“I try to sense the ‘pulse of time’”: Interview with Yordan Slaveykov

by Kamelia Nikolova*


Yordan Slaveykov is a Bulgarian theatre director, playwright, and writer. Born in 1976, he is one of the most fascinating playwrights to appear in Bulgaria during the past decade. In 2006, he completed a program of study in directing at the National Academy for Theatre and Film Arts, Sofia. Based on his graduation performance Oscar and the Pink Lady, hewas nominated for a debut for the ICARUS 2007 Award. His first play, Angel, wasanthologized in 2008 along with three other plays; the same year, the collective work was nominated for best theatrical work in the Ivan Radoev National Competition for Contemporary Dramaturgy.

In 2011, Yordan Slaveykov co-wrote the play The Spider with director Dimitar Kassabov; their play was subsequently nominated for the ASKEER Award for new plays. After staging their work at the SFUMATO Theatre Laboratory, the two directors were invited to present their play at the New York International Fringe Festival and other international stages and forums. Yordan Slaveykov is also the author of the novel Last Step (2015), awarded for a debut prose work at Yuzhna Prolet National Competition for Debut Literature in Haskovo. The second issue of his novel was released in 2020, along with a collection of short stories entitled Festive Family (2022). Since 2022, he has been represented by Sofia Literary Agency.

Yordan Slaveykov’s most recent plays are Embryos, staged at I am Studio in Sofia in 2022, and Victoria, first staged in 2021 in the Republic of North Macedonia. At the end of 2022 he staged Victoria in the Bulgarian independent theatre I am Studio; in 2023 he was one of three playwrights nominated for the ICARUS Award, the most prestigious award for New Drama in Bulgaria.

Yordan Slaveykov. Photo: Geo Pavlov

How did you start writing theatrical texts, and how were your first plays received?

Playwriting for me is a natural continuation of my career as a theatre director. I wrote my first play, Angel, less than two years after my graduation from the Theatre Academy in Sofia, Bulgaria. The play received recognition from the jury of the National Competition for Contemporary Bulgarian Dramaturgy and was included in a collection with the three best plays in 2008. However, for reasons which I think are completely justified, the play did not reach the stage. I gave the text to two actresses from two different generations and asked them to read it and give me feedback. Both of them provided very critical comments regarding the construction of the leading female characters and the dialogue. They were totally in good faith, and most importantly, they were completely right.

Today I see even more drawbacks in my first play than those which they saw at the time, or at least the ones they mentioned to me. I felt, though, that I was on the right path, that I knew what I had to say in the language of theatre, and that if I had to perfect my writing, I needed to find my own style, to perfect the means of expression I was using. I remember the words of the Nobel Laureate novelist, Orhan Pamuk, that “the writer’s imperfection is his style.” I agree with this statement. The subjective way I experience the world is reflected in my style of writing.

Yordan Slaveykov. Photo: Iva Todorova

Your play The Spider, co-written with Dimitar Kassabov and staged at the SFUMATO Theatre Laboratory in 2011, resulted in your first theatre success. How did you arrive at the idea for its creation? What were your intentions as a writer, and what did you want to express in the play and the performance?

At that time, in 2010, both Dimitar Kassabov and I were teaching an acting course to a few groups of amateurs. We had an enormous desire to share what we knew and pass on our love for theatre to as many people as we could. We taught groups of teenagers who wanted to develop professionally in the theatre, as well as participants from diverse backgrounds with varying degrees of education, lifestyles, and ways of thinking. We tutored six days per week; we had a stage and the full freedom to act and train; we even thought of our own exercises. During one of the improvisation classes, one of us told two participants, a man, and a woman, to go on stage and improvise on the topic of Siamese twins. They started arguing whilst in their roles over who and when could they use their only mobile phone. We looked at each other and agreed that it was a resourceful topic of conflict for a play.

We wrote The Spider in 23 days. Then we left it to mature for two whole months. We would read it, and see that the idea was great, but the dialogue was horrible, so we edited it for another two months. In the play, a brother and a sister, who are Siamese twins (impossible from a biological point of view), are celebrating their birthday on the night before a surgical separation was scheduled. We explored the theme of the possibility or impossibility for two people to remain a couple for a long time and their conflicts in the relationship. We also considered whether or not there was a forbidden love, and who would decide what was and was not allowed, the hatred between two people, and the fight between Eros and Thanatos.

The Spider by Yordan Slaveykov and Dimitar Kassabov, SFUMATO Theatre Laboratory, 2011. Photo Miroslav Veselinow

Your latest play, Victoria, was nominated this year for the prestigious ICARUS Award for New Bulgarian Drama and was a finalist along with three other plays that were competing for the prize. You are also its staging director. How would you explain the success of the text of your play? And how would you characterize your artistic work as a playwright up through the present time?

