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Independent Theater Festival

14.11.2011 13:39 No comments

From November 16-20, Sofia will host a pilot run of the Independent Theater Festival, thanks to an initiative by ACT, the Independent Theater Association. The partners who have confirmed participation so far include Theater Laboratory Sfumato, the Red House Center for Culture and Debate, Derida Dance Center and the Fridge. Julia Dencheva, who has collaborated on many environmental and social projects, as well as musical initiatives and formations such as Bluba Lu and Fusion Embassy, will act as forum director, while Mladen Aleksiev, the theater director who is one of faces behind the 36 Monkeys Organization and co-founder of the ACT Association, will be one of the major coordinators. These independent artists shared their ideas with us for the development of this form of performing arts production within a context of mass negligence. Whether independent theater will secure a place on Bulgaria’s cultural map is yet to be seen; however, ACT’s initial intentions are highly ambitious and serious, as we learned from Julia and Mladen.

[ACT is an association of non-governmental organizations and individual artists working for the establishment and development of independent theater in Bulgaria. It was founded in 2009 by Ida Daniel, Gergana Dimitrova, Irina Goleva, Vasilena Radeva, Mladen Aleksiev, Vesselin Dimov, Ognian Golev and S.G.]

М.М. What is your definition of independent artists and independent theater?

ACT: Independent artists are all artists who realize their projects outside the system of repertory theaters. An independent artist takes the initiative and chooses the way she addresses the audience, as well as the approach and expressive means of the performance, such that it is not associated with an institution but with the private initiative of the artist or the team of collaborators.

М.М. So we are talking aesthetic and financial, but not spatial independence?

ACT: We are talking aesthetic, conceptual, financial, and organizational independence; however, collaborations between independent groups and state or municipal theaters are quite typical. Given the lack of designated space for artistic productions, such collaboration is inevitable. Off-stage production is one of the values of independent theater, as it allows for an unbiased revisiting of stage art’s expressive means and the means of addressing the audience. In other words, it not only constitutes a change of location, but also a search for new expressive means and topics corresponding to the times in which we live, an attempt to expand our understanding of what “theater” can be.

Space is definitely an issue that will be discussed during the festival, since the failure to localize independent theater is one of the main barriers to achieving sustainability and endurance in the development and presentation of independent projects. The impossibility of associating the latter with a specific location renders the communication between independent theater and a wider audience difficult.

М.М. What, in your wildest dreams, would the technology and ideology of independent theater entail in the Bulgarian theatrical context?

ACT: We did not invent independent theater ourselves; in Western Europe it has a more than 30-year history. The idea of confronting institutional theaters is completely out of the question. Independent theater is where new expressive means and topics take shape. It is the gateway through which contemporary society and new generations enter the world of theater. For this reason, independent theater is an alternative that can take risks, experiment, develop new theatrical formats, and deal with topical issues of the day which, for one reason or another, repertory theater has left behind. In our wildest dreams, we see this alternative take its rightful place within the vision for Bulgarian theater. This can happen as long as the conditions for equal existence, resulting from the designation of space and reasonable and regular funding for its development, are ensured.

М.М. What are the main barriers to independent theater?

ACT: The main barrier is that people exclude independent theater when they think of theater in Bulgaria. One example – under “Theater in Bulgaria,” the Ministry of Culture understands all theater halls in the country, as well as the people working there for whom jobs need to be secured. Such is the understanding of theater. And this is not just the Ministry, but also the majority of the so-called theater guild. Everything else has little to do with “theater proper.” This retrograde division is still engraved in peoples’ minds, including the audience’s.

Independent theater primarily stands for the free creative initiative of individual artists and people who share the same views; it means prioritizing artistic initiative and creativity over institutions and institutional policies. Supporting this initiative is crucial. It is crucial for any democratic community. Apart from post-soviet nostalgia as the mindset and technology of repertory theaters, there are many other ways to do theater – in both aesthetic and organizational terms. Independent theater therefore counts. It has been happening in Bulgaria for the past 20 years, but mostly occasionally and sporadically, as there is no conscious and long-term vision for its recognition, support, and development by the cultural institutions.

