From the Tei slums of Bucharest to the big stages of London. The incredible path of Alina Serban, Roma actress in London
interview by Andrei Craciun for Viitorul Romaniei
She graduated from UNATC (the National University of Theater and Cinema Arts). She had a scholarship in New York. She holds a Master’s degree from the The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA). She was named the best Romanian student in UK in 2012. She has written two theater plays. Both of them have been successfully staged in London. She has performed next to the most fashionable British actor of the moment, Benedict Cumberbatch. Alina Serban has left the Tei neighborhood to conquer the world. The struggle continues.
Alina Serban, twenty seven years old, actress. I first met her quite a few years ago in Green Hours [a jazz club and bar in Bucharest]. She was on the stage. She was performing her own play – “I Declare At My Own Risk”. I was in the audience — a journalist then as well. The play was about her, about her life in a poor area in Tei neighborhood, about her own family dramas, about what it means to be Roma in Romania. I wanted to interview her then. I can’t remember what happened and I didn’t. This was probably 2011.
Two years later, in perhaps february or march of 2013, I found out — I wonder how? — that she was performing “I Declare…” at her old high school. It is more of a technical school type of high school, located all the way in Damaroaia, the place that the poet Mircea Dinescu called “this Siberia of Bucharest”. After the show there was a debate about discrimination. I was convinced that this time I would get to interview this actress or at least to compliment her on her courage to be herself. Again, something came up and I didn’t get to talk to her.
Third try. 2015 has just started. Tomorrow is the Day of Saint John, and Alina will celebrate her name day, as her middle name is Ioana. It is her last day at home before returning to London. We meet in a booth in a pub in Piata Lahovari in the center of Bucharest. We’re in the booth so there’s no cigarette smoke. She can’t stand cigarette smoke.
She tells me about her new life — in 2011 she went to London for a Master’s and since then she hasn’t returned for good. She finished the Master’s at The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA). In 2012 she received a prize from our Embassy as the best Romanian student in the UK. She was supposed to go to Edinburgh, in Scotland, to pick it up, but she didn’t have the money (ninety pounds) because, you see, in the meantime Alina Serban had started working cash-in-hand in order to survive.
She finished UNATC, as well. She had a scholarship in New York once, as well. In fact, there, in the States, is where she started writing “I Declare at My Own Risk”. Then, in the UK, she appeared on the most important stages in London, she gave a speech at LIFT, a prestigious theater festival in the British capital, and she also spoke in front of two thousand people at Royal Albert Hall.
In november 2013, she was performing two plays written by her in London — the English version of “I Declare at My Own Risk” and “Home”. For “Home”, a production including five actors, she was director, actor and PR person. But it’s not that easy to make it as a Romanian artist in London. In the meantime, she continues to struggle for survival. Now she is working for a social service of the Tottenham Hotspur Football Club and is still trying to overcome all obstacles.
Alina Serban is on the right path. For the first time in her life, in London she had her own room
Andrei Craciun, journalist.
Alina Serban, actress. But I’ve seen you before, right?
Yes, I saw your show “I Declare…” twice, and one time it was when you played at your own high school. I came to write about you.
Yes, I remember. God, the discussions afterwards were so bad… Do you remember?
Yes, it was horrible.
That’s right, it was horrible. How everyone was trying to find excuses and I was trying to tell them that it’s not that school, that we were talking about something else. “I am a gypsy, and our teacher does not discriminate against me…”. And the teacher: “You see, you see?!”. What the fuck?!
This was about two years ago, more or less.
Yes, and I felt like it was chopping up my insides, the way they were talking there. The kids had no idea how to ask questions because the teachers didn’t let them. Horrible! Horrible!
What’s the deal with you, Alina Serban?
The deal with me? There are many deals with me. I am extra-nuanced!
Let’s look at you from all angles.
That’s what’s needed.
How old are you?
I am 27.
So you’re not exactly someone in the first bloom of youth… How is your life at 27 years old?
It’s just now starting to get beautiful.
And up to now?
It hasn’t been ugly, neccessarily, but the sun is only now finally rising on our street. My family’s and mine. I can think of many things that others find normal. For instance, to have my own room. What it means to have privacy, some decent things. I am just starting to understand them, not to have them, just to understand them. I don’t have my own house in London, but I have my own room.
Alina Serban lives in a former old people’s home
Has the road here been a long one for you?
So are you renting that room?
