The ACT – Independent Theatre Festival still echoes

US guests to the the first edition of the ACT – Independent Theatre Festival Nathan Cooper and John Barry answer to Albena Tagareva’s questions about their reactions to their encounter with the Bulgarian fringe scene that took place in November 2011 in Sofia. 

Could you please introduce yourself? What is your occupation in the USA?

Nathan Cooper: Hello, my name is Nathan Cooper. I am the artistic director of Single Carrot Theatre in Baltimore, Maryland.

John Barry: My name is John Barry. I am a freelance journalist and an adjunct professor in the humanities.

Why did you decide to come to Bulgaria? What are you interested in?

N. C.: I decided to come to Bulgaria after having met Vasilena Radeva, co-founder of 36 Monkeys, in New York this last August. We had a great conversation about Bulgarian theatre, and found that Single Carrot and 36 Monkeys had much in common. As Vasilena went on to explain the Independent Theatre scene to me, I became rather excited about all that is happening in Bulgarian Theatre. Philip Arnoult, director of The Center for International Development, suggested that I come and attend the ACT Festival and Vasilena agreed with this idea. Several months later, I found myself immersed in Independent Bulgarian Theatre.

J. B.: I came to Bulgaria as a theatre writer interested in learning about how independent artists in Bulgaria managed to establish themselves as a presence.

 Do you think that the Bulgarian theatre should take on the American one as a model in some way?

N. C.: I don’t think that the Bulgarian theatre should take on an American model entirely, because the system in America is really hard to navigate and at times forces theatres to make artistic choices based on business implications. The American system creates an environment where theatres are so focused on making enough money each year to remain open, that it is easy to sacrifice artistic integrity. Theatres with large budgets either have to earn money from tickets and programs each year, or spend a good deal of energy. I have a very basic understanding of the system in Bulgaria, but to me the idea of subsidies being offered to theatres to ensure that they can produce top quality art, while keeping tickets affordable seems like a great concept. I think if there were some ways to merge the two systems that would be best for both countries. I think whatever happens the Bulgarian system should make changes so that new theatres have the opportunity to show their work, and to make a home for themselves. That is one thing in the American system that I think can be taken.

J. B.: I think the Bulgarian theatre could look towards American Theatre for tips on self-promotion. While you have a faithful audience, I think you could easily expand it with a little work.

Do you think that the Bulgarian and American theatres could make any relationship and in what aspect?

N. C.: I think there is a good potential for Bulgarian and American theatres to make relationships. It’s hard to say exactly what these relationships might turn out to be, but I could see some sort of exchange system where artists from two theatres go and immerse themselves in the theatre of another country for a certain amount of time. I could also see great potential in inviting Bulgarian directors to American Theatres to direct plays here in the States. However it happens, it is important that the individual artist see eye to eye. Relationships between theatres can’t be forced, and shouldn’t be rushed. I think the most meaningful relationships will be the ones that last longer than one project.

J.B.: I think that the relationship could be developed artistically, since Americans I have talked to have already been looking for new advice on training. But those trips will probably be sporadic. Keeping up a dialogue and a network is essential. Americans need to know what people their age are doing in other countries.

You have had the possibility to join meetings and discussions between Bulgarian artists and other foreign guests. Do you think these meetings are necessary?

N. C.: As an American I didn’t find these meetings necessary to my work in the US, primarily because of the differences between the Bulgarian and American systems, however I think that the meetings were essential for Bulgarian and European artists. There is no clear way to move forward navigating the changing landscape of Bulgarian theatre without these kinds of conversations. Ideas are being born today in these meetings that will grow up to be changes to the system. These ideas need to be tested and discussed in order for them to grow up to be sustainable. One thing I found to be especially of interest was the conversation with the Culture of Ministry, this inspired me to talk to my local government about offering more support for theatre in Baltimore.

J. B.: Yes. The meetings were, I hope, initial phases in a long relationship.

You have had the opportunity to see Bulgarian performances for 5 days. Could you generalize your impressions?

N. C.: I was impressed overall with the quality of work presented at the festival. It is clear that there is a strong tradition of training, and that this is a director’s theatre in Bulgaria. I feel that the concepts of shows and the integration of all elements were especially strong. While I didn’t care for each show, I could see that much thought and expression were being put into the work. Everything therefore has purpose and meaning, and I find this to be a very rich kind of experience in the theatre.

J. B.:
Wild. Visionary. Risky. Uncompromising. Chaotic. Inspiring. Uneven. Inspired.

Do you have a favorite show from the festival program?

N. C.: I have several favorites, but I will list them in order of my preference for you:

Dagmar the Dead or the Little Match Girl by ghostdog:

The play was slightly absurd, slightly existential, and always engaging. The production was highly stylized, and continuously surprised me both with plot and direction. The world of the play was entirely unique and continued to unfold and develop until the end of the play. I felt that this was one of the strongest productions in the festival with equally good direction, design, and performances.

P.O. Box Unabomber by Zdrava Kamenova and Gergana Dimitrova, 36 Monkeys

This piece had some of the most creative integration of technology and design I saw in the festival. Overall I found it to be one of the best developed productions.

Strings by DUNE Dance Company choreography by Petya Stoykova:

This piece stirred a wide range of reactions in me, and proved to have a fluid arch that touched many aesthetics and emotions. The themes were accessible and immediate, and the production was inviting and engaging from start to finish.

J. B.: Hard question, because of the variety. Text-heavy pieces for obvious reasons made less of an impression.  For me, the most impressive shows: “A.S.A.”, “Juanita Hildegard Bo”, “Ball”, “Prophecy”.

The visit of the American theatre professionals to ACT – Independent Theatre Festival was realized in the frame of the Program for Artistic Exchange between Bulgaria and the USA. The program is run by Art Office Foundation and is supported by the Ministry of Culture – Bulgaria and America For Bulgaria Foundation. 

 Гостуването на американските театрали е осъществено в рамките на Програмата за артистичен обмен между България и САЩ. Програмата се администрира от Фондация „Арт Офис” с финансовата подкрепа на Министерството на културата и Фондация „Америка за България”.