Focus Institutions

The Possible Institution

Аni Vaseva
The Theatrical Institution That Persists

Translation from Bulgarian: Katerina Popova

What is an institution? A structure that stays (or persists, as Boyan Manchev would put it). It is something stable, as its etymology suggests – from Latin instatuere “to set up”, from in- “in” and statuere “to establish, to cause, to stand”. What is the function of an institution of arts? To provide the best possible conditions for creativity. In the ideal case – not just for its sporadic instances but for its long-term development, for in-depth work, for expanding the horizon, an opportunity for discovery, for experimentation, for permanent access of the public to the arts. How are these conditions ensured? Through what is implied in the very word “institution” – through perseverance. If a society wants to enjoy the benefits of culture, to be a civilized, developing society, then it must support its institutions and infrastructure of the arts.

I may speak about theatre, since I am involved in its production process. I can also speak as a witness of the danger facing Bulgarian theatre, a danger it has been floundering in for quite some time now. What is that danger? Theatre is an art of the live process. It is made by a group of people who work together in real time. For this group to be able to operate in sync, to find a common language, to work efficiently, to develop in its work (and not to have to start all over again every two months, elaborating – over and over again – a common vocabulary, a common conceptual system, a common work discipline, ethic, language), while also having the courage to try new things, to want more and more, to invent, it needs to have basic material and organizational conditions – a place for work, time for work, conditions for work. There is an institution that ensures these conditions and it is the theatre. A theatre that can provide its company members with a stage where they can rehearse every day for months on end, year after year, in order to make the best shows they can. A theatre that can not only obligate but also pay its actors enough so that they won’t have to take on other projects and can devote their whole time and attention to these productions. Because that is the only way one can truly work, without beating about the bush and making excuses such as “I’m taking just this week off to go for a film shoot”, “I’ll juggle these two rehearsal processes”, “I have a dubbing session”, etc. A theatre that can employ directors who will invest their full time and efforts for a long period of time so as to create an exceptional show, not just go through the motions and collect a fat fee for one-month rehearsals from ten to two (or even from eleven to one). A theatre that can provide the requisite administrative and technical staff, stage machinery, scenery, costumes and generally everything necessary to make the show what it should be. Bulgarian theatre is in danger of destroying the effective mechanisms created to provide those conditions, thereby turning from a highly professional, exciting, contemporary and classical, experimental and traditional – in general, diverse – theatre into a half-baked, compromising, mediocre thing (such as it sometimes is).

Why shouldn’t theatre be forced to depend directly on ticket sales? Because the return on invested resources, offered by theatre, isn’t financial but value-based. Because high-quality, meaningful theatre needs time, resources and freedom. Because direct dependence on ticket sales opens (and closes) the vicious circle – staging productions that are supposed to be “to the audience’s taste” while, of course, underestimating the audience. Now and then there are also “boutique” productions, which are supposed to be for “the elite”. But to save time and resources, rehearsal processes are cut down, compromises are made by hiring “stars” (be they directors or actors) who don’t have time for longer rehearsals, so schedules are adjusted to accommodate their other projects. But theatre is maintained not to make money, but because it is a value in itself. Every cultural community needs its culture. Resources are invested in theatre to produce value, and this value must be accessible to citizens. Theatre and film cannot be private because then they will sink into the swamp of economic pressure, of dumbing down, of lowering taste, standards, requirements. But if theatre and film are financed by the state, then they should be accessible to the citizens of the state. This doesn’t mean constantly rising ticket prices but, conversely, affordable ticket prices. The costs of a theatre production or film are covered by state financing, therefore ticket prices don’t have to be high. The ticket price has nothing to do with the quality of a theatre production or film. Let’s not fool ourselves that a theatre production or film can be financed from ticket sales. Yes, there are such productions and films, but they are few and far apart. And in any case, they cannot exist without a permanent infrastructure. Theatre and film belong to the citizens and the citizens have the right to unhindered access to them. A retired school teacher with a monthly pension of four hundred leva (equivalent to about two hundred euros) cannot be expected to pay thirty leva (or much more) for a theatre ticket. Every week, at that. Neither can the retired school teacher be denied access to theatre. Nor can access to theatre be denied to the nurse, sanitation worker, firefighter, police officer, cook, farmer or anybody else. Because the city, the community, the state don’t belong to the businesspersons and hipsters but to all citizens. Because the work done by the sanitation worker or the school teacher isn’t less important for the society we all live in than that done by the copywriter, marketing expert or CEO. Because at present the retired citizens of Bulgaria are those upon whose work are built the remains of the social mechanism that allows us to live. Citizens across the country have the right to culture, to theatre and film, and they cannot be denied this right. Not just in the capital and several big cities but also in smaller towns and cities. Theatre is for everyone, and everyone has the right to have access to theatre. What’s more, to good, inspired theatre that doesn’t underestimate them, seeking to cater to “the taste of the general public”. Taste is cultivated and we owe the public our best.

Once the country in Europe with the largest number of theatres per capita (some time ago, one of the conditions for receiving the status of regional centre was the existence of a theatre in the city), Bulgaria has become a country with many more casinos than theatres and cinemas. The so-called “Western” countries fought for the privilege of having state theatres. In the period of their greatest achievements in theatre, the German and the French states invested huge resources in their theatre infrastructure. For years, the Bulgarian theatre system was one of the model systems – as were the Bulgarian educational or healthcare systems. The fact that in Stanislavski’s day a play would be rehearsed for a year sounds fantastic today. Nowadays one must work quickly, making concessions on quality, flitting from one opening-night to the next – without any possibility of developing the theatre company or the production in any way. Stages that have the capacity to accommodate huge productions, with wonderful mechanisms capable of supporting a theatre company, are used for short-lived shows, without time for work with lighting and sound, without utilizing the potential of the theatrical space, without any imagination, effort or vision – shows that could just as well be staged in a disco club.

