Vasil Rokomanov: The stage is a cruel love-mate

She makes her choice of people and decides whether to let them in

Scenography is an absolutely conscious, rational choice of mine, as it involves a combination of my two passions - drawing and literature, a scenographer Vasil Rokomanov says in an interview to Europost.

 

 

Prof. Rokomanov, when did you see the first signs that stage-design is your vocation, and how did it happen? Was it as early as in your childhood?


Scenography is an absolutely conscious, rational choice of mine, as it involves a combination of my two passions - drawing and literature. After secondary school, I graduated from a construction engineering technical college. My father insisted that I should get a serious profession but later helped me try out different things in my life. My ability to think on a large scale, knowledge of construction, tectonics and different materials, as well as my technical drawing skills are very helpful to me as a stage-designer and teacher.


How did you enter the Academy of Art, what do you remember about the years spent there? Your work, classes and instructions?


To me the Academy has always been spelt with capital “A”, but I was admitted only after a second try. In those years, the Academy was something of a legend and it has never disappointed me. The relationships between students and teachers were very tolerant, their vision of life and the world was different, to me they opened many new opportunities for learning and making choices, and I am very grateful to them for it.


Would you tell us about your first work after graduation?


I started my working life in the drama theatre in the town of Kardzhali. My first work was The Nest by Franz Xaver Kroetz. Being a novice, I agreed that the settings designed for a chamber theatre be used for the big stage, and it “engulfed” the settings along with all my ambitious intentions.


What is your favourite work on stage?


The work in itself is a privilege, because the stage is a jealous, wilful and cruel love-mate, as my teacher Prof. Asen Stoichev used to say. She makes her own choice of people whom she decides to let in. I know many talented artists and actors whom she rejected.


Among all stage-designers, who drives you wild, so to say?


I sincerely admire Czech scenographer Peter Matousek. His original spacing and puppets made for the plays directed by Joseph Krofta resulted in performances where actors, dolls, space frame, light and music whirled in a terrific merry-go-round. It was truly theatrical life, impossible in reality. Of course, there are other exceptional authors and I follow their work, but I have never seen anything so seamlessly done as the performances designed by Matousek in the Drak Puppet Theatre.

What has the time changed in this art, what has become easier to do and what has been lost?


It has never been easy and will never be. If somebody touts a recipe that would make your creative life comfortable, he most probably wants to enslave or rob you. Thank God, there are no ideological limitations any more that we had to abide by before the fall of the totalitarian state. However, our generation had to work in times of severe crises.


With whom of the directors, or maybe actors, you take pleasure working?


We can talk about the most creative atmosphere when a real troupe works in a hot theatrical situation. Grotovski says that real achievements in theatre are possible only after long, profound and self-sacrificing work of the entire troupe. I was very lucky to observe this phenomenon twice. In the 1980s my wife Sylva Bachvarova worked in the Puppet Theatre of Plovdiv with directors Slavcho Malenov and Peter Pashov. Together they created an atmosphere in which actors, technical assistants, studios and administration saw their life, in this dilapidated, almost crumbling building of a former hostel, to become more important and authentic than reality itself. The top achievement of this troupe was the adult version of Don Quixote, the house has been full for 15 years!

After the onset of democracy, we stuck together with Pashov and Malenov and set up a small theatre housed in a power substation near the gypsy quarter. And the miracle happened again. In winter we walked to our theatre Atelier 313 for rehearsals, as trams were on strike and there was severe shortage of gas. Thus, The Master and Margarita emerged with all its iconic episodes, including the ball of Woland and Margarita's midnight flight… When 10 years later Sofia municipality decided to cut costs at our expense, Pashov had an appointment with the mayor and brought along two suitcases stuffed with our Bulgarian and international awards. The mayor was not impressed and so everything came to a standstill. At least for us.


How do you work? Do you prefer to draw by hand or would you rather use high tech devices?


Scenic design is an intellectual process - first I read the text and talk to the director, who decides about the dolls and sets space parameters. Marionettes walk on the floor, which disagrees with dolls like Petrushka, or the Javanese or shadow dolls. I make in-depth analysis and research until I form my opinion on the text and clarify the significant ideas and topics which we offer to the audience. Leon Daniel said it straight: The only reason to go on the stage is to need it desperately. In the course of this process, I make intuitive sketches, try different materials, make space frames of cardboard, sticks and threads, until I end up with an “image” which is convincing to me and the director. Then it goes on more smoothly: models, blueprints, maybe a 3D or animation. All this can be learnt. What is most interesting and difficult is thinking.


Could you say what material or shape is universally applicable on stage?


In a live performance there are visual, constructive and sensory functions. It does make a difference if you dress an actress who plays Medea in silk, wool, polyester or steel - she will react differently, but every time she puts on her new outfit the texture will bring her back to the implied idea.


What makes the dolls so appealing to your artistic soul?


A scenographer sees in a doll a chance to create a character independently of an actor. In Don Quixote, for instance, all dolls were made of crumpled packing paper and in the end the hidalgo set himself on fire and burnt to ashes. This was a fiery metaphor impossible for a live actor who is just a metre away from the audience. At the beginning of the year, Sylva and I designed big dolls, avatars of the Turandot opera characters. The opera was staged in Stara Zagora. The Emperor was a talking mask over 6m tall, the Mandarin - a Javanese doll over 5.2m tall, etc.


To what extent do you agree with the invasion of technology into the realm of theatre, all these androids and artificial intelligence?


Everything that is an integral part of a whole and belongs to it naturally is good for a live performance. At the same time, any trick that becomes a goal in and of itself, even if performed masterly, will strike a false note.

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Prof. Vasil Rokomanov is a teacher at the Scenography chair of the National Academy of Arts. He has staged 100 puppet shows in Bulgaria, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Czech Republic, Belgium and Mexico. He is also an author of many posters and black-and-white drawings. His works were shown at over 30 joint exhibitions in Europe, US, Cuba, Mexico, Japan, etc. In 1996 he received the Kuklar award for stage design of The Canterville Ghost by Oscar Wilde. In the same year, he was awarded the Golden Dolphin for scenography of The Master and Margarita. In 2006 Prof. Rokomanov won the Icarus for Baron Munchausen. This year he brought home one more Icarus for his book History of Scenography.

Prof. Rokomanov is a laureate of numerous awards for puppet shows scenography from festivals in Serbia, Montenegro, Croatia, etc.