Maddy Slabacu & Pied Piper
Canterbury’s People: Maddy Slabacu grew up in Communist Romania where she trained as a puppet theatre actor with the celebrated Tandacrica Theatre before fleeing Romania and settling in Australia with her sister and brother. Here she has continued her creative work and together with her sister established Horizon Theatre in Canterbury.
Life in Communist Romania
Maddy Slabacu grew up in communist Romania in the 1950s. She lived with her parents and her brother Alex and sister Antoinette in Bucharest.
Her mother’s family had come from Moldavia where her grandfather was a respected intellectual. After World War II he was detained by the Communist government and sent to a labour camp on the Danube Canal. He died there before Maddy had the chance to meet him. Her paternal grandparents came to settle in Romania from Greece in the early years of the twentieth century.
The family lived in a double-storey house that had been built by Maddy’s father. When the Communist government came to power after World War II, another family was accommodated in the ground floor rooms of the house.
Maddy’s father was a businessman trading in various goods. Being a businessman in communist Romania was an occupation that was not well regarded by the government and the family lived under close official scrutiny.
“As a child I did not really understand the politics of living in Romania but I did recall one incident when there was a knock on the door and my mother told us all to be quiet – she did not answer the door. Later we found out from the neighbours that the police had come to check up on us. Everyone who was not fully supportive of the Communist government was under suspicion.”
Maddy’s high school years in the early 1970s coincided with the alternative lifestyle era. Hippy fashions, mini skirts, boys with long hair were all the rage for teenagers and Maddy was no exception. She spent her free time listening to Jimmy Hendrix and going to parties with friends. Such expressions of rebellion were alarming to the communist State, which considered them as hallmarks of imperialism.
Love for Theatre
During her childhood Maddy developed a love of the theatre and other artforms. This interest was encouraged by her mother who had worked in the field of cultural arts as one of the first radio broadcasters in Romania.
Maddy, Antoinette and Alex were all taught French and piano by a private tutor. She found these lessons moderately interesting, but her real excitement came when the two girls and their mother went to visit the ballet or the theatre which they did regularly.
“We saw Peer Gynt, Chekov plays, the plays of American and English writers. It was a very cultural life. We read everything we could and would have discussions with my mum.”
After graduation from high school it was only natural that Maddy followed this well-cultivated passion for theatre. She auditioned for a place in a new course at the University of Bucharest in puppetry and theatre where her sister Antoinette was already studying to become a drama and film critic. The course was run in conjunction with the famous Tandacrica Theatre, renowned for its work in keeping the long and well-regarded tradition of Romanian puppet theatre alive and fresh.
Only 27 people were chosen to train in this new course and Maddy was one of them. The three years she spent studying were exciting and stimulating. Aside from their course work the students developed a strong awareness of social and political issues and were keen to use their education and skills to work towards social change in their country. The use of theatre as a medium for social comment or criticism was a challenge in communist Romania as it had to be approved by the censor.
“Our graduation play ‘Electric Passion’ was political but it was very subtle – it had to be at the time. It got past the censors because it was not directly political.”
Maddy continued to work for the Tandacrica Theatre until she left Romania for Australia. These years were marked by a gradual clampdown in communist Romania and Maddy and her sister were themselves regarded with suspicion by the security police. On one occasion their director was urged to dismiss them from the theatre company because of their suspected opposition to communism. The sisters were also considered potential defectors so they were unable to tour outside Romania with the company.
In 1980, Maddy and Antoinette decided they no longer wanted to live in Romania. Their beloved mother had died and their brother, Alex had defected which was one reason the sisters had attracted persistent attention from the State authorities. They applied for permission to migrate to Australia where Alex had settled. Four years later they were given passports and left Romania.
In the four years between applying for migration and leaving Romania, Maddy and her sister felt their lives were suspended – they just waited. They were considered traitors and outcasts by the government for simply wanting to leave. They could not discuss their plans to migrate for fear of jeopardising the lives of their friends and so left without saying goodbye to most people they knew.
Early in 1984, Antoinette had left Romania to join her brother so Maddy departed the country alone. She packed her more than 20 years of life in Romania into one suitcase and despite her protests was taken to the airport by her closest friends. Her fear of being detained did not leave her until the plane was airborne and even then it lingered.
Life in Australia
Arriving in Sydney, Australia seemed alien and strange to Maddy for the first six months. The harsh strong light, the high blue skies, the casual approach to life were the antithesis of living in Romania where one would never leave the house, even just to get milk, in thongs and tracksuit.
