Director Boyko Iliev: Without soul the stage is nothing

At least 20 attempts to start private theatres failed over the years

The 30th anniversary since the creation of Dialogue, the first private theatre in Bulgaria's modern history, was marked with the production Antichrist. Some 20 other attempts to start private theatre companies have failed spectacularly over the years. Today, the concept of an argumentative, even contrarian style of making theatre with unique aesthetics is being kept alive by New Theatre - NDK, says director Boyko Iliev in an interview with EUROPOST.

Mr Iliev, on 29 May you marked the 30th anniversary since the establishment of Dialogue - the first private theatre in Bulgaria's modern history. What do you remember of those pioneering times?

In 1988-89, together with a group of madly enthusiastic people, I tried to introduce something new to the rigid theatre system, an initiative that doubled as a sort of protest against what was happening in the country at the time. We bonded over our frustration with the existing management of theatres, which was slowly but surely turning us into pathetic vessels for idiotic ideas and on-paper experiments; with the positions voiced from the stages - self-censored, very much in line and presented in a non-controversial way; and with the living conditions provided to us for our brief moment on this earth. Filled with this feeling of frustration, we set some revolutionary goals for ourselves - to create a theatre company that is financially independent and not reliant on state aid, and that has unique aesthetics, offering a commentary on or even running contrary to the prevailing ideological and aesthetics platform at the time. This “revolt” came to fruition on 31 May 1989 with the premiere of The Murder of Gonzago by Nedyalko Yordanov. We were allowed to use the Central Military Club, which I completely took over - the scenes were performed on the balconies and all over the hall… Then came The Life and Suffering of the Sinner Sofronii, followed by This Is Absurd by Ivan Kulekov (which was taken down by the Main Political Directorate of the Army), adaptations of works by Tom Stoppard, Woody Allen, Rainer Fassbinder, Albert Camus, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Heiner Muller… These were times of great enthusiasm and boundless energy. That “revival period” ended with the show The Consistence of Merriment and Dirt by Daniil Kharms. We then lost everything we had because of the hyperinflation, and I was forced to shutter the premises.

It was almost three decades before you found a permanent home.

We have been through eight halls, which was somewhat of an adventure. The system never changed, everything looked doomed - at least 20 other attempts to start private theaters failed spectacularly over the years, and I was involved, one way or another, in 7-8 of those. The status quo persevered and every private theatre company had a very short life. The system remains intact to this day; the difference is that now it follows market principles. I was constantly rankled by the thought that I did not have my own theatre - it seemed like I was born to bear this cross. In 2015, thanks to the management of the National Palace of Culture I was finally able to create what is now New Theatre, as a continuation of Dialogue. It opened with Amadeus by Peter Shaffer. We tried to go back to the type of art that makes us real people, more noble and inspired, so that we can have a more cheerful outlook on our pathetic daily existence.

Is it easier to manage a theatre now compared with the days before Bulgaria's transition to democracy?

The times have changed. Back then, we truly had a National Revival kind of enthusiasm because we felt that we fought the good fight, and that gave us immense strength. It was no coincidence that I was asked to explain my actions to the Central Committee of the Bulgarian Communist Party, the Committee on Culture, relevant City Committee, etc. In other words, we felt on the edge. Even the threat to our physical existence was very real at times. But the desire to try and change the system (not only the theatre but the social one as well), to undermine some walls, was very strong and it guided us. In the aftermath of 1989, the ideological obstacles were replaced by the financial limitations - we were simply asked to pay exorbitantly high rents. So we moved to several different halls until New Theatre was created.

Now that I have my own theatre, I sometimes blame myself for not being able to find strong works that carry the messages I want to share with the audience. I am trying to find those - sometimes I am successful and other times not so much. But I believe that Amadeus; Lieutenant Benz by Dimitar Dimov; Antichrist by Emiliyan Stanev, all have profound texts that satiate not only my emotional needs.

Will New Theatre - NDK produce strictly your directorial explorations?

It has created a number of shows of other production companies already. I produce only my own shows because I do not have the energy or funds for those of others. I try to collect enough money to have the opportunity to realise projects that interest me - it is a pretty much one-a-year proposition. New Theatre has presented Hen by director Ana Bateva (a show that drew attention both domestically and abroad), Melody by Klara Armandova, and Changing - directed by Gergana Dimitrova and written by Yoakna Bukovska-Davidova. Right now, actor Robin Kafaliev is working on a play with the Razgrad theatre; rehearsals are in full swing and we will probably have the premiere at the end of the season.

Are you happy with your theatre's place on the cultural map of the capital and the country? The people in charge of festival selections and awards seem to overlook independent theatres…

The situation has not changed - we are marginalised and it seems that we will continue to receive the same treatment. I have come to accept that fate over the years, even though I am still bothered by the lack of attention at times. On the other hand, getting into this “game” would require betraying a part of me. I feel like I should stay away. I do not want to be involved in it until it becomes fairer and stops serving certain interests. Over the past 20 years, we have seen serious capsulation when it comes to awards and festivals. The Ministry of Culture continues to support favourites and it is very hard to get in. I want to establish a festival at New Theatre but I just cannot gain access to public funding because the ministry decides where the money is going in advance. I will just keep plugging away. But it makes no sense that so many years after the political shift in Bulgaria, the status of theatres is yet to change. Theatres must be born and die, just like any living creature, and not be kept going just because they were founded with a political decision at some point. We have 52 public theatres, some are now municipal - that is about the only change compared with the era before 10 November 1989.

Your productions tour abroad quite a lot. Do you get the sense that the foreign audience is more receptive than the one at home?

We were recently in Switzerland and Germany with Lieutenant Benz, and we visited the US and toured around Europe with Yavorov, Lora and Mina. We take on the road texts that are classics of Bulgarian culture and theatre. Our interaction with the audience shows me that our compatriots living abroad need this - they crave the poetic language of Yavorov, Dimitar Dimov and Emiliyan Stanev. It moves them because of how nostalgic they feel. This is why we do it. Naturally, we are forced to make some compromises from an aesthetics standpoint because we cannot afford to transport the entire stage decor. No matter the difficulties, the shows are performed. I often tell myself, “Yes, the visual is important, but if the actor's soul is not there, if the words written by great authors are not there, what is left?! Mere pictures, that may be interesting and impressive, but theatre is about feeling the breath of the actor who is a metre away. If we have this, there is no need for anything more than a bare stage.”

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Boyko Iliev was born on 29 July 1955 in Sofia. He studied acting at the National Academy for Theatre and Film Arts and he also has a master's degree in film and television arts from New Bulgarian University. Iliev has put on dozens of theatre shows, operettas and musicals in almost every theatre around the country, including in the National Theatre, the Youth Theatre, and the Music Theatre in Sofia. In 1988 he founded the first ever private theatre in Bulgaria, Dialogue, which in 2006 transitioned to a production company called Euro Dialogue. In addition to theatre shows, it has produced four feature films and about 60 documentaries.

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