Intersectional Rituals: Mihaela Drăgan

Mihaela Drăgan is an actress and playwright based in Bucharest, Romania. Her performances focus on the connection between theater, Roma identity and social justice. In 2014, she co-founded the Roma feminist theater company Giuvlipen. The following is an excerpt from a conversation between Drăgan and architect Oana Stănescu, who also wrote the introduction. Photography is courtesy of Drăgan and Stănescu.

Mihaela Drăgan is one of those rare people that you have to meet in person in order to fully grasp. And even then, you would leave with only a glimpse of her multitudes.

An actor at heart, she insists on performance not being something fake, but just another reality, another part of yourself, just as true as any other. Unapologetically true to her being(s), to her senses, her presence is striking. Unafraid in her vulnerability, she is alive in ways in which few of us are. Unsettling with her affect, she will nevertheless leave you walking with more certainty in your steps.

Drăgan, 34, was raised in a Roma community in Romania, surrounded by colorful maternal ecologies, with a musician grandfather whom as a kid she would follow around to the weddings and funerals he was performing at. Approximately 8.32 percent of the Romanian population is Roma, and growing up it had always been “the Roma, and the Romanians,” a distinction that became brutally clear when she realized at a very young age that the priest, whom she thought to be God, was Romanian. “I realized God will never be gypsy and that sucked.” Identity becomes clearer when it is reflected back at you. Roma people — an umbrella term for diverse groups — are said to have migrated to the Balkans around the early 12th century, from northwestern India. Today an estimated 10 to 12 million Roma are living in Europe, facing unhinged discrimination and social exclusion, a subject rarely acknowledged, let alone tackled.

Drăgan is now the co-founder of Giuvlipen, a Roma feminist theater company based in Bucharest, and below is a fraction of a conversation — ranging from transitioning baptism rituals and colorful childhood memories to witches and performance habits — that went on for hours and I would hope will continue for a very long time.

“I realized God will never be gypsy and that sucked.”

1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9 or 10 Tables. © OS Studio.

Oana Stănescu (OS): What is your first childhood memory related to color? I’m curious about color, in general, as part of childhood and how you grew up.

Mihaela Drăgan (MD): I grew up with my grandparents and my sisters, and yes, there was a lot of color. I remember that during Easter time, we had a custom, where we would get all dolled up. This meant that on Easter Day we had to wear new clothes. I always looked forward to this because either we would go to the flea market and buy things, or my uncle would go to Poland and bring things that he would resell at his consignment shop. Every time, for Easter, he would buy us some dresses.

They always used to buy me red things because they said I was a brunette with olive skin so red suited me best. [laughs] I remember a gorgeous red dress with ruffles that he had brought me. The same dress pattern for my sisters, only theirs were lighter in color than mine — white and blue. I remember that gorgeous dress. I loved it so much. I also had red sandals and a hat. I was so very proud.

“The performance is not something false, but it’s just another reality, another part of you.”

Romacene: The Age of the Witch. Photography by Volker Vornehm.

OS: Did the color red stay with you throughout time?

MD: Red is somehow very much associated with us, the Roma people. It has stayed with me for a long time. It’s a color that I always chose to wear. It seemed to me that it was a vibrant color, full of life and it always conveyed something ‘wow’ to me.

Are there any colors that make you feel better when you wear them?

OS: I remember that during the convalescence period after a surgery I had years ago, or also last year in lockdown — in the moments when I am so closed off and removed from the world — there are two things that I miss very much. One is color and the second is textures, and they usually go hand in hand. I don’t necessarily have rational attitudes towards colors, they’re purely intuitive.

MD: Do you have a color that you prefer to avoid? I have this thing with the color black [laughs].

OS: As an architect, we wear mainly black clothes to my mom’s despair who always says I’m dressed like for a funeral. I don’t have anything I avoid. Many people associate color with music; what memories do you have related to music?

MD: I come from a family of musicians, where everyone performs, thus music was ever present in our house. I remember my grandpa playing the accordion with the band in the village. Music was part of our lives, at weddings, funerals, christenings. As children, we would follow him everywhere he went throughout the village. I used to have a record player and I would always play music on it — Gabi Luncă, Romica Puceanu, all these other folk musicians.

“Ritual is related to the idea of healing. I think that’s also why I became interested in witchcraft.”

OS: The fact that you grew up exposed to music and the rituals that come with performing music, as a folk music performer, do you think they played a role in the fact that you ended up in theater?

MD: Definitely. Every time my grandpa had a performance, he would transform into a different person. It was as if his face and everything changed.

I was fascinated by the idea that he becomes like a character when he performs. This influenced me a lot. So much so that I have wanted to be an actress since I was a little girl in a remote village in Buzau. Though I had never seen a play or something like that in my life, I wanted to be an actress.

At every festivity, I was the one in the class who had to recite poems, or to do whatever performance. I used to do all sorts of other things too, like sometimes interrupting classes because I would surprise my teacher with a play I had prepared. I would convince everyone in the class to participate in my performance.

OS: What you saw in your grandfather, did it happen to you too when you performed? Did you somehow become someone else? Was it a natural thing for you once you started playing a role?

MD: It came very naturally to me as a child. I never felt that I was making an effort. Later, when I grew up and the self-consciousness intervened, it was much harder for me, and I didn’t feel well for a long time. When I was an acting student in college, I didn’t feel confident, and I didn’t feel good in my skin anymore. It took me a few years to reach that confidence and that joy of being onstage.

