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Interview with Nick Ularu
article [ Culture ]
-About leadership and teambuilding in arts and culture-

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
by [Neisa Conta ]

2003-12-03  |     | 

Today's horizontal business organizations and rapidly changing markets demand a new approach to leadership and coaching. Leaders must truly inspire, guide, and reward their team continuously. During any given day, leaders must call upon different skills and qualities to handle the tremendous variety of situations that arise. Adding to the challenge, as an organization evolves and grows, it requires different capabilities from its leaders. And, as Alan Axelrod beautifully wrote in his Elizabeth I CEO: „Effective leders put issues of ahead of blind obedience to rules, regulations, and prescribed procedure. They put people before policy”.

Let’s see if this is going to be demonstrate in the interview with Nick!

I know Nick Ularu for about 10 years. I had the opportunity to watch him working, creating and growing so many students into real professional artists. First, he was my set and stage design teacher for 5 years at the Fine Arts Academy in Bucharest. I remember him at that time as being so full with energy, with an extraordinary imagination and power to communicate all to us.
I was pretty stubborn at that time, so the reason why he recommended me to work in the same theatre he did, the National Theatre of Bucharest, is still a great mystery to me. I guess he felt, in a way, that beside my aptitude for too many causes in the same time was something that deserves to be developed.
I was at first his assistant, and then I was invited by the Theatre's Artistic Director to start my own projects because of Nick’s support. Nick possesses excellent skills necessary to administer a project, while gaining the acceptance of other team members. The work he produces is on time and accurate, and I had so much to be grateful to him that I could actually learn all those things from him. After my graduation, he hires me as Project Manager at The Bucharest's Fine Artists Union an organization of more than three thousands members, having in administration the main fourteen art galleries, four hundreds art studious and a factory for Fine Arts materials in Bucharest. He was the President of that organization at the time, and we've created and developed some projects in the benefit of the artist community. He was so much into implement new ways of communicate and doing things that people was just reading in books about at that time in Romania.

After one year of a great collaboration at the Union of Fine Artists, we've decided to create The ArtKid Foundation, a non-profit organization having as a major objective the education of young people through art. We worked again together in a team, organizing events, rising founds for the children in orphanages, and many other community actions.

In addition of working as theatre designer in Romania, Ireland, UK, Sweden, Germany and USA, all those years Nick was teaching at the Arts University and at the National University for Film and Theater. He was elected and served for four years as a member of the Board of the European League of the Institutes of the Arts-ELIA a prestigious organization, based in The Netherlands, which runs the activities and exchange programs of more than three hundred art educational institutions in the fields of Theatre, Dance, Music, Fine Arts and Architecture all over the Europe.

The quality of the projects he proposed is in a perfect harmony with its feasibility. I believe his good business skills and pleasant personality have helped grow all the organization he was involved in. And the strangest fact is that he handles all those different kind of jobs with the same elegance and natural ability, even though he never took courses of management or marketing! I can say that he is a real leader, a natural born one.

After a year of teaching at the National Theatre School of Denmark in Copenhagen, Nick moved to United States were he’s teaching and designing for some years. Currently, he is the Head of the MFA Design Program at the University of South Carolina, Columbia. He designed sets or costumes in New York, Boston,
Phoennix, AZ, Minneapolis, etc.

Ularu design for "Henry IV" by Pirandello / The Countess
Ularu design for "Henry IV" by Pirandello / The Officers
Ularu design for "Henry IV" by Pirandello / The Doctor

His most recent design project for the new music theater
"Star Messengers" a co-production of LaMaMa Etc and The Talking Band produced at “La Mamma” Theater in New York , was acclaimed in a revue in New York Times.

In 1998 a national jury selected his works to represent, among other American top designers as Julie Taymor and Robert Wilson, the USA entry at the Prague Quadrennial - the most important theatre design exhibition in the world. And now, he recently won the Obie prize for the Ma-Yi Theatre scenery of "A Painted Snake in a Painted Chair".

