Bigger than Edinburgh: Romania’s Sibiu bursts with pride and vision

Spectacolul Tobelor. Photo: Dragos Dumitru
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Romania’s international theatre festival is going from strength to strength under the guidance of founder Constantin Chiriac. Nick Awde reports.

Sibiu has come a long way from its modest beginnings when it launched with eight performances from three countries in 1993. This year, Romania’s showcase will stage a whopping 503 events, nearly 3,300 artists and guests from 72 countries, spread over 71 venues with an estimated audience of 68,000 per day.

There’s no international festival of its type that comes anywhere near. A comparison with what’s usually on at other festivals reveals a mere fraction of Sibiu’s output, which is crammed into 10 days. Naturally the likes of Edinburgh (International) and Avignon are boosted by the fringe and the ‘off’ – but these are elements that Sibiu incorporates and celebrates within its own uniquely tailored multi-levelled programme.

“Before anything else, the Sibiu festival is a state of mind,” says Sibiu’s founder and director Constantin Chiriac. “It’s extraordinary that anyone who wishes to showcase at a fringe or an off can do so, but the audience’s spiritual health must be defended in the international side.”

There’s no denying that Sibiu reflects Chiriac’s own mind, given that he is the only decision-maker, which allows him to respond swiftly to suggestions and challenges alike.

“My role is not that of a dictator but of a leader always in dialogue and consultation with collaborators in charge of each field. Besides, we have hundreds of consultants and friends all around the world who we work with to get the best in the performing arts.”

Highlights for 2017 include New Riga Theatre’s Brodsky/Baryshnikov, last seen in the West End, a weighty piece that contrasts with Point Theatre’s Romanian version of Duncan Macmillan’s whimsical Every Brilliant Thing – the original earned its stripes at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. The main shows jostle with a packed programme of sub-festivals. Pride of place goes to the Sibiu Performing Arts Market, a networking platform for artists, producers, programmers and financing bodies that runs as part of the Be SpectACTive! international conference (this year’s theme is audience engagement).

“It focuses on creation rather than distribution,” says Chiriac. “We never try to turn our showcases into bureaucracy. Romania has no fringe festival – and it really shouldn’t – so it is important that there are meetings in this market format. It’s a registered trademark and we will try to reproduce it at other festivals, to benefit through its global networking.”

Sibiu’s vision is also very much about the audience.

“Our evaluation procedure is very strict, which allows us to record sustainable growth year after year, depending on the offers we get as well as on the possibility of improving the cultural infrastructure for everything related to showcasing indoor or outdoor performances.”

The festival audience comes from around the world to buy tickets, which at home may cost hundreds of euros, but in Sibiu cost less than 10 (£8.75) – or are free. What also helps is an environment where the municipality allocates an unprecedented 12% of its budget to culture.

“For this reason, every year, despite us saying at the end of each edition that ‘this is probably it’, the new edition is always bigger and better than the previous one – and after 24 years it’s still all about quality and diversity,” says Chiriac.

Sibiu International Theatre Festival runs from June 9-18