Nadya Pancheva on ‘I Am My Own Wife’: We Need the Example of Strong Real Personalities

Director Nadya Pancheva shares in an interview with Anita Angelova her motivations for working on documentary plays and tell about the research process for Doug Wright’s play ‘I Am My Own Wife,’ starring Dimitar Angelov.

Doug Wright’s plays are rarely staged in Bulgaria. One of his plays presented in Sofia is ‘Quills’. When I compare it to ‘I Am My Own Wife,’ it seems that Wright focuses on individuals who have done something extraordinarily different and unacceptable to the society they live in. What drew you to this text and particularly to the story of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf?

What particularly attracted me to Charlotte’s story is that it provides an example for living during wartime or under repressive regimes. She is not merely someone who exists or survives in these regimes; she is a target of them. She was aggressively attacked, labeled, and subjected to psychological and physical aggression. I don’t know if we realize this, but I thought that when you are attacked, the reflex is to respond with aggression. The amazing thing about Charlotte is that she responds with empathy. She creates a safe space around herself for people who are marginalized like her or who are also targets of repressive regimes. This drew me in and made me think about our contemporary world, where there are still conflicts, and people are marginalized and attacked. We are part of a global society; we cannot bury our heads in the sand.

We, too, are searching for a key to survival, a meaningful way of living in this reality, and we need examples. Perhaps we need symbols like Charlotte. She shows how to respond to aggression as young people, as modern people, how to survive. Revolution and rebellion don’t always yield results. Most of us have participated in protests and revolutionary committees, but over time, this wears out, and one starts looking for other ways to fight that are also valid and useful.

The story of someone like Charlotte, who despite everything manages to create and find creative strength within herself in a repressive regime, seemed extremely interesting and important to tell.

Снимка: Стефан Здравески

What were your thoughts and approaches during the work on the play related to reflecting on the socialist past and its influence on contemporary society?

During the process, we talked a lot about how we reflect on our socialist past. This is not something that can be changed overnight by artificially changing the regime. This regime has nurtured people who still live and are nourished by its ideas.

Honestly, it was interesting to figure out what means to approach this topic. Although we are not live witnesses of this epoch, we feel it from the distance of time, sensing its volume and tyranny. I was afraid of looking too ironically at this time because it is easy to mock it from a contemporary perspective. Even though this regime is now in the past and has collapsed, it still exists to a certain extent but is not in its active power. This was an interesting directorial challenge – together with Dimitar to find the balance, to feel the time without treating it with excessive irony because this topic is not a joke.

I know that you and actor Dimitar Angelov went to Germany for thorough research. What did you learn there and what part of what you saw did you include in the performance?

Dimitar and I decided to go to Berlin because we were making a play about a real person. We went to Charlote’s Museum in Mahlsdorf. This was important to immerse ourselves in its atmosphere. Although she is no longer there, the museum still carries her essence. It’s very interesting that upon entering this house, you feel her presence like a ghost. Just entering, you can imagine her. This helped me a lot intuitively, and I suppose Dimitar as well. There aren’t many interviews with her, but there is one film about her that we watched.

Another thing that made a strong impression on us was visiting the Stasi Museum. One of the themes in the play is about her beloved Alfred, who was crushed and destroyed by the Stasi. She never managed to save him and feels guilty about it. The Stasi Museum is very large, with numerous rooms that overwhelm you with their weight. Everything is very well done, with many human stories told in a documentary and detailed manner. We were overwhelmed when we left.

These two contrasting worlds – Charlotte’s, which is a cheerful and beautiful corner, and the Stasi – a symbol of heavy repression, give you a clear idea of her life and the parallel energy that flowed through it. It was definitely useful.

Снимка: Стефан Здравески

How would you describe her struggle for self-determination in the context of the historical period?

She is very interesting to me because I don’t see in her biography a moment of inner torment about being a transvestite. She is one of those people born in a male body but has an exceptional feminine energy, I would say motherly. She creates a museum where she preserves items and creates a home for people identifying with the LGBTQ+ community. She is like a global mother, which is very endearing.

The LGBTQ+ theme is organically addressed in the play. We see a sense of freedom. Charlotte feels completely free, and when different regimes label her and try to hurt her, she turns it into a game. She is not ashamed of who she is, and I liked that very much as a life-affirming aspect of the play.

In your opinion, what is the role of theater in telling stories about marginalized groups, and how can it contribute to a better understanding of LGBTQ+ issues?

From my active theater attendance over the past decade, I can hardly recall many attempts in this direction. Of course, there are performances like Neda Sokolovska’s verbatim theater, which focused on the documentary stories of participants in the first Pride in Bulgaria. When we were creating this performance, it was clear that it would belong to this type of plays actively engaging with discrimination and pressure on this group. But I really liked that the play did not have a flat rebellion with slogans like “Give us rights because we deserve them.” Instead, we subtly hinted that these people are here and there is nothing wrong or scary about it. Everything was done in a light-hearted manner. There were no attacks on homophobes, which I appreciate because it is wrong to approach with aggression or pointing fingers. This is not the way to overcome prejudices. Just as one person can experience aggression, you would respond in the same way, and I don’t think that is a dialogue that will lead to anything useful for society.

It is important not to speak flatly only about sexual orientation or identity but to present them as part of a larger picture. This makes the play more valuable and impactful because people can see these themes as a natural part of the character’s life, rather than a primary focus.

Many of your productions are based on American drama, dealing with interpersonal relationships. Now you are venturing into documentary theater. Your latest production is dedicated to the Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya. How did documentary theater capture your attention, and how does working on this type of drama differ from staging plays by David Mamet or Neil LaBute, which you have previously directed?

Interestingly, it all started with the text “I Am My Own Wife”, and then came the text about Anna Politkovskaya. It found me through the producer Kremena Dimitrova, who invited me. I’m not sure it was such a conscious path—to stop with full fiction and start with documentaries—but things aligned intuitively along the lines of the political and the highly social. This led to new titles that emerged in my mind. I don’t think it was a deliberate choice at the beginning, but once I started making such performances, they began to attract others like a magnet. I now have an idea for a new production, but I don’t know when and where I will realize it because I need to find the right team. It is also about a documentary personality—the secretary of Goebbels, who was found at 92 years old and gave an interview. Christopher Hampton is writing a play about her. The play is also intended as a monodrama and is highly political and documentary.

There is something different in the feeling. Perhaps even the research itself, drawing from a real person who carries within them the realistic strength of a real person who leaves a real mark and resonates in people’s minds to this day. On the other hand, you bounce off reality and add an artistic underpinning to create your own play based on this person, and thus several layers build up in the consciousness. Staging something like this unleashes an energy that piques my curiosity. Lately, not only have I been working on such plays, but I’ve also started watching almost exclusively films about real people.

Perhaps there is something about our time that is extremely confusing, and we are all wondering where to go and what to do with our lives. I feel a need, at least for myself, to tell stories about real people to remind us that great and valuable examples are not only imaginary but have happened and can happen again. Otherwise, one can easily fall into despair and think that there is no point in doing theater or art. We are constantly searching for some drop of meaning to hold on to. Right now, for me, it’s like a straw guiding me.

Watch “I Am My Own Wife” a production by SPAM Studios, on June 5 at 8:00 PM as part of the Showcase program with English subtitles.

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