Kamelia Nikolova*

In the last couple of years, Bulgarian theatre has been characterized by a particular emphasis on the visual aspect of a performance, interest in new dramatic texts and inventive new readings of national and world classical plays. Most of the productions played to full houses and theatre critics enjoyed an increasing influence within the national theatre culture.

Delhi Dance by Ivan Viripaev, directed by Galin Stoev, set designer: Nikola Toromanov, National Theatre, Sofia.
Photo: Gergana Damjanova

Traditionally, theatre plays a significant role in Bulgaria’s cultural life. Each city and large town has at least one playhouse and a theatre company which receives funding from either the government or the municipality. In addition to box office takings, theatres also receive grants from various funds and foundations which support the arts.

For the time being, Bulgaria, with its population of seven or so million people, has 37 subsidized theatres. Of them, eight are in Sofia (four are state-run and four are supported by the municipality), with the other 29 being spread across the country (22 state-run, 7 municipal). The total of state funds earmarked for theatre was increased between 2016 and 2017 by about 2.5 million Bulgarian leva (approximately 1.28 million Euro).

In the three decades after the democratic changes of 1989, the network of publicly subsidized theatres has been joined by a significant private and independent theatre sector. The productions of some of the new private companies have been traditionally commercial, but most of them work in the fields of experimental theatre, contemporary theatre forms and contemporary dance. Individual actors and independent companies staging not-for-profit productions are eligible to apply for funding to several national and European funds and programmes. This system of organization and funding of the performing arts periodically undergoes reforms, for reasons which are variously political, economic and aesthetic.

Generally speaking, the results of these reforms leave much to be desired. The system has been designed to sustain and promote the development of theatre across the country and keep the balance between commercial and not-for-profit productions.

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International Theatre Festival Varna Summer

A significant number of Bulgarian actors are members of permanent, subsidized companies which have playhouses of their own. However, a sizeable group are employed in the independent sector. Emerging, promising actors tend to come to prominence at the theatres receiving state funding. However, it is not unusual to see such actors appearing at independent theatres.

The average income of an actor at a state-funded theatre is around, or less than, the average salary. The incomes of freelance actors and members of independent companies vary widely, from the national minimum to the high fees commanded by some celebrities. Both the number of new productions and the total number of theatre performance increased by around 10 per cent between 2016 and 2017. In 2017, 21,000 performances were attended by more than three million spectators.

The main reason for the increasing number of theatrical productions is the growing public demand. Economic and aesthetic policies, which aim to achieve broader and richer theatrical practice in the country, have also had positive impacts.

Presently, the Bulgarian theatre scene offers a wide variety of genres and forms, ranging from traditional theatre, based on a dramatic text, to  a variety of less conventional types of theatrical performance, including: verbatim theatre; theatre installation; multimedia and hi-tech theatre; stand-up comedies; and solo shows. Such diversity is also apparent in the not-for-profit and commercial theatre institutions and companies.

Traditionally, most of the state-funded Bulgarian companies seek to strike a balance in their programmes between high quality, mainstream productions intended for the general public, a few more ambitious, not-for-profit titles, and one or two commercial performances which are intended to finance the more experimental work. Several private theatres and companies, and also a number of popular actors, opt to stage touring productions of purely commercial plays, mostly popular comedies and serious family dramas.

Directors Margarita Mladenova and Ivan Dobchev, of the famous Sfumato Theatre Laboratory (which has been the most well established not-for-profit theatre in Bulgaria over the last three decades), have,  in  recent years, presented their Dostoyevsky Programme: Casting Out Demons, which includes two experimental productions loosely based on the novels The Idiot and The Possessed.

The independent theatre scene offers a variety of not-for-profit events and productions in the field of performance, contemporary dance and verbatim theatre. Of these, the most successful and ingenious in 2016 and 2017 was the remarkable interactive theatre performance A Happy Beckett. The production was inspired by Samuel Beckett’s play Happy Days, and created by director Mariy Rosen and set designer Petya Boyukova, founders of the ALOS Centre for Informal Education and Cultural Activities. Rosen and Boyukova have made a name for themselves with their provocative works in the aesthetic of site-specific theatre. Another very successful production was the dance performance F 63.9 of the choreographer Jivko Jeliazkov and the Derida Dance Centre of Sofia.

Ana Valchanova in A Happy Beckett, inspired by Samuel Beckett’s play Happy Days, directed by Mariy Rosen, set designer: Petya Boyukova, ALOS Centre for Informal Education and Cultural Activities, 2017

The most challenging and provocative productions in the last couple of years have been staged by some of the biggest state-funded companies in the country, such as: the National Theatre, the Chamber 199 Theatre, the Sofia Municipal Theatre, the Youth Theatre, the City Theatres in Varna and Plovdiv. These works have been created by the leading and most prolific directors from different generations.

F 63.9, choreographer: Jivko Jeliazkov, Derida Dance Centre, 2017. Photo: Vladimir Gruev

These productions clearly show the main trends and directions in contemporary Bulgarian theatre (as mentioned above). They have accentuated strongly the visual aspects of theatre, interest in new theatre texts and inventive new interpretations of national plays—in addition to an emphasis on the classics of world theatre, from the ancient to the modern. Of these many productions, I would personally single out two productions, created by the currently most nationally and internationally renowned Bulgarian theatre directors: “Delhi” Dance by Galin Stoev and Çamkoria by Javor Gardev. I would also highlight the strong presence of two emerging theatre directors: Stayko Murdjev and Chris Sharkov.

