photo: Bogdan Iordache/ Cultura la dubă
“I felt a strong aggression from the outside, I needed to respond and didn’t know how.”
Alexandra Badea’s story has it’s roots in a Romania that forever marked the generations raised under Nicolae Ceaușescu’s didctatorship and their children.
Born in Bucharest in 1980, Alexandra’s path seemed to be similar to that of the entire youth of those times.
“In the 90’s there was a tendency to assure a child’s future. There were a few ways: Medicine School, Law School, Economics Academy, Polytechnic.” Her parents insisted that she chose one of those paths.
But their daughter had discovered the fascinating universe of theater and felt the need to express through art feelings that she couldn’t express through mathematics.
“Going to school in the Central School in Bucharest, I would see through the window what was happening in the back yard of the Bulandra Theater – Icoanei Garden. I would watch them unload the sets, actors rehearsing.
At one point I skipped school with a friend and actually went inside the theater, during rehearsals, we made friends with the dressers, who gave us the tour of the theater, went inside the actors’ cabins, the costume workshops and I was fascinated with the theater outside of the hall, the one back stage.”
That was the first contact with the theater for a teenager who had never seen a show.
“The first show that I went to was “Procust’s Bed”, directed by Cătălina Buzoianu. I liked the novel and it was in my graduation exam’s curriculum.
That was a very powerful encounter for me, an aesthetical shock and a show that I ended up seeing at least ten times during two years of high school.
That is how I startet going to many of Cătălina Buzoianu’s shows. At one point, I said something stupid to myself: if she can do this, so can I.”
She was always told that she wasn’t talented in writing or any other artistic field and she started to believe it. Directing seemed, nevertheless, a way of bringing together talented people who could express in a show, what she couldn’t otherwise.
“Since tenth grade I felt the need to speak about some things that I felt, like anger, sadness, strong emotions that hurt me. They were a type of response to the aggressive environment in which I was living, both in school and in society.
I thought that I could express through images and words what I felt, to let out all the anger I had inside.
When I said that I wanted to go to journalism, I was discouraged. I could do journalism with anything, but I should graduate from somewhere serious before that. Then I said photography. “What are you going to do at Plastic Arts? you don’t have any talent at drawing.”
This notion of talent kept coming back, that I now reject, I don’t know what talent is.
In France, they don’t talk about talent. I often do workshops with students from theater schools and if I were to mention talent, to say that one is more talented than the other, I think they’d kick me out. The notion does not exist.
They talk about skills, authenticity, singularity and work, not about talent. Theater schools in France are trying to form artists, not just actors that execute something. Artists that express a personality, that have the courage to express a point of view – I think that this should be more stressed in Romanian theater schools.
Us, in the East, tie talent to something very religious, something given, with which you are born. I disagree. If we were to talk about talent, I think it is something you can educate.
I see it as a muscle you keep training through everything that you see, through discussions, films, life experiences.”
As per the deal she made with her father, Alexandra had to get into the Academy of Economic Studies first, in order to get permission to try getting into theater direction, at UNATC. That’s how she got both an economics diploma, and a director’s diploma.
20 years later, Alexandra is today one of the most appreciated emerging theater directors in France, but also Romania. The true way of expression that led her into the French cultural elite was playwriting.
After the two universities graduated in Romania, she mastered in “Theater aesthetics and theory” in Sorbonne and settled, without intention, in Paris.
She directed her first shows on small stages in Paris, with little budget and friends rehearsing without pay.
“I did a show – Family Stories – we played it several times. I didn’t understand the system. It was very hard.
In France there are no ensembles, the director has a company, it applies to state subventions and searches for co-producers in institutionalized theatres, where there are only technicians and administrative staff working. The artistic staff is project-based”
“In France, a director does one show per year, if not one in 2-3 years. 70% of his activity is administrative.”
In total, there have been 10 years of efforts until now, in which she has not made a living out of theater. She did stories for RFI, worked with children in schools, taught theater or earned scholarships.
In the meantime, she was invited by several Romanian theaters to do shows based on plays already written. But she felt that something was missing.
“I felt like an outsider in Romania. In France, people would ask me about my accent.
My wish was to write about what I felt and I couldn’t find a play that expressed what I wanted.”
“And it happened during a visit in Romania, in that strange time between Christmas and New Year’s. It was a highly autobiographical text, a collage of scenes, monologues, lists of instructions.
It was speaking on the impossibility to adapt to a society or the other. The impossibility to assimilate the rules of society, imposed in the family.”
The text became her first play, Mode D’Emploi, (Instructions Manual), that she later sent, by mail, to a famous publishing house in France – Arche Editeur.
Only a year later she heard back.
“They called to say that they wanted to meet me and to ask if I had any other texts. They said that they wanted to publish me.
When I left the meeting, I was doubtful, I thought that they would change their minds, much like many were saying that they would come to see my shows and never showed up.”
In 2009, her first three plays – Mode D’Emploi, Controle d’identité, about the refugees that came in France in 2005, during Nicolas Sarkozy’s time, and Burnout, about working conditions in companies – were published in a single volume by Arche Editeur, made into shows by various directors all over France.
“It was a relief. My life totally changed. Theaters started opening their doors.”