Yes, in “The Red House”. It has the name of a bordello, but it’s not a bordello, it’s a former old people’s home, that’s the thing.
Have you been living there long – in the “Red House”?
For about three years.
Where is it located? On which subway line?
The blue line. Dark blue. In Turnpike Lane.
How did you end up in London?
I decided to apply for a Master’s program to see if I’d get in. And I got in.
Did you do two years of Master’s or just one?
Only one. But in fact it was two years in one.
And what did you study?
Theater. Post-Stanislawski techniques. I learned how an actor can use their entire body — “physical theater”. There isn’t really a Romanian term for this — I couldn’t translate it.
And did you have a scholarship or something? How did you get enough money to study in London?
I had a thousand scholarships. My friend, I didn’t even have one pound on me when I first went to England!
I had a scholarship from the “Dinu Patriciu” foundation, among others, and there was a condition that I had to return to Romania, but in the end it wasn’t taken into account. Anyway, I wouldn’t have gotten that scholarship if I hadn’t been going to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. It was supposed to be, for sure, a top school, otherwise I wouldn’t have received anything. So I get there, but I only had money for one semester. And I was supposed to pay the equivalent of four semesters. And someone from the Foundation kept calling me: Miss, do you have all the money that you need? And I would say I did, because if I didn’t have it I was supposed to return what I’d already gotten — money that as I said was enough just for one semester.
Alina Serban meets someone who kept their word
And how did you manage to stay there, in the end?
At one point I did a show in Bucharest in front three hundred people. And some important people came, politicians and such. All of them promised that they would help me. I was like: “Sure, sure”. Among them was the French ambassador. And he promised he’d do something for me. He wrote a recommendation for a bank. At one point they called me from the bank and I was all scared and didn’t want to talk with strangers — “No, no, no, I don’t have enough credit on my phone…”, something like this. “Miss, we are such-and-such bank and we called you at the recommendation of the ambassador to inform you that we will give you the sum you need”. And I was like: “What?! What?! Wait a minute…”.
Not for free, I imagine. You have to return it, with a special interest rate, or what?
The amazing thing is that I don’t have to return it. It was just a sponsorship.
How much does a year cost?
10.000 pounds. That’s just tuition.
Without housing and such.
I can’t remember how much housing was.
You didn’t have to work to support yourself?
At that point it was complicated, I didn’t have a work permit, after that I felt fully what it means to be a Romanian in the UK, anyway… But since January 1st 2014, when Romanians got the right to work, it’s much better, it doesn’t even compare to before!
When was this?
2011-2012. I finished my courses in 2012.
And you haven’t come back to our country since then?
I always come back, I have a show here and there…
But to live here, no.
No. I stayed there.
Have you made a life for yourself in London? You have your own room…
I’ve weaved some small connections to some extent where I can find a feeling of closeness, you know? I love my neighborhood where I found a community center for children where I have always known I have a free rehearsal space. Anytime I felt the need to talk to someone, I could find someone there. I’ll give you an example: at one point, I needed to prepare a speech for two thousand people and I knew that most of them would be children, so I was scared…
What was the occasion?
I’ll tell you. Let me finish this: I was wondering where I could find some kids, from here, to talk to. And I went there, to the center, and I interviewed the kids, so that I wouldn’t be boring with my speech. And there’s another center in the neighborhood, where there are immigrants and thanks to the stories I heard there I wrote my second play.
Alina Serban writes a play about the word “HOME”
You have a play about immigrants?
About what the word “home” means. I took the word “home” and I thought about everything it means. Home in the sense of love, but also safety. I talked with a guy from Somalia who had to leave his country and he told me that in London he feels at home. He’s happy that nothing happens to him, if he rides the bus or walks on the street, he’s sure that nobody will shoot him. It’s his version of “home” in London. Maybe not mine. I also took the word “home” as a possibility to do what you like, inspired by another woman.
What did you name the play?
Just that. “Home”.
And what was the fate of “Home”?
Pretty wonderful. After I finished school, I was in pretty bad shape, because I didn’t have a work permit, I worked illegally. I had some experiences, I know what it means to be an immigrant in London. I washed dishes, I did everything immigrants do. And in that situation I was in, a professor I’d had at school sent me an e-mail in which she told me there is this competition — “Stories of London — and she was encouraging me to participate. At the same time I won an award from the Romanian Embassy in the UK.