Sad but true. Why isn’t “independent theatre” an alternative to state theatre? Because innovation, experimentation, the wish to work in-depth don’t depend on the absence of permanent jobs, employment contracts or a “classical” stage. Desire depends on desire. Ruining state theatres doesn’t help anybody, it merely lowers quality. An institution isn’t negative or positive per se. “Anti-institutional” doesn’t mean progressive. Institutions are a direct reflection of the people who make decisions in them. Some of the institutions that have turned into some of the most exceptional centres for performing arts in recent years, such as Tanzquartier Wien under the direction of Sigrid Gareis or Volksbühne Berlin under the direction of Frank Castorf, had the comfort of a long-term programme – of long rehearsal processes, of ensured space, and, in the case of Volksbühne, of the company. There are a number of other compelling examples from countries like France, Belgium or the Netherlands. Institutions aren’t impersonal, they depend on the people who run them and on the people who work in them. On their desire, diligence, commitment, imagination, ability to think long-term. Or the lack thereof.

When we finally manage to destroy our theatres, when we, who were once among the countries with the most impressive theatre productions in Europe, fall into the situation of countries with almost amateur forms of theatre – a very real danger in the very near future – what will come won’t be the heaven of free art, of freedom, of experimentation, but the reality of mediocrity. And we will have deserved it.

What is the positive side of this situation? There isn’t any. I refuse to think of alternative institutions as positive institutions – in the sense of that which will replace theatre as its better alternative. Because there isn’t a better alternative. Theatre, the theatre building, the theatrical institution was created to provide the best possible conditions for long-term, high-quality, in-depth, true theatrical work. Yes, we in Metheor work in other conditions. We are doing it because we have an enormous desire to do it. We do theatre without a theatre – we rehearse for months on end, often from dawn to dusk, we maintain and develop the group of people we work with, we keep our productions running for years, we perform them every month, we maintain a real repertory, we develop our audience without having any technical and administrative staff, without a building, without permanent funding covering all costs. Of course, one cannot do anything in life on one’s own – we are privileged to have the full support of friends, like-minded people, of the audience, colleagues, and, last but not least, of institutions. That’s how we persist. We do it not because we’re better than the theatre but because so far we haven’t come across an institution that meets our requirements and desires, and that could become our permanent host. That will provide us with what ought to be provided by a theatre – time, space, technical and organizational support, opportunity to work with all means and, most of all – complete creative freedom. This is the perfect theatrical institution. It isn’t a utopia. It is very easy to attain as long as there is a desire. Our desire is insatiable and we are ready to invent alternative institutions in stride, to persist – not because we’re better than the theatre but because we can’t satisfy ourselves with what this theatre here and now is ready to offer us.

What option are we left with? To work and to fantasize. My father was the director of several theatres, including the National Theatre in Sofia, and he spent his time there from dawn to dusk seven days a week. He used to go there before everyone else and check the whole building. He knew everything that was happening in the theatre – he knew who was doing what, how everything worked, he knew all problems and all needs. The cleaning staff complained they could never clean his office because he came to work before them and left after them. Everywhere else the security guards and the cleaning staff come to work hours before the others. My father was such a director because the institution cannot exist without hard work. Another way is also possible – there are theatres in which you can tell the director is in the building because everyone is in their place, keeping quiet and pretending to work. The rest of the time half of them are away, while the other half are smoking in the corridors. The director is in the theatre three times a month. It’s possible to do it this way too. This way, however, leads to ineffective institutions – to institutions that exist by inertia. For there is a structure someone once worked in, so the cogwheels of the mechanism are still spinning from the energy once invested in them. This leads to pseudo-theatre.

And so, once again: what option are we left with? To work and to fantasize. To fight for a theatre that is made with desire, hard work, time, for a wonderful, exciting, moving theatre the audience cannot forget, for a theatre that is transformative. To this end we must safeguard the theatrical institution as such – as an institution that provides conditions for permanent, hard and free work. And access to culture.

And so, for the third time: what should we do? We should attain the perfect institution. It has already been invented, its infrastructure still exists, all that needs to be done is to realize its potential. The acting profession is extremely difficult, stressful and exhausting. Of course, it is also very rewarding, but for an actor to do their job properly, they need to have the necessary conditions for this – time and peace of mind. The perfect theatrical institution must provide them to the actor. Around-the-clock access to rehearsal spaces. A place for warming up, for exercising, for individual work. Normal rehearsal periods. And this doesn’t mean two months, but six. A normal run of the theatre production. And this means neither six performances nor two years, but at least six years. A repertory elaborated with inspiration and imagination. Desire for development, for flight, for freedom. And whether the theatre in question is “experimental” or “classical” makes no difference. This model institution offers proper conditions for work for a theatre that stages mainly Shakespeare, Chekhov, and Calderón, as well as for a theatre that stages mainly Handke, Müller, and Jelinek, or for a theatre that stages plays without words. Because every theatre needs time, space and freedom.

And so, for the fourth time: what should we do? We should work and fantasize. We should work for a stable, honest, meaningful structure, a persisting institution that provides conditions for inspired work, for development, for interaction. We should work to work. We should fantasize about creativity and freedom – about an institution that thinks and works with us, that wants not to utilize and reallocate but to invest and develop, to think not about tomorrow but about the next few years, to overcome, to keep, to preserve, to be open to the unexpected, to the wonderful, even to the unimaginable. Because the institution is everything that we are.
And it can be exceptional.