US Director Andrew Volkoff: Bulgarians' Love and Respect for Theater Artists Is Overwhelming
An exclusive interview of Novinite.com (Sofia News Agency) and Novinite.bg from New York City with drama director Andrew Volkoff.
Andrew Volkoff is an US freelance theatre director, currently living and working in New York City.
A Milwaukee native, he has graduated from Macalester College with B.A. in Theatre and French, and has worked as Freelance Director at the Milwaukee Chamber Theatre and as Associate Artistic Director at the Barrington Stage Company.
Volkoff, who has Bulgarian roots, just directed John Kolvenbach's play "LOVE SONG" at the "Nikolay Binev" Youth Theater in the Bulgarian capital Sofia. The main parts are played by Bulgarian actors Silviya Lulcheva, Svetoslav Dobrev, Nikolay Lukanov, and Elena Bardarska.
LOVE SONG is a romantic comedy dedicated to ways love changes our lives.
The production is funded by the Foundation "America for Bulgaria" and the US Embassy in Sofia. This is the first time a play was performed in Bulgaria under the "American-Bulgarian Directors Exchange" program. The fact that the text is in Bulgarian and the director is American presented a particular challenge.
The opening night in Sofia was on February 8, 2012.
How did you end up in Bulgaria? Tell us more about the exchange program.
Back in February 2011, I received an email from Roger Danforth at the Drama League (an arts organization that promotes the development of audiences and artists through unique programs) asking if, as an alumni of the Drama League's Directors Project, I would be interested in participating in a directors exchange with the Youth Theatre in Sofia. Being half Bulgarian myself, I leapt at the chance to not only experience how another culture makes and perceives theatre, but also to make a journey that helped me explore my heritage, having never been to Bulgaria before.
The exchange is program established between the Drama League (overseen by Gabriel Shanks and Roger Danforth) in the US and the Art Office Bulgaria (led by the fantastic Kalina Wagenstein) to foster international artistic dialogue and exchange. I am honored to be the first director to participate in the program and I believe that they are now searching for an opportunity to bring a Bulgarian director over to the US as well as bring another director over from the U.S. to work in Bulgaria.
How much time did you spent in Bulgaria?
I spent 3 months in Bulgaria, working for the first month with Petar Kaukov on his super production of Love and Money, and then focusing the rest of the time on mounting the production of Love Song.
And something more about the play?
In searching for a play to bring to Bulgaria, Petar and I had a couple of conversations about what they were looking for at the Nikolai Binev and I had some thoughts about what I was interested in doing. I read several plays and interestingly enough, when I proposed Love Song, Petar mentioned that it was already on his short list of plays to do. So, a match! I think what attracted me most to this comedy was its hopeful, encouraging message not just about love, but about life. I think ultimately it begs the audience to look at their lives, whether they be lonely or full of activity, and actually step back and judge them and ask "Is this what I want? Is this truly a full life? Am I living?" and letting them know that they have the power in themselves to make that change in their lives.
What is your experience in working with Bulgarian actors? Are they different than American ones?
Well, working in Bulgaria is inherently different than working in America just based on the fact that you're working in a different culture. And though I think each culture has different traditions of theatre, ultimately I think actors from both countries strive to search for truth in their performances. Performance styles differ, of course, but at their heart, actors in both countries both want the same things: to connect their audiences and to move them. The actors I worked with (who were all exceptional, I was SO lucky to work with them!) will tell you my mantra is "less is more", so I always encourage the actors to perform more in a realistic, psychologically based style. I feel it engages the audience more because it invites them it and allows them to see themselves in the actor.
How was opening night? Your impression of the Bulgarian audiences?
Opening night was thrilling and terrifying at the same time. I've had numerous openings, but none was quite as exciting and nerve-wracking! Working on comedy is hard enough in one's own language, let alone one you don't speak. And the comedy also has an emotional center – would that come through to the Bulgarian audience? In the end, the opening night audience was very enthusiastic and I was gratified and relieved that the work that we had done as an ensemble really came through. I had achieved my goal which was to make a Bulgarian audience laugh and cry even though I don't speak the language!
