MORE PERSONALITY THAN DRACULA
Romanian Oracle manager pens comic Transylvanian play
San Mateo Times
Monday, May 3, 2004
From penniless refugee to software exec to one-man show
By Elizabeth Jardina, Staff Writer
SILVIAN Centiu had an atypical goal in his late teen years and early adulthood: to assasinate the dictator of his homeland.
But after fleeing Cold War-era Romania, he lived as a refugee under a bridge in Vienna. Later he came to the United States, where he couldn’t even get a job delivering pizza.
With perseverance, he ended up with a computer programming job, and is now a manager at Oracle.
His latest role may be his strangest. He’s a one-man comic theater troupe.
Centiu stars in a one-person play he wrote and produced himself, “A Transylvanian in Silicon Valley,” running at San Francisco’s Actors Theatre through June 19.
Charming and gregarious, with a mane of reddish-brown curls, Centiu, 39, has an accent that makes him sound like Bela Lugosi in the 1931 film version of “Dracula.”
The San Carlos resident is surprisingly funny, especially for someone who has lived several lifetimes’ worth of heartache and danger.
As a young man, Centiu lived in Romania under dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. While he was never part of any organization, Centiu and his friends planned to kill Ceausescu to end the terrors wrought by the government.
Although he tells the story in his play with a heavy dose of black comedy, the dangers in Romania to Centiu and his compatriots were real.
“Some of our friends got caught,” he says. “Some of them disappeared. Some of them ‘jumped’ from tall buildings.”
The assassination plot came to a crux when a key member of his band of friends disappeared. Centiu and the survivors fled to the mountains.
At that point, he knew he had to get out of the country.
“I didn’t want to leave Romania,” he says. “I was very patriotic.”
While he does not condone his behavior as a young adult, he points out that he was living in terrible circumstances.
“It’s hard to put yourself in those shoes,” he says. “It was a really, really desperate situation. There was no end in sight. It lasted for generations — generations waited for something to happen, for Americans to come out of the sky. And it never happened.”
Even information was hard to come by in a pre-Internet society where the newspapers did nothing but provide nonsensical state propaganda.
“People didn’t have heat or light in their homes,” Centiu says. “At the same time, in the papers, the propaganda was talking about Ceaucescu’s ‘Year of Light.’”
Still, Romanians eased day-to-day burdens with humor.
“They cut TV to two hours a day and electricity to two hours a day, but they were never the same two hours,” he says wryly.
Centiu realizes that his life story doesn’t at first seem like a wealth of comic material.
“There are very few plays about communism and dictators, and people avoid them because they’re dreadful,” he says.
Even in the midst of the worst times in Romania, people would still crack jokes. “I think it’s a digestible way to hear about the hardships,” Centiu says.
With two friends, he crossed the border into Serbia, then went through Bosnia, Croatia and Slovenia. Eventually, he and his friends ended up in Vienna. They had no money and didn’t speak the language.
But Centiu, who had been trained as a hardware engineer in Romania, got a job at Austria’s largest software company and managed to scrape by with new language skills.
“If you can learn German, you can learn anything,” he quips.
After the Ceausescu dictatorship was overthrown in December 1989, Centiu quit his job to join the efforts to help his home country.
While directing a convoy of trucks toward his hometown of Brasov, Transylvania, he advised the driver to only travel at night, because intermittent fighting continued in the countryside.
Then the driver inquired what was in the truck.
Centiu explained that it carried blood for transfusions.
“You’re telling me I’m driving a truck full of blood into Transylvania and only by night?” Centiu recalls the driver saying.
Although he was an educated adult, Centiu had no idea that in the minds of many people, Transylvania and Dracula are inexorably linked.
“To Romanians, a Transylvanian just means a person from a place — like a San Josean or an Emeryvillean,” he says.
Centiu had never heard the Dracula story. “Romania was that isolated,” he says. “The shortage was not just of food. The shortage was of information.”
From Austria, he ended up as a refugee in the United States, sent to Twin Falls, Idaho.
“I thought America was New York and Los Angeles,” he says. “I was evaluating civilization by the height of the buildings, and Twin Falls, Idaho, had one two-story building.”
