With this year’s FITS edition being forced to migrate online, the city’s streets have been unusually quiet for the month of June in Sibiu. No sign of the swarm of festival attendants, artists, volunteers, tourists or locals hurrying from one show or venue to the other like we were used to for the last two decades. Despite this circumstances, one event happening for the third time under the umbrella of the festival – Therme Forum – has managed to bring the debate over how to build the new performance and conference center of Sibiu even further. Yaroslava Babenchuk**, Senior Innovation Lead, accepted to answer a few questions about the Forum and its influence in shaping Sibius future theatre.

Please tell us why the Therme Forum is important? Who gets to take part in this event?
Yaroslava Babenchuk: Therme Forum on Theatre and Architecture is a public event open to all interested participants during FITS. In its 3rd year now, Therme Forum looks into ins and outs of the thinking and planning process that precedes the design and construction of a new theatre/congress center in the city of Sibiu.
It is a unique approach to a project of this nature in that it allows the city to better prepare for the process of design and construction of a new facility of this scale by looking into similar projects around the world and their know-how, learning from top managers of similar facilities globally about the reality of operating such facilities, foreseeing the future of the art form and preparing for its evolution in times of technological changes etc.
The Forum allows cross disciplinary conversations between architects, artists, managers, funders, policy makers, audiences that usually don’t take place at this stage of a project, and as a result often stall the project down the road or create risks that are much harder to manage when the project already started. By bringing all these stakeholders together at this time the leadership team of the project is making sure they think holistically about the future of this facility and ensure that the city gets the best possible addition to its civic infrastructure.

What were the challenges in organizing this year’s edition of Therme Forum online?
Yaroslava Babenchuk: The change to online format actually turned out to be quite productive this year. The organizers were able to engage spea­kers who were geographically quite far from Sibiu and could not join the Forum in past years; panel conversations were very lively and engaging as the dynamic between speakers had to change since the energy was not coming from the audience as it happened before in a traditional space. It was a much more complex production process as it involved technologies and a lot of experimentation but the team working on it did a great job and it went really well.
We did miss the audience right in front of us, of course. There is a lot to think about as to how to address that in the future. There is high probability we will look into hybrid models, where some speakers and the audience will be in house, with some speakers joining in virtually.

What were your personal highlights of the 2020 edition? What conclusions could be drawn this year?
Yaroslava Babenchuk: I think we all learned that technologies can be incredibly helpful in areas we never tried them in before really boldly. By not flying speakers to Sibiu the carbon footprint of the event was really minimal. Funds were not spent on logistics of travel; speakers saved a lot of time, which is in many cases now more valuable than money. This is a knowledge building event, and I think we all learned that sometimes it is worth looking into new ways of doing things, without the pandemic pushing us into it.
For me personally these events are a source of inspiration and energy. I started looking into research in this area as I realized that there is a gap in knowledge when it comes to planning Performing Arts facilities. These buildings are built very often with good intentions, passion, generosity, commitment but they are also spaces where audiences CHOSE to be. If a poor office facility is built, people will suffer but use it, likely. If a factory is poorly planned/built, authorities may shut it down. But people go to watch shows by choice. They leave comfort of their home to do so. It has to be the so called “third space” to people, after home and work, where they would feel good and want to come back. The Forums help understand how to achieve that.
In terms of intended outcomes of the event, every year after the Forum it is more and more clear that this is the right way to approach a project like this. We live in time of massive changes, and the old models/approaches very often are too risky in planning large capital investments of this scale/meaning. Kudos to the city of Sibiu for having the confidence to ask questions before taking actions. This process will put the city of Sibiu on the map of many fields that never thought about investing more time into thinking and just jumped into planning and design.

How will the Therme Forum help shape the future theatre of Sibiu?
Yaroslava Babenchuk: The Forum by now engaged into its programming 46 speakers from 13 countries, all of them leaders in their fields globally. We have a unique collection of opinions, advice, feedback, ideas that will allow to not just build a well thought through facility in Sibiu. This Forum will change the industries involved in projects like this globally. This is the way to go, and it started in Sibiu.

Compared to last year, how much closer is Sibiu today to seeing the first brick of the new cultural venue being laid?
Yaroslava Babenchuk: It is my understanding that the city of Sibiu is getting close to signing the contract with Arup for the pre-feasibility study for the project*. A required step in the process, it will take a few months, likely, before the architectural competition preparation and implementation next will bring more excitement into this process. I think the first brick is still far away, but breaking the ground for the foundation may be in sight.

*The day after this interview has been taken, Sibiu City Council has formally announced that the contract for elaborating the prefeasibility study for the construction of the new performance and conference center in Sibiu has been signed with Ove ARUP & Partners International Limited.

**Yaroslava Babenchuk had spent the last 20 years combining her work in Performing Arts management, academia, non-profit management and building a multi-faceted global career across those fields. Her work spanned across several countries, including work at the Avignon Festival (France), Baltic House International Theatre Festival (Russia), Teatro delle Saline (Italy), International Renaissance Foundation(Ukraine). She produced early work of Andriy Zholdak, a Ukrainian theatre director, and implemented multiple international projects in Ukraine, Romania, USA. Yaroslava currently works at the State University of New York – Suffolk as an academic dean. Her Fulbright Global Scholar Award will focus on the institutional approaches to planning new Performing Arts facilities.