Vocation as an actress. A personal story


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I dedicate this text to my grandmother Vanya (Ivanka) Harbova (1900–1997), after whom I was named and for which I chose the theatrical field. Having lived through almost the entire twentieth century, she was among the first actresses in our theatre. Her fate is interesting and stormy. When I asked her, ‘Grandma, tell me about the 20th century, the times you lived in!’, she laughed and replied, ‘I don’t live in the past.’ And she really lived life in the now, with an eye to the future. One of the most vibrant and life-loving people I know!

Being a woman actress in the first decades of the 20th century is a vocation. The lives of our first actresses were extremely complex and full of vicissitudes. Devoted to art, most of them were forced to make great sacrifices, including in their personal lives. Traditionally, the actress profession the beginning of the 20th century was not the most respected.

In this context, I would like to briefly talk about some moments in the life of my grandmother, the actress Ivanka (Vanya) Drazheva (Paspaleva, Dimitrova, Hristova), born in 1900.

Looking through the family archives, I came across a letter from a Mr. Ivan Fasov from 1959. It is in defence of my grandfather – Colonel cavalryman Dimitar Hristov, who participated in the wars of the early 20th century and was wounded many times. After the establishment of the communist regime, he was sent to Belene as an enemy of the people.

Information by Ivan Fasov about Colonel Dimitar Hristov, 1959 Personal archive

This letter points out that Colonel Hristov had progressive views because… he married an actress. In 1959, the author of the letter tried to rehabilitate the royal officer. My grandfather died of ill health from his stay in the camp the following year. The letter reads: “… after marrying his current comrade, who was an actress in Varna, the officers began to shy away from him. He [was] contrary to the understanding of the officer caste at the time that an officer could not marry an actress (this, according to their understanding, were not priestesses of art, but fallen people), which is why he was dismissed from service as early as 1926… After September 9, 1944 he gave his wife the freedom to go to rehearsals in the evenings of people, to go to the villages to recite together with urban collectives who went to the villages. In a word, he did not stop his companion from taking an active part in the Fatherland Front amusement activities… There can be no question of fascist activity by Dim. Hristov. He came with me when I spoke in the neighbourhoods, which shows that Dimitar Hristov had progressive views, so he married a comrade with communist convictions”.

Here I would like to mention that my grandmother never had communist beliefs or any political biases, but apparently Mr. Fasov was looking for stronger arguments to save Mr. Hristov.

The story is that in the period from 1921 to 1925, my grandmother played in the Varna operetta-dramatic society of fellow citizens, the travelling theatres of Georgi Donev, the Chamber Theatre of Zlatina Nedeva, the Haskovo Drama Theatre, the Varna Workers Theatre. As one of the rising stars, for whom there has been a large number of reviews in the press during the several years on stage, she was invited by the actor from the National Theatre Nikola Ikonomov to join the troupe of the Bulgarian Art Theatre in Sofia, founded in 1925. Amazingly for me, I managed to find about 30 reviews of her performances in the newspapers Razvigor, Obnova, Varnenska Poshta, Tribuna, Pravda, Rodna Misal, Rodopska Zvezda, Haskovska Poshta, Trakiets between 1921–1925 and in the magazines Comedy, Actor, Ognyove from 1925. After her marriage to Colonel Hristov in solidarity with her husband in 1926, she left the stage.

Vanya Drazheva. Actress from the Bulgarian Art Theatre (Vanya Drazheva. Ognyove [Fires], Vol. 1, 1925, 2)

Starting in 1946, she played in the Plovdiv Theatre for several years. One of her crowning roles is that of Vasa Zheleznova from Maxim Gorky’s play of the same name. She lived through the entire turbulent twentieth century (born in 1900 and died in 1997), and until the end, reciting her roles in front of us – children and our guests, singing songs under the accompaniment of her guitar, she remained an independent, free artist.

Ivanka (Vanya) Drazheva (Paspaleva) as Zuleima in 1001 Nights,
Chamber Theatre of Zlatina Nedeva, 1922. Personal archive

The quoted letter is eloquent enough both for the long and thorny path of the first women actresses in the twentieth century, and for the importance of Melpomene’s priestesses – those strong, charismatic, progressive personalities, with exceptional spirit and will, who paved the way for the emancipation of society and the development of modern culture and theatre.

Vocation as an actress. A personal story

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