Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Edith Alibec: Why The Child Is Cooking In The Polenta

By | Published on Friday 26 April 2019

Heading to the Gate Theatre this week is an already acclaimed production that’s been staged in three different languages across Europe. ‘Why the Child is Cooking in the Polenta’ is based on an autobiographical book of the same name by late author Aglaja Veteranyi, and tells of a nomadic life on the road with a family of circus artists.

It’s a one woman show, adapted by and starring Edith Alibec. I spoke to her, to find out more about this intriguing piece of work.

CM: Can you start by telling us a bit about the narrative of the show…? What’s the premise and whose story does it tell?
EA: It tells the story of Aglaja Veteranyi. She was only 6 years old when she fled Romania together with her family of circus artists and grew up on the road, among circus tents and caravans. Thus, she didn’t follow any formal education, she didn’t go to school and grew up isolated. The show is based on the autobiographical book written by her, following her story from when she was 6 to 16 years old and how her life was growing up on the road and not knowing what home is.

Her parents were circus artists, her mother hung by her hair, her father was a clown that also made home movies with fake blood and rubber snakes – so that doesn’t make for a very “normal” upbringing by Western standards. The whole family dreamt of making it big in the West and becoming rich – “one day we’ll have a luxurious big house”, “my father is as famous as the president of America.” It’s no wonder that her dream is to be as famous as Sophia Loren. That’s why, when she is put into boarding school at 9 years old for almost a year, she is confronted with the strictness that the school imposes. She has to learn that “all people are the same” and her wish to be famous is not a just one. 

CM: What themes does the play explore? 
EA: The play explores how it feels to not know what home is and how it is to feel foreign and never feel accepted . The story is told for perspective of the youngest daughter and how she feels growing up on the road and never in school . It also explores how people flee their home for a better life in another country, but that the outcome can prove to be disappointing.

CM: Can you tell us a bit more about Aglaja Veteranyi, and her book?
EA: As I described earlier, her childhood was isolated, and she wasn’t able to access formal education. She started to learn how to read and write at only 16 years old in Switzerland, learning German and not her mother tongue of Romanian. For her, this learning process was also a way to break free from her family: she didn’t want to become a circus artist, she wanted to write and read in order to have a different kind of life than what her parents envisioned for her. She didn’t want to hang by her hair like her mother, she wanted to be an actress.

Later on, she discovered that she wanted to write too. It’s kind of amazing how, in this context, her first published book, ‘Why The Child is Cooking in the Polenta’ received great reviews in the German speaking countries and she was truly acclaimed as a writer. It’s autobiographical, but it also incorporated a lot of her imagination. Like Aglaja said in an interview – “my imagination is also part of my biography”.

It’s written in short sentences, but it is really powerful. There is a lot of the child’s angst and emotion contained in only one sentence – “Does God speak foreign languages?” She did become an actor and also taught acting in Zurich, but in 2000 she started to suffer from depression and unfortunately, killed herself in 2002, by drowning herself in Lake Zurich.

CM: Is it a faithful adaptation of the source material, or is it just influenced by it? 
EA: It is a faithful adaptation, only it’s shorter. The book, of course, contains more information, but we’ve included in the play what really drew us and carried the story accordingly until the end.

CM: How did you go about adapting it? What was the process like? 
EA: My director Dana Paraschiv and I sat for two weeks at a desk and discussed, selected and tested the script as to what should be included, still discovering the text in the process. Luckily, we were on the same page most of the time and this helped for the staging arrangements too.

CM: What made you want to create a piece focusing on this subject? What inspired you to tackle these themes?
EA: I lived in Germany for 3 years and in the first few months I had a strong sense that I did not feel at home there. I could not find my place and I started to idealise a ‘home’. Romania, my home country, became more like a utopia.

At some point this feeling of not belonging started to stimulate me creatively. At the same time, the refugee crisis in Germany grew and I wondered how it must feel for them. Luckily, it was a choice for me to live in a foreign country but it occurred to me that they’re being forced to flee their home and live in a foreign country.

This sparked the idea of doing a show based on this novel. I had read the book before moving to Germany, but it was while I was living in a foreign country that the impulse to adapt the book became so strong. The words and feelings within the book resonated strongly with me.
From the beginning, my dream was to stage it in 3 languages and I wanted it to be performed it in as many cities and countries as possible. Let it be a nomadic show, just like it depicts a nomadic family. But it just seemed like a dream, not necessarily something that would actually happen. Indeed, I clung onto the idea, and although it seemed unlikely to succeed, I was determined to try.

CM: When you created the adaptation, were you always planning to perform it yourself?
EA: Yes. That’s why I wanted to make it. It was the artist’s impulse. And then I had to become the producer to make it happen.

CM: The show has already achieved much acclaim, and performed in a number of locations. What further plans do you have for it? 
EA: To play it in more locations around London and tour the UK.

CM: What other plans do you have for the future? Any other works in the pipeline…?
EA: Yes. Two theatre projects are in development. One is going to premiere in September in Bucharest, with me playing the lead, and two feature films that are going to come out next year where I have secondary roles. I would also like to do more work on an international level.

‘Why the Child is Cooking in the Polenta’ is on at the Gate Theatre from 1-4 May. See this page here for more information and to book tickets.