„Research interest must be both a professional and a personal choice“ – An Interview with Romanian Theatre Scholar Viviana Iacob

Viviana Iacob (PhD) is currently a Fellow of the ERC Project Developing Theatre and the Centre for Global Theatre History at LMU Munich with a PostDoc Fellowship from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. Her research explores the exchanges, practices and networks that allowed Eastern European cultures to overcome peripheralization in relation with the international community after 1945. She is currently working on a monograph that places Romanian theatre within global circulations among the East, the West, and the South. 

In my functions as Co-Director of the Centre for Global Theatre History and senior researcher of the ERC project Developing Theatre, I interviewed Viviana about her work and her experiences of doing research away from home in times of Covid. The interview is also the first of a series of conversations of the GTH Centre that will be the core of a Global Theatre History Podcast we are currently working on and which will be launched soon.

Theatre Scholar Viviana Iacob. (photo: private)

Nic Leonhardt (NL): Viviana, you came to LMU on a fellowship by the Humboldt Foundation and are currently a fellow of the ERC project Developing Theatre and the Centre for Global Theatre History. What exactly are you working on? And to what extent can our projects here be good biotopes for your work?

Viviana Iacob (VI): I am currently working on the history of international organizations such as the International Theatre Institute (ITI) and their impact on Eastern European theatre practice during the Cold War. My research expands on previous contributions I made to several projects that dealt with East-West cultural and expertise entanglements prior to my Humboldt fellowship. However, the ERC initiative that you and Christopher Balme are developing at LMU inspired me to broaden my focus to theatre connections between Eastern Europe and the Global South. I believe that this topic is still in its infancy in the contemporary scholarship, which, unfortunately, deprives us as historians of a fascinating set of trans-regional experiences central to socialist states’ cultural diplomacy during the Cold War. The ERC project also influenced my theoretical and methodological approach, especially in terms of emphasising the role of international organizations as central actors that structure theatre exchanges and debates.

NL: Your epistemological ‚hobbyhorses‘ seem to be the Cold War and internationalisation. Do you (still) know how and when your interest in these topics developed?

VI: Interest in the Cold War started with my PhD research. I analyzed Shakespeare stage adaptations during the first two decades of the communist regime in Romania. I discovered that Shakespeare’s theatre functioned not only as a conduit for showcasing the Soviet experience on the local stage but also as a door to East-West conversations and circulations. This work along with the discovery of a plethora of primary sources (such as those left behind by friendship societies with either socialist or Western countries) made me realize that past narratives about Romanian (or Eastern European) theatre communities as isolated or Sovietized obstructed my and other theatre historians’ understanding of the Cold War period. As I progressed with my dissertation I uncovered more avenues or corridors for international circulations pursued at the time by Romanian (and Eastern European) theatre practitioners. This was a turning point: it led me to understand the pivotal role played by international organizations in the cultural diplomacy of socialist state regimes.

NL: What I like so much and admire about your publications is that they are incredibly well-informed and detailed, and that they contain a wealth of archival sources. How is your archival work structured? Are there differences between the work in archives in Romania and those in German-speaking countries? Which ones do you consult the most?

VI: I start from the premise that archival work on Eastern European theatre history requires the ability to change gears. I seek to alternate between different scales so that I can identify the overlapping layers of theatre circulations and productions in international context. Simply put, I search for sources that reflect both the local and the global. I’d argue that there are three intersecting sets of material that constitute the foundation for such an approach. First, there are archival collections amassed by both party and state institutions or local private collections. They usually provide unilateral perceptions: of officials, of practitioners ‘talking socialist’, or personal experiences. Second, at a regional level, I place this information in comparative contexts, as I seek information about interactions between Eastern European states. Third, these two levels are counterbalanced with archival collections of international organizations. In my experience, the latter are by far the most arduous to work with since more often than not they have yet to be catalogued.

Files, files, files. Historical theatre research requires the detailed study of paperwork at the archives. Digitalized material is rare. (photo: VI)

To answer your second query, I would say that the difference between German and Romanian archives is first and foremost one of access. In Eastern Europe one must first discover where one might find a particular document or collection. After 1989, a restructuring of collections pertaining to the communist period took place and archives were destroyed, moved, merged or transferred from institution to institution. Finding them is an adventure in itself. One must also add that, in Romania, even if you find a useful file, let’s say in the historical archive of the Ministry of Culture, it might still be classified, which makes it impossible for you to see it. For several archival holdings, the process of access is at snail pace, if at all. In contrast, I find that German or French institutions that hold similar archives (I have worked with the latter extensively in the past few years) are sometimes just an email away.

NL: In the ERC project, „development“, cultural policy and expert networks after 1945 are important keywords and research fields. Can you give examples from your research in which they play a role? How do you approach them?

VI: I see my contribution to the ERC project as bringing a third dimension, an Eastern European focus to its North-South alignment. I look at socialist theatre experts and their participation in the Cold War epistemic community. The Eastern European input to building global theatre networks stands on a par with that of the West. The West and the East were equally invested in the decolonized Global South during the Cold War. For example, Eastern Europeans built expert exchanges or full-fledged training programs designed for students from the Global South via bilateral relations or progressive networks.

