The Republic of Bulgaria (Bulgarian: Република България, Republika Bǎlgarija), a country in south-eastern Europe, is bordered by Romania, Serbia, Greece, Turkey, and the Black Sea to the east. Its capital is Sofia.

Puppetry in Bulgaria has ancient roots. During its prehistory, masks and puppets were used in traditional rituals and festivals. For example, as far back as the 6th century BCE puppetry was an element in the cult rituals of Dionysus, Pan, Orpheus and other local gods practised by the country’s early Thracian inhabitants. In some regions Bulgarians continue to celebrate certain Dionysian-like rites in early February when traditional ritual figures with giant phallus symbolically fertilize the soil. Evolving over the centuries, some of these ancient rituals have survived and are today part of popular Christian observances, such as the koukeri, peperuda, german, and mara lishanka.

An inheritance from an ancient ritual, koukeri or “Kourkeri plays” is a highly colourful West Bulgarian agricultural ritual that is observed during Shrovetide. It involves bands of young masked men clothed in animal skins and furs, with sheep bells suspended from their costume. The young men wear tall, ornamented fur caps and masks. Each region and village has it own style of mask, with zoomorphic masks prevailing. Another inheritance from the past is the peperuda or “butterfly”, a folk ritual in which a young woman is masked and crowned with twigs and leaves. The participants of the ritual are girls or sometimes elderly women. They prepare the ritual item, the german, a special doll about 20-30 centimetres in size made of mud or clay from the riverbank, which is used in ritual prayers for rain and fertility. The figure represents a naked man with male genitals. The head is crudely made with arms crossed on the lower chest like that of the dead. The german puppet is placed in a wooden case specially made for the occasion, covered with flowers and buried with all the necessary rituals of interment. On the 3rd, 9th or 40th day after burial, the figure is exhumed and thrown into water. According to traditional beliefs, the performing of this ritual drives away drought and brings forth rain. The ritual has a theatrical element, including folk dances and songs, wherein the puppet is a passive participant. The mara lishanka is a figure usually fashioned from slippers and dressed in female clothing. The ritual is performed by young girls for a good harvest and for the fertility of young women. These early popular figures and rituals continue to be an integral part of everyday peasant life, assuring them – by means of complex ceremonies – of protection against disease, bountiful rain, a good harvest, or a young woman’s fertility.

Depending on the season, Bulgarian families would use puppets they themselves had made out of gourds, leaves, cloth, corncobs or fruits, even producing shadow figures for magic rituals to protect themselves against bad luck. These puppet shows could be found in almost every village, and are especially enjoyed by the children. Certain rituals survive, such as the custom of making offerings of the martenitsi, objects made of red and white yarn tassels (symbols of man and woman) to promote good health and prosperity. The martenitsas are presents given for health and prosperity with the coming of spring in the first days of March (Bulgarian: Mart, thus “martenitsa”).

The Ottoman Occupation

For nearly five centuries Bulgaria was under Ottoman rule (1396-1878), although the Turkish shadow theatre of Karagöz never took root in Bulgaria. The sole traces that remain are certain terms that have passed into everyday use, such as karagöztchia and karagöztchïistvo, both words used somewhat pejoratively.

During this long period the Bulgarian popular puppet theatre assuredly had its own emblematic characters, but these never crossed their regional boundaries. They included Radka and Kolyo, Ivancho and Marika, Racho and Deshka, Karakolyo and Penka. Their popularity has regional significance, but none has proved to be a national puppet hero.

Travelling theatre groups began to emerge, performing a variety of popular puppetry techniques (see Itinerant Troupes, Travelling Puppeteers). One such was the chengi which in one variant was closely related to the jigging puppet (à la planchette). Two puppets, simultaneously manipulated, were joined together by a string and animated to the rhythm of a stringed instrument, a rebec, by a puppeteer-musician. Other puppets à la baguette (a kind of marotte) were manipulated by means of a nether rod fixed inside their head, and yet others were operated in a cabinet or box in which were hidden mechanisms which put in motion a group of five or seven figures, whilst musicians playing the fiddle and tambourine accompanied the puppets. This last marked a considerable technical advance. There are records of itinerant Bulgarian artists from the late 19th century, among those mentioned is the puppeteer Neno Kukladjiyata.