And this was only the beginning. The young woman who was constantly told in school that she didn’t have talent in writing, received in 2013 The Grand Prize for Dramatic Writing, offered by the French Ministry of Culture, for the play Comminution, published at Arche Editeur.
“Nobody expected me winning this award. That includes me. I was in Mexico, I didn’t even attend the awards ceremony. “
Comminution is an X-ray of French society and was the result of a year’s work of research, during which Alexandra interviewed numerous immigrants from a small town on the outskirts of Lyon.
“Research is an essential step. I am interested in the way the wounds of history still have repercussions on today’s generations.
I met the first Algerian workers that settled here, they are living in precarious conditions, working for very little, sacrificing their lives to support those back home.
I met the wives of the workers that came here in the ’70’s, all they did was raise children, and now, at 60 years old, they were taking these language lessons, trying to learn French.”
“I understood globalization and how a decision taken here can affect the lives of people all over the world.”
The play was translated to English, German, Romanian, Portuguese and has become her most performed play.
She then wrote two novels (Zone d’amour prioritaire, 2014; Tu marches au bord du monde, 2020) and film scripts, also directing her first short films.
“I realized that my writing rhythm is faster then the rhythm of doing a show. I feel the best when I’m writing, I feel free, without administrative obstacles.”
Her own uncertain status in a foreign country, the tense relationship with her home country, but also her interest for history’s untold stories, birthed a courageous writer, noticed as a political theater author in France, on themes of corporations, globalization, colonization and surveillance.
And Alexandra Badea’s desire to tell these kind of stories grew even more since 2013, when she became a French citizen.
“It was a naturalization ceremony in which we were told that from then on, we must commit to this country’s history, with it’s glory moments and her shady zones.”
“And that perhaps, at some point, in case of war, you will have to take arms against your own country.”
That was the time she decided to read more about colonization and post-colonization. And through her art, she has brought to light scenes that were less known from France’s history.
Wajdi Mouawad, a well-known director who did George Enescu’s Oedipus opera in 2021, gave her the immense chance to do a show at one of the 5 national theaters in France – The La Colline Theatre in Paris, which he also manages.
And Alexandra Badea chose to stage a trilogy inspired by France’s history. While working on this project, she took many walks through The Père Lachaise Cemetery, right next to The La Colline Theatre.
“The first part is about a massacre of Senegalese soldiers, who came to France in World War 2, and actually liberated some territories. At the end of the war, France owed them their war payment, they were given a part and promised the rest when they returned to their home countries.
When they got back home and asked for their rights, they were shot, it was a massacre. Their numbers and even their names remain unknown, they were buried in a commune grave.
Everyone was astounded, the story had been unknown.”
The second part had it’s premiere at the prestigious Avignon Theater Festival, bringing to light an instance of several Algerians that were thrown into the Senne after asking for their rights, and in the third one she spoke about children of immigrants, brought to repopulate several rural areas of France.
The trilogy has been played even in integral shows and had great success, being played in numerous shows.
We found Alexandra, the high school student who snook into the Bulandra Theater, backstage of one of the most important theaters in France, this time as a French director, with Romanian origins.
A few steps from the theater, in the window of a bookshop, there are some of her awarded books.
But, beyond awards, Alexandra Badea’s shows and plays mean much more than prestige. They are the voice of society’s invisible people.
In Romania she wrote about the Pogrom in Iasi, in the play Perfect Composed, played at The Radu Stanca National Theater in Sibiu.
She is also equally interested in trans-generational psychology, how information is transmitted from one generation to the next and how we manage to let it go. That is what she will address in her future show – Exile – that will have it’s premiere this autumn at the Bucharest National Theater.
“We were taught to survive by not speaking our minds, by adapting, sneaking, sacrificing some things.
I don’t know if it’s a Romanian problem, maybe it’s universal, but in Romania it hurt more.”
I have wanted to write something on this theme for a while now. I want to talk about exile and the relation-ship with Romania, about anger and love, which we all feel, the desire to leave, the desire to come back, the impossibility to adapt here. But also about inheritance – education, obstacles from our families and from school.”
Alexandra Badea is settled in Paris for almost 20 years and, at least for the moment, she can not imagine living somewhere else.
I don’t see myself as an immigrant. It was an experience on which I stopped. But I’m moving, I’m not in one place.”
“I feed off cultural influences, I live in a neighborhood close to Gare de l’Est, there are African barber shops, there is a place called Little Turkey, then there is the Asian area. When I’m in Bucharest, I miss this mixture, especially in the artistic plane.
Paris is one of the few places in the world where you can almost anything being made in the world – in matters of film, theater, art shows – like an independent film from Guatemala or Cameroon.
I feed off this as a human being, not even as an artist. I need this energy. Paris is a source of energy.
She is a Knight of Arts and Letters in France, the country that has opened the doors to a universal culture for her, but she constantly comes back to her home country, with which she is trying to reconcile through theater.
“I want to speak to the Romanian audience as well. It is important, even vital to me.”
“I can’t explain why. I don’t know if I am needed, but I have this need to make something in Romania.
I said to myself that if I told untold stories from France’s history, I have to talk about the untold stories from Romania’s history.”
***This story is part of the “France Week” series, a Cultura la Dubă project supported by BNP Paribas.