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“Delhi” Dance

Galin Stoev, who has been making a successful career for himself in France, Belgium and Bulgaria for a decade-and-a-half now, and who was appointed as new director of Théâtre National de Toulouse early this year, made a long-awaited comeback to the National Theatre, Sofia, with a challenging staging of Russian playwright Ivan Viripaev’s “Delhi” Dance. Stoev has, for years now, worked constructively in collaboration with Viripaev, starting in 2002 with his An Archaeology of Dreaming (which was based loosely on the Russian writer’s play Dreams), all the way to such productions as Oxygen (in Sofia) and Genèse No. 2 at Théâtre de la Place (Liège, Belgium); the latter was included in the Main Programme of the Festival d’Avignon in 2007.

Stoev’s new project is a bold, directorially intelligent contemporary performance which broaches questions of suffering and strategies for enduring suffering. True to the aesthetic of performative theatre, Stoev successfully leads the professional actors of the National Theatre in Sofia to be themselves on stage, as personalities who are authentically and deeply interested in these important questions and not just actors impersonating character. Consequently, the show strikes a chord with audiences, existentially and topically, with regard to terror attacks, the many escalating conflicts around the world, humanitarian crises, natural disasters and injustice.

Vladimir Karamazov (Andrei) and Sofia Bobcheva (The Nurse) in “Delhi” Dance by Ivan Viripaev, directed by Galin Stoev, National Theatre, Sofia. Photo: Gergana Damjanova

Çamkoria is the stage adaptation, by Javor Gardev, of the latest novel by Milen Ruskov, one of contemporary Bulgaria’s most critically acclaimed writers. Premiered at the 199 Theatre in Sofia, shortly after the novel was published, the production was undoubtedly a major event in the recent theatre season in Bulgaria. The director has adeptly adapted the massive text into an intelligently selected, cleverly composed, long monologue (which is articulated deftly by actor Zachary Bacharov).

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Frankenstein

The piece succeeds impressively in not only telling the intriguing personal story of a bus driver in the 1920s taking passengers to the famous Çamkoria ski resort in the vicinities of Sofia, but also in using this story to get to grips with the bigger picture of the interwar years in Bulgaria, establishing significant parallels with the country in the present day.

Zachary Bacharov in Çamkoria by Milen Ruskov, stage adaptation and directing by Javor Gardev.
Photo: Pavel Chervenkov. 199 Theatre

Stayko Murdjev features prominently in the impressive array of promising directors, set designers and actors that have lately gained the spotlight in Bulgaria. The young director has from the outset of his career manifested his interest in the timeliness of favorite classic novels and, particularly in his latest plays, his desire to deal with the hot issues of contemporary life. His work is characterized by its candor and boldness, both in terms of its messages and its visual solutions. With productions such as Frankenstein (a stage adaptation by Nick Dear of Mary Shelley’s mythic fable at Sofia City Theatre) and, prior to that, Mike Bartlett’s Cock at the Youth Theatre, Sofia, Murdjev has made a name for himself as one of the most promising young Bulgarian theatre directors.

Frankenstein, stage adaptation of Mary Shelley’s novel by Nick Dear, directed by Stayko Murdjev, set designer: Marina Raychinova, Sofia City Theatre. Photo: Gergana Damjanova
Cock by Mike Bartlett, directed by Stayko Murdjev, Youth Theatre, Sofia.  Photo: Gergana Damjanova

Personally, I would place Chris Sharkov immediately next to Murdjev among Bulgaria’s best young theatre directors. Sharkov stages intelligent, profound and visually impressive productions in the vein of the new realism (such as Ibsen’s A Doll’s House in Plovdiv and Profitable Post by Ostrovsky in Varna).

Stoyan Radev in Profitable Post by A. Ostrovsky, directed by Chris Sharkov, set designer Radostina Tododrova, costume designer Daniela Nikolchova, Varna State Theatre. Photo: Tony Perec

Several major theatre festivals are also an integral part of Bulgaria’s theatrical landscape. The Varna Summer International Theatre Festival is the most significant international theatrical event in Bulgaria. For 25 years now, the Festival has established itself as a much sought-after event for meetings and dialogue regarding the best work on Bulgarian and European stages. It has received the prestigious “label” of EFFE (Europe for Festivals, Festival for Europe) and, in 2017, was among the 26 nominees for the award of this platform. The New Bulgarian Drama Festival, which is held in Shumen, is the most significant forum for the promotion of innovative playwriting. Antistatic International Festival for Contemporary Dance and Performance, which has recently established itself as a popular international platform, is of paramount importance to the development of new forms and practices in contemporary dance and performance. 


*Kamelia Nikolova (PhD), is a theatre researcher, historian and theatre critic. She is Professor of European Theatre and Head of Theatre Studies Department at the National Academy for Theatre and Film Arts, Sofia. She is also Research Fellow at the Theatre Department of the Institute of Art Studies, Bulgarian Academy of Sciences and a visiting professor at other universities. Her research and teaching interests are connected with the history of theatre, theory of drama and performance, and new theatre practices. The list of her publications includes ten books and many articles published in Bulgarian and international journals.

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(Re)Viewing Bulgarian Theatre of Today
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