Noel Witts - Professor of Performing Arts


March 17, 2014


“Cities build culture, and culture builds cities. This basic understanding has been vital in the revitalization of an increasing number of cities across Europe in recent years.

The Romanian city of Sibiu (or Hermannstadt in German) is a medium sized city in the Transylvania region. In common with cities elsewhere in Central and Eastern Europe it has undergone considerable transformation since the restoration of democracy. Industrial restructuring caused unemployment growth and infrastructure was in need of renovation. In tackling these problems the city adopted a somewhat radical strategy compared to its regional neighbours, by making cultural development a spearhead in the transformation of the city”.

(Richards and Rotariu, MPRA Report, 2011)

It is worth quoting from this report, written after the 2007 experience of Sibiu as joint capital of Culture ( with Luxembourg), with its acknowledgement that cultural development can be a crucial transformer of cities, for this is what has happened in Sibiu, Romania,  over the last 21 years, which in no small measure  is due to the growth, scope and influence of the Sibiu International Theatre Festival, its personnel and schedules.

My first contact with this festival was in 1994, when I came to Romania to make a BBC radio 3 programme about theatre in the country since what the above report quaintly refers to as ‘the restoration of democracy”. At that time I found a small but ambitious team made up of Constantin Chiriac, Cristian Radu, and selected colleagues. I remember Mr Chiriac telling us that one of his ambitions was for Sibiu to become a European Capital of Culture, a claim that at that time seemed unrealistic. He also emphasised that he wanted the festival to become ‘a motor for social change’, a phrase to which I shall return.

I came back to Sibiu for the 1995 festival, where I met an old American friend, Professor Kenneth Campbell from Virginia Commonwealth University, who was already busy advising the festival on certain developments. He was, in particular, responsible for the development of the readings of new playtexts, which are still a feature of the festival. At that time  the festival was housed in the Student Culture House, and the shows took place in a few city venues including the Radu Stanca Theatre. Even then there were performances from around 20 different countries, including  Iraq, Japan, Poland, Syria, The Phillipines, Greece, and Poland.

I have decided to concentrate on what I perceive to be the 10 significant issues that have taken place over the last 21 years and which define the festival, drawn from my archive of Sibiu programmes, some personal observations, and my own  memories, which may be a little uncertain, and therefore open to correction. What is clear is that the festival could not have survived this long without the vision and commitment that all these developments have needed from the team involved.


One of the keys to the development of this festival has been its management team, the key members of which have been together almost from the start. This is not a festival whose director changes every few years, as it does, for example,  at Edinburgh or Avignon, and the key personnel have been present, many of them since the inception. Any new members of the management team are chosen by the directors and are integrated into the ethos of the festival. It is  also a crucial circumstance that this key team remains in, resides in, and is connected to Sibiu , and does not simply fly in for a few months before the festival, which is often the case with many other European festivals.  This connection with the city and with its prestigious university – the Lucian Blaga University – gives the festival a sense of belonging, and the city an annual sense of anticipation. This sense of the event being permanently rooted in the city has meant that, over the years, its influence has become regional and national, powering the ‘motor for social change’ as we shall see.

The support from the city and the region is also important as Sibiu’s reputation has been built  in no small measure by virtue of its cultural activities, which also include film and jazz festivals. In this context it is interesting that for the last years the mayor of Sibiu has come from its German community, which has often led me to ask whether the historic German respect for culture may have left its imprint in Hermannstadt somehow.

The tightness of and commitment of the management team is therefore the major factor in the continuation of the festival into the twenty-first century.


One of the key elements of the festival since its start has been its sense of reaching out to the nations of the world – at the last count in 2013 over 70 countries were represented. There were 20 international networks present and a vast number of international volunteers who helped make the festival work. The festival director spends most of his year searching for performances in different countries which may be relevant to Sibiu.

As the years have gone there has been an incremental increase in the number of nations participating. As the reputation of the festival has grown, so has the interest of nations across the world. Thus, for the 10 days of the festival, an international framework is established, which is  unique in Europe in my experience.

What does this internationalism mean ? Perhaps the most important aspect is that for 10 days Sibiu becomes a potential forum for discussion between nations and an exchange in particular of professional and young professional theatre makers from around the world. Consequently foreign visitors both appreciate the city and spread the word about the festival, thus continually raising the profile, advancing tourism,and eventually foreign and national investment. Over the years the number of hotels and restaurants has doubled, making the city both a cultural and gastronomic centre.

