Peter Denchev: Arts and especially performing arts may bring back joy of togetherness, rather than help therapeutically


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Platform for Arts, Institute of Art Studies, BAS, did a series of exclusive interviews with this country’s leading artists and art historians about how does it feel to make art amid the coronavirus pandemic, about its impact on culture and long-term implications.

Peter Denchev is a Bulgarian theatre director/writer. He graduated in directing at NATFA, under the tutelage of Prof. Zdravko Mitkov (2010). Doctoral student, Department of Drama, Institute of Art Studies, BAS. He staged over 20 productions such as Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Round Dance by Anton Strashimirov at Ruse Drama Theatre and Sarah Ruhl’s Dead Man’s Cell Phone at Varna Drama Theatre. He has published four novels, the latest of which is The Small Deity of the Earthquake (2019).

Q: What are you doing now during self-isolation at home? Are you making the best use of your time?

A: I am mostly reading the books I have missed or set aside due to lack of time, catching up with films and theatrical productions I have missed over the years. Fortunately, theatre and film collections were available online and I watched works I have forgotten or had no time for. It is a strange feeling, on the other hand, as though you are watching pieces of a lost world.

Q: At what point of your work were you caught up in the COVID-19 crisis?

A: I just commenced the rehearsals of Orange Peel by Maja Pelević at Vazrazhdane Theatre, Sofia. Unfortunately, we had to cancel as quickly as possible.

Q: How did the pandemic change your everyday life, professional agenda and decisions?

A: Everything I was supposed to do for theatres was postponed until further notice. Sofia tour of Ruse Drama Theatre with Round Dance by Anton Strashimirovwas cancelled. Also cancelled were a number of trips, including a signing session at Stara Zagora Regioanal Library. All this had an emotional, but also soothing effect on me.

Q: What smouldering problematic subjects surfaced as a result of self-isolation and with all activities across Bulgaria and the world cancelled?

A: I do not think that the issues that topped the agenda were smouldering, far from that. They were apparent, but tendentiously ignored, because reforms in Bulgaria’s creative and cultural sector face strong resistance, and the same is true of changes at all levels; in-house conservatism reigns in most of the institutions and the sector has not been reformed enough. This situation made it clear from the very beginning that there are activities not subject (or at least not entirely) to market mechanisms. Art, and theatre in particular, though an activity not essential to human existence, falls into this focus. Besides, the underreformed sector not only puts at risk the freelance artists, but also shows that a number of activities, such as translation, criticism, etc., are left at the mercy of market fundamentalism.

Q: Your opinion about the impact on creative processes?

A: I find it difficult to prognosticate categorically. I’d rather share my fears, which are a derivative of my pessimistic nature and growing sense of a dystopia becoming reality while the state of emergency lasts. I am afraid that social isolation may prove difficult to cope with for the natural fears arising from what we are experiencing right now. Besides, it seems to be a perfect situation for the creation of a dictatorship, in the sense of Giorgio Agamben’s comments, totalitarianism, applicable on safety grounds. I am afraid that in this context it may transpire that dispensing for safety reasons with activities and events not essential to human existence, such as theatre, concerts, exhibitions, their resuming would not be that easy and readily supported by the government and the respective institutions. I also think that in such a situation it is not easy to relapse into the ‘normal’ social habits. I am afraid that the new normality may turn out to be a good niche for social engineering. In this context, I have no idea how would theatre and arts in general work. The former creative and receptive strategies may prove not working.

Q: Where do you expect to get support in the declared state of emergency over Covid-19?

A: I think that the government should rethink its main policies on funding performing arts not only because of the epidemiological situation and the impossibility to work in such conditions, but also because of the persisting non-functionality of such funding, which creates sectoral disparities. Besides, the EU should draw up coproduction programmes for after the end of the pandemic. The EU policy until now was to leave cultural and art strategies to the national institutions and was not empowered to get directly involved. In my opinion, this should also change.

Q: What about the therapeutic role of art in the resocialization after the pandemic ends?

A: Art generally and especially performing arts may bring back joy of togetherness, rather than help therapeutically, of live communication; of sharing stories, storylines, experience, emotions.

Q: Any ideas about how to resume this country’s cultural activities after the end of the pandemic?

A: One thing I would do in an gesture bordering on the social, will be to curate an installation depicting pandemic and self-isolation stories. I also think that theatres should opt for dystopian storylines, for questions of personal responsibility and the role of the government. This situation raises a number of ethical issues: how far can we be involved in this situation with significantly curtailed fundamental freedoms; how much is our biomaterial (such as immunity, for instance) part of the social discourse? I happened to be in Belgrafe days before the World Health Organisation declared coronavirus outbreak a pandemic and the first thing I did was buy Camus’s The Plague. Ever since then I have been toying with the idea to do something based on the novel.

Peter Denchev: Arts and especially performing arts may bring back joy of togetherness, rather than help therapeutically

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