It was only after the country achieved a partial independence (1878) and towards the end of the 19th century that the first signs of a nationwide puppet theatre appeared. In 1880, a Czech family of brewers installed a little rod marionette theatre above their restaurant. Their shows were such a success that they moved the stage down to the restaurant itself. Similarly, another Czech refugee group started a puppet theatre, calling it The Czech. It was founded in 1893 and presented a repertoire of Czech and Bulgarian plays up to 1944. Also in 1893, the aforementioned Kukladjiyata Neno (“Neno the puppeteer”, 1861-1916, also referred to as Neno Kuladjiyata, the artistic alias of Neno Hristov), a blacksmith, began to perform in the streets, attracting national attention with his puppets made of various metals which he manipulated whilst playing the tamboura, a traditional stringed instrument.

Developing the Art Form Between 1892 and 1946

In the pursuit of national specificity the Bulgarian intellectuals took a considerable role in the study of European cultural values, taking as its model European forms which shaped the basis of the entire Bulgarian puppet theatre.

During this fifty-year period, Bulgarian puppetry would be influenced by the Czech and German puppet theatres. But without a doubt it was the shows given by the English string puppet player Thomas Holden and his company, the English Marionette Theatre, on the occasion of the first country fair, an exhibition both industrial and international organized in Plovdiv in 1892, which, by its originality and the tricks of its programme, marked a milestone in the history of puppetry in Bulgaria. From then on the idea of a national theatre, half-amateur, half-professional, became progressively implanted.

Marionettes (string puppets) were the dominant form of puppetry used in Bulgaria between 1892 and 1946.

Between World Wars I and II  

From 1924, the concept of a professional puppet theatre was gradually realized. In that year, a production presented by the troupe of the Brambazatzite and from a concept of the architect, Atanas Donkov, was the first great success. Then in 1924 and 1925, within the “circle of native art” of the Slavyanska Besseda Union, puppetry began to be recognized as a separate performing art, thanks to Atanas Donkov and the artist Elissaveta Konsuelove-Vasova. The latter was invited to the founding Congress of UNIMA in Prague in 1929. The same year, the Bulgarian Minister of Education officially recognized Sofia’s Slavyanska Besseda company and elected for its director an artist of Russian origin, Ekaterina Nikolaevna Bazilevitch (1899-1940). From 1929 to 1940, this company, renamed The Artistic Puppet Theatre, was extremely active, producing 54 shows involving various artists (actors from the National Theatre, painters, dramaturges) together with a book The Puppet Theatre which was published in 1933. The company is particularly remembered for a certain play written for puppets, Glavcho i Tsarskata Dushterya (Glavtcho and the King’s Daughter), by the playwright I. Kostov. Glavtcho was the embodiment of a typical national character in the tradition of Pulcinella, Petrushka or Kašpárek.

In this same period other puppet theatres were established in the regions, notably in Plovdiv and Rousse. Two artists, Stefan Pentchev and Ivan Roussev, played an important role in this development of the semi-professional theatres. The first founded in 1929 the Bulgarian Teatro dei Piccoli (influenced by the Italian theatre of that name), one of its shows being Маdam Vlastya (Madame Power), a political satire which enjoyed enormous success in Sofia, but not in the provinces, and so was forced to close in 1932. The second, Roussev, either took over or founded several puppet theatre companies that toured all over the country. In 1942, Kiril Batemberski acquired the marionettes of the Teatro dei Piccoli and the Plovdiv theatre, when he took the old repertoire of the artistic puppet theatres and founded a new company. Bamberski’s theatre too, for lack of subsidy, closed in 1952.