The best Romanian student in the UK. I really wanted a Roma girl to win and that’s why I signed up. The news about the award came during a very sad period, when I didn’t have anything to eat. I was selling hotdogs. And I get a phone call: “Dear Alina Serban, congratulations, you have won…”. And I was like “… Thank you. Would you like chicken or beef?”.
What did this award look like?
It was kind of like this window, transparent. It says “Doamna Alina Serban” (“Mrs. Alina Serban”). “Doamna”, OK, if that’s what you want, no problem. Anyway, I’m glad, it’s a good thing I was chosen, since they always say that Roma people give us a bad name. And I wanted a Roma girl to win the award for best Romanian student in the UK, I really really wanted this.
Do you still have it?
Yes, I kept it, obviously. And with this award in my backpack I would go to a hospital to beg them, on my knees, to give me a job — to clean at the hospital…
You were in a very difficult situation. Why didn’t you choose the option of returning home to your country?
My mom kept telling me to come back. But home, for what? What was waiting for me? I didn’t have a home here, I didn’t have anything to return to.
Is there a difference between not having a home here and not having a home in London?
There’s a huge difference between me and the other people my age, because they could always say, in one way or another: mother, father, help me. I did not have this chance. I couldn’t ask anyone. And I kept thinking I have nothing to lose.
What’s your family’s situation here?
I prefer to talk more about me. Now, things are good. My mom is OK, I am very hapy that we can be together when I come home. The sun has risen on our streeet. She even has a dog.
What’s her name?
Do you still live in the Tei neighborhood?
No, come on. And as I was saying — I was walking around with that award in my backpack…
Alina Serban had a free day every two weeks and earned 3 pounds an hour
And you’d say — look, I am somebody…? Or what?
No, no, it was by accident that I had the award with me. As a paranthesis — the conference where the award ceremony was happening was in Edinburgh. They didn’t cover your travel expenses. I was working in a restaurant — which had the hotdog stand, a thing with fruit, and the restaurant itself. I was workin a lot and I only had a free day once every two weeks. This woman from Pakistan whom I was friends with kept encouraging me to go to Edinburgh. I kept telling her that I am not going to invest this money into going to Scotland to pick up the award.
The award didn’t have any financial component?
No. It was strictly symbolic.
How much was the trip?
Over ninety pounds.
How long would it take you to make 90 pounds?
I was working illegally and this means half the minimum wage per hour. The minimum wage is six pounds an hour. I got three pounds an hour.
Thirty hours of work.
And I didn’t want to go, I didn’t think it was right that the ambassador gets paid to go to Edinburgh but I don’t. And the day I was going to the hospital to ask for that cleaning lady job I got a call from this woman, who sounded desperate. “Please, Alina, if you can’t come do Edinburgh, at least let’s meet up so I can give you the award”. And we met in person in front of a McDonald’s. She put it in my arms and that was it. That’s why I had it with me.
You ended up not going to Scotland.
Of course I didn’t. How could I spend 90 pounds on such a thing? I can’t remember how I got to talking to the woman at the hospital about this — she was asking me what I’ve learned in England and so on, and I show her this award. She told me she couldn’t give me a job because I was Romanian and those were the rules. I had already been working nonstop for two weeks, I had even gotten some white hair, I was also very pale. And the lady put a 50 pound note in my hand, as I was leaving. She made me cry. She told me that she has a daughter herself, that she knows it’s hard, and that she can’t let me go without that money. And we started fighting… because I didn’t want to take it.
What did you do with the 50 pounds?
Who can remember now?
But you took it.
Yeah, you think she would have let me leave otherwise?
Alina Serban, the Queen of England and the Rasta Angel
“People don’t turn down money! It’s what separates us from the animals.” Jerry Seinfeld
(laughing) The idea is that I was leaving the hospital and, all pale like that, I suddenly see a guy who was standing next to a board — it was something about breast cancer. And the guy had dreadlocks. I tell him that I don’t have any money, but I’d like to volunteer for them. And I was like: “I don’t even think I can volunteer in this country, but anyway”. I talked to him for two hours, the guy suggested to work for them, I told him that I’d like to but I’m Romanian and… “No, no, no, we must have you on our team!”. And this guy was working for the social services offered by the Tottenham Hotspur football club. He shows me the logo of the club and he asks me: “Do you recognize this?”. “Ummm, no.” I had no idea about football. I still don’t. I called him my Rasta Angel. That’s how I ended up working for Tottenham Hotspur.
