You may be wondering why I’m writing so much about Alina Serban? Am I being paid by Hollywood (or Media Pro)? Am I in love? Have I got nothing better to do? The explanation is simple: when I went to speak with the magazine Decit o Revista they asked me what I was working on and I said “Alina Serban”, and they said “Can you do one for us too?”. So I did and here it is. Meanwhile, as an update to the article, my spies tell me that Alina is now in London attending an audition at RADA, the top British acting school.
It’s eight fifteen in the morning and I am hurrying towards the underground station at Piata Romana with Alina Serban, the dynamic young Roma actress. Alina has a puppet show at nine o’ clock at a kindergarten in the Militar area and we’re running late. We squeeze into the commuter crowd, change at Piata Victoriei and get another train to Crangasi. She calls her colleague Elena Rotaru, an actress from Besarabia, and we wait at the side of the main road. A taxi pulls up and we have seconds to jump in as there are hundreds of angry drivers waiting to get by. The car is full of suitcases and it’s another squeeze.
Being with Alina Serban is exciting. She’s charismatic and attractive and burning with creative energy. Alina is action orientated, always on the move and doesn’t have an interesting philosophy about her art or her ethnicity; but she’s involved in scores of performances, projects, training courses and NGO initiatives. She’s only 23 and I would make a bet that she’s the youngest Romanian actress to have performed her life story in a one woman show. Her story – from gypsy poverty to studying drama in New York City – has been picked up by Agence France Press and she’s become something of a symbol in the Romanian media as “the Roma who made it.”
The kindergarten is in a small apartment that is packed to the gunnels with children. Alina and Elena flick open the suitcases and start building the set for the Romanian version of the Three Little Pigs . They work like plumbers in a hurry, or soldiers assembling a complex weapon; they know where each bolt goes and exactly how all the steel bars fit together. Within minutes a door is suspended from a battered photographer’s tripod and a façade of traditional houses (painted on a sheet) is held up by three portable coat racks. They have created a little corner of nineteenth century Moldova.
“Why do you perform in kindergartens?” I ask Alina, who is now dressed in traditional Moldovan costume. “I love puppet theatre” she says, “I love performing to kids, especially when they hug me.” It’s also how she earns her living. Crowds of four year olds flood into the room. The bigger ones sit on tiny chairs at the back and the smaller ones sit in three rows in front.
Education has played a pivotal role in Alina Serban’s life. It all started out so beautifully. She was a “normal” Romanian girl attending primary school with lots of little Romanian friends. And then the dream turned to nightmare as the family had to move into a muddy gypsy courtyard that was full of illiterate kids and embarrassing adults who were “speaking a foreign language”. They would call on her to translate the subtitles on the TV soap operas and the kids treated her like an exotic creature. She was ten years old at the time and this rough, and unexplained, introduction to gypsy life came as a terrible shock (it took her ten years to come to terms with it). At school she redoubled her efforts to exceed academically and keep her “normal” friends away from the dreaded yard. She kept a secret diary and prayed at night “that I could be a normal Romanian girl with lots of friends.”
High school led to university where, after a few false starts, she found her vocation – drama. Alina doesn’t speak highly of Romania’s Academy of Theatre and Film but she does credit it for something that totally transformed her life – a semester at The Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. New York’s indifference to ethnic identity, and its openness to new talent, gave Alina the creative space she needed to find herself creatively. “New York made me” she said, “I hit the reset button and was able to overcome the social complex that Roma kids grow up with. I knew that if I could make it in New York I could make it anywhere.”
We are back in the taxi. This time it is even more of a squeeze as the driver has a boot full of tyres (no space for the suitcases). At Cringasi, Alina and I jump out when the taxi stops at the traffic lights. Elena keeps going with the suitcases. We go to Mega Image, buy a loaf of bread and a packet of humus, then head down into the underground station. Soon we’re back in her basement kitchen eating spring onions with our bread and humus, and a delicious meatball soup made by her Mum, who pops in to say hello (she’s very handsome for her age). We talk.
She tells me about the short documentary she made with Vlad Petri in various high schools in Bucharest, about attitudes to Roma. It’s not a particularly interesting film as she is so charming with the kids that they tell her what she wants to hear. What shocks me about this story is the reaction of the top schools in Bucharest, such as Sava and Lazar, all of which sent her packing with dismissive comments about how much they are already doing to help the Roma. “I can understand if they don’t want me to interview their kids,” she says, “but why is the PRO VITA group allowed in to all high schools to peddle their anti-abortion message? PRO VITA is backed by extreme right political parties in Romania, as well as some unpleasant anti-abortion groups from America. The problem with their message is that it is profoundly anti-women.”
