Shades of Anxiety


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Drumev Theatre Festival 2023

This year’s edition of the Drumev Theatre Festival held in the town of Shumen is actually the second after the COVID-19 pandemic, which has definitely changed the agenda of theatre and society in Bulgaria for a long time. The new situation is now accompanied by additional circumstances that accumulate in social life – the war in Europe (less than 500 kilometres from our state border) and the ongoing political crisis in Bulgaria, which, however, at first glance do not affect the content aspect of the performances selected for the program and the proposed texts for evaluation in the competition module for dramaturgy. Is that really the case?

Bulgarian theatre over the past 30 years has not been characterised by a particular social reactivity; if this happens, it passes through the prism of existential themes of power, loss, the price of human victims and repression in different historical contexts; and in recent times – through supersubjective points of view, micro-histories, through the prism of the document or metaphor, rather than through the sharp social gesture and actionism. A variety of explanations can be sought for this. For example, that this is rooted in the long-term abuse of the totalitarian state before 1989 with the social and its derivatives, in the desire to create an autonomous theatrical field after democratic changes that does not depend directly on the political context, or in personal apathy towards social topics and the atomization of audiences and artists. These are a small part of the hypotheses and each of them would be legitimate in particular, while the efforts of the theatrical artists, as far as can be seen, are still aimed at discussing a more general being, which is also established by the presented theatrical production. However, there is an invisible thread of strong anxiety in the works of their efforts.

Festival selector Elena Angelova had chosen 11 performances in the competition program, and the selector of dramaturgical texts – Katerina Georgieva – 10 plays and one theatrical adaptation; children’s plays prevailed here. As a member of the jury, chaired by the director Lilia Abadzhieva, I allow myself to share some impressions of what I saw. At first, the festival selection included theatres and theatre formations/organizations from all over the country. Spectacles could be seen by the Ivan Vazov National Theatre in Sofia, the Sava Ognyanov State Theatre – Ruse, the Geo Milev State Theatre – Stara Zagora, the State Theatre – Lovech, as well as performances by independent organizations such as “03” Theatre, Zong Theatre, Puppets Lab and others. The overall picture was determined by the dominant form of the monodrama – 5 of the 11 performances were mono performances. I would attribute this trend to the momentum from the spread of the COVID-19 virus, which has imposed numerous restrictions on stage work and communication with the audience over the past three years. At the same time, there is a concentration of actor’s storytelling through the form of monodrama, some kind of emancipation of the actor’s presence and creativity as a form, which I can describe as an interesting trend.

The first festival evening started with the documentary performance “Spotted in Blagoevgrad” by Nikola Vaptsarov State Theatre – Blagoevgrad and “Sumatoha” by Yordan Radichkov at Geo Milev State Theatre – Stara Zagora. “Spotted in Blagoevgrad” is another play by Neda Sokolovska, which interweaves the personal and social, local and national. In this case, the performance was inspired by a specific Facebook group bearing the same name as the performance and a source of authentic inspiration for story seekers – in this case, the actors.

The interactive form of the spectacle, which integrates the viewers, creates a sense of immediacy, and the verbatim approach eliminates any distance from the stage action. The ensemble presence of the actors is impressive, as well as the music created and performed live by the composer Lachezar Kacarski. “Sumatoha” by Y. Radichkov, directed by Damyan Tenev, approaches the play in an unusual (compared to traditional plays) grotesque way, involving the viewer through the means of the stylized character, the typology of the characters, and the discreet clowning. This form of actor’s presence, as well as attitude towards the plot, corresponds to the metaphorical charge of the text, but at the same time remains not fully focused in respect to the goals of the performance. The commotion remains an enigma, albeit with such a curious approach. Maybe that is the goal?

The second festival evening offered us another meeting with Radichkov’s world. “Lazaritsa” by Stefan Kirov State Theatre – Sliven, performed by the dedicated actor Dimitar Markov, met us with his interpretation of this emblematic text. Simultaneously the director, scenographer, composer, and performer, Dimitar Markov impresses with his honesty towards the textual world, without relying on any preliminary audience expectations. The leading motive – for the dog’s betrayal of man as his most faithful friend and the existential consequences of this, lies at the heart of this naïve interpretation. “User” by director Boyan Ivanov and actor Aleksey Kozhuharov begins as a stand-up comedy that developed as a theatrical mystification with the audience unfolding the illusions of happiness that technology creates.

The program of the festival also included the performance “Bravo, Children” by the German company Ligna, which works with the space and the audio environment that creates the theatrical effect. The third night, “Ignorance” was presented – an original mono-spectacle by the actress from the National Theatre Albena Stavreva, a moving story about the painful acquaintance with the vicissitudes of fate through the prism of a female character full of strangeness. “Michelangelo’s War” of the Gabrovo Theatre, directed by Petrinel Gochev, confronted us with the authorial conflicts of an artist who has the role of an archetypal figure for European culture, bringing the topic to an existential struggle with human nature.

In the remaining days we saw the “Thinking Reeds” of Theatre Laboratory “Sfumato”, which builds through the poems of Miryana Basheva a striking poetic metaphor of intellectual and emotional rebellion. The direction of Margarita Mladenova and the young students bring some retro-utopianism to poetry as a world in which one can live protected, nostalgic, but still full-fledged. Zong Theatre’s “Outsider” introduces audiences to an imaginary and utopian world where one can connect with what has long been lost to the material world. Whether this world belongs to us or is just a fantasy remains among the questions of the performance. “Tree Without Roots” by 03 Theatre met us with a fresh actor’s interpretation of Nikolay Haytov, and “The Flight of the Mole” by Puppets Lab gave us a perspective on the inner world of an actress, torn between dreams and fears, bringing the image of the performance to existential completion.

The last night met us with “At the Foot of Vitosha Mountain” by director Chris Sharkov, an attempt to reconstruct the Yavorov play in the spirit of modern media reality and current political manipulations.

The module “Author’s Reading” for contemporary dramaturgy, unfortunately, did not offer a wide variety of textual approaches to the scene, but as a jury we separated two texts that deserve encouragement – the children’s play “Kai the Tiger from Shumen Lake” by the author Magda Borisova and “The Graphomaniac” by Denis Olegov. In general, the thematic scope of the texts also keeps away from contemporary events and focused on secondary processes or phenomena. However, the festival provided a clear snapshot of some processes – the attempt to talk about the problems of the day through the prism of the personal even the super-subjective, the search for minimalist forms and means of expressing these themes rather than large-scale theatrical narratives, the avoidance of engaging with the great narrative, etc.

In general, the festival’s program lacked titles that focus on the great narrative or criticism of phenomena that go beyond the personal (with the exception, perhaps, of the performance of the Lovech Theatre and the Blagoevgrad documentary performance). However, in all performances there was an anxious spirit and intuition that something is happening. It is probably still too subtle for the authors in the theatre, but too visible in the social reality. Whether it is just a matter of time before the anxiety transforms into actions remains to be seen.

Shades of Anxiety

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