Interview by Irina Papancheva *
Alexander Manuiloff is writer, playwright and screenwriter of Bulgarian origin whose works have been invited to important theatre festivals and venues on four continents, among which Theatertreffen, Berlin; Under the Radar, New York; and L’Europe de Théâtres, Paris. Winner of EURODRAM 2017 (Germany).
A translation of his play "The State" by Nathalie Bassand and with a preface by Tim Etchells was published in 2019 in Paris by L'espace d'un Instant/Maison d'Europe et d'Orient.
After his 2017 tour to Washington’s ForumTheatre/Woolly Mammoth, the DC Theatre Scene called him “a rare creator”, the Washington Post found his piece “exceptionally thoughtful”, while the Broadway World defined Manuiloff’s writing as being “akin to magical realism”. In 2019 Alexander Manuiloff became the first non-German speaking writer to be invited to the prestigious 44-year-old Mülheimer Theatertage festival of contemporary drama. He is the first Bulgarian writer to be ever invited to Theatertreffen Berlin in its festival history of more than half a century. Two separate Silver Lion prize winners at the Venice Biennale, Rimini Protokoll and Ferran Dordal, chose him to work with on their projects in 2016.
Alexander's first book, Film, received the Bulgarian Writers’ Guild Award for the best fiction debut book of 2005
Chairman of Radar Sofia, an independent not-for-profit organisation that has opened space for foreign writers/creators to live and work in Sofia. Founding member of Drama Pact - a platform for presenting contemporary, sharp and socially significant dramatic works in Bulgaria.
The theatrical reading “Crossings” of your and Anna Akash’s works has recently taken place in Sofia. The performed pieces addressed the controversial topic of migration. What was the genesis of this collaboration? And what was the audience’s response?
At Radar Sofia, we had an open call for playwrights to come and spend some creative time in Sofia. We were very surprised to get an application from Syria. This was Anna, with a very strong project. And we decided to invite her, even though we knew it could be extremely difficult to bring somebody from Damascus into the EU. But we managed and Anna stayed in Sofia just before the world’s first Covid lockdown. An incredible timing. She got back to Damascus one day before the whole country was locked. By that time we already had in mind a joint project with her, a Bulgarian-Syrian text-based piece of dramaturgy. We applied to Etijahad – a fund that fosters international cooperation with Arab participation - and here we are: a year later, we had a joint text. It was shown as a staged reading both in Sofia and Damascus – so it had two different versions and two different responses. From what I know, the audiences were provoked, intrigued and moved, quite a lot.
You have made a shift from more traditional forms of theatre such as the play “The Black Jack” in which a man from Roma origin shares his experiences of being discriminated against to “a complete departure from traditional theatrical norms” with your recent work, including “The State” which “The DC Theatre Scene” has called “a participatory experience at its finest”. Could you tell us about this journey and its milestones?
I have always been interested in asking questions about the form. Why do we put things in the exact boxes where we put them? Are these boxes unchangeable and sacred? Are they suitable for every topic and for every concept, at all times?
On the other hand – whether we always need representation in theatre these days is also an important issue. How about presence and co-presence?
Can we use the situation of one theatre evening in its entirety? I mean a theatre is a venue where, say, 300 people gather every single evening. Do we really need to put only 3 of them on stage and make them speak while expect the others to just remain there in the dark and keep silent? And – particularly – if you want to talk about democracy, can you do it inside this convention?
In my work, I have become more interested in creating dramatic situations that involve co-creation and improvisation, reducing this way the power and authority of both the author and the director. These situations can (but don’t have to) allow intervention from the audience. I feel that these constructs are intellectually more provoking in our times rather than telling a story in the classical theatre way.
Besides, this switch transforms theatre into a space of discussion in contrast to its more conventional function of a window that just showcases somebody’s exceptional abilities and skills.
Could you describe your creation process? Do you have a fully formed idea before you start writing or does it get shaped as you write?
I usually have a good idea of the structure, but when I start putting flesh around it, things may change a bit.
Who have been your main influences?
Modernism in art and all the -isms it is divided into. This is a moment in the European history when people decided to radically break with millennia-old ways of thinking and structuring things, only to find something new, important and – as we all agree now – beautiful. In science, a similar breakthrough was done, at the same time, by quantum physics that continues to baffle the brightest minds even now. But it has revealed the existence of a surprising set of laws, a different logic and – ultimately – a new aspect of reality. I find this strikingly wonderful.
