Before the start of Varna Summer International Theatre Festival 2023, Desislava Vassileva talked with its director Nikolay Iordanov and the main coordinator Asen Terziev about the general picture and the goals of the forum this year.
The opening of the 31st edition of the Varna Summer International Theatre Festival is just around the corner. This year’s programme is very rich, and besides Bulgarian performances, we find the constant presence of foreign companies. What guided your selection this year?
Nikolay Iordanov: The festival is like a system of interconnected vessels. It consists of different programmes structured in modules, and separately we offer joint projects with the Varna Summer Music Festival, and there is a bridge between the theatre festival and the World Theatre in Sofia platform as well. Moreover, the programme consists of live performances, cinema screenings and online streaming of international theatre productions, not to mention the accompanying events. And what has guided us throughout this complex combination of artistic works and creative energies, is the quality of the productions and the original artistic signature. Of course, we also take into account the conditions we have in Varna – this year, for example, the Second Stage of the Drama Theatre is under reconstruction, and for two of the productions programmed within the World Theatre in Sofia, there is simply no technical possibility to invite them to Varna. These are Love by the Italian interdisciplinary artist Pippo Delbono and Life is a Dream by Calderon, created by the celebrated creative tandem Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod.
Asen Terziev: Indeed, this year’s selection was guided first by artistic considerations and second by pragmatic constraints. The idea of Varna Summer Theatre Festival is to be a celebration of theatre; to present the achievements of the Bulgarian stage, as well as to introduce the audience to interesting and innovative theatre productions from around the world. The selection includes some of the most talked-about titles in Bulgarian theatre from the last season, such as the National Theatre’s stirring Orpheus or Plovdiv Theatre’s spectacular and poetic Silk – the first Bulgarian staging to be selected for the World Theatre Olympiad, which is taking place in Hungary this year, as well as many other performances.
We are expecting many international guests at this edition, so we have tried to gather what we believe best represents Bulgarian theatre culture today. As Nikolay Iordanov also mentioned, the pragmatic considerations are related to the ongoing but necessary renovation of Drama Theatre’s Second Stage. Therefore, we had to look for other venues and spaces in the city where we can present interesting theatrical events. There is a very strong emphasis on outdoor performances this year. We have a special Czech programme of three street performances, which the people in Varna will be able to see on the central “Nezavisimost” Square.
Within the festival, guests of Varna can also visit several exhibitions, such as the kinetic installation “Peripatetic” by Venelin Shurelov, who has been partnering the festival for many years as an author of its posters. Do you think more attention should be paid to such initiatives?
Nikolay Iordanov: We have been working with Venelin Shurelov for years. He is not only the designer of the festival poster, but we have programmed many of his performances, actions, installations over the years. “Peripatetic” is a similar event and it is even on the poster of the festival this year.
I think the role of a festival is to push the boundaries of the art it presents. That is why performative stage forms, actions in alternative spaces, hybrid performances between theatre, dance and music always find a place in the festival selection. And yes, I think more attention should be paid to such forms, because when they are talentedly created, they open up unexpected directions in the development of the art forms.
Asen Terziev: Of course! Theatre does not exist in a vacuum and that is why we maintain a special module in the programme – Parallel Programme – dedicated to events bordering on theatre: exhibitions, conferences, workshops, concerts, performances, etc.
This year Varna Summer Theatre Festival hosts the workshop for young theatre critics, organized by the International Association of Theatre Critics. The workshop is led by renowned theatre critics Jean-Pierre Hahn and Ivan Medenica. Tell us more about the organization of such a large-scale event and its purpose.
Nikolay Iordanov: Critical reflection is often the focus of the events accompanying the festival. This is the second workshop for young theatre critics that we organize together with the International Association of Theatre Critics -IATC. This year it was initiated by the Homo Ludens Foundation, which implemented this project with the support of the National Culture Fund. When we were offered this module, we gladly accepted it, because it is an opportunity for young theatre critics to develop additional skills, and on the other hand – within the festival they will have the opportunity to get acquainted with Bulgarian theatre productions. The workshop mentors are recognized professionals with extensive international experience.
Asen Terziev: This workshop for young critics is an initiative with a rich tradition maintained by the International Association of Theatre Critics. Such workshops are often held at international festivals. They provide a unique opportunity for young people writing about theatre to get acquainted with a theatre culture different from their own and to test their pen under the mentorship of established professionals. In my student years I participated in several such seminars – I learnt a lot from them, and some of the people I met are now respected critics working for various theatres and festivals.
The programme includes also an international conference as well as open meetings, and we should certainly mention the lecture “New Trends in Performance Analysis” by prof. Patrice Pavis. What are the main messages that you would like to send to the professional theatre community and the ordinary spectator with these events?
Nikolay Iordanov: Both the international conference “Rethinking the theatre heritage from the time of communism” and the open lecture of prof. Patrice Pavis are an important part of the festival programme. For us, the festival is not just about showing good and interesting performances, but it is a space for work, for further accumulation, for creative meetings and debates. Anyone who is curious about these events is welcome to attend. The message to the theatre community is that we need to be active in making sense of theatre, and of the complex and contradictory world around us.
Asen Terziev: We would be very happy if more spectators, not only professionals, would join these events. The guests are interesting and the topics are varied. Perhaps the main message is that theatre is a space for reflection, it helps us to understand ourselves better.
This year the festival includes online streaming of performances together with the World Theatre in Sofia platform. Viewers will be able to experience five foreign productions by prominent European theatre artists. What made you want to continue with the online streaming and do you find it workable?
Nikolay Iordanov: You know that in 2020, under the conditions of the Covid restrictions, we held both the Varna Summer Theatre Festival and the World Theatre in Sofia platform entirely online. The advantage is that we can show in this way performances that we could not invite to Bulgaria for financial or technical reasons. Or simply because they are no longer performed on stage. And we offer a free access to them on the territory of the whole country. The success we’d had with these digital editions, when we saw how many viewers watched them, has encouraged us to continue with the streaming. This year we are showing earlier performances by Jernej Lorenci, Declan Donnellan, and Pippo Delbono, whose new work we are presenting in Varna and Sofia. This way the audience can get to know their work much more comprehensively. For second year we are also streaming performances from the contemporary Hungarian scene – we owe it to our good cooperation with the Hungarian Cultural Institute. We intend to continue this practice in the future – the festival will take place in theatre halls, alternative stages, open spaces in the city and on the internet.
Asen Terziev: The modern world is dominated by mass media and the technological progress cannot be turned back. We look to make the most of the new digital opportunities in the way that makes the most sense to us. On the Internet one can experience great performances that can no longer be seen live, which is why we have chosen to show productions by the three great theatre artists mentioned above, who are present in the programmes of Varna Summer Festival and World Theatre in Sofia. And the performances of Budapest’s Madács Theatre are designed specifically to be viewed on the screen, not on the stage – such is the theatre’s original programme of filmed performances dedicated to major figures of Hungarian literature.