Although there is an increasing volume of literature on the issue of cultural exchanges between the Global East and the Global South, the scholarship on the role played by theatre and the performing arts in these dynamics is yet to fully take off. The scholarship that has been produced in this direction mostly comes from your department: publications such as Theatre, Globalization and the Cold War and the ERC project you mentioned earlier.

NL: What are the biggest challenges you face in your research?

VI: As I pointed out earlier, access to certain archival collections but also the fact that all the archival material that I research is yet to be digitised. Of course such a process entails first cataloguing the material and as I mentioned, this is still an issue with some collections I have been looking at. I am very grateful to the archivists and custodians that helped me navigate this material or allowed me to study it even though it was not catalogued or was in the process of being archived. This is the case of the ITI archives in Paris, Budapest and Berlin. I do have to say that there is some exhilaration in discovering that very few people, if any before you, have worked on such archives.

NL: A major challenge, I suppose, is the Covid19 situation and its tangible impact on our everyday lives, cultural life and scholarly work. You were in Munich before the Corona crisis became acute. How did it affect your fellowship? Is there a before and an after?

VI: Since my research is premised on “going there” the pandemic has of course affected the way I currently work. The fact that I established a connection with some collection holders prior to the pandemic has helped immensely. The bright side to these difficulties, if any, is that the present situation has drawn my attention to an area of my research that has taken second place until now: the editorial projects of the international organisations that I am studying. The German library system is extremely rich in this respect. The consolidation of library holdings from East and West after the Cold War means that today in Germany one can find Eastern European publications that can seldom be found elsewhere.

NL: From your point of view: How “global” is Romanian theatre?

VI: Romanian theatre is not exceptional but rather typical for the period. I do not think that Romanian theatre or Romanian theatre practitioners were more visible than other Eastern Europeans during the Cold War. On the contrary, Romanian theatre was as global as Bulgarian theatre was. Romanian puppeteers helped set up the Puppet Theatre in Cairo while Bulgarian architects built the National Theatre in Lagos. The visibility of personalities such as Jerzy Grotowski, Radu Beligan or Friz Benewitz during the Cold War was very much the outcome of successful cultural diplomacies of individual socialist states and of the growing role of Eastern Europe in international organisations such as ITI. This movement towards globalization was of course about exporting a socialist civilizational blueprint, but one must not forget that each Eastern European country had its own characteristics and international trajectories informed by domestic specificities and traditions.

NL: Is theatre / theatre history global at all?

VI: I think it can be and recently published work suggests that it should be. As historians we must take on the challenge in order to circumvent methodological nationalism and Eurocentrism. Connecting performativity to trans-regional circulations is, as you and Christopher Balme have argued, bound to bring invigorating richness to theatre studies. Such an approach simultaneously extends and deepens our understanding of local theatre contexts. 

Pavel Ilie, Object, wicker, 1971. (Credit photo: Eugeniu Lupu)

  NL: What is theatre research/ theatre studies like in Romania?

VI: Romanian theatre studies have been slow in embracing archival sources and international perspectives. In part this has much to do with the difficulties of access to archival resources pertaining to the performing arts. In order to be studied, relevant material must first be discovered. Until very recently, the exploration of cultural policies during the Cold War, performing arts included, had remained the purview of historians of the communist period, who made most progress in accessing the various archival holdings from the state socialist period. Histories of theatre after 1945 have seldom engaged with comparative work. Almost no attention has been granted to trajectories of internationalization. However, considering the global turn in Cold War studies and the growing research on the role of Eastern Europe in international organisations, I believe that this state of things will soon change.  One recent initiative that has done much in this respect is the Institute of the Present. This is a research and artist resource platform that tackles the recent history of the visual and performing arts from a transnational perspective, while also encouraging its contributors to explore available public or private archives.

NL: When you talk about your work, your eyes sparkle; your enthusiasm is contagious. Is there anything that fascinates you outside the desk?

I think travelling and exposure to foreign cultures would constitute my “other” interest. There is a level of performativity entailed by that experience that is addictive. This fascination has been of course curtailed by the pandemic. However, I have always brought back tastes, smells and experiences from my travels. During lockdowns I have been going back to them to cope with Covid-driven relative confinement.

NL: What do you recommend to junior researchers and your students?

VI: My advice would be to find an area of study that is relevant for you both on a professional and personal level. I do not think passion for knowledge or opportunity suffices for a career in the academia. Research interest must be both a professional and a personal choice. Of course that entails adaptability and resourcefulness since one must find and fund one’s research.  

NL: Where will you go after your time in Munich?

VI:  My answer is premised on the impact of the pandemic on future research and job opportunities. The academic market was competitive before, but the pandemic has exacerbated that situation. That being said, at this point it is rather difficult to say what my future will look like after my Humboldt fellowship ends in 2022.

NL: Thank you very much for the interview! And good luck for your future research. We are glad to have you here.

 


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