Nathan Cooper, the artistic director and actor for Baltimore’s Single Carrot Theatre, recently returned from the Festival for Independent Performing Arts in Sofia, where he spent four days with Lola Pierson (playwright and founding member of Baltimore’s UnSaddest Factory Theatre Company) on a grant from the Trust for Mutual Understanding.
It was basically a networking excursion: two artists from Baltimore’s independent theatre community scout out the Bulgarian independent theatre scene (small but intense) to develop relationships and share ideas. The four days were packed with discussion groups, meetings with artists, and a generous sample of productions by Bulgaria’s small but thriving independent theatre scene. I tagged along, also on the grant, to record some of my impressions for articles.
After his return, I asked Cooper to offer a few of his impressions about an East European theatre scene which faces many of the same challenges as a independent theatre scene in Baltimore. First off, he noted that Sofia and Baltimore had two things in common: shoestring budgets and big ambitions.
“In Bulgaria and Baltimore, there’s a belief that art doesn’t have to happen in traditional models. We’re all fighting to make the art we want to make. To me that was what struck the biggest chord.”
The Sofia experimental and independent theatre is composed largely of graduates of Bulgaria’s theatre school. The training of independent actors in Bulgaria was probably a little more stringent – for a reason.
“There’s a strong tradition of training in Bulgaria, which I don’t see as necessarily present across the board in the states. It seems that in the states, if you go on to get training of that caliber, you’re put in the regional system. You join the actor’s union or director’s union, and because of that, you’re only able to work in certain theatres. To come together for a couple weeks. This creates a system of nomadic artists in the states. It’s hard to invest yourself in a community, when you’re moving from job to job.”
Both in Bulgaria and in Baltimore, indie theatres are trying to break that mould. In Sofia, the recently formed ACT Association was using this first-time festival to put themselves on the international map.
In Baltimore, the recently formed Baltimore Network of Ensemble Theatres (BNET) is part of this growing community of small theatres which offer an alternative to the six-week, one-time relationships that frequently characterize regional theatres.
“Having an ensemble allows us to have these long term relationships which develop deep connections with the artists. Allowing those relationships with artists, it allows us to push theatre further because we know each other.”
In Bulgaria, he says, he noticed a similarity between Baltimore’s budding ensemble theatres and those theatres in Bulgaria which are flourishing outside the system of state-sponsored theatres.
‘They’re driving their own work. The artist is able to develop the work they want to create without having to cater to audiences. What I saw in Bulgaria was people trying things because it was an artistic expression.”
What he got from the Sofia festival, he says, is the idea that edginess actually increases marketability. The theatres there were filled, usually to capacity, with young people. The independent theatres were offering something state theatres were not. Are there too many independent theatres? That provocative (but valid) question has been bandied about for years in Baltimore.
‘If everyone’s selling the same product, that’s the problem. In the capitalist economic, everyone’s got to deal with competition. Not in terms of us versus them, but in terms of competing ideals and products. If there aren’t going to be too many theatres, there needs to be more innovation.
Innovation requires dedication. He found that in spades in the small Bulgarian theatres represented at the ACT festival.
“People who had a tremendous sense of dedication in the face of adversity. Unwavering dedication and passion. Even though a lot of the people had to work other jobs, they always identified themselves as artists. Which is a little different from what they do here: where you say I want to be an artist, but I’m working this job to support myself.”
In the U.S., sometimes actors and directors are reluctant to identify themselves as artists.
“Societally, in the U.S., there’s a prejudice against artists. There’s a sense in the theatre crowd that art is seen as a luxury. It seems that culture is essential in Bulgaria, and art is a part of it. Of course, my perception is going to be swayed by the fact that while we were there we were talking about nothing but art, from nine at night to four in the morning.”
As part of the four day festival, the ACT brought Cooper and others to visit the Ministry of Culture. In a brief roundtable discussion, they lobbied for more support. Has BNET thought of getting a group of people to go to city hall?
“We should. We really should. I think it’s something we can take as a community of artists from this festival. A lesson in, I guess, political activism. The idea that the Bulgarian groups are formed around making changes in the system.”
I asked what advice Americans in Baltimore might have for Bulgarians. Occasionally artists complained that little could be done to change that system. He had a simple word of advice for them.
“Don’t ever say ‘that’ll never work here.’ Things may not be perfect, but there are ways you can take things and adapt it to your own. But to be in a place where you say,’ this will not work ever’, you’re not going to enact the change you want to. You need to open doors.’