On a mid-March morning in the rural arts mecca of Lenox, Mass., 15 pounds of apples were delivered to a rehearsal room at Shakespeare & Company. They’d been donated by local market Berkshire Organics at the request of two Bulgarian directors—Ivan Dobchev and Margarita Mladenova, of Sofia’s Sfumato Theater Laboratory—to kick off a weeklong Chekhov workshop with 16 U.S.-based artists. Shakes & Co artistic director Tony Simotes recalls how the aroma permeated Dobchev’s introductory speech. “There was something artistically instinctive about what the actors needed,” Simotes recollects. “A bit of spring in winter, Ivan said, to prepare for Uncle Vanya.”
By the final full day of the workshop, spring had officially arrived, though fresh snow dusted the ground. Only a dozen or so remaining apples were scattered on the floor and a table. The doctor Astrov (actor Jason Asprey) used a few as paperweights on a map he was unrolling for the lovely Yelena (Tod Randolph). For nearly two hours, Asprey and Randolph worked on this scene, getting through only a few lines at a time before Dobchev or Mladenova would interrupt—with JoJo Hristova, a New York–based Bulgarian actress, functioning as interpreter—posing questions like, “Is the map the most important thing in the scene?” Soon Dobchev was on his feet and striding toward them to demonstrate: “Ne, ne, ne.” He took up Asprey’s position and beckoned Randolph toward the map. As she leaned in, he surreptitiously sniffed her hair. Hristova laughed: “I don’t need to translate that.”
In 2010, Shakes & Co director Daniela Varon made an exploratory trip to Bulgaria for the first time with New York City’s Drama League, which has partnered with Sofia’s Art Office on a U.S./Bulgaria Stage Directors Exchange. “All I knew about Bulgaria was that they export rose oil,” Varon admits. She was floored by Sfumato’s work. “It was so elemental, so stripped down, so courageous.”
Mladenova came to the U.S. later in the year on a reciprocal visit, and the back-and-forth shifted into high gear. Varon returned to Sfumato in 2011 to take a 10-day acting workshop; Simotes visited Sofia at the same time. In July 2012, Dobchev and Mladenova observed plays and education programs during Shakes & Co’s summer season. A Sfumato company member, Albena Georgieva, came to Lenox in January of this year for Shakes & Co’s flagship, monthlong intensive training, which regularly includes international participants; in February, Varon and another Shakes & Co regular, Walton Wilson, conducted workshops at Sfumato. So by the time Dobchev and Mladenova arrived this March in Lenox to dig into Chekhov, the term “exchange” could justly describe the two companies’ relationship. Funding for much of these activities has come from the America for Bulgaria Foundation, on the Bulgarian side, and from a U.S. foundation, the Trust for Mutual Understanding.
The exchange’s concentration so far on training has revealed key differences in the two companies’—and perhaps nations’—approaches. Wilson, who teaches voice in the Linklater and Fitzmaurice tradition, found his emphasis on freedom of breath and physical ease was novel for the Sfumato actors he taught this past February, a contrast to the athletic, muscular voice classes he observed at Sofia’s National Academy for Theatre and Film Arts (where Sfumato’s founders also teach).
Varon, who worked with Bulgarian actors on Shakespearean monologues, mostly in translation, noticed an initial reticence from the group that could have been misinterpreted as shyness or intimidation. “The idea of getting up, speaking the text, seeing what happens in the moment, and taking it from there seemed strange to them,” she soon discovered. “Once they were up and working, they were absolutely emotionally available and committed.” She looks back on that experience with new insight after the Vanya workshop, in which she participated (as an actor, though she is primarily a director). “What I understand better, now, is the extent to which they are accustomed to being guided and directed very specifically from the get-go by the director or teacher, and how much they want to fulfill the director’s vision,” she explains.
