BULGARIA'S BROADWAY?

by Dimana Trankova; photography by Anthony Georgieff

Sofia's theatre district is a place of crowds, controversies and some scandals

Bulgarian Army Theatre was established in 1950 and is located in the former Royal Cinema, built in 1936

When the Covid-19 lockdowns put the world into a standstill, in the spring of 2020, photographs and videos of famed and usually busy sites, such as the Eiffel Tower, Times Square and Taj Mahal, without their usual crowds became a powerful symbol of the crisis. The equivalent in Sofia was... Rakovski Street.

One of the longest streets in the city, it passes through the centre with its institutions, culture venues, restaurants and bars. Combined with its narrow sidewalks and traffic lanes, this means that it is usually packed with people and cars. In the evenings, the crowds there get even thicker – most of Sofia's best theatres are located along or nearby Rakovski Street, a local version of New York's Broadway or London's West End.

Nine out of the 20-something theatres in Sofia, both private and state or municipally funded, are on the 500-metre stretch from the Rakovski-Tsar Osvoboditel Boulevard intersection to Slaveykov Square. These are some of the most famous and respected performance houses in Sofia and throughout the country.

The first documented theatrical performance in modern Bulgaria took place at the chitalishte, or community centre, in Shumen. It was staged by a troupe of amateur enthusiasts on 15 August 1856. They performed Mihal Mishkoed, a Bulgarianised version of a Greek play.

The National Theatre is also one of Sofia’s best known tourist sites

In the decades leading up to the liberation from Ottoman rule in 1878, theatre performances were a much-loved form of entertainment. There were no professional troupes or dramatists. Actors and directors were local intellectuals and stages were set up in the chitalishta. The first original Bulgarian play was a comedy, The Bishop of Lovech, by Teodosiy Ikonomov. It was written in 1857 and published five years later. The first Bulgarian theatre company was founded by Dobri Voynikov and other Bulgarian emigrants in Brăila, Romania, in 1865. Considered to be the earliest Bulgarian dramatist and theatrical director in the real sense of the word, he is the author of two of the most popular plays in the history of Bulgarian theatre: Misinterpreted Civilisation and the historical play Ivanko, Regicide.

After 1878 the theatre became increasingly professional. In the 1880s, good amateur troupes appeared, and in 1892 the Salza i Smyah, or A Tear and Laughter, professional theatre company was founded. In 1904 its actors became the nucleus of the newly established, state-supported National Theatre. In the following decades a strong theatre culture developed across the country. Audiences found their favourite actors in stars such as Adriana Budevska and Krastyo Sarafov – in those days most of the actors were trained in Russia. Many of Bulgaria's then prominent writers and poets used to work in theatre or were dramatists, among them poets Ivan Vazov, Peyo Yavorov and Geo Milev.

After 1944 the establishment of Communist rule changed the Bulgarian theatre forever. The classical or modernist plays to which Bulgarian theatre-goers had flocked before the Second World War were replaced with pieces that stressed optimism in the final victory of Communism. A state-controlled Actors Union was founded. Simultaneously, the state acting and directing school, today's NATFIZ, was founded, as well as new theatres and troupes in Sofia and across the country.

As time went on, dramatists such as Yordan Radichkov, Georgi Markov, Stanislav Stratiev and Ivan Radoev, as well as directors such as Metodi Andonov, started trying to outwit the ubiquitous censorship by writing plays that used Aesopian language as a means of ridiculing the regime. Understandably, these plays were hugely successful.

But the "offending" playwrights did not always get away with it. In  1969, just days before its premiere, the censors banned the play I Was He by Georgi Markov and Metodi Andonov, seeing it as an insult to dictator Todor Zhivkov. Several days later Markov left the country and went on to become one of the most outspoken critics of the Bulgarian regime. In 1978 he was murdered on Waterloo Bridge in London with the notorious "Bulgarian umbrella."

After the fall of Communism in 1989, the Bulgarian theatre was given free rein to choose its repertoire, and a wave of experimental and one-man shows appeared, to which audiences responded with heightened interest. While the Bulgarian cinema continues its search for its own self and, more importantly, its audience, theatre has kept its admirers, and often theatre performances are sold out weeks in advance. Bulgarian directors such as Tedi Moskov, Alexander Morfov, and actors such as Sancho Finzi, Vasil 'Zueka' Vasilev and Nina Dimitrova have become established names on stages across Europe.

Of course, there have been problems too. The state's murky methods of financing theatres have led to fierce competition for audiences. In the 2010s, the controversial theatrical reform, which sought to reduce the number of state-backed theatres, significantly increased tension in the theatre profession in recent years. The division line is between commercial and art theatre. The intelligentsia tends to think that all commercial plays are subpar, while the general audience finds high-end, experimental performances impossible to understand and often – to stomach.