Another gap is the “collector’s element,” as there is no institute, department, or organization acting as observer. There is no archive to register such attempts over the past 20 years; because of this, memories are short-lived and there is little to no continuity. There is still no real interest on the part of the media and researchers in the performances of young artists and groups. As of yet, no one has studied their work in detail or surveyed the field. They still find themselves under intense pressure to join the repertory model and remain part of it. Attempts are continually made to prove that that is the only “proper” and “real” way to do theater. Yet it has belonged to another era for years. In other words, we have an awful lot of work to do.

М.М. It is an intriguing feature of Bulgarian theater that the avant-garde is continually assimilated and tamed by institutional theater.

ACT: Yes, we have quite a tradition of counteracting all free initiative here – on the one hand, through repression and exclusion, and, on the other, through expropriation and acquisition. This technique is applied in practically all public fields.

М.М. Can we also speak of a certain degree of opportunism in independent theater?

ACT: Accusing independent theater of being opportunistic is yet another counteracting technique from the past; it is easy to ignore those who do not have power on their side. When we speak of independent theater, our expectations are rather romantic. The huge effort and resources invested in the realization of one such project usually remain unseen. People do not see this type of theater as something new that is growing stronger. Independent theater is fighting a very uphill battle. We would like for the choice to work in the field of independent theater to guarantee a normal standard of living for its creators. These are the people who can change our conceptualization of theater and give it some kind future. We are still at a stage where the contradictory presence of independent theater should become a clearly marked territory, but this takes time. In other countries, this process took between 20 and 30 years. It is naive to expect quick results – we are talking about a long process of changing mindsets, not just on the part of policy makers, but also of the audience. The good news is that the number of young and active spectators who understand the meaning of such a choice sufficiently well and identify themselves with it is steadily rising.

М.М. You have been trying to initiate a dialogue with the institutions, primarily the Ministry of Culture, concerning the ongoing preparation of the Performing Arts Act. What are the outcomes of this dialogue?

ACT: The outcome of this so-called dialogue is that there is no dialogue. The institutions, used to applying a top-down approach and imposing decisions that are outside the scope of any long-term vision, see such grass-root development and bottom-up initiatives as harmful noise that blacks out their supposedly “proper” intentions. If independent theater has received any attention at all, it is due to the fact that its advocates identify themselves as the young or new generation, which cannot be easily ignored, as it would clearly expose retrograde and gerontocratic governance. For this reason, we drew international attention to our cause and we expect significant expert attendance from all over Europe and America, as it is also important to hear other points of view.

М.М. What is the mission of the festival – to legitimize the concept of independent theater?

ACT: Independent projects have a significant number of pluses and they are definitely “in step with the times,” thanks to their very organizational model – a fact that clearly escapes critical discourse in Bulgaria. “Tell me about the conditions for free initiatives, and I’ll tell you what your society is like.” The same goes for independent theater: “Tell me what’s the matter with it, and I’ll tell you if what you’re doing constitutes reform.” Independent theater stands for specific artists and groups, where each and every one of them has its own research and working directions. By this, we mean creative artistic experimentation as an extremely valuable characteristic of small and flexible groups. We are also convinced that it won’t remain unseen – by both the audience and our international colleagues. In this way, self-sufficient Bulgarian theater will begin to open up to international contacts and collaborations. We hope that in a number of years there will be co-productions and invitations to stage Bulgarian independent performing art abroad.

М.М. How was the selection made?

ACT: We opted for a very specific mode of selection based on crowdsourcing – the strategy Iceland is now using to write its first real constitution – where the people themselves are participants. The performance selection is not made by an independent selector or the Association’s Board, but jointly by all candidates. The 15 top-rated performances will be included in the festival program.

М.М. What else does the festival include?

ACT: We are trying to organize an accompanying program of discussions and publicity campaigns on different topics. We hope to attract various people concerned with the problems of the civil society, since independent theater is not just an expression of an aesthetic position, but also of a civil one. It is highly indicative of the democratic functioning of society.

text by Mira Marianova; photography by Mihail Novakov