Culture shock wasn’t simply a matter of learning about the rural West while struggling with a new language. Even basic concepts — like free speech — were radically different from American and Romanian standpoints.
“In Idaho, I met this dude in the dorms,” Centiu says. The guy was ranting about the controversial rap group 2 Live Crew, whose racy lyrics and live show were causing a flap. Because he felt that the group was being unfairly censored, the man looked to Centiu for support.
“Would that happen in your country?” he asked.
Centiu replied, “Is the band still alive? Are their families well? Then it would never happen in my country.”
Centiu realized that Idaho was not a place for him to get a fresh start. He came to the Bay Area looking for a job and a college degree. He eventually went to the University of San Francisco and got a series of programming jobs, which led to his position at Oracle.
Having experienced more by age 30 than most people ever do, Centiu naturally had a lot of stories to tell.
The idea to turn those stories into a play came about at a most prosaic place.
“I went to a management class and we had to give a motivational speech about a corporate value of your choice,” he says.
Embodying the value of creativity, he told the story of learning to speak English by vowing to talk for five hours a day. He went to stores, he went to trade shows, but it was hard to maintain conversation for very long. Then he discovered the courthouse.
“People love talking about their problems,” he says. “They wait in the corridors and they have nothing to do, then sessions are late. If you ask somebody ‘What’s your problem?’ they bend your ear about it.”
The people in the class loved the story. He soon began to write about his escape from Romania, his time in Austria, moving to the United States.
From idea to incarnation, the play incubated for 31/2 months. In that time, Centiu wrote the script, hired a director, secured a space and, to learn about the craft of theater, saw about 30 or 40 plays in four months.
“It’s about thinking on your feet,” he says. “Act now, don’t wait. Even though you may not be prepared for all the details, it is better to act. It’s what got me from living under a bridge in Vienna to owning a million-dollar house in Silicon Valley. In order to be alive, you have to act.”
Elizabeth Jardina is a Bay Area Living staff writer.
E-mail her at email@example.com or call (650) 348-4327.
San Francisco Foghorn
May 6, 2004
Refugee, Assassin, USF Student, Star!
Rory Brown, Staff Writer
Silvian Centiu approaches life a little differently than your average Silicon Valley entrepreneur. And that makes sense considering he’s lived a lot differently than most Bay Area businessmen. Centiu – a director at Oracle Corporation (and USF alum) – narrates the events that led him from the thick of a Romanian revolution to the heart of the technology boom in his presentation of “A Transylvanian in Silicon Valley.”
Centiu’s adventures range from trekking across Europe as a refugee to learning how to speak English from used car salesmen, and he sets out to prove that these adventures are worth hearing. “Valley” (also written by Centiu,) isn’t just an interesting story, but a genuine, charming, and hilarious account of a life with more than its fair share of obstacles.
Slowly pacing back and forth, Centiu warms the audience to his nonchalant sense of humor and Romanian accent with several jokes describing the conditions of communist Romania. “The apartments were so cold, people on the first floor had to keep their windows shut to keep people walking by from catching cold.” Centiu said, chuckling to himself.
His jokes, like his middle-aged stature, gray curly hair, and black shirt and slacks are far from extraordinary. But that’s what makes Centiu so unique his performance so refreshing. He has faced economic, geographical, political, and lingual barriers – obstacles he did not immediately overcome – but he views both his defeats and eventual victories as simple happenings in his life. At the very least, each setback gives Centiu one more thing to joke about, and one more story to share with his audience.
In 1988, at age 24, Centiu was involved with an anti-communist group of “freedom fighters” who attempted to rally the Romanian people against dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. In a plot to assassinate Ceausescu, Centiu constructed the remote for the explosive intended to kill Romania’s leader at an airport. After the plot was uncovered, Centiu and his band were forced to flee to the mountains. What does Centiu have to say about the ordeal? He simply shrugs his shoulders, “Hey, it’s not everyday you get to kill a dictator,” he said.
Along with being an outlaw, Centiu joked about the following places life’s adventures took him. He recalled how he was shot at fleeing across the Romanian border, into the forest of Serbia. After a detailed account of the bullets whistling through his hair, he joked, “Funny how that works. Escaping Romania to go to Serbia.”
