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Theatrical Landscape of Bulgaria

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Theatrical Landscape of Bulgaria
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How Stanislawski fell into a coma and awoke again

by Violeta Detcheva

"The stone is inhabited. In the spacious nose and ear orifices, in the folds of the skin and uniform of the shattered image dwells the poorer population of the metropolis." (Heiner Müller). In Bulgarian theatre as well as in the other Eastern countries that inhabit the stone, radical changes took place – in its institutional structure, in the language on stage, in the preferred dramaturgy and in its relationship to the audience. The "new position" went through its great transformation in the 1990's. If the keyword was 'transformation' until 1990, it has been 'stability' for the past ten years. The theatre of the nineties used its performative experiences which it had gained in the second half of the 20th century and reacted to the consequences of socialism, as well as to the turmoil of the post communistic period. New directions appeared.

One of the most interesting new directions was the founding of Sfumato Theatre. The name derives from a phrase by Leonardo, which describes a way of drawing air. It was founded in 1988 as a reaction to the unstoppable late socialism. The stage directors Ivan Dobchev (*1947) and Margarita Mladenova (*1947) conceived it as a workshop, as a room for experiments. This was the beginning of a long research programme that is based on a new ethos. Both stage directors often talked of "reaching the holistic human".  In other words, this new theatre seems like a reaction to the deep ethical deficiency.

The loss of a transcendental horizon
The metaphysical view on the world determines what is researched for theatres. The rehearsal is the most important in the spirit of the theatres of Bruck, Grotowski and A. Wassiliew: the search and not the result. In their research programme "Tschewow", "Radichkow", "Jowkow" and "Myths" the aesthetic forms a poetic-ascetic theatre. The performances of key authors of European modernism and Bulgarian authors as well - like Jordan Jowkow, Jordan Radichkow, Konstantin Iliev and Bojan Papazow – express the inner world of the modern human, its deep and mental breaches, its disbelief and lost transcendental horizon.


One of Sfumatos' authors is Konstantin Iliev (*1937). By the end of the 80's he had written ten dramas and one novel. For these works a historicisation of the plot according to Brecht is typical, as well as leading the person into a situation that puts their ethnical decisions to the test. This applies to "Lame-Leg or Lupine Holy Mother" (1994), in which moments of Bulgarian history overlap each other, or to "Francesca" (2002), which is about an old woman who, after emotional stress, can "see" what happened in the past and is about to happen in the future. Konstantin Iliev’s dramas display fragmented topics and the breakdown of linear history in dramas.

We can observe the same process with another Bulgarian playwright, Bojan Papazow (1943) who uses the collage technique in his plays. "Incantation of fleas" (1999) is a complicated linkage of six monologues, which present the fates of a Bulgarian species. "Demon Sale" consists of 16 montage-like scenes in a simultaneous manner, in which different subcultures meet.

The breakdown of metaphysics after 1989
The breakdown of the metaphysical perspective denotes a new dominating direction of theatre after 1989. It consists of different stylistics.  A new generation of stage directors - Stefan Moskov (*1960), Javor Gardev (*1972), Lilija Abadjieva (*1966), Galin Stoev (*1969), Alexander Morfov (*1960) - bring playful, stereotypical subjects to the stage by bringing in their own experiences of communism and the post communistic world. This was the "Back to the future" (Boris Groys) of theatre.

Moskov, one of the founders of the first private theatre "La Strada", showed a postmodern subject that lives in the models of cinema industry and popular culture, by means of theatrical improvisations. His most successful works are "Romeo and Juliet", "Jam" and "The Street" (which was later filmed as a series and received an award in Montreux). It is the theatre of pastiche, as well as of buffoonery.

New logic of postmodern theatre
The productions of the stage director Lilija Abadjiewa correspond to the logic of postmodern theatre and the dance-visual theatre. She deconstructs classic works with the help of pop-culture hits – mostly Shakespeare and Goethe too. Morfow also shows the resistance against the emotive, sublimely beautiful body of the actor that is demanded by the socialistic stage in Shakespeare collages.

