Playwright Ivan Dimitrov: Bulgarian Theaters Favor Foreign Plays
Ivan Dimitrov is a Bulgarian playwright, writer and poet. His play, "The Eyes of Others", recently became the first Bulgarian play to receive a major New York production.
Your play "The Eyes of Others" had its successful debut at New York's New Ohio Theater. Did anything surprise you in the way it was staged and the way it was received by the audience?
What surprised me most were the differences between the Bulgarian and American systems of drama. The production was way more straightforward than it would have been in Bulgaria and was carried out with extremely few director's decisions, since it is the way they work there. The director is strictly following the text. A playwright coming from a country where the theater is director-dominated will undoubtedly find it a pleasant surprise. However, one is left with a certain sense of...how should I put it...it is like forgetting to season a dish. One is missing something the whole time.
I was also surprised by how closed the American system is. Save for the classic plays which are staged there, may be some 80% of the plays staged (or even more) are by American playwrights. Family-themed plays are prevailing. Plays are most often psychological.
Generally, this has its advantages and disadvantages. As a Bulgarian playwright, I cannot dare dream of having even 50% of all plays staged here being by contemporary Bulgarian authors. Americans are doing a good job in creating their playwrights, and the same can be said about Germans, French, Czechs, Dutch, Serbs, Greeks. Basically all nations! Except us...In Bulgaria it is a common practice to stage plays by contemporary foreign playwrights, but how often do contemporary Bulgarian plays reach the big theater scene? Well, some of them are staged, but they are far fewer than 10% of all plays staged here, even when it comes to small theaters.
There is a very skeptical attitude towards contemporary plays in Bulgaria. In the US each theater has established a clear and transparent process for accepting plays. A playwright may send a short excerpt, a synopsis or the whole play. Or sometimes only plays that have been approved by an agent are accepted. Anyhow, the rules are clear! In Bulgaria, no one has the slightest idea how a play may be selected for staging, unless one wins a contest or knows people. One has to constantly struggle against the skepticism with which heads of theaters and directors threat contemporary Bulgarian plays. And contemporary Bulgarian plays exist, as well as contemporary Bulgarian plays!
If I have to comment on the disadvantages of the closed American system and its conventionalism, I would mention the following: the two actors who were playing the male roles had never before taken part in a translated play, but only in plays written by US authors or written in English. Besides, they had never played in an absurdist play before and the director had the difficult task of reminding them that not everything is logical and coherent in an absurdist play.
As far as the audience is concerned, I believe that no matter where a play is staged, one is initially unaware of how it may react. One cannot read its mind, as one has been involved in the working process and has become biased.
Otherwise, the audience is on an extremely high level. After all, this is New York, a city with theater traditions. It does not matter in which theater a play is staged, as long as the play is strong. And I believe ours as a strong one.
In some of your previous interviews, you have stated that the American theater is based on a system that is very different form the Bulgarian. Would you elaborate on these differences?
These are not only two different worlds, but also different mindsets, on all levels. Not only when it comes to the management of the theaters and their productivity, in which Americans are complete fanatics. New Ohio is a small theater with 75 seats (85 to 90 when the audience is more numerous), with the core that manages it consisting of two people.
Everything is optimized and extremely rational. Nothing superfluous is done, no time is lost.
There are also differences in terms of schools of acting and methods of work.
I would be able to answer this question once the Bulgarian production of the play, directed by Mariy Rosen, is ready. I am convinced that it will be better than the American one. Or rather, not better, but Bulgarian! When I arrived in New York for the rehearsal process for "The Eyes of Others", I did not realize how the extent to which theater is a local thing. Now I can say that I have been raised in the Bulgarian theatrical tradition, whatever that means.
Another one of your plays, "The Alien", is also expected to be translated to English. Do you expect to expect to follow up on your breakthrough on US soil?
The play has already been translated. Angela Rodel has done one more incredible translation. I consider sending it across the US, as well as Great Britain, since the play itself would fit their theatrical tradition better than "The Eyes of Others."
The play, staged by director Vesko Dimov, will soon take part in the "From Page to Stage" workshop headed by Americans from "Drama League" that will take place in the ACT Independent Theater Festival with the help of Art Office.
Do I expect it to be a success...You see, I prefer not to have expectations. Reality never turns out the way you expect. Things either happen or do not happen.
The play will be staged in Blagoevgrad and that is currently enough for me.
It was recently revealed that your play "Time Disease" will be staged in Belgrade, while "The Eyes of Others" will have its premiere in Sofia's National Theater. Do you believe that the Balkan audience will find it "easier" to receive your plays than the US audience?
I do not reckon that the Balkan audience will receive the plays "more easily", since we have a more "difficult" and "complicated" mentality, but that is our charm and our trademark. Otherwise, I believe that a well written play will be received well anywhere, since theater is a practical and earthly thing. It cannot escape from its audience.
Of course, that does not mean that one should write for the sake of the audience, since that would be utter stupidity. Authors should write mainly for themselves, driven by their internal necessity to write and express themselves.
However, even if a play is excellent literature, its great literary qualities would be lost if its imminent collision with the audience is not taken into consideration.
Your second novel, "A Sofia Duet" is about to come out. Would you reveal some details about it?
It will be published by Ciela and will be very different from my first novel, "Life as a Missing Spoon" that was in the genre of "urban prose."
"A Sofia Duet" will not be less urban-themed, as the title suggests; in fact it will be a novel dedicated to Sofia, but not restricted to a single genre. That is why the novel has been described as a "collage novel." That is why it is now being edited by a literary club, about which I will reveal more in some later interview.
Over the past years you have been not only extremely prolific, but also very versatile in your choice of genres. How do you feel as a writing individual now – a playwright who writes poetry and prose, a novelist who writes plays and poetry – or something else?
I feel as an immensely happy person, since I have discovered what I want to do and that is why I am doing it more and more. After all, it all comes down to hedonism. Why should we do things that make us unhappy?
Two years ago, when I started writing poetry again and started writing plays (following a period of 3-4 years in which I considered myself a fully formed prose writer), I had certain doubts whether I am a prose writer who writes poetry or a poet who writes plays. I believe that I have become accustomed with that peculiar literary schizophrenia. When I have a writing idea, it is no longer merely an idea for "something", it immediately becomes an idea for poetry, prose or drama. I am a poet when I write poetry, a prose writer when I write prose and a playwright when I write plays.
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