New initiatives emerged, too, in the post-1989 period. In 1991 the company of the Balgarska Armiya Theatre set up the Askeer Awards, using the Oscars as a model. These annual awards are dedicated at an official ceremony and are considered the most prestigious honour for actors, dramatists, set designers and directors in Bulgaria.

The Balgarska Armiya Theatre is also the first one you will pass should you take a stroll down the Bulgarian Broadway from the intersection of Rakovski and Tsar Osvoboditel Boulevard. The theatre building, at 98 Rakovski Street, was erected in 1936 as the home of the popular Royal cinema. During the Second World War, Allied bombing of Sofia did significant damage to the hall. In the late 1940s the building was restored and turned into the newly created Bulgarian Army Theatre.

The Tear and Laughter Theatre

At 127 Rakovski Street, Salza i Smyah New Drama Theatre is easy to recognise, with its bright posters set up above the entrance, announcing the latest plays. This theatre is considered the direct successor to the 1892 Salza i Smyah, but the continuity is in name only. The old A Tear and Laughter was closed during the so-called theatre reform, in 2010; the new one lacks its own resident company. It is an open stage for whichever troupe decides to lend it.

Only a few feet away, at 8 Slavyanska Street, is one of Bulgaria's most recognisable theatres. Teatar 199 is known as the small but high class place of culture that played host to the Bulgarian premieres of plays such as The Vagina Monologues. A Wall of Fame, a Bulgarian version of the Hollywood Walk of Fame, is near its entrance. There, relief prints of the hands and feet of Bulgaria's most celebrated theatre personalities are set in cast. There is a breast as well. It belongs to actress Anya Pencheva, a Bulgarian sex symbol in the 1980s.

The Wall of Fame by Theatre 199 makes you uncomfortably intimate with some of Bulgaria’s best known actors and actresses

If you choose to cross Rakovski Street here and walk down Slavyanska Street, after only a hundred yards you will find yourself at the Ivan Vazov National Theatre. The company was set up in 1904, and the sumptuous Neo-Baroque building crowned by Apollo's chariot was built three years later. The theatre's inauguration turned out to be the occasion of one of the biggest scandals in Bulgaria's modern history. Angry at the interference of the then Bulgarian Prince Ferdinand into Bulgarian political life, a group of students booed the monarch while he was entering his box. The outraged prince had Sofia University shut down for a year. The National Theatre has three halls, one with 780 seats and two smaller.

In the late 2010s, the National Theatre attracted controversy, when a group of Bulgarians decided to dance the horo in front of it every Sunday. It soon attracted dozens of participants, with loudspeakers booming with folk music and dancers waving Bulgarian flags. While foreign tourists found the show yet another example of the endearing Bulgarian tradition to dance the horo, the Sofia intelligentsia was far from happy. Dancing the horo might have been traditional for villages and small towns, they said, but it was never a thing in a city like Sofia, which always strived to be a modern European capital. Theatre-goers complained, too – the horo sound penetrated the National Theatre's walls. The Sofia City Council finally put an end to the dancing on grounds that the organisers had not been properly licensed. However, from time to time, a handful of stubborn horoists continue to dance in front of the Neo-Baroque theatre.

Sofia's Puppet Theatre is nearby, at 16 Gen Gurko Street. Its first troupe was created in 1946, and two years later it was promoted to a professional state theatre. In the 1960s it became very famous, winning a series of international competitions. Its longest-running play, About the Pea and a Princess, has been onstage for nearly 30 years.

Again on Rakovski Street, at number 108, are the buildings of the National Theatre and Filmmaking Academy as well as the stages of a drama and a puppet theatres used exclusively for educational purposes. Paying public is allowed in, and sometimes these two "youth" theatres outperform the established commercial venues in the capital.

At 26 Stefan Karadzha Street, which crosses Rakovski, is one of the most loved theatres in Bulgaria: the State Theatre of Satire, founded in 1957. During Communism, it gained notoriety for the bons mots of its first art director, Stefan Sarchadzhiev: We will often speak in jest but make no mistake – we will think in earnest. Today queues in front of the ticket booths of the Theatre of Satire are an usual sight.

On nearby Slaveykov Square, in the building that houses the Sofia Library, is the Vazrazhdane Theatre, which is sponsored by Sofia municipality. It has a chamber hall, and its repertoire includes classical and new pieces by Bulgarian and foreign dramatists. The special emphasis is on children's plays.

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