After finally making his way to Vienna, Austria, Centiu had escaped the clutches of the Iron Curtain, and wanted to travel to America. Remembering the disappointment and discouragement of hearing he needed a Visa to enter the country legally, Centiu threw his hands in the air and said, “What do you mean legally? Columbus didn’t have a visa either!”
Although he didn’t stumble over his script, and he engaged his audience through his voice and gesticulations, Centiu isn’t an actor. He’s been a militant, a refugee, a computer programmer, and a USF student, but he has never been (and maybe never will be) an actor. Regardless of the situation he’s been thrown into (or thrown himself into), Centiu has made the best of it by being himself. The stage is no exception.
Although the audience doesn’t actively participate in “Valley” Centiu’s storytelling invites the audience to feel the thoughts and feelings he has experienced throughout his life. His description of atrocious acts by Romanian soldiers toward defenseless women makes you squirm; his lesson in the similar phonetics of Romanian phrases and English profanity makes you imagine awkward moments in the workplace; his unwavering efforts to learn English from department store clerks and make you admire his ingenuity.
“Valley” is really more of a conversation than a performance. Centiu tells his stories with the excitement and passion of a camp counselor around a campfire, smiling at his audience’s reaction and subtly laughing at his own jokes. He continues to see the humor in his experiences, which keeps his accounts enthusiastic and fresh. In the reception following opening night, Centiu admitted he wished he had more time to perfect his performance. “I had three parts in this production,” he said. “I produced, I wrote the script, and I performed it. Let’s just say the first two parts took longer than expected.”
As long as “Valley” continues to be a journey led by a genuine Centiu, no practice is needed.
A Transylvanian in Silicon Valley
Es un fascinante relato de la vida real de Silvian Centiu, un inmigrante Rumano que nos cuenta sus experiencias, en un lapso de 70 minutos, desde su vida de estudiante universitaria en Bucarest hasta el momento presente como gerente de aplicaciones de la compañía Oracle.
Silvian no actúa, el desempeña su propio rol, su vida, en este rol, el es el mejor actor del mundo. ¿Cuan difícil seria interpretar nuestra propia vida? Tal vez para algunos seria casi imposible, ya que pasamos por este mundo pretendiendo ser alguien distinto, para Silvian, esto no es ningún problema, y gracias al aceptar su propio destino, el sigue delante de una manera osada hasta lograr su objetivo.
Con ayuda de un destino que le sonríe ampliamente, Silvian empieza su relato en su época estudiantil, cuando en compañía de algunos compañeros subversivos, planea el asesinato del entonces líder del país Niocolae Ceucescu. ¿Terrorista o liberador? En esa época la manera de ver las cosas era muy distinta, y claro esta los Estados Unidos eran enemigos del régimen comunista. Su plan, como todos ya los sabemos, no fue efectivo, algunos de sus compañeros fueron descubiertos (Ceucescu fue fusilado por fuerzas del nuevo poder en 1989) esto fomentó en él el deseo de aprender fuera de Rumania, lo necesario para ser un futro líder que lleve a su país a un nivel distinto. Tal vez esta sea la plataforma política que lleve a Silvian para alguna candidatura al liderazgo de Rumania en un futuro no muy lejano.
En Austria se negó a recibir ayuda del gobierno y prefirió la vía pública, y hurgar en los tachos de basura, a conformarse con un proceso de incorporación lento y burocrático. Para su buena fortuna, una diosa que lo ha protegido con celosa procuración, su visado a los Estados Unidos salio en un tiempo record. En los Estados Unidos se vio con nuevos retos, que gracias a su voluntad de arriesgarlo todo, ignorancia del sistema y a su falta de temor, logra llegar a sitios. Su mejor aliado era su inteligencia y creatividad, gracias a ambas y a la diosa fortuna empezó a trabajar con una compañía como programador. Su deseo de superación lo llevaron a continuar sus estudios superiores y hoy en día ocupa una posición envidiable con una gran empresa transnacional. Su lema es “actúa hoy mismo, no esperes a que te lleguen las cosas” (camarón que se duerme, se lo lleva la corriente). Sigamos su ejemplo y aplaudamos fuertemente a esta singular figura ejemplar.
