Theatre as a Democratic Experiment


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Enzio Wetzel, Director of Goethe-Institut Bulgaria
On Theatre Spaces programme


Enzio Wetzel, Director of Goethe-Institut Bulgaria; photo by S. Röhl



Q: Mr Wetzel, Goethe-Institut has been actively and productively present in Bulgaria’s cultural domain over recent years and essentially, in that of Bulgaria’s theatre. The Institute’s Theatre Spaces programme has played a particularly important role in this, as some of the most interesting events took place in this spring 2016 season. Still, let’s start with a more general question. Would you present in a nutshell, please, the mission, goals and concrete tasks assigned by Goethe-Institut and by you in your capacity as the Institute’s Director in your work on the development of the cultural dialogue between Bulgarian and Germany?

A: Thank you very much for asking this question. Theatre, to put it shortly, is a specific model, a social construct and that is why it is of such great importance to the general philosophy of Goethe-Institut. Our Theatre Spaces programme, which was launched last year, offers an opportunity to test, by means and in the context of theatrics, how society functions in various situations: good or bad or daily or critical or crucial.

Q: Will you, please, enlarge upon the Theatre Spaces programme? I already mentioned that in the spring 2016 season, several outstanding events were staged in conjunction with Bulgarian partners. It will suffice to mention Deutsches Theater’s performance of Waiting for Godot in Sofia as part of the programme of the World Theatre in Sofia Festival; the documentary theatre project of Replika (Line) Theatre or the participation of several original stagings and performances from German-speaking countries in the ninth edition of Antistatic International Festival for Contemporary Dance and Performance 2016, Sofia to assure ourselves of its importance. How was the programme devised and what is the gist of it?

A: First of all, I’d like to note that the Theatre Spaces programme has three levels. The first one, that of performances and various theatrical forms, is the one presented to the audiences, i.e. what spectators watch. The next two levels include what goes on backstage, so to say, where ‘backstage’ means the complicated and many-sided processes, relationships and situations behind a completed production or event rather than something concealed or political. So, the second programme’s level is oriented towards joint work and cooperation between the playwright, director and the cast. The third level deals with all the financial aspects of mounting and organising an event, etc. Goethe-Institut plays not the role of the Theatre Spaces programme’s director. Our goal and our role in it is in fact to provide room, both literally and purely physically, as well as financially, and venues for staging ingenious and innovative productions, actions and performances. Creative ideas and elements belong, of course, to artists––Bulgarian, German, and European––who come up with ideas of and/or participate in these performances. Putting it in other words, our role in the programme is to create opportunities for these performances to be staged and performed by securing their realisation financially and organizationally and providing locations.

We are all aware that it is not enough to just form a crew and cast with ingenious theatrical ideas to put on a performance. We have to see also to its funding, to its location, to disseminating information about such an event as well as to attracting, maintaining and developing audiences willing to watch such performances. We could compare this process with farming or agriculture. Very much like agriculture, culture and especially theatrical culture need constant care, cultivation and upkeep; I should say that what they need is to prepare the ground, i.e. set the stage and maintain it too, even if no performances are played for a while. Contributing to the preparation, development and enriching of the theatrical environment is what our programme is all about.

We have as a result of our efforts the excellent example you began with: the guest performance of Deutsches Theatre’s Waiting for Godot by Ivan Panteleev at the National Theatre, Sofia as part of the selection of the tenth edition of the World Theatre in Sofia festival starring the terrific multi-award winning actor Samuel Finzi. Another good example was playwright Torsten Buchsteiner’s visit to Bulgaria to attend the 70th performance of his much acclaimed Nord-Ost, performed for years now at the Youth Theatre, Sofia, which has proved to be a huge success. It was the Youth Theatre’s director, who invited him, and we just had to book a hotel room. So, the first example was of how the Theatre Spaces programme would provide options for cooperation in a German visiting performance, while the latter was of joint work, in this particular case of support for translating a new German play and staging it by a Bulgarian company; the third opportunity of which a number of examples could be provided, is for support of ingenious and innovative projects of Bulgarian artists. Such projects may not necessarily include German artists but could be provided support by, say, a German administrative director to organise the things. A good example in this respect is ACT Festival of Independent Theatre. Our programme helped with inviting to the festival’s fifth edition German critics and theatre people to attend the festival and watch the performances included in its programme to then share their impressions of and thoughts on Bulgaria’s independent theatre as well as their experience in Germany’s independent stage at meetings and discussions organised for this purpose. This third Theatre Spaces programme’s initiative provides opportunities for cooperation both between Bulgarian and German artists in the areas of theatre and contemporary dance and people working in other forms or genres such as fiction, music, architecture, plastic arts, seeking points of intersection and ways to find new, unused theatrical locations to develop them into artistic venues. A Heat Station Contemporary Arts project provides a good example in this regard.

Q: What precisely does Goethe-Institut to support Bulgarian independent artists under projects of finding and providing abandoned obsolete buildings or venues for artistic activities such as A Heat Station?