“Romacene: The Age of the Witch.” Photography by Volker Vornehm.

OS: I want to go back to the idea of rituals and performance, that you don’t know when it’s performative or not, the boundary between performance and not performance is being blurred. I find it very interesting.

MD: It’s still something I think about a lot. For example, I do not like, in theater, to transpose my own experiences because it seems to me that a character is protecting me somehow. I once gave a TED talk. I found that more difficult to do than a character from a play, as that was the real me and I was giving the audience access to the most intimate parts of me. I don’t think I was ready to offer that gift to the audience.

MD: I felt much more comfortable performing other roles that weren’t necessarily related to me. When I co-founded Giuvlipen [Roma feminist theater company] and we defined ourselves from the beginning as a Roma company made up of Roma actresses, I started writing and talking about myself, about my identity, but never from my own experiences.

At one point, I realized there is great power in going onstage and telling your story with all the vulnerability, and to be honest with what you lived. In this vulnerability I found strength: “This is my experience, take it, do whatever you want with it.”

Now, after two years, I am not the same person anymore, I’m not the person I was when I wrote that text that I performed. That’s why I’m scared sometimes to go back to the theater. I feel that the pandemic has changed me, transformed me, and that I don’t necessarily find myself in those things anymore. Sometimes I think about the first roles I did, and I don’t identify with them at all. Because now, five years later, my speech is different, my whole universe is different while the performance remains there no matter what. The performance is not something false, but it’s just another reality, another part of you.

“As a Roma woman who often feels powerless in the face of oppression, I feel that the supernatural gives me strength.”

OS: Because I haven’t grown up with particularly strong rituals, I have been discovering their power rather late but with complete fascination. I think this happened out of a need to honor or capture a moment, to hold people in ways in which the everyday doesn’t allow you to, to pause and take stock. And so I love learning how people are finding ways to ritualize life. You told me about Julio Elvisey’s gender transition baptism, which you are planning to celebrate with rituals done by witches — a powerful and beautiful way to honor this moment, to celebrate a passage. What do rituals mean to you?

MD: For me, in these past few years of working with this concept of Roma Futurism, healing was an important aspect. And ritual was related to the idea of healing. I think that’s also why I became interested in witchcraft.

I went to Hong Kong for a residency, and from a certain point of view, they were like us — skyscraper buildings and people working just as much, or even more, accommodation being very expensive. But I liked it because of this modern and avant-garde perspective that exists alongside the idea of ritual and temples. Temples were everywhere.

There was an area in the city where all big corporations had their offices in these crazy, cool buildings, and next to those, there were witches who had small altars. People went to them to put a curse on their enemies. I was fascinated by this mix of futurism, ritual and something that seems irrational.

When I found this ritual of cursing enemies, I thought it to be super liberating, especially since they were not ashamed about doing it. They just stopped in the middle of the street and cursed their enemies! When we don’t like someone, it’s not nice to say that publicly, it’s not nice to think that you want to put a curse on him. But sometimes from my position as a Roma woman who often feels powerless in the face of oppression, I feel that the supernatural gives me strength.

Another thing that helps me is writing. I often feel the healing that comes with it, because I feel the words offer me strength and are kind of my superpower. I know that my words can be powerful. As a teenager, I knew exactly what words to use to hurt someone, and everyone knew that when I was upset or someone annoyed me, I would hit them where it would do the most damage. I think that also comes from my zodiac sign — I am a Scorpio. I once wrote an essay about how I use words as a magic wand because I know I can transform people with them, and that is exactly what I do in theater, as I know exactly what words to choose as enchantments in order to get where I want to. That gives me a power I don’t have in my day-to-day life.

“In theater, I know exactly what words to choose as enchantments in order to get where I want to.”

Mihaela Drăgan at the “Roma Futurism: The Age of the Witch” conference at CINETIc in Bucharest.

OS: When you write, are you writing for an audience or are you writing for yourself?

MD: I always have in mind that I want to reach someone else, I don’t know if it’s a whole audience but maybe another person. I don’t think I ever write just for myself. If I have something to say, I prefer to verbalize it rather than write it, but when I write, I always think that it must reach someone else. I’ve never caught the bug of keeping a diary, have you?

OS: The first thing I remember writing was when I was maybe 9 or 10 years old. There were three girls named Oana in the building where we lived. One of them was the boss and, at one point, I remember sitting on the balcony on the fourth floor and writing her a letter saying: “Friendship with you is like being surrounded by four walls.”

MD: Wow [laughs].

OS: I find it hilarious because it’s the essence of me to this day. Somehow, the thing that I can’t stand, even at present, is that idea of being closed off, but damn, that threshold must have been so low...

MD: The first thing I remember writing was a composition about the time I lost my goat. My first pet was a baby goat, and I suffered a lot when it died. I felt that I would heal if I wrote about it, and that I would keep it in my memory. I have not had a pet since.

Oana Stănescu is a Romanian architect, working independently for over a decade, with projects in North America, Europe and Asia. Current projects include a home in Canada, a bridge in Romania and an installation for Coachella. She is based in New York and Berlin, and teaches at Harvard GSD and MIT.

This is an excerpt from Issue 01 of TOUT, a print magazine by Dims. launching Spring 2022. Sign up to be notified when it’s available for preorder.