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The history of the National Theatre of Bulgaria

The history of the National Theatre of Bulgaria goes back to 1904 when the 'Sulza i smyah' ('Tears and Laughter') theatrical troupe changed its name to the 'Bulgarian National Theatre'. Six years later the National Assembly voted to establish a fund to raise money for a new theatre building. It was designed by two prominent Viennese architects, H. Helmer and F. Felner, who had designed opera houses and theatres in Vienna, Prague, Budapest, Odessa, Zagreb, Wiesbaden and many other European cities. The building was officially opened on 3 January, 1907. The theatre's first Principal Director was Josef Schmaha. Among its founders were the actors Vasil Kirkov, Adriana Boudevska, Krustyo Saraffov, Hristo Ganchev, Atanas Kirchev, Vera Ignatieva, Zlatina Nedeleva, Ivan Popov, Geno Kirov, Elena Snezhina, Teodora Stoycheva. In 1908 the prominent poet Pencho Slaveykov was appointed director. Although he remained at that post for only a year, his high standards with respect to both the repertoire and the productions themselves set the tone for the future. Slaveykov appointed another poet, Peyo Yavorov, as dramaturg and until the tragic episode in 1913 which left him blind, Yavorov continued to impose the highest standards in the emerging institution. A substantial number of the troupe's actors were trained in Russia; many had studied in Central Europe. While special attention was always paid to the production of Bulgarian plays, the theatre's doors were always open for the best in European theatre. In 1920, refusing to bow its head before more generally conservative attitudes, its board invited the young poet Geo Milev, newly arrived back from Berlin, to direct a markedly expressionist production of Strindberg's Dance of Death.

In 1923, during celebrations to mark the theatre's anniversary, a fire broke out on stage, quickly engulfing the whole building. The designs of German architect Martin Dulfer were used when the theatre was restored in 1929.

An important figure in the early history of the National Theatre was Vladimir Vasilev who was its director almost continually between 1923 and 1939. It was he who, in 1925, appointed Nikolay Osipovich Masalitinov, an actor with the Moscow Art Theatre, Principal Director. His work on the plays of Yordan Yovkov, St. L. Kostov, Racho Stoyanov gave great impetus to the development of Bulgarian drama. In 1925 a drama school affiliated with the theatre was founded and Masalitinov played an important role in nurturing a whole new generation of talented actors. In the 1920s and 1930s a host of young actors joined the company, among them Vladimir Trandafilov, Zorka Yordanova, Marta Popova, Georgy Stamatov, Ivan Dimov, Konstantic Kisimov, Nevena Buyuklieva, Petya Gerganova, Nikola Ikonomov, Boris Mihaylov, Olga Kircheva, Irina Taseva, Ruzha Delcheva. One of the most active members of the troupe in that period was the director Hrisan Tsankov, a student of Max Reinhardt's and of modern West-European theatre. One should also mention the work of the artists Ivan Penkov, Pencho Georgiev and Ivan Milev who left their mark in the field of set and costume design.

Despite ideological constraints and attempts to impose the dogma of so-called socialist realism, after World War II many excellent productions were staged at the National Theatre, mostly of the classics (e.g Lope De Vega's Fuente Ovejuna, dir. by Stefan Surchadzhiev; Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, dir. Filip Filipov; Gorky's Summer Folk, dir. by Boris Babochkin; Schiller's Don Carlos, dir. by Krustyo Mirsky; Yavorov's At the Foot of the Vitosha Mountain, dir. by Stefan Surchadzhiev; Pirandello's Henry IV, dir. by Encho Halachev). Works by contemporary authors, too, enjoyed success (e.g. Kamen Zidarov's Ivan Shishman, dir. by Nikoloy Lyutskanov; Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman and The Price, dir. by Mois Beniesh; Yordan Radichkov's An Attempt at Flying, dir. by Mladen Kiselov; Valentin Rasputin's Borrowed Time, dir. by Krikor Azaryan). The troupe boasted a constellation of excellent actors, among them Tanya Masalitinova, Margarita Duparinova, Slavka Slavova, Mila Pavlova, Andrey Chaprazov, Rachko Yabandzhiev, Asen Milanov, Spas Dzhonev, Apostol Karamitev, Yordan Matev, Stefan Getsov, Lubomir Kabakchiev.

Between 1990 and 1999 Professor Vasil Stefanov held the post of director of the National Theatre. As a result of the political changes in Bulgaria many new links were established with other European theatres. The National's troupe took part in a number of theatre festivals, such as BITEF, the 'New European Theatre' Biennial Festival in Bonn, the NET festival in Moscow. Among the most successful productions of the decade were Arthur Miller's The Price and Richard Nash's The Rainmaker (dir. Leon Daniel), Alfred de Musset Lorenzaccio (dir. Margarita Mladenova), Konstantin Iliev's Easter Wine (dir. Ivan Dobchev) and director Alexander Morfov's productions of Don Quixote (after Cervantes), The Tempest (after Shakespeare) and The Lower Depths (after Maxim Gorky).

In 2000 Alexander Morfov became Artistic Director and in 2003 the post reverted to Professor Vasil Stefanov.

Badly damaged in World War II and hastily restored after the war, the theatre underwent a lengthy but serious reconstruction between 1971 and 1975. Currently it has a well-equipped main stage and auditorium that can seat 750, and two smaller auditoriums that seat 120 and 70 viewers, respectively.

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