Bulgarian audiences are amazing! Cultivating an audience for theatre in America is a constant challenge, but in Bulgaria it's going strong. Perhaps it's because of the repertory system, perhaps because there's such a strong cultural tradition of theatre going, whatever the reason, it was great to see so many enthusiastic supporters of the theatre out every night. And the love and respect they have for theatre artists is overwhelming. The standing ovations and numerous bows prove just how engaged they are as theatre goers.
And how did you find Bulgaria, Sofia, and Bulgarian people?
The Bulgarian people are some of the warmest, welcoming people I've ever met. The folks at the theatre really took me under their wing and I became family with them. Their incredible generosity when I was trying to decorate my apartment and tree for Christmas was truly heartwarming. They made all the difference in making this trip a huge success. And yes, I miss them terribly!
I was surprised at the mix of architecture in Sofia – the ancient ruins, the Viennese influenced buildings and the Communist construction. Since I didn't quite know what to expect, I thought the mixture of styles added to the texture of the city. Turning a corner in the city always surprised me with some new and interesting facet of Sofia I hadn't yet discovered. But I'd love to return to Bulgaria in the spring or summer when I can avoid the snow... (laughs). I imagine it's even more lovely then.
What are you most memorable experiences, now when you are back home in NYC?
Well, I don't think I've ever seen as much theatre in those three months as I did while I was in Bulgaria! That was astounding! The National Theatre, Sfumato, Theatre 199 and of course the Nikolay Binev... Just an incredible variety of stories and styles! And along that line, I'll never forget being up onstage to take a bow at the premiere of Love Song. I've never had that opportunity before and it was incredibly moving. Appearing on Bulgarian national television was pretty incredible as well. But beyond that, there's the food: the amazing Sunday dinners with my scenographer, Elena Ivanova, which were always special; getting banitza on the street (ordinarily I could only get it if I made it for the holidays back in the US); and the taste I developed for rakiya, which I actually bought out of the back of a car at one point in my trip! Plovdiv at night was particularly spectacular as was an autumn trip to Staro Selo near Troyan. Going out on the town with the actors was a blast, especially to Hambara – we have nothing like it in New York!
But the thing I truly remember most was performing an old city song with Stanka Kalcheva at the theatre's Christmas party and reciting "az sum bulgarche" (editor's note: "I Am a Young Bulgarian" - a famous poem by prominent Bulgarian writer Ivan Vazov) for a room of screaming, hooting, supportive Bulgarian friends.
What about your Bulgarian background? Where does the name come from – were your parents Bulgarian? Do you feel more Bulgarian now?
Well, that's quite a story. My father is Bulgarian, born in America to my grandparents who emigrated from Bulgaria in the early 1900's. When I first arrived in Bulgaria, everyone was very curious about my background since it seemed like "Volkoff" was not a traditional Bulgarian spelling. When I went back home for Christmas, my mom and dad brought out a packet of my grandmother and grandfather's old papers, including their immigration documents. On the old Bulgarian documents, it lists my grandparents' hometown as Golyama Zhelezna and my grandfather's name is "Vulkov", but through immigration, I imagine it got changed to "Volkoff".
And even stranger: that fall trip I took to Staro Selo? We visited the town next door to see the lake at sunset and without knowing it set foot in my grandparents' home village, Golyama Zhelezna! So, I've actually been back to visit my roots without even being aware of it!
What is next for Andrew Volkoff?
Well, I'm currently a finalist for a grant that will have me moving to San Francisco to work at a theatre there for two seasons if I get it. More immediately, I'm developing some new musicals, a one-woman show about emigrating from Romania, and a show I did last summer is being remounted again this summer in the Berkshires. So, I've got plenty to keep me busy, but I'm constantly on the lookout for an institutional theatre job, so I can use theatre to more significantly impact a community. Hopefully, I can find a way to come back to Sofia. I had such a great time working there that I'd happily do it again!
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