Jean–Baptiste Poquelin, born 400 years ago, also known as Molière, created a few theatre troupes, some of which failed due to debts. Actors travelled, they had no regular income and no home and stage. In 2022, the theatre world expresses a gratitude to Moliere, who was a dramaturge, director, and an actor. If we could draw a parallel with the Bulgarian stage practice today, it is necessary to mention two key names from the European theatre, namely, Igor Vuk Torbica and Ivo van Hove. The passed away in 2020 young Serbian director created Tartuff in coproduction with two Serbian theatres in Novi Sad and Sombor as a contemporary play of power and manipulation in the centre of a rotten with lies family. The Bulgarian audience was lucky to see the extraordinary staging of the play in the summer of 2021 as part of the World Theatre in Sofia platform. In the summer of 2022, Sofia audience could see online the screening of Tartuff by Comedie Francaise again as a part of the same programme, World Theatre in Sofia. What new trends, breakthroughs and interpretations of Tartuff we are going to witness, we can only guess, but the feeling of expectation for something significant and big stays equally intensive.
What exactly the key events were, if we come to think of the theatre in 2021 as a follow up of 2020. The time when stage arts entered the dark and empty hall of the unknown and with slow steps started to make efforts to come out of the situation. With timid, but gliding moves, straight after the drop of the measures, the theatres in the whole country tried to bring a small part of their audience back within the framework of the pandemic restrictions. In relation to the aforementioned, a significant note needs to be made, namely that throughout the whole time the sector managed to receive the guarantees for its financial existence, or even more. In 2020 and 2021 during the anti-Covid measures, over 20 million leva were funded by the Cultural National Fund. The most affected by the pandemics were the stage, music and audio-visual arts, which lost most of their audience. Online projections, in most of the cases were free of charge and were an adequate response to the closure of halls and art spaces. And so, in 2021 the trust in live shows needed to be regained. Whether this happened successfully and how are open questions. Let’s hope that the events in 2022 are just about to happen.
The best of the actors’ theatre
For a number of years, the trends in contemporary Bulgarian theatre have been closely linked with the actors’ performances, which relied on the powerful energy of the actor on the stage. This year, the performances that are worth mentioning are: ‘Iva is online’ by the actress Iva Todorova, who is the main driving force of her projects, such as ‘Nice to meet you. Iva’, and of course, the play ‘A Bulgarian woman’ by Snezhina Petrova. There is something important to note: in contrast to the intimate, personal reading of life, the universe and the pandemic loneliness of Iva Todorova, in ‘A Bulgarian woman’, a serious team takes up the task to solve the mystery behind the classical literary concrete block; not only to solve it, but also to smash it, if it is possible. Behind the play ‘A Bulgarian woman’ there is a whole team of educational experts working on the solo performance, such as prof Albena Hranova, prof Miglena Nikolchina, Nikoleta Patova, prof Violeta Decheva, prof Veselin Metodiev, Dr Georgi Gochev, prof Plamen Bochkov, Dr Asis Tash, Rumen Petrov and others. Snezhina Petrova plays the part of a teacher of literature in order to present her artistic version about an exciting lesson after a story by Vazov. The one hundredth anniversary from the death of Ivan Vazov in 2022 is the occasion for revaluation of his influence on the youngest readers.
The events under and above the line
The review of the most interesting from the current and previous theatre seasons is undoubtedly centred around the theatre performances and actor’s achievements. But there are also a few important events, which can be related neither to the repertoire, nor to the professional accomplishments. The first of these, of course, is the international super production ‘The Tempest’ by the greatest world director Robert Wilson. The planned premiere at the end of 2021 brought the brief sensations about Sofia being a European theatre capital with the capacity to realize the transfer and adaptation of such a project. Why ‘The Tempest’ is incomparable to any other event that is happening on our theatre stages now? It is because this is a performance with utterly incomparable financial and technical resources. Besides, there is the context of its creation and the adaptation for the stage of the Bulgarian National theatre and the Bulgarian actors in it. It is the moment to mention the remarkable qualities of the production in terms of light design, sound, picture, stage composition, and the acting of Veselin Mezekliev as Prospero and the debut performance of Jacqueline Daskalova as Miranda.