What’s the name of your Rasta Angel?
Robert from Mauritius.
Have you kept in touch?
Of course. The problem with this job is that, like in Romania, you work on projects. You work as long as you have funding. I worked in 2013 on an breast cancer awareness campaign, after which I had no job again. And after that, my Rasta angel talked to another organization and found work for me again…
And your play “Home”? What happened to it?
It was amazing. That day I was going to the hospital, right then, I started writing, with a snotty nose, a letter to the Queen.
And what were you writing to the Queen? You didn’t send it to her?
And how did it go? “Dear Queen…”
(in English) “Dear Queen I am glad you have the oportunity to meet me, you should because I am special. (…) Queeeeen, I want to pay your taxes! Why do you make that so hard to do? (…) I am dreaming of having… a national insurance number?” It was a heartfelt letter, coming from a lot of sadness. With this letter I won the “Stories of London” contest. And the prize was that I could put on “Home” in an extraordinary cultural space. All of a sudden, I, this mere girl who had just finished school there, had the chance to put on my play…
Was it just you performing in the play?
No. We were five actors.
Was it monologues?
No. I wanted to do a kind of puzzle with the stories and to also include absurd situations from London. A small combination of physical theater. I had a great time putting on this play. From a certain point on, I had to make all of the decisions as far as directing, the text, and to perform as well. I was thinking it would maybe be better not to perform. But this woman told me that without my energy inside of the show it’s not possible, that I have to be inside to pull on everyone. She was right, I think. We had a show where there was a line. I couldn’t believe it that my play was liked so much. The reaction of the audiences was very good — they were laughing really hard. And I got worried: “Wow! I have written a comedy!”. And I asked them to give me feedback, too, to write on a piece of paper what home means for them. And I have a pile of papers at home with what home means for my audience. By the way, what is “home” for you. In three words.
Four words: where you get fed. It’s a hard question. And for you? What did people tell you?
To eat sunflower seeds, to have wet feet and to play in the street, basic things like that. I wanted to see if the play worked. And it did, it was a success.
You didn’t perform it in Romania?
Why? Is it too London-specific?
No, because the play would work anywhere, since it’s about “home”. But it’s very hard for me to organize everything on my own.
What countries are the other actors from?
I needed a guy who looked as if he could be from Somalia, and I found a guy, raised in London, but I’m not sure what his roots are, and there’s another guy from Guinea-Bissau, a woman from Mexico and a guy from India.
Yes, because the idea is that’s exactly what we are there. I actually chose my actors after I wrote the text, thinking about who would fit.
And the audience was the same type of people? Immigrants?
All kinds of people.
And why did they come? Did you promote it or…?
I didn’t do a lot of promotion. Just — by word of mouth.
Did you make any money out of it, too?
No. Non-profit. I had to work to keep going.
When was the last time you performed it?
November 2013. It’s a good thing I let it sit for a while, because I’d like to go back to that text. For me, nothing is final. Anything in art can be improved. Especially this play. I know now that it would work, that it has potential, I want to start working on it again. Now I want to apply for a festival, RADA Graduates. RADA promises in the application form that they would help me with the production if I were to win.
Where would it be staged?
At the Royal Academy.
Would people see you there? Would it be a launching pad for you?
It is. Because that’s where I performed the English version of “I Declare…”, too.
And how was it?
It went really well. I didn’t expect it. There were many steps until I finally realized that it’s worth it. I was very nervous thinking that people wouldn’t want to listen to me for so long, in English, with my accent, and so on and so forth. And then I wasn’t sure if they’d be interested in this subject — me talking about the Tei neighborhood, in London.
They also have poor neighborhoods and peripheries.
I realized gradually that it’s worth it. Until I met with five directors and talked to them, I wasn’t sure it was worth it.
You were afraid.
I performed it at their Festival at RADA. And I was seen and invited to play in another show. And it was cool because in November 2013 I had two of my plays performed in London with a full house. I couldn’t believe it. It was really difficult. But it’s wonderful. For any artist.
You had the experience from Romania. You performed “I Declare…” quite a lot.
It’s not about performing. It’s that I’d started back at square one, I went to a different country, I didn’t know anybody, I had no context. It was a different world. I stopped comparing because I had no use for it.
What would be the main differences?