A passionate vision and an intimate knowledge of Chekhov are exactly the attributes Sfumato’s directors offered in response to the Massachusetts theatre’s language-grounded Shakespearean expertise. The company Dobchev and Mladenova founded in 1989, which is notable in a thriving Sofia theatre scene for its experimental, research-based approach, began its explorations with The Seagull. They stage Chekhov’s works now with, in their words, “the confidence of disciples,” always in pursuit of his “sensuous simplicity.” Chekhov is a mainstay in Bulgarian schools where, until the fall of Communism, Russian was the default second language. According to Varon, “Chekhov is their birthright as Eastern Europeans, the way Shakespeare is ours.” (For the record, though Dobchev and Mladenova don’t speak much English, they’re fans of the Bard, too, though they’re willing to tinker with him: Sfumato’s repertoire includes a heavily trimmed Winter’s Tale and a Hamlet sequel co-written by Dobchev titled Wittenberg Revisited, which posits that Horatio was in love with Ophelia.)
According to Elizabeth Ingram, who played Marina in the Vanya workshop, all week the expressive Shakes & Co actors were told, “Pull it back.” They were getting a crash course in the Sfumato version of an intellectual, late-Stanislavskian technique called “action analysis.” The idea is not to play emotion or language, but to root every utterance and gesture within the character’s essential desire and the actions that desire provokes. Dobchev and Mladenova have a detailed understanding of the circumstances within each scene of the play. They fine-tune their actors’ performances to reflect it in a hands-on way that—especially in its condensed, workshop context—might give a U.S. actor pause, much as Varon’s monologue sessions stretched the comfort zones of some Bulgarian participants.
Ingram allows that at the very beginning she felt constricted by this directing style, but she quickly realized that “if I followed their advice the scene would begin to take shape in such a specific and human way that I found I could trust their ideas.” Dobchev and Mladenova are full of details about 19th-century Russian life—the mechanics, for example, of a servant’s bow—and illuminating morsels from the playwright’s biography and writings. Late in the March workshop, actors Ryan Winkles and Stephanie Hedges tackled the scene in which Astrov and Yelena bid farewell to each other and to their unconsummated attraction. Dobchev paraphrased Chekhov’s idea that “the energy I use to work against something shows how strong that thing is,” and suddenly, Yelena’s rejection of the doctor’s overtures took on greater poignancy. Mladenova urged Hedges to understand why her character, though conflicted, must speak without hesitation: “When his body moves toward you, this creates tension, so you start talking and talking. Look how much they speak—because they cannot do. This is Chekhov.”
In his welcome speech at the start of the week, Simotes suggested to the gathered artists that “Shakespeare and Chekhov are on different rails, but they’re on the same track going in the same direction”—and that his company has attained a maturity that makes it ready to ride with Chekhov. Simotes hopes to produce Uncle Vanya at Shakes & Co in the next couple of years with Dobchev and Mladenova at the helm. This would mark the first full-length Chekhov production in the company’s history.
Sfumato and Shakespeare & Company may never entirely share a rail, but Mladenova believes they have something fundamental in common: “the seriousness with which both companies look at theatre.” Both also emphasize the importance of ongoing training at every stage in an actor’s career. The Bulgarians’ primary goal for the workshop in Lenox was, says Mladenova, to demonstrate the innovations and complexities of Chekhov’s writing, while refreshing the Americans’ view of him. “It’s important to enter into Chekhov as somebody is who is here now, that it’s something familiar,” as she puts it. “In this aspect the week was very successful.”
At a company dinner celebrating the end of the workshop, the Bulgarians produced a tall slim bottle of rakia, their national spirit—a gift sent by Georgieva. The bottle was passed and toasts were proposed. Ariel Bock, another actor who’d worked on the part of Marina, commented that she’d dutifully read Vanya before the workshop began. Near the end of the week, after hours of meticulous scene work, she reread it. “It was like discovering a different play,” she said simply, raising her glass to Dobchev and Mladenova. “Thank you.”