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Simona Maicanescu & Cynthia-Marie O’Brien

 “We still have millions in poverty who are unseen as individuals, but instead as slogans on T-shirts. Helping them makes those who give money feel good.”

“The Fever” at LaMama, New York City, 2012-2013

Globalization, exile, inequality, the power of contemporary dance, and why she counts herself among the marginalized. Editor Cynthia-Marie O’Brien finds out how “The Fever” infected Simona Maicanescu, who performed in the one-woman show “The Fever” after adapting it from Wallace Shawn’s original with Swedish director Lars Norén.

HR: You have the opportunity to select the roles you perform. What made this character someone you wanted to embody? What do you do to prepare to have ‘the fever’? Describe your routine.

SM: It was not about embodying some extraordinary character, but just the rare opportunity to discover an important, terrifying text about the world we live in and feel that I have no choice but to share Mr. Shawn’s ideas with the audience encountered all over, wherever I’ve been, both in European countries and New York City. My routine? Well, that’s kind of a secret garden. To let you get a glimpse, I walk my lines while watching people in the streets of any town where I’m invited to perform. Sometimes I run my lines, mostly when not performing to keep my words in good shape – and my legs. Wallace Shawn wrote the play in an earlier decade; many of the problems he was writing about have increased in some parts of the world while they have been improved in others. We still have millions in poverty who are unseen as individuals, but instead as slogans on T-shirts. Helping them makes those who give money feel good.

HR: What was it like to adapt the play for an audience in NYC in 2013? Did you consider recent events such as the US presidential election, or was your perspective much more global? The character you voice is anonymous to the audience so that she could, perhaps, be one of us: someone who can afford to go to theater and think about hunger, instead of beg on the street. Yet you are someone who grew up in Romania. Those of us who watched American television in the 1980s saw many, many commercials about starving children there asking us to adopt a child or send money; this was my first association with Romania before I began to know its individual women and artists. What personal experiences, images, feelings do you tap into on the stage every night to become the character? Are they the same set of images each time or do they change during the course of the show’s run?

SM: I’ve considered the US presidential election, of course! I was there, in Times Square, while President Obama was elected the first time. But our European perspective on Mr. Shawn’s work has been built as much more global as possible. It was my goal from the first moment I decided to do the monologue to take the text out of its American ‘environment’/context.Unfortunately, poverty is everywhere. Today even more than twenty years ago, it’s at any corner of the street.

“You don’t have to take a trip to a poor country; it’s enough just to open your eyes. So my personal experiences, images, or feelings are not related just to my native country but to every place I’ve been traveling. Maybe I feel more legitimate somehow than other actors performing ‘The Fever’ while being on stage because of my dictatorship country background and my present life in a Western country. I really know what I’m talking about from both points of view.”

HR: Our journal’s mission is to publish literature illustrating and challenging conventional portrayals of the marginalized, oppressed, occupied and ignored, defined provocatively or traditionally by the author. How do you believe Wallace Shawn would define each of those categories? Or does he believe the existence of such categories are the problem? Who do you think society ignores and oppresses today that art should try to focus attention on?

SM: I think that Wallace Shawn has responded to these issues, although it’s through his “Fever” that I’ve made mine. Art should try more and more to focus attention on what politics and media don’t.

“Art is the most peaceful but intelligent, provocative way to make people aware of what’s going wrong in the world.

HR: The play gently mocks whether thinking about change can make it happen, and whether art matters. What impact has art had on your life in terms of how you understand the meaning of freedom and equality, and how you are able to live in those conditions or not?

SM: I dare say that you’ve got a good part of my answer to this question by having seen the show. We cannot live without art. It’s the best lesson to take for understanding the meaning of freedom or equality. I’m just an actor, now and then very happy, when feeling that I’ve done my job: when the audience gets what I’m standing for, what has made me go on stage and talk for almost ninety minutes, so I’m able to keep on going in this unequal world.

HR: Your production was a chance for a New York audience, perhaps American, to watch a French-Romanian actress perform on stage, collaborating with a Swedish director. Yet the play shows many of the problems of globalization, how disposable other people and countries are. On the other hand, today we can know far more about other parts of the world than we did before widespread technology. For example, from here in NYC I am able to read about how the Hungarian government continues to alarm the EU by modifying its constitution, and how the Romanian government has taken a different role in disseminating its culture in the world. From my NYC newspapers and my friends in Europe I sense the streets seem full of protests. A few years ago, the streets in the Arab World spilled over and many governments changed. In NYC, the streets filled and nothing changed. What do you imagine to be the outcome of current protests in Europe – are there any in specific that interest you?

SM: I’m interested in all the problems you’ve mentioned. The outcome of current protests in Europe? Hard to say: people and politicians are too tired. Some are quite desperate, because of the economic crises. The issue would be, instead of talking politics, to talk solutions, but there is no chance to find solutions without politicians who are playing politics with their talks and with people’s lives. Vicious circle.