There, actors put on a play in three weeks of rehearsal. They perform it for two weeks, nonstop, and that’s it. While here there are shows that have been playing for eight years. I still have a lot of work to do to understand what the deal is with this business — to send emails, to introduce yourself, to have the energy to network… In the meantime, you also have to eat. That’s the problem.
Do all the artists there have second jobs?
It’s not really possible otherwise, only for those who are at the top. Maybe I will succeed too. Gradually. Right before coming to Romania for the holidays, I signed with an agent. And this means a lot to me. I hope it will be successful. I’ve been dreaming of doing this for two years and it’s happened. It’s been pretty difficult. You get tired often. For instance, the thing with the speech in front of two thousand people…
Alina Serban tells the truth to some very white and very rich people
For me, it was one of the greatest professional achievements. I was in a play directed by a guy from Brasil for the LIFT (London International Festival Theater) Festival, it’s pretty important. This play has won four stars — that’s what’s used there — four times. It was really good, appreciated by the critics, by The Guardian, everywhere.
What was it about?
It was a physical theater performance. The text is not so important anymore. The focus is on your body and the story you are telling with your body. It’s a history of homeless people and the passion for football. At one point, they asked me to present the play for the opening of the LIFT Festival. It was on the thirtieth floor of a really nice building in the center of London. And I asked who am I addressing? “The most important people in theater.” “OK”. That day, I left work, I worked in catering, I was wearing a uniform. I change and in half an hour I get from where I did the catering to this very fancy place. I took the mic: “Half an hour ago I didn’t look like this, I was wearing a uniform and I wanted to ask you whether you’d like to eat here or take it home…”. And I talked about the kind of theater I wanted to do — a theater that cares.
Since they gave me the mic, I told them what I think about the theater there. I told them that I have the impression that on the streets of London I see people of very many colors, with very many accents and… is it just me or I don’t see these people on the stage at the National Theater? Is it just me or mainstream theater really doesn’t represent everyone? And everybody was clapping, because I was saying true things. The Ambassador of Australia asked me if I didn’t want to become an ambassador and I told him that I am still struggling with theater. It was nice to see that you could talk in front of so many people and say what you think.
Was there any practical outcome?
The interesting thing — it was this version of “Oh, we liked it so much!”, they had champagne glasses and everything, but nothing changed, of course. It’s still impossible to get into certain groups. But someone who was there saw me and said that they wanted to ask me to do another speech. It was at the Royal Albert Hall, you know what this place means… It’s incredible — one of the most interesting halls in the world! And I found out that it was going to be in front of children between six and eighteen. One thousand and five hundred kids, plus five hundred adults, over two thousand people. And I was supposed to talk about the rights of street kids. It was an event to raise awareness for the rights of street children. These kids were gathering there to also beat a world record, something about samba, anyway.
And did you make the speech? When?
In march 2014, that’s how I ended up interviewing the kids on my street. They didn’t know, they were thinking more of kids in gangs, hooligans. I had to make it clear without it being boring.
How long was it supposed to last?
Four-five minutes. Enough time to make a fool of yourself.
And you didn’t make a fool of yourself?
No. It was good. I wore my t-shirt, the one that says on the front that I am Roma and on the back that, surprisingly, I don’t steal children. It was very interesting. At school, in London, I always had this complex of the person speaking with an accent, who doesn’t speak English perfectly… And I was very nervous. I was shaking all over.
In general, your schoolmates were rich English people?
I was in a group of middle-class to upper-class people and some were, what British people would call “working class”. But from a Roma- Romanian perspective they would be still considered middle class.
So they were English kids of rich parents. The difference was quite big.
Oh, some of them, yes. Sometimes I wanted to touch their faces to see if it’s real: my friend, why do you always have this smile on your face? everybody has a bad day… I got along with them fine, but I didn’t understand some of them very well.
Did they understand anything that’s happening in the world or…?
I would get upset when it came to theater, because when we would work together… Otherwise, you can do anything, believe anything, it’s not my problem. At one point we were working on a play about the Bosnian-Serbian conflict, and they would make me mad because some of them just wanted to be in the spotlight, they were not in the story… I think those moments when you don’t get along with people and you find out you’re different are good. That’s all in the past. Coming back to Royal Albert Hall, I realized at the reception of the event when that’s when white British upper class people were patting themselves on the back for creating a charitable event, they needed people like me me to speak because they wanted some legitimacy. I mean, they were all rich people… None of them could have spoken about the rights of street children. Not with the same impact.