Se presenta en el Actors Theatre of San Francisco, Stage 2, en el 533 Sutter Street @ Powell, del 1 de mayo – 19 de Junio . Para informes llame al 415-820-3929 o visite http://www.atransylvanian.com/
May 20, 2004
Silvian Centiu’s one-man show makes great theater
by James Martin
Storytelling. Why is it so difficult these days? Are there no real heroes left? It seems the art of weaving reality and the hero’s quest into a good story has been turned on its head by television studios, whose collective version of the cosmos is invariably populated by buff dingbats doing dirty deeds on other buff dingbats until only one is left standing to collect fame and fortune by default; natural selection as demolition derby–or perhaps a proper reflection of our political times.
Enter Silvian Centiu and his one man show, A Transylvanian in Silicon Valley, currently playing at the Actors Theatre of San Francisco downtown on Sutter Street. When the lights come up you find yourself looking at a dimly lit, spartan stage with Centiu in the middle of it. First he massages you with a smattering of Romanian black humor and then, suddenly you’re in a cornfield trying to duck bullets from Romanian border guards who’ve happened to notice you’ve left the country after Centiu’s plan to assassinate Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu gets all bollixed up.
Eventually you realize you’re immersed in a story so compelling you begin to believe this Transylvanian Centiu character could suck the very life blood out of reality TV all by himself if he wanted, at least until June 19th, when A Transylvanian in Silicon Valley is scheduled to end its run.
His epic journey takes Centiu from his native Romania through Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia and Slovenia, until he meets up with the bureaucratic labyrinth of Austrian refuge justice, where our hero fashions a new life out of the intense desire to learn and clever handling of difficult situations. Well, that and a little help from a careful reading of the Geneva Convention to a reticent desk clerk. (Who, these days, would have thought of that quaint anachronism to save his socks?)
Centiu, grabbing a one-time offer to come to the US, learns English by engaging used car salesmen and hapless defendants awaiting trial to talk to him at length and is eventually pushed toward the land of good, cheap, education. That would mean California. The old California. (Did we do the anachronism thing already?) But it’s the journey that counts, and this one is full of all the things you expect of a hero: a quest for knowledge, a sense of humor and fairness, and the craft involved in allowing the audience to see the world through the eyes of someone who’s gone through the worst of it and not only survived but prospered.
The crowd on a recent Friday night was small, but the reception of A Transylvanian in Silicon Valley was anything but muted. “Wow, that was really good,” was heard repeatedly amidst the enthousiastic applause.
See A Transylvanian in Silicon Valley. It’s a rollicking 70 minutes you won’t soon forget.
San Francisco Magazine
Jonathan Kiefer’s Cheat Sheet For the Culturally Inclined
Also caught Brian Copeland’s Not a Genuine Black Man, at the Marsh, and SILVIAN CENTIU’s A Transylvanian in Silicon Valley, at the Actors Theatre. Here’s a guy who lived through San Leandro’s crawl from racist pit to poster city for diversity, and another who made the trek from Eastern Bloc oppression to Oracle’s upper management. In a place that’s big on self-creation myths, it’s refreshing to recall what “self-made man” really means.
August 23, 2004
FringeNYC 2004 Reviews – Page 12
review also available on the nytheatre.com web site
by Josephine Cashman
Created and performed by Silvian Centiu, A Transylvanian in Silicon Valley is the true story of a man’s picaresque journey from life in Ceausescu’s Romania to happiness and success in San Francisco’s Silicon Valley. Directed by Kenneth Vandenberg and assisted by Simona Nan, Centiu tells a riveting and passionate tale about his stunning tenacity and determination to make a better life for himself.