In the 1940s, during World War II, there came a strong German influence. Mara Penkova (1894-1959), a pensioned actress from the National Theatre, specialized in puppetry for the Third Reich (1942). At the end of the war, surrender to German attitudes changed dramatically, but Penkova was nonetheless able to use her accumulated knowledge to establish, in 1946, in Sofia a new “Children’s Puppet Theatre”, whose successor is now the “Sofia Puppet Theatre” (Stolichen kuklen teatur, or Sofia Central Puppet Theatre).

Penkova, although a member of the “Art Puppet Theatre” which existed until 1940, used a technique new to Bulgariathe glove puppet. Using the plasticity of the human hand, this puppet proved itself more dynamic and grotesque than the marionette. The difference lies in the position of the performer. Here there is no patronizing aspect, but just the opposite – being elevated over the puppeteer, the puppet becomes an idol and the space behind the screen allows the deployment of mise-en-scène compositions in depth, with movements of the puppets in various areas in the vertical space behind the stage.

The Professional Theatre Since 1946

Following the installation of the Communist regime in 1944, the Bulgarian puppet companies were actively supported by the State through the intermediation of the Ministry of Education, followed by the Ministry of Culture. From this period onwards, the so-called State Puppet Theatres began to be established. These were theatres completely subsidized by the State, with permanent companies and following the administrative model of the State repertory theatres. Since 1946, many State and municipal puppet theatres were established in Bulgaria’s cities. Today, the State puppet theatres (Durzhaven kuklen teatur) are in the following cities: Burgas, Dobrich, Gabrovo, Plovdiv, Ruse, Silistra, Sliven, Stara Zagora, Turgovishte, Varna, Vidin, Yambol. There are also State puppet and drama theatres (both puppet and drama under the same roof) in Haskovo, Kurdjali, Pazardjik, Pleven, Shumen, and Vratsa. The municipal puppet theatres are in Blagoevgrad, Montana, Sofia; and one Municipal Puppet and Drama Theatre is in Kiustendil.

After the war, three of the biggest theatres – in Sofia, Plovdiv and Varna – were particularly involved in this political framework. In the 1950s, the leading force in puppet theatre was granted to the Soviet Union, with Sergei Obraztsov at its head and his company, the State Central Puppet Theatre of Moscow, the exemplar for all other Communist companies (see Gosudarstvenny Akademichesky Tsentralny Teatr Kukol imeni S.V. Obraztsova, Sergei Obraztsov State Academic Central Puppet Theatre). The performances of Obraztsov’s theatre with rod puppets became sensations. The Soviet modification of the Javanese puppet wayang golek (called “yavayka” or “javayka” in Russian) spread throughout Eastern Europe. This model dominated the puppet stages for over twenty years, and puppet theatres in several socialist capitals placed in front of its name the adjective “Central”.

In Sofia, the Kolektiven kuklen teatur (Collective Puppet Theatre) was created in 1946 and was directed by Mara Penkova. In 1948, the company changed its name to the Naroden kuklen teatur (People’s Puppet Theatre). Penkova attracted a wave of young artists including Atanas Ilkov, Sergei Visonov and Liliana Docheva who with her production of Chasovnikaryat (The Clockmaker) revived the conception of animated objects, as did Milka Nacheva, one of the great scenographers of the Bulgarian theatre. Other distinguished figures included Eugen Fabiany (who for many years was General Secretary of the Bulgarian Centre of UNIMA), Lina Boyadzieva, Slava Racheva and Binka Miteva, known for her television work, and playwright, Rada Moskova, who was the theatre dramaturge for many years. Mara Penkova’s company took part in 1958 in the first international puppet festival of Bucharest, heralding a period of artistic regeneration which entirely broke away from the naturalism of the past. The company is now called Stolichen kuklen teatur (Sofia Central Puppet Theatre, or Sofia Puppet Theatre), still situated in the same building in the centre of Sofia.