In literature something of the kind was started by a genius kid, Arthur Rimbaud. Then for me comes Fernando Pessoa with his radical breakup with the oneness of discourse (or even with the oneness of identity, the oneness of character) a special feature I can also recognize to some extent in Marquez and Borges. It is hardly a coincidence that all these authors spoke and wrote in Romance languages and not in English. English (especially through its pop pinnacle and temple Hollywood) seems to be very fond of the one dominant storyline, more conventional and more rigid in its form. (Not true for so many authors, of course, like my dearest uncle Henry Miller, for example).
In theatre I have been impressed by works of Gob Squad, Forced Entertainment, Milo Rau, Rimini Protokoll, Jan Fabr, DV8 and Vaiva Graynite.
At the end of 2011 in a Manifesto on your website you declared your decision not to publish books in Bulgaria anymore and explained the reasons behind it. Has anything changed in your position for these ten years?
Yes, I think. Other writers in Bulgaria, recognizing that many of the problems described in this Manifesto are still unresolved, started talking of a joint Samizdat (community publishing house by and for the writers themselves). In such kind of a publishing entity I may decide to publish on paper in Bulgaria one day.
In retrospect, I can say that this decision from ten years ago, although difficult and probably crazy, was truthful to myself and it helped me concentrate on the things I want to do and not on what other people think I should be doing. Over this period, my theatre works were translated into 14 languages, they were invited to important venues and festivals on 4 continents, I worked with some of my favourite theatre groups, my writing got into the curricula of top university programmes on contemporary dramaturgy in the USA, I had the chance to watch tons of theatre that will never come to Bulgaria, and, also, even if I am radically non-mainstream and non-commercial, I somehow got the attention and received coverage by media monsters such as the Washington Post, Nachkritik and TV Arte.
Now, think of another Bulgarian playwright who followed the traditional rules of the game and managed to achieve anything like this in the last 10 years.
I’m not saying this to boast, my point here is that difficult decisions will probably pay off if you persevere. Which means to be able to wait and be patient.
Your best advice for beginning playwrights?
It’s connected to the above. Everybody and everything will try to make you quit. It will be unimaginably difficult. The system does not need dramaturges who are intellectuals, it needs dramaturges who are craftsmen. If you decide to be a craftsman, then go into cinema, there will be a lot of work and not so much respect. If you decide to do the other thing (and in theatre), you are probably crazy! May God help you!
You are the author of plays, film scripts, a novel. Your first published book “Film” is poetic though. Have you continued writing poetry?
This is a secret.
You are among the founders and the Chairman of Radar Sofia, an independent not-for-profit organisation that has opened space for foreign writers/creators to live and work in Sofia. Which is the achievement/activity you are most proud of?
I am proud of so many things connected to Radar. One is that we are building a community here. Then we are opening opportunities for beginning theatre writers. We introduce new practices that later get implemented by the whole sector in Bulgaria, which is great. We mange to produce works that are important for the local situation. We have brought a Golden and a Silver Lion from the Venice biennial in Sofia to work on joint projects with local dramaturgs. We have been a partner of a real castle, Schloss Solitude, and are also working with the reputed organization Artist at Risk from Helsinki. Goethe Institut and British Council are our regular partners. We have helped launch the first festival on new dramaturgy in Southeast Europe in Sofia this year. We kind of already have a global outreach: we have managed to invite to Sofia creators from as far away as China, USA, Syria, Spain, Lithuania, Ukraine and Romania. The fact that we haven’t stopped amid so many troubles in the sector is also a remarkable achievement in itself.
What is coming next for you? What are your aspirations for your life as a creator?
This autumn I will have three premieres. We are also keeping the local Drama Pact programme very busy with seminars, discussions, workshops, performative games, stage readings and we are packing to start travelling again with some of the formats we have. If, of course, something doesn’t come in the way as it happened in 2020.
* Irina Papancheva is a Bulgarian fiction writer. She was born in Burgas. writes in Bulgarian and English. Her works have been translated into English, French, Arabic and Persian. Website: ipapancheva.com