A: Goethe-Institut highly appreciates the readiness indicated by the Municipality of Sofia to work on projects of finding and developing new art locations in the city, to conduct talks with artists about their ideas, capabilities or intentions in this regard. This is at these talks that Goethe-Institut offers opportunities for support for artists. Providing such locations for theatrical and artistic activities in general by municipal authorities is a complicated and long processes across Europe for there are always problems either with censorship or financial issues or problems with the legal status of such places (there are more often than not owners or other circumstances rendering the process difficult). Reaching a positive decision takes a lot of patience and cooperation between the parties rather than one of the parties blaming the other.

As I already mentioned, the process of providing locations for artistic activities by the local governments is difficult everywhere and runs in an almost the same manner in Berlin or Moscow or Sofia. That said, I throw a bridge across to the answer to your question. We invite people from Germany experienced in this matter who have already undergone such processes and have working examples and strategies to share at meetings with Bulgarian artists. Goethe-Institut’s main support is all about arranging such meetings for sharing rewarding experience.

Projects and talks between artists and the local governments about providing and developing venues for artistic activities are in fact an important democratic experiment. There are in some quarters of Berlin, for instance, places occupied, so to speak, by artists and transformed into theatrical locations, where police are banned from entering; artists have barricaded these places and literally turned them into free areas. So, this democratic experiment works, yielding various results.

Q: We talked so far mainly about theatre and theatre endeavours, but then again, Goethe-Institut is very active in supporting contemporary dance.

A: Yes, we deem it to be vital. Dance is a theatre of a kind, wordless, using body language. Having a long tradition, German tanztheater (dance theatre) is a European cultural phenomenon. Bulgaria is also very active in contemporary dance and tanztheater. There are several popular artists such as Ivo Dimchev, who have gained their reputation in West Europe as well. That is why the field of contemporary dance is an element as important to us in the Theatre Spaces programme as dramatic theatre. Bulgaria has also very interesting traditions related to folk dances, which have been lost or not that meticulously kept in the western parts of Europe. I definitely see a strong opportunity for a line in the future development of the programme dealing with the presentation and work on the Bulgarian folk dance heritage.

Q: Our newspaper has a broad readership mainly of young people, students and university teachers, of young artists. Will you, please, elaborate of the selection criteria for projects and participants in the Theatre Spaces programme?

A: The main criterion is whether or not a physical location for rehearsals and work on a project is available. Recently, we showed on the premises of Goethe-Institut several performances under this programme staged in the aesthetics of documentary theatre by German director Georg Genoux and Replika Theatre he works in Bulgaria with. He is now in Ukraine to present the same productions, which were shown in Germany earlier. We supported also the presentation of Neda Sokolovska’s Peace Be with You! Salam Alaikum as part of the Theatre Spaces project across Bulgaria: at the Red House Centre for Culture and Debate and at several festivals. Another important criterion is the relation to and presentation of German culture. Under the same programme we supported, for example, Gergana Dimitrova’s translation of German contemporary plays for her project Cinderellas Ltd. / Cinderellas GmbH. Young people, even students may in principle approach us offering interesting experimental projects and be allotted a location for rehearsals as well as financial and logistical support.

Q: I have one more question about the Theatre Spaces programme in a broader context. Historically, Bulgarian theatre has been closely related to German theatre. Presently, a number of Bulgarian directors and artists work in Germany or on joint projects. Does a future development of the programme include talks or initiatives dealing with these historical and present relations and influences?

A: Yes, we already have some ideas to that effect. We are making some changes in our office building. The Language Department moves to other rooms to make room for a location for delivering such lectures, making presentations and staging interactive events from next year. We have had talks about such projects and we are expecting more ideas and suggestions. This initiative is titled Luft Studio. In German, luft means ‘air’, and the word is used in Bulgarian too. The title needs no translation as luft is used in its Bulgarian sense of ‘room’ or ‘space’ between things or appointments or people. The message to be conveyed to young artists or students or theatre people with innovative ideas, who’d show interest in this project, is: ‘Whenever you have a luft, a spare moment that is, join us to make use of it together’.

Q: What’s next on the programme?

A: We are now working on a small location in Zhenski Pazar market, Sofia, called Pavilion 19, to show small performances since October. We have announced the project and now we are receiving and expecting suggestions. The project will be carried out by the Red House Centre for Culture and Debate. It is supposed to be ‘theatre on a stall’ or rather ‘on a folding table’. Just imagine a market where a stall sells tomatoes, another one sells farm implements and yet another stages performances.

In the end, I’d like to say that by a curious twist of fate, I happened to learn more about German theatre, and about Bulgarian theatre, of course, when I arrived in Bulgaria from the excellent pros I met and worked together with. Without such partners as Nikolay Yordanov and VIA Fest Foundation mounting the World Theatre in Sofia Festival, or Gergana Dimitrova and her ideas of translations of plays and theatrical cooperation or a number of theatre people, I would have never been able to implement the things we are doing now.

Theatre as a Democratic Experiment

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