The State Puppet Theatre Plovdiv – Durzhaven kuklen teatur Plovdiv – was founded in 1946 under the direction of Georgi Saravanov, actor, director, puppet maker and designer. His first productions were inspired by circus and opera. The puppeteers were amateurs until 1953 when professional artists were recruited. Since 1984, the director has been Vassil Apostolov. The State Puppet Theatre Varna – Durzhaven kuklen teatur Varna – was later founded by Georgi Saravanov in 1952. The dramaturge Yordan Todorov, Artistic Director of the theatre for twenty years, encouraged the writing of plays specifically for puppets, with the collaboration of Zlati Zlatev and Ivan Tzonev, resulting in productions of high professional quality.

In the late 1950s, the Bulgarian puppet theatres emerged onto the international scene, starting with Bucharest, which hosted the first international festival of UNIMA. These travels abroad opened the eyes of the puppeteers, with particularly strong impressions triggered by the French, especially by a performance for adults, presented by the French puppeteer Yves Joly. The show’s value lay in the metaphorical language employed for the associative transfer of events. Miniature items such as A Paper Tragedy, Just Hands and Les Parapluies Animées (Animated Umbrellas) showed a completely new means of expression through symbols, signs and metaphors. As a result of this First International Festival, the belief in the illusionary theatre was shaken, and there followed serious discussion about the condition, the signification and the nature of the puppet. This was the beginning of the de-mystification of the puppet in Bulgaria.

Under the watchful eye of the State, the professional puppet theatre was primarily for children, a convergence of fairy tale, education and recreation, not without a certain ideological didacticism. The dramaturgy, the puppets and the scenography were entirely aimed at the intellectual and aesthetic training of the young audiences. The puppeteers benefited from this political engagement, and between 1946 and 1990 twenty new State puppet theatres were created, and two municipal companies, employing teams of permanently employed artists, technicians and administrators in substantial numbers.

In such ebullience many artistically ambitious shows were produced. Among them Petya i vulkut (Peter and the Wolf), created in 1960 under the direction of Atanas Ilkov and Nikolina Georgieva, with scenography by the architect Ivan Tzonev, was a landmark. Its effect was to open new aesthetic perspectives and it served as a model for a whole generation of young European producers, in Central Europe and beyond. At the same time, a puppet theatre for adults was developing: in 1962, this was successfully exemplified by two major presentations, Sukrovishteto na Silvestur (Silvester’s Treasure), by Angel Wagenstein, directed by Atanas Ilkov and produced by the Central Puppet Theatre of Sofia, and Saint-Saëns’ Karnaval na Jivotnite (Carnival of the Animals), directed by Nikolina Georgieva. In Carnival of the Animals light and shadow were directly joined with human performance, an innovation at that time. With the performance of Krali Marko (King Marko, 1967), director Ivan Teofilov and scenographer/designer Ivan Tzonev also brought innovation with a new theatre form consisting of giant mobile tableaux. The architect Ivan Tzonev was one of the most prominent reformers in the country. Even today he remains the unsurpassed master of puppet stage design. In his eyes, the visual elements are so strong that direction is often reduced to servicing the stage picture. From this came the formula: “The Puppet Theatre is dynamic scenography”. Krali Marko was his major work; it became a legend. He decorated the show with two-metre high, carved puppets dressed in sackcloth. He draws ideas for his work from iconography, which was brave in a time of militant atheism. This production is a large-scale, stylized “tableau”, combined with the poetic text of Teofilov and the music of Penderecki.

During this fertile period, Ilkov and Georgieva initiated in 1962 a training programme for the puppet arts (manipulation, direction and scenography) within the Higher School of Dramatic Art in Sofia (which was to initially be renamed Vizsh institut po teatralni izkustva, or VITIZ, later Natsionalna akademia po teatralni i filmovi izkustva, or NATFIZ, and today Natsionalna akademia za teatralni i filmovi izkustva, or NATFA [lier]National Academy for Theatre and Film Arts[/lier]). In the 1970s, the first generation of specialist graduate artists arrived on the scene, including the directors Vassil Apostolov, Zlati Zlatev and Yana Tzankova, with other performers and designers. After 1980, they were followed by personalities such as Slavcho Malenov and Petar Pashov, Kiriakos Argyropoulos, Maya Petrova, Silva Bachvarova, Jenny Pashova, and Verginia Pavlova. At the end of the 1980s and during the 1990s, another generation of exceptional artists appeared, among whom were the directors Katia Petrova, Biserka Kolevska and Sunny Suninsky, all of them oriented to visual theatre. Academy graduates from the acting programme since the 1990s include Galina Savova, Maya Bezhanska, Rumen Ugrinsky, all actor-puppeteers of the Sofia Central Puppet Theatre, and Hristo Kolev, actor-puppeteer of the Varna State Puppet Theatre.