HR: As an artist who travels globally, do you believe there is a difference between a viewer experiencing “The Fever” live as opposed to, for example, watching it as a film? Are certain forms of art more powerful mediums of expression to you? Why?

SM: In “The Fever”‘s case the impact is much stronger when watching the play than the movie. Every spectator is free to build their own images while taking the trip with the performer. They don’t have to watch an already made image of a concrete country that might not impress them at all.

“Lately, contemporary dance is the form of art able to trigger more fundamental questions than a theater play. Why? Maybe thanks to the strength of the human spirit and body concentrated in a sharp image able to say much more than any intelligent word. Or because it demands the audience to keep focused and decipher the emotion of the movements.”

HR: You’re from Eastern Europe, a region where art was long a tool of the state. How did you become an actress in such a climate? What advice do you have for readers who want to make art in countries where expression is not free – for example, in today’s China?

SM: Art in Romania was a tool of state, but also a way out. So I became an actress just to evade the issue. It was my only way of avoiding dictatorship, of fighting against it, against any form of submission. When you really get the fever of art, there is always a secret path to take, or to invent so that expression gets free. It’s even more challenging than to do it in a ‘free’ country. Exile’s first lesson is that freedom is not the lifeboat of victims or heroes of an unjust world, but the key to understanding the decency for which a human being stands. One’s freedom is never free.

HR: What does the word “margin” mean to you, personally, sensually, physically, intellectually? Is a world without margins possible? Desirable?

SM: “Margin” is like “note in the margin.” It doesn’t belong there, to the initial text, You can read it or skip it. And yet it’s there, in front of your eyes. It’s the same with people: there are those born with, and those born without. The OUT makes the huge difference. “Without” not meaning poor, but just in the “margin” and thus marginalized.

“And yet they make the world different, they take it out of its tedious routine. They shouldn’t be or feel marginalized, but included, just included. That would make all of us live in a better world aware of its margins. Until then, they remain the ones to have inspired new trends in art, incredible acts of terror or courage, the ones to inspire me – as I feel myself as a member of this family.”

A world without margins? What a fascinating debate: yes, that would be great! Yet a huge utopia! The world would become a real chaos. So not desirable, although I dream about no margins in this world. This is one of the reasons, maybe, that I’m a relentless traveler.

When I left the theater, I felt exhausted, although I had not moved, only listened. I questioned every action I had ever taken. It was difficult to move again, to step into the busy street. Yet I also felt it would be very wrong to remain static, to stop. All I was certain of was that I should continue in motion.

HR: When you first read or saw “The Fever” did it change your approach to life? How? Does it change you now when you perform it?

SM: Did “The Fever” change my approach to life? Of course. I have never seen the show yet. I just discovered the book on a hot summer day in NYC. The last ten pages made me promise to myself that I would say those words in public no matter what. And for those last pages I had to adapt the whole text, to convince Lars Norén to direct me and work with me on the adaptation, to meet Wallace Shawn so he allowed us ‘the final cut’ to do the whole translation into French, to find money for producing this one woman show. My Fever’s story started in 2006 (!) and it is not finished yet. Ever since then, I can’t perform so easily anymore in a ‘classic’ play. The characters I’m choosing now always have something to do with some socio-political involvement. I’ve got to stand for an idea and not for the beauty of a character.

As for “The Fever” doubts are still there while I’m performing. How to get lighter, sharper so the audience doesn’t feel guilty but just ready to move on, “to make the future better than the past” and that it really means something!

HR: If every viewer did just one action because they saw the play, what would you wish for it to be?

SM: My dream would be that they find a way to gather together and create small or big new associations called “New Human Rights” that would invade Facebook or the governments’ mailboxes with intelligent letters, swept across different countries that would make people react, and step by step, letter by letter, better ideas would come. Money is necessary, but good ideas are worth more than money and they could make this unjust world change into a better one; make the politicians be involved. Really. Otherwise our children will inherit a sad fortune!

Simona Maicanescu was born in Craiova, Romania and performed under the direction of Silviu Purcarete, Lucian Pintilie, Tompa Gabor, and Andrei Serban. After her work in a French-Romanian production was presented at the Avignon Festival in 1994, she was invited to perform at Odéon Theatre in Paris. André Wilms, Lukas Hemleb and Jean-François Peyret were among her directors at that time. She moved to France to continue acting. From Norén’s play War and Molière’s Tartuffe to the French TV series Engrenages; movies including Dante 01, Stowaways and Splice; and stage roles at international theater festivals, she continues to perform in French and English.

Cynthia-Marie O’Brien is a founding and co-managing editor of HR. Her website is www.cynthiamarieobrien.com

Photo of Simona Maicanescu copyright François Berthon