Morfov's style imitated the semi official theatre language of communism, whose symbol was the national theatre "Ivan Vasov". He was invited by the new director Vasil Stefanov as a stage director in 1993, his performances represented the signs of change. In the 90's both his and Stefan Moskovs names were very present. Moskov directed in Germany (Thalia Theatre Hamburg) and Morfov became the artistic director of the National Theatre.

Post communism and globalisation
One of the most interesting routes of present Bulgarian theatre has been set by stage director Javor Gardev, one of the founders of the "Triumviratus Art Group”, together with stage designer Nikola Toromanov (*1968) and writer Georgi Tenev (*1969). Gardev is a representative of a critically reflecting theatre, a strongly rhythmic-visual theatre, which thinks critically of the reality of post communism and globalisation. He uses the dominating cultural codes of society in his performances, whose aesthetic brings the audience’s attention to the present political problems.


A generation of authors write in the perspective of postmodern philosophy: Georgi Gospodinov (*1968), Georgi Tenev (*1969), Plamen Dojnov (*1969). They open up a new perspective on Bulgarian drama. The heritage of socialism was a part of the great inheritance of modernism, this is displayed in the prototypes of dramas which are performed. This is most noticeable in the play "D.J." (2003) by Gospodinov, one of the authors who has been of great importance in Bulgarian literature for the past 20 years. The author doesn't even describe it as a play, but as a "theatrical scratch". Just as "scratching" produces new music in a discotheque, the theatrical way of swirling around motives of the myths of Don Juan is supposed to create a new drama. The play was performed in Sofia as well as in Graz. The other author Georgi Tenev gave his texts ("Somnium Ulixis", "Atoll", "Grand Prix Europe", "Best European Radio Drama) form by using puns. Psychological theatre was marginalised and Stanislawski fell into a coma.

Reform ends in argument
A group of Bulgarian playwrights kept up the tradition of psychological drama, but the wide perspective was dropped. The plays of Jurij Datchev (*1963), Theodora Dimova (*1960), Jana Dobreva (*1962) and Petja Russeva(*1968)  focus on private stories. None of them gave up the linear fable.

After the fall of the communistic state the theatre system was left with insufficient financing, which only sustained the function of the building. The reform that started in the nineties and was supposed to free the theatres of state financing and partial sale to the communities, ended with a crash. The new directions were created in the midst of the dissolving state theatre structures. The first private theatre "La Strada" went bust. The famous Sfumato theatre is financed by the government, even though it aliments itself by means of European Projects. The system of the repertoire theatre has been maintained.

Missing the new is typical
The attitude that has won through since 1998, is the strive for pleasure and comfort, which is why I call it hedonistic. Although the stage directors who it's about are the leading names, the missing of the new is typical for the new situation. All in all the meanwhile known styles and the typical practises of the nineties dominate, whereby the development of dance theatre with the performances by Galina Borissova, Mila Iskrenova, Tatjana Setchanova, Rosen Michailov, Violeta Vitanova, Stanislav Genadiev must be added.

In straight theatre the interest in traditional genres was reanimated. In a new medialised version Stanislawski awoke from his coma. The present preference of Bulgarian theatre has to be considered in the context of the crucial cultural changes. The medialisation of the public, the expansion of entertainment culture as an effect of globalisation, the internet and new social classes have lead to different behaviours and a new attitude towards art. The arts are marginalised as a whole.

The leading idols, behaviour models and values were formed by the media and entertainment programmes. There is a new, hybrid audience at the theatres which differs in social classes and in ages, but don’t have a preference for a particular kind of theatre. Going to the theatre is a form of therapy and getaway. The critical thinking theatre is the least popular. As for the future? Meanwhile a new generation is making an advance on global reality and the global crisis, and we are expecting their theatre.

Back to the beginning

Read more about Alek Popov.

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