Centiu bitingly describes life in Romania in the 1980s, where people use humor as a way of dealing with food shortages, rationed electricity, and the many other problems of living in a totalitarian state. As he grows, Centiu realizes that the fictional jokes have become true anecdotes. When his girlfriend is raped by a government official, and commits suicide after she is raped again for reporting her assault, for Centiu, “the joking ends.” He plots to assassinate Ceausescu with friends, and reluctantly flees after it becomes too dangerous to stay in Romania. He dodges bullets at the border, crosses Serbia, Bosnia, and Croatia, and makes his way to Vienna. There he survives on approximately 30 cents a day and applies for a visa to the United States. While waiting, he raises money to get supplies of food and medicine into Transylvania during Romania’s civil war. His witty tale about convincing a truck driver to drive into Transylvania at night (because the roads would be safer), carrying a truck full of canned blood, is hilarious.
For the rest of the show, Centiu wryly and wittily comments on his fish-out-of-water adventures as he adapts to life in the western world. His stories are funny and heartfelt as he deals with such issues as telephones, cars, resumes, and convincing computer companies to hire him. Once hired, he has a comical struggle to explain to his employers how some Romanian words may sound like American profanity, but are in fact just simple verbs. Most amusing are his stories about how he learned to speak English, which may be the highlight of the show.
The lighting is sometimes distracting and the story ends all too suddenly, but that is rectified by an informal Q and A where he is able to answer some of the dangling questions. A Transylvanian in Silicon Valley could, and should, be expanded.
Centiu’s lack of patience and fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants attitude has led him across the world to achieve the plan he devised in the mountains before he fled Romania: with education, experience, money, and allies, anything is possible. “The larger the ocean,” he tells the audience, “the more exciting the adventure.” His realization of the American Dream is both funny and inspirational. Frank Capra would be proud.
University of San Francisco Magazine
Escape From Transylvania
By Mira Schwirtz
Silvian Centiu ’93, a former revolutionary in his native Romania, may have failed in his one-time plan to assassinate former communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, but he succeeded at turning 23 years of living under one of the 20th century’s most ruthless tyrants into a stop-’em-dead, one-man stage performance.
As a child, Centiu was forced to work in the fields at the cost of his education after Ceausescu nearly starved the country to death under a haphazard plan to mechanize farm work, Centiu grew up seeing shops open for business but empty of many supplies. For questioning the communist regime, he was labeled a “troublemaker”. After his group’s assassination plot was uncovered, Centiu managed to make a harrowing escape into Serbia and then trek hundreds of miles into Austria. Ceausescu was eventually assassinated in 1989 and the country is now democratic.
Despite his dramatic experiences, Centiu said recreating for American audiences what it was like to live behind one of the darkest parts of the Iron Curtain required some artistic inspiration.
“When I came to the United States in 1991 and told people anything about Romania – for example, that certain shoe sizes were not available because the factory assigned to make them wasn’t producing them – people didn’t believe it”, said Centiu, who earned a bachelor’s in information systems management at USF’s College of Professional Studies and is now a software director at Oracle Corp. “They couldn’t relate to the deprivation and absurdity in Romania”.
It was a management class offered by Oracle that helped Centiu turn his experiences into a comedic monologue. His corporate audiences liked his Romanian jokes – “Jokes in Romania were a survival mechanism”, he said – and pretty soon he had a reputation as a good storyteller.
One story he includes in his 70-minute performance describes how butcher shops never stocked any meat. “Before communist, the sign on the meat store said ‘At Joe’s”. You went in, and found meat”, Centiu says. “In communism, where all private enterprise was banned, the sign on the store said ‘Meat’. You went in, and found only Joe”.
Centiu finally wrote up the first half of a monologue early this year and searched out theater venues before landing space at the Actor’s Theater in San Francisco. He sat down to write the second half four hours before he had to mail it to New York to be considered for the city’s annual Fringe Festival, the play was accepted and, after a successful five-week run in San Francisco, enjoyed seven performances in New York.
Centiu said he would like to keep producing and acting in plays based on his life. From organizing a truck-load of blood to be delivered from Austria to Transylvania (without the least idea of why his driver backed out – “Count Dracula” is a historical figure, not a vampire, in Romanian culture) to learning English by hanging out at used car lots, he has lots of material. His ambition, however, is to make his experiences count at a time when American values are embattled in some parts of the world. “I would like to present the perspective from another country of how good it is here”, he said.