The festival is a kaleidoscope of the theatre scene

 The Varna Summer International Theatre Festival for a thirty-second time! Just before its upbeat the festival director Nikolay Iordanov and main coordinator Asen Terziev talk about this year’s edition with Jacqueline Dobreva.

The 32nd edition of the Varna Summer International Theatre Festival will take place from 1 to 15 June 2024. This year’s programme again presents a variety of productions from Bulgaria and Europe. What is the message and character of the festival this year? 

Nikolay Iordanov: Every year the festival tries to capture events that have happened in the last one or two seasons on the Bulgarian stage, and also to present interesting international performances that show the Bulgarian audience high artistic achievements, nonconventional forms of theatre, hybrid forms between theatre and music, theatre and dance. I would say that the festival is a kaleidoscope, which tries to cover above all the actuality of the theatre scene. It is very difficult for festivals in Bulgaria to subordinate their entire programme to only one direction and to a strictly defined thematic line. So it is this diversity of topical and interesting theatre events that is at the heart of the festival this year.

Nikolay Iordanov Photo: BGNES

We can notice a strong presence of one-man shows in the festival programme as well as in the theatres’ repertoire in general. In your opinion, what provokes theatre makers’ preference for this format today?

Nikolay Iordanov: This is an important question. This year there is really a strong presence of both Bulgarian and international one-man shows. First of all, they arouse our interest, but in a broader perspective, I think we should notice how in recent years, along with the still existing director’s theatre, we have also noticed the development of the actor’s theatre.

Asen Terziev: The solo performance is a preferred form by actors because it serves as a stimulus for the expression of their qualities, and this genre is not for every actor. What I notice on the contemporary theatre scene is that this format is used by theatre makers to express something very personal and honest about themselves. One such example is the guest performance from Hungary, Living the Dream with Grandma. The performance is a public confession of the young László Göndör, who not only performs in the show but is also its author and director. In the programme we can also notice solo performances based on modern classics such as Happy Days by Beckett and Easter Wine by Bulgarian playwright Konstantin Iliev. On the other hand, the performances with the participation of Vesela Babinova and Elena Telbis are based on contemporary plays and raise many topical issues related to the place of women in contemporary society. Indeed, this year’s programme is very saturated with this form and we are looking forward to the audience’s reaction to both the Bulgarian and international performances.

A highlight of the international programme is the guest appearance of the multimedia concert Chaplin Pianissimo with the special participation of Charlie Chaplin’s son – Eugene Chaplin. What are the challenges you face as organisers to present such large scale production?

Nikolay Iordanov: I would summarize the challenges in two directions. In this case it is a Swiss performance and the standard there is very different from the one in Bulgaria. I have mentioned many times that the technical conditions on Bulgarian stages still lag behind world standards. Another challenge we face is the system of subsidising Bulgarian state theatres, which currently encourages mainly commercial productions, and this leads to a loss of audience interest in more innovative forms of theatre. It is increasingly risky for us, as festival organisers, to programme shows outside the traditional commercial theatre that the Bulgarian audience is already used to. Educating the audience in a different type of aesthetic attitude to the performances is part of the difficulty.

Asen Terziev: The guest appearance of this performance is part of the joint programme “Intermezzo” of our theatre festival and the Varna Summer International Music Festival. The programme between the two festivals seeks to present productions on the border between music and theatre. Chaplin Pianissimo in Bulgaria is made possible thanks to the partnership with the agency that organizes its presentation in Sofia and Plovdiv – Upi Agency and Art Productions. The performance has been touring European stages for a long time and now we are happy that it will be shown in Bulgaria. It was created by Chaplin’s son and is dedicated to his music – Chaplin himself composed the music for his films. The show also includes personal stories that only someone close to him can tell. It is a challenge to create these partnerships and contacts, without which it would not have been possible to host such a great star.

Asen Terziev

Alongside live performances, the festival continues to show screenings from the NT Live – the best of British theatre on screen programme, as well as online streaming of theatre performances. How do audiences respond to such kinds of presentations? In what ways do these formats influence their perceptions?

Nikolay Iordanov: We started to stream performances online during the COVID pandemic and we noticed that there is interest in this form of presentation. Webcasts give tempted theatregoers the opportunity to see productions that are not that accessible. Thus the festival is growing its audience as anyone in the country can watch these productions from our website And the performances on the NT Live programme show a very high artistic standard, filmed in a wonderful way.

Asen Terziev: In the modern world people are used to accessing theatre events through various media and online platforms. Theatre is now part of the digital age, especially after the COVID pandemic, when streaming performances on the internet has become the main way to keep in touch with the audience. However, screenings and streaming of theatre performances are not seen as substitutes for the live experience, as theatre is a living art that is born and dies at a specific moment. However, digital streaming make it possible to show performances that could not otherwise be seen live, because some of them do not even tour. Technology has evolved so much that it can be a good tool when it is impossible to watch a performance live. These digital programme provides a unique opportunity for Bulgarian audiences to experience and develop an interest in world theatre.

A panel discussion on Censorship: past and present will be held during the festival.  What are your observations – why do theatre professionals find this topic relevant now?

Nikolay Iordanov: The festival has always strived to engage its guests and participants in a dialogue alongside the presentation of performances and other artistic events. This year we decided to make a discussion within the Bulgarian Showcase programme, in which everyone can offer their reflection in the form of statements and questions on the big issue of censorship. And it is not by chance that we titled the panel discussion Censorship: past and present. When we talk about totalitarian societies, things are very clear there. They are dominated by ideological censorship. And does censorship exist in democratic societies today? And in what form? That is one of the subtle questions. And here we will have different opinions, it is interesting to hear them.

Along with this panel discussion, I would also like to point out the interesting conversation on 2nd June  about the theatre of director Ivan Stanev, who unfortunately recently passed away. The participants are people who worked with him, people from the festival, critics, observers, etc.

As long-time organizers of the festival, do you think the audience’s attitude and interest in theatre has changed over the years?

Nikolay Iordanov: This interest cannot be accurately measured except by the full auditoriums, but we can undoubtedly notice that the generations are changing and with them the preferences. Audiences keep up with the times and this is somewhat reflected in our choice of performances from the programme. Yes, we can say that audiences are growing up and broadening their horizons, but increasingly there is the pressure of mass production that literally shapes their taste every day.

Asen Terziev: Over the last twenty years the audience in Varna has evolved and changed significantly. When I became part of the team, the theatre goers seemed to be less interested in the international programme but now this is no longer the case. Over time the audience has certainly become more open and tolerant of different forms and new ideas.

The Varna Summer International Theatre Festival 2024 opens on 1st June at 19:30 h on the main stage of the Varna Drama Theatre with “Easter Wine” by Konstantin Iliev, directed by Javor Gardev, a production of “Ivan Vazov” National Theatre.

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