Because I am still considering him as my mentor, and I fell like having so much to learn from him, I was so happy being here as well, having the opportunity to talk to him about his work and everything else. He is so restless, being involved in so many things all the time, so it's not an easy job to catch him even through Internet! But I was lucky, and here you have him speaking about, let's see, for the beginning:

Nick, if you were in my shoes, with this interview, what would be the first question that you'll put to yourself?

N: I wish to be in your shoes… I will be young, energetic and talented as you are. Anyway, I will put the same question I am putting always to myself, specially when I am in difficult situations: Why are you spending your energies in organizing / making things happen, challenging yourself and the others around you – in stead of doing only your art and live a more peaceful life?
Probably I will respond that I consider the life as being full of opportunities and chances for everybody. In my opinion the mediocre people doesn’t see, refuse or ignore these opportunities and chances. It is up to active / positive people to take these conjunctures or situations and transform them into successful business, art or career. I think I can’t stop to do what I am doing just because I cannot ignore the potential of different situations.

For a good understanding I will give you a sample. In the fall of 1993 I had a grant from the Cultural Commission of the European Union to be trained for three months with the main theatre company of Holland, Toneelgroep Amsterdam.
It was supposed for me to spend this time in a relaxing atmosphere and to observe the way of doing theatre of this famous theatre group – in other words a kind of three months vacation in Amsterdam. But it wasn’t like this.

This company is one of the few lucky organizations sponsored by the Dutch government, but the biggest part of their subsides are going on the renting of different performing spaces, because they didn’t have their own performing space.

In my second week there, I was assisting at a boring rehearsal in Dutch, but sitting in their rehearsal room I realized that this space could be transformed into a performance space. The businessman in me discovered that they could do rehearsals in the mornings and performances in the evenings by paying the same rent. I did a brief study of feasibility and a small project and I presented them to the general manager of the theatre who was really impressed by the efficiency of my idea and by the fact that they’ve been in that space for more than ten years, but nobody saw the potential of that space. Next day he invited me to a meeting with the board of trustees, I presented the project, they were enthusiastic with it but they proposed me another site to develop this kind of project: the old Gas Factory of Amsterdam, a disaffected space. I became one of the most important persons in the company, I worked hard to develop the new project in the following four months; in the next five months of 1994 the new theatre was built after my plans. The Dutch Theatre Architecture Commission awarded me and I am proud of my project.

As you can see from this sample my choice was to work hard day and night for this project, to convince the people to commission me the project even if I am not an architect and finally to be awarded by the Dutch Theatre Architecture Commission. Isn’t it crazy? I could simply enjoy my paid vacation in Amsterdam, see museums or smoke pot?

Me: I kind of hear about a few of all those activities of yours, because your reputation is following you all over the world…
By the way, do you feel that you are an international citizen now? (You can talk about the globalization issue: is it a viable way to see the future? Or is just about opening your horizon, be tolerant and think globally)

N: I think everybody who wants to pursue a successful career, specially in the arts, have to consider himself/herself a world citizen from the beginning I think one of the most dangerous notions in the contemporary society is the provincialism. I was trying always to keep my Romanian roots but I felt always the need to connect myself to what's happen in the world. If you like or not the globalization concept, in the nowadays society one cannot live isolated. I can understand the fears of loosing the identity but due to the development of the technology and information it is practically impossible to ignore some of the advantages of the scary globalization.

Me: But now, because we got together again here, in this amazing and –I might say- unbelievable country as USA, let’s talk a little about your experience here, first. Then, because I know that you are teacher and a set designer in the same time, maybe you can tell me how can you handle this.

N: I had a cultural choke in my first six months in the USA It is hard to accept that the American administration doesn't subsidize the arts as the majority of the European governments do, specially because the USA is the most developed country in the world. It is amazing to see an artist as Robert Wilson doing his experimental projects in Europe, with European money, with budgets one cannot dream to have here in the USA outside of entertainment industry, and coming to present these performances in the USA. Speaking about evil, it is still hard for me to associate the concept of industry with the concept of arts, like the film industry or entertainment industry (which unfortunately includes theatre, at least Broadway). I was wondering always if directors like Fellini or Bergman would exist or survive as artists in the American film industry, and how their films will look like. Thanks God, the American art survive based on the private sponsorship and on the artists ambitions and frustrations.