Another significant event in the 2021 diary is the opening of the new space for contemporary performance arts – the Toplotsentrala. The statement of Sofia Municipality, as a principal of the space, and the management team, represented by director Veselin Dimov, states that this should be a place for alternative stage arts, guest visits by international companies, art residences from all sectors of performance, dance and stage genres. Although the Toplotsentrala is a positive event, the hardship of staying into the visual theatre spectrum of Azaryan theatre in the National Palace of Culture (NPC) is the anti-event of 2022. It is entirely up to the NPC and the Ministry of Culture to decide if this extremely city salon stays close and people keep the memories about the best theatre projects for the last five years, or stays open and continues to exist and develop.
The young hopes
If we look at each of the theatre stages in Sofia and beyond, we will find not one or two important premieres, which this year’s selection committee of Icarus 2022 marked as accomplishments. As a start, an exciting debut after Mark Ravenhill’s play ‘Shopping and Fucking’ from 1996, depicts scenes from the 90s, a bit distanced for the contemporary viewer today. Dimiter Iliev received nomination for a debut with his director’s interpretation in the new theatre space, part of the former Yalta club, known as Yalta Art Room. The young actor Georgi A. Bogdanov, performing a part in ‘Shopping and Fucking’, was also nominated for debut acting. Inarguably, among the names of young directors, which are at the start of their career development in Sofia and in the country are: Anna Bateva, Elitsa Yovcheva, Dina Markova,Rostislav Georgiev, Eva Danailova and Boyan Karcholov. The high expectations towards the new names arise after a funny period of silence in the repertoire theatres, especially in Sofia. This is the silence of traditional repertoire, the unprovoked audience, the play in a comfort zone. Perhaps, the play in a comfort zone in insecure times is a principal position, but it is important to mark those attempts at inclusion of new players on the stage even if they were insecure and part-time.
Why do we lack artistic accomplishments?
Reflecting on the lack of a big cultural event in stage arts, I started reading a huge research work titled ‘The project theatre in Bulgaria after 1989’ by Ilko Ganev. The answers are found partly in the studies of cultural policies. The findings are that the changes of cultural policies led by the Ministry of Culture with regards to theatres and theatre projects are such that they lack efforts of stimulating the artistic quality, a lack for desire to upgrade, develop and enrich the theatre repertoire, hence the slowing down of the chase up of good examples in the European context. In her publication on the topic, ‘Subsidising stage arts during the second decade of 21st century and the quality of the art product’ Rumyana Nikolova adds that, ‘It becomes obvious that during all these years, there is a total lack of expert evaluation and critical reflection as a component that mirrors the theatre subsidies. Turning the income into a base component for calculating the financial resources of a theatre makes the complement components to a great extent superfluous. For example, festival participation brings 4000 leva income for a received award and 2000 leva for a selection. The simplest calculation (income from a not well sold performance multiplied by the sum, which the standard defines for a particular theatre) demonstrates the fact that theatres share the interest to have their halls full and the participation in festivals is not favourable. The same is valid about festivals abroad too. The maximum income from such a festival performance is 5000 leva, but a top hit on the stage brings much more income compared with this one’ (1).
The article also mentions the strife of theatres to present strictly commercial shows, aiming at filling up the halls at the expense of a ‘somewhat of a flirt with the audience’, of texts and stars, familiar from the TV screen (2). All these arguments and many more, explain to a great extent the absence of Bulgarian theatre on the world and even European cultural map.
- Nikolova, R. ‘Subsidizing stage arts during the second decade of the 21st century and the quality of the art product’. Homo Ludens, issue 24, Sofia, 2021.