After the establishment of the Bulgarian Centre of UNIMA in 1963, international exchanges were significantly increased, ending the isolation of the Bulgarian scene. National and international festivals were instituted: the Golden Dolphin was started in 1972 in Varna by Yordan Todorov, attracting a large number of companies from both Eastern and Western Europe. A prize, the Golden Dolphin, was awarded to the best of the selected shows. Soon other festivals were launched, such as the theatre of the Little Yan Bibiyan in Silistra (1986), Dvama sa malko, Trima sa mnogo (Two are Too Few, Three are Too Many) in Plovdiv (1990), Pierrot in Stara Zagora (2000), and the Puppet Fair in Sofia (2002). Academic researchers and critics, like Vassil Stephanov, Dimitar Kanochev, Elena Vladova, Doichina Sinigerska and Eshua Belo, gave their support to these developments.

Present Perspectives

After the 1990 fall of the Communist regime, Bulgaria suffered a severe economic crisis. The budgets of the national theatres were considerably reduced and many artists found themselves out of work. A few State theatres managed to continue, thanks to subsidy from the Ministry of Culture (as is still the case in Plovdiv, Varna and Vidin), and were able to retain some of their artistic personnel and to continue producing shows from their repertoire. Other theatres had to appeal to their municipalities in order to supplement their finances (as in Stara Zagora, Rousse and Târgovişte) and became private “open stages”, but with a resident artistic group. Others were subsidised only by their city (Sofia, Blagoevgrad), and yet others teamed up with actor theatres where they were, in time, integrated.

All these difficulties incited the puppeteers to explore new pathways of production. One such was Don Quixote, a musical, created in 1989 by the director Petar Pashov, with designers Silva Bachvarova and Vassil Rokomanov and composer Petar Tzankov, staged in the State Puppet Theatre Plovdiv. But of more than five hundred puppeteers who have graduated in Bulgaria, two-thirds are without employment at the time of writing. Some have founded their own private companies, for example Atelier 313 which specializes in the works of great authors such as Oscar Wilde, Bulgakov, Valeri Petrov. Their productions, Kenturvilskiat Prizrak (The Canterville Ghost), Мaistor i Margarita (The Master and Margarita), Chestna Musketarska (The Word of a Musketeer), have been especially remarkable. Apart from its own productions, Atelier 313 invites other private companies to perform in its theatre, or else enters into co-productions with individual artists or very small groups. The Sivina company (of Ivan Sivinov) stages miniature shows, one of which, Меtamorfozi (Metamorphoses), has toured the world. Perpetuum Mobile, a company of three young performers, invents an unusual visual language through image and object theatre. The Ariel troupe uses puppets and junk objects as in The Cardboard Dream by Ruben Garabidjan who for the scenery used only cardboard boxes which were transformed into houses, a town and a subway station. The productions of the Ako company, Danny and Dessy, and also M+M are oriented towards a family audience. Finally, the Albena group makes shows for tourists that tour the world, while the Credo company produced to great national and international acclaim Nikolai Gogol’s Shinel (The Overcoat) which has played in most international festivals including Prague and Charleville-Mézières. Since the 1990s, one may count more than sixty companies in Bulgaria, although many earn a precarious living, only able to obtain subsidy for special projects.

Despite the difficulties, the Bulgarian puppet theatre tradition is still extremely vital, proof of which lie in the numerous awards and international acclaim that Bulgarian artists receive in festivals and forums all over the world.


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