I am intrigued by the idea of an ‘Anonymous Roma’ festival, in which the various professions carried out by Roma people will be celebrated. “I was annoyed by people telling me ‘I’ve never met a Rom’ and I would point out that Roma are everywhere. They are among us: selling things, cooking, cleaning, driving, cutting hair. But they don’t assume their ethnic identity. Imagine if we could bring all these people together at a festival and give them a chance to feel good about being Roma.”
This relates to the theme of Alina Serban as ‘the exception that proves the rule’, in other words she may be successful but the rest of the Roma are still hopeless. “I hate it when the Romanian media make me out to be this exceptional person who managed to get out of poverty through the force of my character. If you knew how much creative energy the Roma people have, how much sporting skill and practical intelligence, you would quickly realize that I’m just someone who’s had a lucky break. I am representative of the incredible potential that the Roma people have in them.”
Travel is a big theme in her life. She’s always on the move (and I’m being hustled out of the kitchen). She’s just back from an audition at the Central School of Speech and Drama in London (“it didn’t go well. I was exhausted”). When in London she cheekily phoned the dean of Britain’s top acting school RADA (The Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts) and demanded a meeting for the next day. She got it and apparently the dean liked her. (“I need to send him an email.”)
As we head out into the street she tells me a complicated story about Ciprian Necula (a Roma PR consultant), an EU project in Ialomita, a competition she won with a radio spot and the prize of…a free trip to Eritrea. “I felt totally at home in Africa” she says, “I didn’t feel like a white person surrounded by blacks. I was able to communicate perfectly with sign language. I saw my first football match. It was incredible.”
Alina is going to her friend Isabella’s house to rehearse for this evening’s performance. As we walk she tells me “I have the most incredible group of friends. They help me so much. I can’t believe how lucky I’ve been”. I get the feeling that the feeling is mutual and that they feel inspired by her. I also feel sure that it is her creative friends – plus the New York experience – that are the key to her success.
She tells me her motivation for getting into drama: “I’ve always liked to imagine, and to play, and I like to entertain those around me. I was determined to avoid getting grumpy and acting seemed like the best way of doing this. Acting has always seemed like magic to me, but for many years I thought I had absolutely no chance of getting into it.”
It’s 8PM and I’m in Green Hours, a submarine-shaped jazz club under one of Bucharest’s main boulevards. Elena Rotaru, the Besarabian puppeteer from this morning, spots me and invites me to join her by the stage. We sit down and wait for Alina’s One Woman Show (which is called “I solemnly declare” ) to begin.
It’s a remarkable performance. What impressed Elena the most is that her main prop, an overhead projector, didn’t work but still she managed to carry on regardless. I was blown away by the script, which is a case study of conciseness, and the fact that she’s been able to come to terms with her turbulent past in such a straightforward and amusing way. The whole performance only lasts an hour. The minimalistic percussion music, played out on various kids toys (an abacus, a ruler, a toy piano) is incredible, thanks to Catalin Rulea of the Toulouse Lautrec band. The club is packed and the audience seems impressed; the applause is wild.
Every “one man/woman” play I’ve ever seen is by someone in middle age. The theatre critic might ask how someone so young dares to perform her life story in this fashion. But a lot has happened to Alina Serban over her 23 years of existence. The performance is funny but the story is one of poverty and tragedy. Her father died when she was a teenager and her mother was sent to prison in what sounds like a miscarriage of justice. Alina ended up in a children’s home in Bucharest, a fate that many would assume was the ultimate tragedy but Alina used it to her advantage: she was able to claim full state sponsorship for attending university and she points out the irony of the fact that she was living in the children’s home when she went to study drama in New York City. All of this is told in a concise, witty, unsentimental and genuine way. There is no pathos. It’s brilliant. She’s brilliant.
After the show the Roma NGO people and her theatre group (Tanga Project) hang around for Alina to come out. She told me earlier that she had set up meetings with both groups, “and then I might have a date. Love is important for me.” They all want to talk to her. So do I, but I don’t have the energy to keep up. I’m going home.
Rupert Wolfe Murray is a freelance editor working in Bucharest and Scotland. He can be followed on Twitter @wolfemurray