Making a scene: how a roving theatre transformed Moldova’s mainstream

For seven years, Teatru-Spălătorie challenged mainstream thinking from their theatre in Chișinău. Now they have become a theatre that travels across Europe

9 December 2019

It is hard to leave a performance by Teatru-Spălătorie feeling light-hearted. Unlike most theatres in Moldova, which put on classics and relish metaphor, Teatru-Spălătorie wants their audience to feel uncomfortable.

Using a methodical, Brechtian acting style and minimalist sets, their plays touch painfully sensitive topics in Moldovan society: ranging from brutal expressions of homophobia, misogyny or nationalism, to workers’ rights, government repression or the Holocaust — a topic given little attention in schools and the public domain. Mixing personal stories, political speeches, and juxtapositions of mainstream discourse and their own critical response, Teatru-Spălătorie’s plays are deeply local and defiantly political.

Founded nine years ago, the theatre opened in Moldova’s capital of Chișinău in the basement of a washing house (its name translates to The Washhouse Theatre in English). By hosting weekly performances on Mondays, when established theatres were shut, Teatru-Spălătorie quickly turned into the go-to venue for independent theatre and art, and, thanks to the on-site bar, alternative partying.

There isn’t solidarity among artists … the haves don’t share with the have-nots. It’s like that in the theatre world, but everywhere else in Moldova too

“At first, we were annoyed that there were people who came to the bar regularly but had never seen a play,” co-founder and lead actress Doriana Talmazan told The Calvert Journal. “But then we realised that it was great that we’d managed to create a space where people felt that they could be themselves.” Co-founder and coordinator Nora Dorogan agrees. “We did not realise how big the impact of our work would be,” she says. “We didn’t gather stadiums [full of people], but through the continuity of our work and the diversity we promoted, we managed to create this community.”

With bilingual productions to reflect Moldova’s ethnic make-up (where 75 per cent of people speak Romanian and roughly 20 per cent speak Russian as their first language), Teatru-Spălătorie were able to unite circles who would never usually meet. The theatre also became a hub for Chișinău’s queer community. One project, My Queer Chișinău, toured the city, allowing LGBTQ Moldovans to share their own stories in the very place in situ.

A performance as part of My Queer Chișinău. Image: Teatru-Spălătorie

But perhaps Teatru-Spălătorie’s most radical innovation was behind the scenes. In its original incarnation, all troupe members were tasked with all roles, from co-writing texts to cleaning or slicing ginger for lemonade in the bar. The theatre worked somewhat like a co-op, but this sprung from necessity rather than a desire to make a political statement. “We reached that model by trying to solve practical issues,” co-founder and playwright Nicoleta Esinencu explains. “How can we make theatre without many resources? Where can we cut costs? We started deconstructing theatre in this way.”

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But having such a small team take so much responsibility soon took its toll in stress and health issues. “We spent a lot of our time on maintenance rather than on what we had set off to do — making theatre,” Doriana says. After seven years, they shut the space and became a migrant theatre, much like the many Moldovans who leave their country to find opportunities abroad. Now, the building where the theatre was once based has been demolished, and a tower block rises there instead.

In the two years since closing the space down, Teatru-Spălătorie has co-produced and performed plays with theatres in Graz, Berlin, and Stuttgart, as well as in Berlin, Hamburg, Dusseldorf, Bucharest, and Cluj. Their latest performances include Teatru-Spălătorie’s most personal play — The Abolition of the Family — where seven people (including six non-professional actors) shared their own stories of families broken by patriarchal expectations, illness, or homophobia. Other shows, such as The Gospel According to Maria, takes a feminist reading of the Bible’s New Testament, while a Requiem for Europe is a Euro-sceptic critique on the working conditions in factories in Moldova producing for big Western brands. All have seen full-house performances and stellar reviews.

A performance of The Abolition of the Family. Image: Teatru-Spălătorie

Judging from their Facebook page, I had the impression that the theatre was on a grand and successful tour across Europe. But they say they feel like migrants with no home, and long to find a new space in Chișinău. After agreeing to rent one space for a play in March, the administrators dropped the deal last minute. When they invited a Bucharest theatre to play in a small traditional theatre earlier last year, they found out that the Ministry of Culture had rung the administrators of that theatre to ask them to raise the rent so that Teatru-Spălătorie could not afford to pay it. Their criticism of government figures in their plays did not suit the authoritarian party then ruling Moldova.

Their next production is also in Germany, but the collective hopes to perform it at home too. Yet they’re worried about finding a space to stage their plays. “I find it difficult to understand why those working at the theatres with spaces pretend that they don’t see us,” Talmazan says. “There isn’t a solidarity among artists, but also people more generally … the haves don’t share with the have-nots. It’s like that in the theatre world, but everywhere else in Moldova, too.”

But perhaps the theatre has reason to remain optimistic. Since they left, the community created around the theatre dispersed into different venues. New independent theatres, art hubs, and alternative DJ and party nights have popped up in their wake. The path forged by Teatru-Spălătorie may have been a difficult one, but it left an indelible mark on Moldova’s cultural landscape. Now, this new and fertile ground may finally be ready to welcome them home.

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