive, because so many friends passed away at the same age that I have.
And as a director?
I think the actors are happy, I am proud of that. They are happy to be here, they are happy to work in the theatre. They don’t want to leave the company.
Your artistic choices have been extremely brilliant, like the Fosse. It’s a mise-en scène that I will remember the rest of my life. No wonder you received the Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2014 from the Romanian Association of Theatre Artists. Since I last interviewed you, and since Covid, what has been driving you?
I need to direct. I need to write in order to feel alive. When I read something and I have a vision, when I begin to see acting bodies – it means that, yes, I have to do it. When I have these kinds of visions, like in a dream. But it’s not a dream.
I understand that you are also writing. Not only theatre books, for instance your book translated into English as “Act(ing) and Mimesis – Essays on the Philosophy of the Actor”. In 2022, you won Book of the Year for fiction from the most important Romanian national prize (The Romanian Writers Association – Uniunea Scriitorilor din România USR) for your short- story collection “Jucându-l pe Mefisto” (“Playing Mephisto”). Two additional books of yours were nominated for the USR prize as well. Your most recently published book, “A șaptea viață a lui Alexandru Royce – The Seventh Life of Alexander Royce”, to quote Professor Anca Măniuţiu, who is also your wife, “describes approximately ten witnesses of the character Alexander Royce, a real character who passes through several social environments. Finally, he is killed at a demonstration, a meeting. Each character who remembers Alexander Royce has a specific language and confesses things about their own environment – a lawyer, a farmer, a reporter, policeman, the person who raised him but, in an orphanage – and you have something like a puzzle that gives a complex perspective on contemporary Romanian society. This is why many critics praised the book. It lacks bias and gives an image of what post-Communist Romanian society is”.
Is your fiction writing a departure from your theatrical “mindset”?
It’s the same need to express myself. I am not writing as a response to something. I have always been writing. My first book of short-stories was published in 1982. I share my energies between these two modes of expression: theatre and writing. When I’m writing, I’m writing. When I’m directing, I’m directing. I’m not a director who goes home in the evening and writes.
What is your typical directing schedule?
Usually, when the actors are free, I direct for four hours in the morning and four or five hours in the afternoon.
They are your actors?
I’m working in the repertory system, which means that the actors are all subsidized by the state. This theatre has a repertory company, but it is not mine. I am running the company on a contract from the Ministry of Culture. When I work in other theatres, I am a guest director. All the same, I audition the actors and choose. For example, when I did The Just Assassins for the national theatre in Bucharest, I used their actors, but only after an audition. I made the audition to make sure that he or she wants the role, because it is very important to have people who are determined to work with me. It’s a test. If it is a very well-known actor, I will not audition them normally. For example, I have been working with one star at the Bucharest National Theatre since 1985. I will audition him to find out if he wants to do the show, we will discuss the character, and so on.
How long do you rehearse for a show?
Five to six weeks.