Me: I know that you are teacher and a set designer in the same time, maybe you can tell me how can you handle this. I mean, is your career as a teacher helping the artistic side?

N: To be honest it was more easy to handle this in Europe. My career as a teacher is occupying almost all my time over the academic year. It is frustrating to refuse some of the project proposals just because I don't have the physical time to do it. But this was always a major problem for me. I think I need more lives to do what I want *or at least days of 36- 48 hours. I like teaching because I have the feeling that keeps me young...
Working with young artists is as wonderful and painful as the love is* I hate teaching in an environment where there are more concerns about the politics, political correctness, power, etc. than education.

Me: Do you feel that your students are going to become your followers? What is your teaching technique, basically? Is it just listen to me, and do that or (the one that I've get myself from you) the far more difficult let's see what you have to say about the issue?

N: My philosophy of teaching is that the students must be the followers of their own talents, not mine(if I have one*). All I try to do is to develop their own personality, to make them open and confident in their powers. In my opinion a teacher must be first of all, honest with his / her students. One cannot do education by pleasing always your students in order to have good evaluations for your tenure...?

Me: What about the teamwork both in classes and at the theatre- is something different from other countries, in term of relationship between the members?

N: The teamwork is crucial in the theatre. One cannot do theatre without collaboration and discipline. What about actors coming late to the performances they are involved in? What about not having the costumes or sets in time? Every aspect of the theatre production is as important as the entire production. We can easily transgress this to a teamwork. Actually I will suggest theatre classes / notions to any business school.

Me: How do you see yourself as a leader? Do you think that this should be a natural ability, or something you can learn in time? What is your greatest quality as a leader? When and how did you realize that about yourself?

N: I've been in this position for some many years at different levels and I can say by my experience that the leadership is not for everybody. Actually I think that the worst work situations are created by the people who have the power but are not leaders. You can find a lot of books teaching you to improve your sexual life, to become a millionaire, to become a leader or to loose 20 pounds by night .but how many people become millionaires by reading those books ? I truly believe that you can learn a lot of tricks in how to deal with people /situations but a really leader is born not made from books. Speaking about myself I think one of the qualities I tried to improve / developed in time is to see the situation I am dealing with, from different perspectives. As much as I'm getting older as much I begun to be less radical in my opinions.

Me: It is a theory, saying: (the creating of a restless dissatisfaction) “no matter how well people are doing, they can do better”.
I remember that you use to have something very similar to me as a student: you have to create crises and than to hit the bottom of it, in order to get further and create something. Do you still stand it? What do you think about changes?

N: Yes, I still think that in order to get further and create something, it doesn't matter what, you have to evaluate where you are, what are your week points, what you have to achieve, etc.. It is not necessary to pass through a crisis situation or to hit the bottom, it is necessary to understand your potential, even if you like it or not, and to keep a positive / constructive attitude.

Me: What do you hate the most when working in a team and why?

N: I hate people who are spending their energies in trying hard to don't do what they are supposed to do in the team. I don't like the people who just exist, who don't dream, who have a cynical attitude* Why ? Because the life is short and if you want to spend it stupidly, you don't have to oblige the others to do the same thing.

Me: Of course, I would have at least another 100 questions for you... But I know you are a very busy person (as a true leader, you suppose to be!). So, I thank you very much for your time and great answers you share with me. It was a pleasure, as usual! Now, if you have something to say as a final advice to everybody who intends to be a leader soneisay, I’ll be much obliged to add it as a final statement of this interview.

N: Once again there are not recippies to became a leader; but you have to:

- love the life and understand that unfortunately it is to short to spend it stupidly

- have big open eyes and take advantage of all the opportunities arround you

- don't spend too much time with your former student's interview when you have to design Romeo & Juliet in Minnesota and the deadline for your sketches is tomorrow!

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