She felt physically ill as a result of the stress and travel and at first took refuge in the home her brother had established in Kingsgrove.
As she settled into her new life Maddy began to investigate opportunities for work in theatre. Her first encounter with puppet theatre in Australia was when Maddy went to see a performance of “Aussie Rules” at the Marionette Theatre of Australia. At that time puppet theatre was a small offshoot of the broader theatre industry. She was shocked at the small audience sizes and quite bemused by the dry irreverent humour in the show. The show was worlds apart from the puppet theatre of Europe.
After finding contract work on performances with Spare Parts Puppet Theatre in Western Australia, she returned to Sydney in 1986 to join Antoinette at the Marionette Theatre. The three years she spent there were amongst the most fulfilling she had experienced in Australia.
In 1989, with the general economic decline, this regular employment came to an end and Maddy and Antoinette set about the establishing themselves as freelance theatre workers. They moved from Kingsgrove to Condell Park and later to Campsie, finding project employment with Canterbury and Bankstown City Councils and other local community organisations. It was through this work that the sisters came to know and feel part of the local community.
Establishing Horizon Theatre
Around this time, faced with constant job seeking, Antoinette first began to consider establishing a puppet theatre company. This dream was born of Antoinette and Maddy’s conviction that theatre is an inspiring and essential experience that should be available to everyone:
“Going to the theatre where you are away from your everyday life, free from distractions, is such an important experience. Going to the theatre is like going into a dream and all the theatrical elements – sound, lights – are part of the dream. Through our theatre we are trying to discover a part of the soul where art, colour, music, beauty can take over.”
Antoinette envisioned that the company would welcome and train people from all cultural backgrounds in the skills and techniques of puppetry. The Canterbury area, with its diverse population, seemed an ideal place to locate such a theatre company.
The sisters lobbied for support for the venture from Bankstown and Canterbury City Councils.
Both Maddy and Antoinette painstakingly formed a network of interested local people to support the establishment of the theatre. Many of these local people have become company directors and have overseen the conversion of the Wiley Park amphitheatre into a studio with a small theatre space.
“It was a lot of hard work you know. We started that theatre from scratch with only $400, that was in 1997. Our first contract I remember was a Punch and Judy show for a church group in St Mary’s in Western Sydney. Everybody involved worked for free and with the money from that performance we could register the Company as a business. We have done so much since then …”
Over its five years of operation, the Horizon Theatre has trained and worked with many young local artists. The School of Puppetry and Visual Performing Arts Course held in 2001 involved 60 young people who attended an intensive training program over 30 weeks.
Maddy and Antoinette also run smaller courses keeping their fees as low as possible so that all interested young people can attend:
“We try to keep the fees for our courses to the minimum or at no fee, and we expect that the students will be involved in a performance in return. We welcome young people from youth centres in the area and we have students who have no families or stable homes … Now we are working on a program for the people on ‘Work for the Dole’ and we hope to give them a way to learn about their artistic selves …”
Students often take part in the Theatre’s regular performances such as at the multicultural Haldon Street Festival where Horizon provided both roving street performances and set pieces for the stage.
With the inspiration and commitment of Maddy and Antoinette, the Horizon Theatre Company has achieved a reputation as a quality training ground for young aspiring theatre and puppet actors and theatre workers. Horizon Theatre, based in Wiley Park Amphitheatre, is the only permanent puppet theatre with a commitment to access and training operating in Sydney.
Life in Canterbury
One of the main attractions of the Canterbury area for Maddy is the friendly and warm mix of people. When she first moved to Campsie, her Greek and Spanish neighbours made her welcome and now she delights in the friendship of her Vietnamese neighbours too.
There have been huge changes in the area since she came to live here, the most noticeable being those on Beamish Street:
“When I first came the World of Fruit was there – the fruit stalls spilled out onto the streets and you could hear Frank – the owner – calling out and selling his fruit. That sort of thing does not happen any more.”
The street seems to have less of a mix of shops – there are more beauticians and hairdressers than when she first moved to Campsie. Maddy is certain that this is a sign that Campsie is gentrifying. Despite this sort of change it is still a vibrant and exciting place to be and the best place to find good Korean cuisine.
In the late 1980s Maddy had come to a decision that if she was to stay in Australia she must regard herself not as Romanian but as an Australian born in Romania. She made one last, short trip to Romania for a short visit to help her cut ties with her old life.
Maddy feels she has established a strong connection with the Canterbury area. It is her home and she takes pleasure in the many things the area offers, an expansive parkland for her dear dogs to run in, the friendship of her neighbours and an opportunity to contribute to the cultural life of the community through her work.