The other aspect of the international emphasis is the scope it gives for joint cross-national arts projects, international cultural dialogue, and world class knowledge transferred across individuals and performances.


Whereas in the beginning the title was the “International Festival of Young Professional Theatre” , a deliberate attempt to show the world that something new was happening in Romania. The programme consisted of some ‘big’ shows  which would be juxtaposed with the work of younger theatre makers. in 1995 these included Purcarete’s “Phaedra”, Theatre of the Eighth Day (Poland) ” Wormwood”, and  “Antigone” from Greece . Over the years these divisions have become fragmented as has the world of contemporary performance, so that these categories no longer apply and the festival is simply the Sibiu International Festival of Theatre, which may include productions of the highest standard alongside new work from new generations of theatre makers.  Even divisions such as  “dance”, “theatre”, “street” performance are now defined as simply  “a constellation of practices”,  where the old hierarchies have been broken and where  new  theatre makers make no distinctions.  Thus the visual surprise of the early Romanian performances of directors has been absorbed into the mainstream of many of the non-Romanian visiting shows, which may range from large scale theatre pieces to smaller more intimate work .

The work itself has over the years has  spread out from theatre spaces to local churches and castles making a strategic use of community resources for integrated community projects. So that for several years professionals working with deaf children in the city, for example, were able to show work at the festival, whereas the church on the hill at Cisnadioara has become a venue often for experimental work of different types. In recent years Purcarete’s production of “Faust” has been shown at the Libra Balanta Hall, an ex-factory venue, and music has been performed at the Talia Hall, built on the foundations of Sibiu’s first theatre. Other venues now include clubs and bars in the city, and one performance is given annually on in one of the city’s tramcars.

The festival concept has also been extended in recent years by the ability of the director to attract to the festival some of the great names of theatre modernism, such as Peter Brook, Ariane Mnouchkine, Eugenio Barba, Peter Stein, Lev Dodin and others: names whose influence has been Europe-wide but whose work has not been shown very much before in Romania. So that as well as presenting the work of key contemporary eastern Europe theatre makers such as Silviu Purcarete, Andriy Zholdak, Gabor Tompa, and Eimentus Nekrosius the festival audiences can see the work of the generations who have shaped European theatre.


It is axiomatic that festivals in some sense are learning experiences both for performers and for audiences. Meetings, conversations take place which promote the idea of the training of performers and managers. It was therefore logical that the theatre, via its contacts with the university in Sibiu, should develop higher education and post-graduate courses in Theatre Studies and in Cultural Management, from 1996. The festival becomes an annual ‘live’ project for these students and there is now a section devoted to performances from different European theatre academies. Leeds Metropolitan University has a co-operation agreement with Sibiu whereby annually a group of post-graduates come to the festival to experience work which it would be hard to see in the UK. The Sibiu festival has long been part of the post-graduate programme both at Leeds and Hull Universities. It is noteworthy that in 2011 both the Theatre and Cultural Management programmes at Sibiu  were judged first place in Romanian higher education.

There is now a further initiative in that the University of Sibiu has developed a PhD programme whereby students from different countries can  share their learning experiences across one programme, which may involve practical theatre work as well as management practice. This programme already involves the UK, USA, Sorbonne (Paris) and other collaborative institutions and will clearly attract students who have practice as their base, as well as mature students who have a body of ‘published work’ that they can present as the basis of the PhD study.


Festivals, by their very existence, promote informal dialogue, but Sibiu has developed different ways of promoting dialogues between artists, the press, and academics.

Each morning  during the festival a Press Conference, moderated by a festival friend, allows different artists to share their philosophies, problems, and sucesses, with both members of the press, and other interested audience members. These meetings give a unique opportunity to understand the background to the various artists present at the festival, who may come from any corner of the world.

Another kind of dialogue has taken the form, over the last 5 years, of a series of conversations between myself and a variety of festival artists, which, with the help of Sibiu University, are recorded then published as an archival record of a particular year’s programme. So far there are three published volumes which are available during the festival. They provide a unique record of the state of Sibiu Festival performances in any one year.

A key forum for dialogue is the area next to the Radu Stanca Theatre which, during the festival, becomes a Festival Club, where artists mingle from different countries, and where, notably, students may approach artists whose work they have found interesting. This forum once again is unique in European festivals, and is one of the reason why my students have bee coming to Sibiu for over 10 years.