How interesting – you asked me about the script, and I mentally built a response that referenced the performance. The nomination for the ICARUS National Theatre Award for my monodrama Victoria is undoubtedly the most extensive recognition which the play text has received so far. This shows that the guild of theatre makers and theatre critics pays attention to the texts and performances, which start their life not in state-subsidized cultural institutes, but in an independent theatre space. The nomination has an added value – in my opinion, it could contribute to a longer performance life and could possibly lead to a staging outside of Sofia too.

If the text of my play has achieved some kind of success, it is not due to my slow writing and critical attitude towards the written text, but rather because the theme of a tragic love story between a Bulgarian actress and an Afghan immigrant speaks to the hearts of the viewers/readers, not only to their minds. The success of the performance, if it is indeed successful, is due to the appropriate choice of actors, in this particular case, to the choice of actress Denitsa Darinova, who embodied and performed the role of Victoria most convincingly, while utilizing minimal means of expression in an ascetic stage environment.

I would briefly describe my artistic endeavor as a playwright as taking on topics which are taboo for other playwrights, topics which they wouldn’t dare or wish to discuss.

Victoria by Yordan Slaveykov, I am Studio, Sofia, 2022. Photo: Geo Pavlov

In your view, what is the situation of the playwright today in Bulgaria? What are the challenges and difficulties for the author who writes theatre texts? Would you say it is easy or difficult for the new Bulgarian drama on stage?

The playwright in Bulgaria today is free to write on any topic they wish – there is no censorship, or any other limitations. There are at least two competitions for contemporary Bulgarian playwriting, and there are also financial support mechanisms available through the National Fund for Culture and the Ministry of Culture. Technically speaking, these factors facilitate the journey of each new theatrical text to the stage. The ball, so to speak, is in our hands, in the hands of the playwrights. I think we should stop looking at the past and stop curing our traumas, so to speak, and instead try looking upon the world in the here and now, the way it is. We need to be the voice of the present, to develop a sense of the future, and to stop dwelling on the past.

How would you describe the sociopolitical and economic context of the new Bulgarian drama? How does it influence and impact new theatrical texts? In your view, what is the relationship between new drama and society? In particular, do you think that theatre responds to the most significant questions today, or does it prefer to avoid them?

It so happens that due to the Covid 19 pandemic and the war of Russia against Ukraine the world has started living in the here and now, together, despite being polarized. My play Victoria came into being firstly as an international audiovisual project. I decided that during the uncertain times of indefinitely closed theatres, I wanted to continue to create theatre. So I invited my acquaintances, actresses from eight different countries, to record monologues from the play in front of a camera, and in different languages. I managed to create a community and engage these actresses through theatre, rather than leave them alone with their fear of the unknown. In this experiment of mine, actresses participated from Ukraine, Belorussia, Russia, the Republic of North Macedonia, Georgia, Switzerland, the UK and Latvia. And the most recent performance, once again an independent theatre project which we are rehearsing at the moment, is called “Love in Times of War” and it includes the true stories of my friends and colleagues from Ukraine. Through these stories, they discuss how successful their personal relationships are in terms of resisting the war, which is destroying their motherland. It is curious how theatre, not only as an institution but also as a process of construction as well, turns into a place of refuge for them. I cannot speak for all contemporary Bulgarian plays, but in mine, at least, we try to respond to significant sociopolitical issues which define the world today.

Embryos by Yordan Slaveykov, I am Studio, Sofia, 2022. Photo: Miroslav Veselinow

I have one last question to ask you. In your documentary play, Embryos, you discuss the topic of abortion and women who are forced to terminate, whilst your latest play Victoria focuses on the intimate relationship between an actress from a small Bulgarian town and an Afgahn refugee, and the destruction of their relationship by the community. What can you say about the link between your plays, contemporary social problems and the world today?

I think I answered this question partially in my previous commentary. It is obvious that we are living in truly exciting times, as a Chinese proverb says. I have always been interested in major human themes such as love, choice, the power to resist, betrayal, death, and dignity. I have managed to intertwine these themes in the present context of the exciting times in which we live. I am not flattered by the thought that I can feel the “pulse of time,” but somehow I have managed to train my inner eye of an artist to sense this pulse.

*Kamelia Nikolova (PhD, DSc) is a theatre researcher, historian and theatre critic. She is Professor of European Theatre and Head of the Theatre Studies Programme, National Academy for Theatre and Film Arts, Sofia. She is also a Research Fellow at the Theatre Department of the Institute of Art Studies, Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, and a visiting professor at other universities. Her research and teaching interests are connected with the history of theatre, theory of drama and performance, and new theatre practices. Her publications include eleven books as well as several articles published in Bulgarian and international journals.

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