MORE PERSONALITY THAN DRACULA
Romanian Oracle manager pens comic Transylvanian play
San Mateo Times
Monday, May 3, 2004
From penniless refugee to software exec to one-man show
By Elizabeth Jardina, Staff Writer
SILVIAN Centiu had an atypical goal in his late teen years and early adulthood: to assasinate the dictator of his homeland.
But after fleeing Cold War-era Romania, he lived as a refugee under a bridge in Vienna. Later he came to the United States, where he couldn't even get a job delivering pizza.
With perseverance, he ended up with a computer programming job, and is now a manager at Oracle.
His latest role may be his strangest. He's a one-man comic theater troupe.
Centiu stars in a one-person play he wrote and produced himself, "A Transylvanian in Silicon Valley," running at San Francisco's Actors Theatre through June 19.
Charming and gregarious, with a mane of reddish-brown curls, Centiu, 39, has an accent that makes him sound like Bela Lugosi in the 1931 film version of "Dracula."
The San Carlos resident is surprisingly funny, especially for someone who has lived several lifetimes' worth of heartache and danger.
As a young man, Centiu lived in Romania under dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. While he was never part of any organization, Centiu and his friends planned to kill Ceausescu to end the terrors wrought by the government.
Although he tells the story in his play with a heavy dose of black comedy, the dangers in Romania to Centiu and his compatriots were real.
"Some of our friends got caught," he says. "Some of them disappeared. Some of them 'jumped' from tall buildings."
The assassination plot came to a crux when a key member of his band of friends disappeared. Centiu and the survivors fled to the mountains.
At that point, he knew he had to get out of the country.
"I didn't want to leave Romania," he says. "I was very patriotic."
While he does not condone his behavior as a young adult, he points out that he was living in terrible circumstances.
"It's hard to put yourself in those shoes," he says. "It was a really, really desperate situation. There was no end in sight. It lasted for generations -- generations waited for something to happen, for Americans to come out of the sky. And it never happened."
Even information was hard to come by in a pre-Internet society where the newspapers did nothing but provide nonsensical state propaganda.
"People didn't have heat or light in their homes," Centiu says. "At the same time, in the papers, the propaganda was talking about Ceaucescu's 'Year of Light.'"
Still, Romanians eased day-to-day burdens with humor.
"They cut TV to two hours a day and electricity to two hours a day, but they were never the same two hours," he says wryly.
Centiu realizes that his life story doesn't at first seem like a wealth of comic material.
"There are very few plays about communism and dictators, and people avoid them because they're dreadful," he says.
Even in the midst of the worst times in Romania, people would still crack jokes. "I think it's a digestible way to hear about the hardships," Centiu says.
With two friends, he crossed the border into Serbia, then went through Bosnia, Croatia and Slovenia. Eventually, he and his friends ended up in Vienna. They had no money and didn't speak the language.
But Centiu, who had been trained as a hardware engineer in Romania, got a job at Austria's largest software company and managed to scrape by with new language skills.
"If you can learn German, you can learn anything," he quips.
After the Ceausescu dictatorship was overthrown in December 1989, Centiu quit his job to join the efforts to help his home country.
While directing a convoy of trucks toward his hometown of Brasov, Transylvania, he advised the driver to only travel at night, because intermittent fighting continued in the countryside.
Then the driver inquired what was in the truck.
Centiu explained that it carried blood for transfusions.
"You're telling me I'm driving a truck full of blood into Transylvania and only by night?" Centiu recalls the driver saying.
Although he was an educated adult, Centiu had no idea that in the minds of many people, Transylvania and Dracula are inexorably linked.
"To Romanians, a Transylvanian just means a person from a place -- like a San Josean or an Emeryvillean," he says.
Centiu had never heard the Dracula story. "Romania was that isolated," he says. "The shortage was not just of food. The shortage was of information."
From Austria, he ended up as a refugee in the United States, sent to Twin Falls, Idaho.
"I thought America was New York and Los Angeles," he says. "I was evaluating civilization by the height of the buildings, and Twin Falls, Idaho, had one two-story building."
Culture shock wasn't simply a matter of learning about the rural West while struggling with a new language. Even basic concepts -- like free speech -- were radically different from American and Romanian standpoints.
"In Idaho, I met this dude in the dorms," Centiu says. The guy was ranting about the controversial rap group 2 Live Crew, whose racy lyrics and live show were causing a flap. Because he felt that the group was being unfairly censored, the man looked to Centiu for support.
"Would that happen in your country?" he asked.
Centiu replied, "Is the band still alive? Are their families well? Then it would never happen in my country."
Centiu realized that Idaho was not a place for him to get a fresh start. He came to the Bay Area looking for a job and a college degree. He eventually went to the University of San Francisco and got a series of programming jobs, which led to his position at Oracle.
Having experienced more by age 30 than most people ever do, Centiu naturally had a lot of stories to tell.
The idea to turn those stories into a play came about at a most prosaic place.
"I went to a management class and we had to give a motivational speech about a corporate value of your choice," he says.
Embodying the value of creativity, he told the story of learning to speak English by vowing to talk for five hours a day. He went to stores, he went to trade shows, but it was hard to maintain conversation for very long. Then he discovered the courthouse.
"People love talking about their problems," he says. "They wait in the corridors and they have nothing to do, then sessions are late. If you ask somebody 'What's your problem?' they bend your ear about it."
The people in the class loved the story. He soon began to write about his escape from Romania, his time in Austria, moving to the United States.
From idea to incarnation, the play incubated for 31/2 months. In that time, Centiu wrote the script, hired a director, secured a space and, to learn about the craft of theater, saw about 30 or 40 plays in four months.
"It's about thinking on your feet," he says. "Act now, don't wait. Even though you may not be prepared for all the details, it is better to act. It's what got me from living under a bridge in Vienna to owning a million-dollar house in Silicon Valley. In order to be alive, you have to act."
Elizabeth Jardina is a Bay Area Living staff writer.
E-mail her at email@example.com or call (650) 348-4327.