During the year, away from the festival, there are, of course, constant conversations among the management members and foreign friends about recommended performance seen at other festivals. However the editorial control is firmly with the Festival Director.


One of the pre-occupations of the festival has always been with theatre artists who are emerging as important figures in their own country, and the festival can be seen as an incubator of some of the most interesting new work emerging in Europe. In the past few years I have been successful in promoting the work of new artists from the UK, including : Oliver Bray (Until Thursday), Song Chang (Song Theatre), Ellie Harrison, Matt Allen, Jodean Sumner (Trace Theatre),and many others, so that for me Sibiu has always been a place for the new, the experimental, which can yet be shown alongside the more mainstream work, though what the word ‘mainstream’ now means in the context of Sibiu is hard to define…


A major innovation since the festival’s beginnings was a Performance Market, where different companies could take a stall and show examples of their work. For many years this worked, but with the development of the internet, access to others’ work has become easier, so that the Performance Market has now taken on a new identity and is now both a showcase and a discussion and debating centre, whereby cultural managers, performers, academics, and others can meet to review work from different countries, often developing into joint projects between different countries, since the funding systems for contemporary performance are now seen as one of the important international topics. The Market is organised and directed by Lavina Alexe, herself a product of the University of Sibiu, and over the past few years has been attracting some of the key European Cultural managers to speak and debate current issues of cultural policy.


Bearing in mind all the above developments which have meant an incremental change to each festival as the years have gone by, it is not surprising that the Sibiu International Theatre Festival became one of the major motors which led to Sibiu’s success in becoming a Capital of Culture. It is significant that the co-ordinator and director of the year’s cultural events should have  been Cristian Radu, one of the original minds behind the  festival, and the longest serving member of the management team. As leader of the Cultural Management programme at the university he was able to draw on young management expertise for what was a year’s gruelling programme of events of all cultural sorts but which undoubtedly helped in a large way to define Sibiu as a tourism and cultural visitor centre, from which it is still reaping the benefits. Again the MPRA report, quoted above, gives chapter and verse explaining the success of the Capital of Culture exercise,  both from a participant and community viewpoint. If Sibiu needed to be firmly set on the culture map of Europe, then the Cultural Capital experience cemented it, in terms of cultural product, investment in the city, benefits to tourism, and so on. There is no doubt that Sibiu is now the most important cultural hub in Romania, often viewed somewhat  waspishly from Bucharest.


As the festival has grown each year we all ask where it can go now, what further can it do? Although these questions are of interest, we need to be reminded that every year attracts new artists, new visitors, new journalists, new students, new academics. For them Sibiu is ever new and there is something to be said for not tampering with a very successful formula. The important thing is for the directors to be made aware of ways in which contemporary arts practice is developing. It maybe, for example, that the festival should expand its music content to include opera, or make more effort to involve the visual arts in its envelope. These are ideal questions, not all of which can be answered in a country whose cultural politics are  still volatile in spite of what is still only 25 years of ‘democracy’.

It is worth considering the idea of the festival as a ‘motor for social change’. It is clear that the city’s social makeup of students, professionals , and visitors have together effected a change in the way in which Sibiu’s citizens regard themselves.  The residue of the festival is always a set of ideas, of new international contacts, of dialogue, which enable people to develop and bring new perspectives to their work and leisure. Small groups of performers have emerged both from the university and elsewhere and many festival participants return to the city either to work or as visitors.

The other quality which for me and other visitors is what I call the “Romanian Ingredient” , which in festival terms means a unique welcome atmosphere, great hospitality,  and a genuinely international and democratic framework for co-operation, in a country whose beauty is often unknown  by visitors for the first time. The festival thus opens gates to other broader cultural experiences such as the rural villages, pristine fields,  mountain lakes and  peaks, nature , food, and above all the friendliness of the people.


The following are the  important strands which have  contributed to the success of the Sibiu International Theatre Festival over the last 21 years :

A permanent Festival Director

Key management staff who live and work in Sibiu

The relationship with the city and the region

An openness to internationalism

A view of the festival as a unique educational experience

Archiving the work seen or talked about

Allowing international debate ( the Performance Market)

Promotion of Emerging artists (Young Professional Theatre)

The link with the University of Sibiu

A sense of humour

Noel Witts

Emeritus Professor

Leeds Metropolitan University


March 2014

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