Behind the scenes

By an interesting coincidence, "A Transylvanian in Silicon Valley" premiered in 2004 in San Francisco on May 1st, Worker's Day , a holiday that in my native Romania was meant to celebrate communist ideals but, instead, thorough grandiose public events where children and workers were forced to perform marches, flags juggling, and slogan chanting, this holiday actually celebrated oppression, coercion, and the overall upside down society typical of a dictatorship.

Once in America and once I learned English well enough to tell these stories, I bored dozen of my friends with incredible tales of hardship, daily humiliation, and a social organization so absurd that many outright asked me why I hate my country. In reality, I love my country, with all its flaws, just like most people love their family despite sometimes wishing fate had dealt them a better hand. I was even trying to be non-judgmental and stick to the facts, but that made the stories even harder to swallow.

My party entertainer popularity took a turn for the better, however, when I started telling my friends the adventurous stories of escaping from Romania and my humble start in the streets of Vienna where I arrived with the shirt on my back. I figured out that people could relate to the deprivation of refugee life easier than to the absurdity of "normal" life in a communist dictatorship. When I was talking about Romania friends would tell me it can’t be that bad, it is not that bad! Why am I exaggerating? Nobody is that stupid!

Seeing that my friends would rather hear about my life in Austria, and that actually they seemed quite interested in my path from scouring though trashcans for empty bottles to a programming job with the largest independent software manufacturer in the country, I went on and told them my stories of coming to America in early nineties.

It was less in my sphere of interest , I was constantly preoccupied with the situation in Romania, even though a so-called revolution had somewhat democratized the society , but to capture people’s attention, and possibly sneak in a Romanian aspect, I entertained my friends with goofy stories of cultural misunderstandings and humorous tenacity.

I got good at it. So good that when I went to a management class in 2003 and integrated in a class speech my story about learning English, my colleagues clapped their hands, stomped their feet, yelled, whistled, joined in my chorus, and spontaneously turned to a standing ovation when I was done. Now that wouldn’t be a big deal in a theatre, but this was a management class in a technology company.

Friends have encouraged me to write my stories before, but after the amazingly strong reaction in that management class, I started to take my writing seriously. However, my management job with a large technology company in Silicon Valley made it hard to do good progress and I could not concentrate to write to the quality standards of my liking.

It was a second management class that gave me the idea to create a theater show instead. Some of my former colleagues insisted that I told my new colleagues the stories they had heard in the first class, and people pointed out that they found the style as valuable as the content. They mentioned stand-up comedy so I went to a few shows to study it. I even took out my watch and timed the punch lines: about one every twenty seconds, not quite appropriate for what I was doing. And I wanted to also talk about the background of the problem, why I left Romania, and what I left behind.

And then, I watched a few solo shows. I watched Spalding Grey, Henry Fonda (in Clarence Darrow), Henry Rollins, as well as solo shows in local San Francisco theatres. I did not see anything that I thought I couldn’t do, and while realizing that I knew little about theatre, I decided to give it a shot. But where would I start?

A friend introduced me to a friend of his who had just produced his own theater show. Under the pretext of learning about staging, I set a meeting to convince him to produce my show. In an elegant fashion he convinced me to produce the show myself and helped me draw a preliminary roadmap. Three months later, the show premiered.

It was a hectic three months: I had to write the script, find a theater, a director, draw budgets, but most important, learn how to do each of these steps , I had never done any of these things before. But, just like the tales in my script, I learned as I went, often half-prepared, improvising, but most of the time landing on my feet.

I must say that with all this flying-by-the-seats-of-the-pants approach, the enthusiastic response from audience and critics alike came quite surprisingly. Oh, sure I wanted my show to be a success, but quite frankly, the results went way beyond my expectations.

I did get help: Kenny Vandenberg, who directed my play, helped me tone down some of the more esoteric aspects of life under the dictatorship, and Bruce Pachtman, my publicist, kept reminding me that I have to raise the bar to do justice to my stories. I also remembered my previous failures to keep the audience’s attention when talking about what they perceived as an impossible society, and tried to balance it all in a credible, palatable, entertaining, yet non-compromising storyline. I am now taking the show to New York, one of the most demanding theater cities , we’ll see if I succeeded.

Silvian Centiu, August 2004