Andrey Avramov: Staging comedies is serious work

When the audience laughs it is good but when it quiets down it is even better

This unprecedented challenge called Covid-19 has become the topical issue of today and we have to cope with it both personally and as a society. The crisis will be reflected in art, but it calls for a talented interpretation, says theatre director Andrey Avramov in an interview to Monitor.

Prof. Avramov, freelance artists like yourself are deemed to be the most affected in the current situation, when theatres are under quarantine. What will be the damages, financial and moral, inflicted by social-distancing restrictions and suspension of theatre performances?  

It depends on your personal income. I am an old-age pensioner now and I have some financial muscle to cover my expenses, so I don't feel any pressing need to be involved in the work process to earn my keep. However, my colleagues who count on their work and the remuneration they receive for it are facing a great challenge. I only hope this predicament won't last long. At the moment, I don't even know if there are still rehearsals in theatres because I'm trying not to violate the instructions and I don't leave my home. I draw information only from the media but I suppose that theatre managements have taken measures to this end too. Even if all public performances are suspended, the theatres' troupes are not on vacation like students, and maybe they somehow keep up their internal activity. And this is not safe. In a nutshell, our life today is very stressful: all routine activities have become impossible all of a sudden. For instance, I have a son who has difficulty with movement. We don't live together and I have to visit him and help somehow. I will deliberately break the rules because my boy needs my support. The current situation is very complicated, delicate, but we have to help each other, as long as it's possible.     

The 2020 edition of the award ceremony for humour and satire which was to be held at the Satire Theatre on 7 April has been postponed, but so far you are the only certain laureate of the Georgi Kaloyanchev prize for lifetime contribution. Does it come as a surprise to you? 

This is a unique prize named after a unique artist. The very idea to award it to a theatre director is very flattering to me, because, as a rule, in this genre the actors are those who are in the limelight, and quite deservedly. Directors are always somewhere in the background, there's no reason for them to be showing off all that much. Nevertheless, when my colleagues appreciate my work in the field of satire, I cannot but feel appreciative of their recognition. The fact that I am accepted in this theatre, on the stage where the spirit of iconic actors and directors, our perennial teachers, is still alive, is - naturally - very obliging.  

Are you a cheerful or a gloomy person? Can you find something funny in our everyday life, being happy about the little things, or are you a proof of the cliche that clowns are always sad when out of the spotlight?

I think that basically I am an orderly and rational man who doesn't show his emotions easily, but I compensate for it with laughter when I am in the theatre. This is the nature of laughter - it bursts out whenever we see some paradox, some inadequacy which provokes an appropriate response. Perhaps the very ability to discover paradoxes explains my affinity for this type of dramaturgy. Very often I personally translate the plays I stage, and already while I'm reading the original I can feel if it gives me a presentiment for staging it. Then I read to the end the text which later may become a play. All other plays I put aside halfway through. All in all, laughter is a sensitive theme to me. When they say: “Andrey is a comic genre director,” it drives me crazy. I hate it when they slap this “comedy director” label on me. Because light cavalry may become heavy artillery at times, may it not? Staging comedies is serious work! At times, something written for entertainment and fun, if staged in a pitch-perfect way, may evoke deep emotions in the audience, which is something not to be underestimated. The question is how to do this in a way that doesn't sound cheap or trite. If people leave the theatre with a sense of an evening not wasted, it would mean that I have attained my goal.  

In your opinion, is there anything these days that the world, and Bulgarians in particular, can laugh about?

Bulgarians, in particular, prefer to laugh at others rather than at themselves - our sense of self-irony is dulled. In principle, the springs of laughter can be readily uncoiled with the help of cheap tricks, but it is immensely more valuable to take people by surprise and so make them laugh. Just like it happens in good jokes: a really good one would never allude to the ending's turnaround, which is the spring that provokes the laughter. Texts distinguished by intelligent humour, posing real problems and sending clear-cut messages, have always caught my attention. Many of them not only dwell on the funny aspects of personal and social relationships but on the issues that are really important for the society and individuals. But even in the serious plays, in which I've dealt with topics of wide importance, there were certainly moments of laughter. Laugh is a judgement-based reaction - that is why I say that when the audience laughs it is good but when it quiets down it is even better.     

Theatre under quarantine is a sad place, however.

Certainly, the empty theatre halls are not a pleasant sight, and we don't know how long it will last, while the public which hoped to meet with our art feels disappointed, but at the moment there are much more important things. Both the audience and the actors are normal people, with their fears and sense for self-preservation.

What meaningful things are you doing now, when you cannot be close to the stage and rehearsing?

I am translating a play that I eventually will be able to stage after this stressful period is over and theatres resume their normal functioning. My interests are diverse and I can satisfy many of them working at home - I am working on video clips that I will need in my future projects, so, right now I don't miss theatre. I am trying to see things from a positive perspective, both in terms of everyday life and my artistic endeavours. Now I can do a lot of work, things I had long abandoned. After the latest play under my directorship - Network, by Paddy Chayefsky - went through such a difficult process, I wanted to have a breath of fresh air and charge my batteries with new ideas. There are good chances I will again stage plays in the Satire Theatre and most probably in Theatre 199 as well.     

Do you believe that the unprecedented current crisis may yield new interesting plays?

This is very likely, provided there are talented playwriters. We are facing an unprecedented challenge which has suddenly become the topical issue of today and we have to cope with it both personally and as a society. Most probably this crisis will be reflected in art, but such themes, so difficult for interpretation, call for a talented approach. As well as for the distance of time needed to make sense of it. This cannot be done on a short notice.  

You were among the pioneers who acquainted the Bulgarian audience with such authors as Dario Fo, Eduardo De Filippo, Neil Simon, Michael Frayn, Alan Ayckbourn. Who among them proved to be the most precious discovery for you?    

It seems fair to say this was Dario Fo. I have staged nine of his plays throughout the years because I realised that we are of the same blood type. In his dramaturgy there is something I mentioned above - an important problem treated with laughter, very often with grotesque, and this theatrical amalgam is extremely appealing to me. Regrettably, I have run out of plays by him that are relevant to our realities, and maybe it's time to start staging them again because the new generation knows nothing about them. In a certain sense they are evergreens because Dario Fo draws ideas from social relations, politics and what not. There is a play dealing with drug addiction, but it is a comedy. There is a play about the problems of people infected with AIDS, but again it is a comedy. There is one about terrorism - yet another comedy. The skill of writing satire based on real problems is a very rare one.    

People remember for a long time your plays such as Archangels Don't Play Pinball, Accidental Death of an Anarchist, Noises Off and many others abounding with curious peripeties on stage. Have there been such twists and turns during their rehearsals?

Perhaps there were but I forgot. Students would often ask me: “May we come to see your rehearsals?” My answer was: “Come, but know that my rehearsals are boring.” It's true. I never have as much fun as, for instance, my colleague Tedy Moskov who enjoys himself and pours out ideas on the spot. With me it happens in a different way. I think first and then rehearse.


Andrey Avramov was born on 24 December 1943 in Sofia. He graduated from the Higher Institute for Theatrical Art where he majored in acting and directing. From 1969 to 1989 Avramov was a director at the Youth Theatre and then became a freelancer. He is a professor of the National Academy of Music where he has been teaching acting and speech for over 20 years. He has staged over 80 plays, among them many musicals. Avramov is a pioneer of this genre in Bulgaria and has staged such famous musicals as Oliver!, Lemonade Joe, Yesterday, etc. Currently, the Satire Theatre runs three plays under his directorship: The Odd Couple, Exit Laughing, and Network.    

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