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Bulgarians Invade Lenox

(L-R) Kevin Coleman, Ivan Dobchev, JoJo Hrstova, Walton Wilson
Photos by Enrico Spada

Walton Wilson has been cradling his head in his hands for about a half hour now, his face completely hidden from view. The character he’s portraying in an informal performance of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya is feeling cut off from his surroundings.  A few feet away in the spacious rehearsal studio, Kevin Coleman runs through multiple attempts at a short speech, inching through it line by line between frequent interruptions.

Ivan Dobchev and Margarita Mladenova, founders of Bulgaria’s Sfumato Theater Laboratory, sit behind a fold-out table and break into Coleman’s performance, speaking to the actor (who happens to be a Shakespeare & Company co-founder, and the head of its education program) through a valiant translator. (Dobchev and Mladenova find common ground with actor Daniela Varon in the neutral language of French, which they use to sort out logistical details throughout the day.)

Although the actors are working from an English-language translation of the Russian playwright, the two visitors know the play so well that it doesn’t seem to make a difference.

Finally it’s time for Wilson’s first line. His character is frustrated, increasingly agitated, and asks haltingly for a glass of water. Obligingly, Varon hands him a bottle of water and a plastic cup. Disregarding the cup, he shoots up out of his chair and pours the water over his head, shaking his torso and sending beads of water flying.

The Bulgarians intervene. They counsel Wilson not to go too big too soon. They want to place the emphasis on an upcoming exchange, when Wilson’s character details his years of financial commitment to the family farm.

That part could seem dry on paper, but Dobchev knows what he wants—he has decades of experience delving into Chekhov’s words. He hurries over to the actors, suggesting that Wilson pantomime writing out the financial figures on a large blackboard, with exaggerated intensity. Dobchev, seen above between Mladenova to his left and translator JoJo Hrstova to his right, then goads Wilson raise the intensity for this portion, even banging his head against the wall as a demonstration.

On a later run-through, the request for water is tossed off inconsequentially, setting up the much funnier bit to come.

The Lenox-based company is receiving its own bracing jolt of cold water, in a way, in this cross-cultural collaboration with Sfumato, an experimental outfit based based in Sofia, Bulgaria. A series of exchanges beginning in 2010 have led up to this week-long visit; Varon previously took an acting workshop led by the Bulgarian artists, and later, returned with Wilson to lead those actors in a Shakespeare workshop.  S&Co. artistic director Tony Simotes also visited Bulgaria and took a tour of its theatre scene, including a production of The Winter’s Tale put up by Sfumato.

At a technical level, the approach of the two companies is very different. The Sfumato technique is clearly coming from a European conception of the director as auteur, for instance, whereas S&Co. technique is grounded in the actors’ personal connection to the text. This immersion in Sfumato’s rehearsal methods, in which 18 S&Co. members participated for a week in March, is strictly a behind-the-scenes affair. But its impact may linger.

Earlier, over sandwiches, Varon (who has directed many well-received productions at S&Co., including Martha Mitchell Calling, Much Ado About Nothing and Sea Marks) recalls her first Bulgarian visit, sponsored by the Drama League.

“The work blew me away, the individuals blew me away,” says Varon, seen at right with Dobchev and Hrstova. Then she offers what is pretty much the biggest compliment an S&Co. veteran like herself can give.  “When I met Margarita and Ivan, I had the same feeling of excitement I had when I met Tina [Packer], Dennis [Krausnick] and Kristen [Linklater] as a young actress,” Varon says, invoking S&Co’s founding artistic director, its director of actor training, and the venerated author of the voice technique that is one of the most distinctive elements of that training.

“These are visionary artists and master teachers and people who have a passion for the theatre that’s beyond putting on shows. It’s about a sense of mission and a sense of purpose. Even though their work is radically different from us on the stage,” Varon continues, “I felt there is a deep affinity.”

Simotes, too, sees this residency in the context of S&Co.’s founding mission. Sfumato describes itself as a “laboratory,” and it was in that spirit that the Lenox company first took up residence at The Mount.

“It reminded me of our classwork, that kind of intensity,” Simotes says of the Sfumato-style training he observed, comparing it to the late-1970’s New York University scene out of which S&Co. sprang. “There’s something there that was really right.”

The Sfumato method sounds grueling to the ear of the American theatre fan. In an interview after a long day of work on Uncle Vanya, Mladenova describes the ethos, through a translator. “In this laboratory, the rehearsal is even more important than the end performance in front of an audience. The process is the result.”

Dobchev elaborates, describing a schedule that would make any self-respecting member of Actors’ Equity blanche. In the States, rehearsals end and the director’s work is over after a show’s official opening night. Not so at Sfumato.

“We keep on exploring and rehearsing, which can lead to a point where there is actually a brand new version of what we’re doing that has nothing to do with what was there on the opening night. The actors who work in Sfumato know that this kind of process is a law. This will happen.”

Then Mladenova offers the coup de grace: “We rehearse until the performance is alive. Which means a few more years after the first opening night.”

Krausnick, who participated in the Uncle Vanya workshop, says the approach is fundamentally different.

“For them, it’s not about the word, it’s about the action. It’s about: What is happening? So the exploration in the room is about the actions. They know what they want and why they want it, but in their work with the actors they explore how we get there.”

Although these theatre artists are finding common ground in their passion, they’re also noticing cultural differences imbedded in their acting approaches. In an S&Co. training session, where actors are encouraged to draw on their personal experiences, an ice-breaking question between teacher and student might be: “What is your deepest fear?”

The Eastern Europeans are more reserved.

“Their actors are super talented, well-trained, incredibly courageous, and will do anything you ask of them—except get up and say something, unless you point to them and say ‘your turn,’” Varon says. “This is a society where for a long time talking about your feelings was very dangerous. You talked about yourself within a very tiny circle of trusted family and friends. They’re amazed by how quickly Americans want to talk about their feelings to people they just met.”

Bringing it full circle, Simotes says that Dobchev and Mladenova’s first reaction to working with the Americans was an echo of the impression made by S&Co.’s founding generation on the English transplants like Packer, Linklater, fight director B.H. Barry, and movement choreographer John Broome.

“It was about the Americans’ willingness to jump in and show their feelings immediately. That was the same thing Tina and all those guys talked about. That’s why they came here. It’s still true. Here we are so many years later, and what describes the American experience is a willingness to say: Here I am, this is what we are, this is what’s going on.”

Or, sometimes, a willingness to pour a bottle of water over one’s head unexpectedly. — Jeremy D. Goodwin

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Posted by Jeremy D. Goodwin on 04/01/13 at 09:25 PM • Permalink