Fragile Worlds: Zafir Radjab on “Tribes”

Interview by Anita Angelova with director Zafir Radjab about his journey to the play “Tribes” by Nina Rain produced by the “Bulgarian Army” Theatre.

Recently, many new plays have been introduced in Bulgaria. Thanks to translators, many of these reach theatres and directors. How did you discover “Tribes” and why did you decide to stage the play?

I was in a period of searching for texts and was looking for such ones that genuinely moved me and that I felt a need to bring to the stage. I went through a very long period of searching and reading English and German-language plays. At one point, I came across this text. I had earmarked it for a long time because I saw that it had been awarded and appreciated by many people over the years, staged in various countries.

From the first read, “Tribes” made me laugh and cry simultaneously and made me think. It was absolutely everything I needed as a reader. I saw that it insisted on having its stage manifestation. That’s when I decided to stage it. It is a universal play, not limited to a specific audience range. It is broad-spectrum.

I received an invitation from the “Bulgarian Army” Theatre and thought that this was the play and the venue. I had already familiarized myself with the work of the author; I had read her first play “Rabbit,” which is also very interesting. After that, I read her other texts, which are really at a very high level. But “Tribes” is the play with which she ascends in the ranks of English dramaturgy.

Photo: Boris Urumov

I’ve noticed that before you start working on a production, you spend a lot of time in preparation. What does this involve, and how does preliminary consideration help with the result?

My pre-production process involves an extremely long process. I don’t know if it’s because I don’t have enough experience as a director or because I’m that kind of person by nature or because that’s how I was taught by my directing teachers.

After reading the play, I need to visualize it in my head beforehand to know what I’m doing. In any case, I must completely familiarize myself with the author’s work to find out for myself why she wrote this text, what she wanted to say with it, and what it brings her. I need to explain it to myself.

Before I start working with the actors, I need to know everything – where, how, and in what way things will happen, to create an absolute scheme of the rehearsals so that I am ready for the entire process. I need to be prepared for any possible theatrical mishap and have a rescue plan. Only good preparation can help me get out of such a situation and save the performance without compromising myself and my product. I need to know in advance what the visual aspect of the performance will look like so that I can build it in my head. When I have such a developed scheme, it is much easier for me in my work with the actors – I know where I’m leading them. Of course, all this can change; there is no dictatorship in my directing, but I need to know in advance how the composition of the frame is laid out. I try to frame on stage. This is important so that neither the actors nor I get lost. The next thing I need to know categorically is what the whole thought is. Why am I doing it? What do I want to tell? How do I want to provoke? I need to have a categorical goal; otherwise, I can’t start working. I need to know in advance the technical parameters of the theatre to minimize compromises. Before starting work on the production, we discuss everything with the set designer, composer, and production dramaturg. Before casting, everything must be checked, as we did for “Tribes” with set designer Elis Veli – we checked whether the theatre stage would meet our requirements.

The next part of the preparation involves creating a timeline of the plot action and a hypothetical biography of the characters for me, matching the thought I am trying to express with the performance. I need to find a clear, categorical conflict in the play, to discover the characters’ fears, their tasks, their super-objectives. This helps me look at the play from every angle. My acting profession allows me to play out the entire play myself, as absurd as that sounds. This is not transferred onto the actors, but it is important for me to test things on myself before experimenting with them.

Photo: Boris Urumov

You mentioned that you want to provoke the audience in a certain way. What provocation did you aim for with “Tribes”? Although the play is not entirely focused on the theme of deafness, what provoked you to pay attention to such a social group?

The truth is that the theme of the different, of people who often remain isolated from society, has always occupied me. I have always had enormous respect and awe for people with disabilities who, despite everything, have found a formula to live with their problem, being an adequate part of society. These people have always inspired me.

The play is not only about deafness and disability in general. It features people whom I would personally say suffer from parental disability. We see a person who suffers from mental illnesses, another who is going deaf, and a third suffering from social disability – a lack of ability to communicate normally with people. In other words, it is a play about people with disabilities who are not so far from every second person we meet on the street.

What saddened and deeply hurt me at the first reading of the play is the inability of these people to find the right form to love each other. It is a micro war in a domestic atmosphere. This type of social wars can be passed down from generation to generation, leading to tragedy and destruction. Genocide on the micro-particle in society. This saddens and terrifies me.

If we look at absolutely all the people who are causing wars in the world, actual wars, and trace their childhood and their family circle, we will find the reasons they got to where they are and caused what they caused.

Photo: Boris Urumov

What is the reason for the frequent use of cinematographic elements in your performances? There is a noticeable repetition in the set design and the composition of the actors.

I love this method of work and find something very genuine in it. At times, the documentary nature of the visual side of the performance makes me believe more in what I am watching. I have a problem with the stylization in theatre; I don’t believe in it. Not because I lose the child in me and the magical world in my head, but it is something like a generational defect. With the presence of new technologies, streaming platforms, the way things already look, stylization lose value in the theatre. I need to achieve visual truthfulness through my performances. In cinema, they are minimized, and I want it to be the same in the theatre. There are texts that give this opportunity, and “Tribes” is one of them. In the future, I will try to move in this direction because it interests me.

Watch “Tribes” by Nina Raine, directed by Zafir Radjab, on June 6 at 19:00 and June 7 at 18:30 at the Drama Theatre – Main Stage as part of Bulgarian Selection and Showcase programme.

Bulgarian Theatre Showcase project is supported by National Culture Fund.

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