In November 2009, Philip Arnoult, the Center for International Theatre Development (CITD) invited Gabriel Stelian-Shanks, Artistic Director of The Drama League, to be a part of a delegation including Martha Coigney, the legendary leader of the International Theatre Institute/US and Derek Goldman of Georgetown University for an exploratory trip designed to expose American theater professionals to the extensive, vibrant, and cutting-edge theater work happening in Bulgaria, to see if there was potential for future collaborations.
The Drama League launches the International Directors Exchange, partnering with the Art Office Sofia Foundation, supported by the Trust for Mutual Understanding and the America for Bulgaria Foundation, to support the cross-cultural exchange of ideas among stage directors worldwide.
The Drama League brings the first American delegation of Bulgarian theater directors to New York City for an intensive and successful week of theater attendance, workshops, and meetings with key players in the New York City theater community. The directors and arts leaders included Javor Gardev, Nikolay Iordanov, Petar Kaukov, Kalina Wagenstein, and more.
American director Andrew Volkoff, who descends from Bulgarian heritage, becomes the first American director in history to direct a mainstage production at the Nikolai Binev Youth Theatre in Sofia, the second-largest theater in the country. The production is the world premiere of John Kolvenbach’s Love Song, following its premiere at Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago. The production will subsequently run for eleven years to massive success, and garner an Icarus Award (Bulgaria’s Tony) for its leading actress. The production rehearses the play in four languages simultaneously – Bulgarian, English, Russian, and French – to support the wide breadth of the international company.
The first Bulgarian/American collaboration workshop occurred in The Drama League Directing Intensive at Stump Sprouts in western Massachusetts, bringing together American and Bulgarian directors Liz Carlson, Dimitar Ivanov Dimitrov, Vesselin Dimov, Gyorgi Georgiev, Danny Sharron, Yordan Slaveykov, and Nicole A. Watson. The directors, under the guidance of Daniela Varon, staged scenes from Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire, with an acting company that included Kelley Curran, Joe Tapper, Erin Moon, Nicole Orth-Pallavicini, and more.
The Directing Intensive directly led to the Bulgarian Premiere of The Glass Menagerie at Theatr Sfumato, Sofia, in 2016, and the Belorussian Premiere of A Streetcar Named Desire at the National Theatre of Belarus one year later, both directed by Mr. Slaveykov. These are attended by American directors including Ms. Varon.
Under the auspices of The Drama League, Barbara Lanciers (Director of the Trust for Mutual Understanding) and Juanita Rockwell (former Artistic Director, Company One) co-led a Viewpoints training workshop, with the blessing of SITI Company Artistic Director Anne Bogart. Dozens of Bulgarians participated in this first-ever workshop in the country of these techniques, including Margita Gosheva. At the invitation of Ms. Bogart, Ms. Gosheva participated in the Summer Intensive training of Siti Company at Skidmore College (2014) and initiated a further Viewpoints Workshop led by renowned American actress and Siti Company Member Ellen Lauren in Sofia (2015).
In conjunction with the New York International Fringe Festival, The Drama League presented the American debut of the acclaimed Theatre B+ production of The Spider at the New York International Fringe Festival, written and directed by Mr. Slaveykov and Mr. Dimitrov.
Bulgarian theater director, Teya Sugareva, was selected by Drama League to participate in the Directors Project through its Hangar Directing Fellowship. Sugareva’s fellowship at the Hangar began on May 27, 2014 for a total of nine-weeks.
In June 2014, five Bulgarian directors and twenty actors collaborated with Catherine Porter and Barry Rowell of Peculiar Works Project and Drama League Artistic Director Gabriel Stelian-Shanks in a new commission for the 22nd International Theatre Festival Varna Summer (VIAFest), at the invitation of the Festival’s director, Nikolay Iordanov. The group led a weeklong workshop resulting in the creation and production of Imagining America: A Promenade Through the American Avant-Garde, featuring the region’s premieres of What Happened by Gertrude Stein, Meta Reverse by Richard Foreman, Antigone by Mac Wellman, A Walk in the Park by Charles L. Mee, and The Electra Fugues by Ruth Margraff. Directed by Vesselin Dimov, Ida Daniel, Yavor Kostov, Mariy Rosen, and Vasilena Radeva, the company included Panayot Panayotov, Veronika Handzhieva, Yana Lazarova, Kathrin Hrusanova, Изабел Миткова, АнСи Добревска, Veselina Boyadzhieva, Yordan Liubomirov, Vladimir Solakov, Stanislav Anev, Raliza Dobreva, Ina Dobreva, Irina Andreeva, Manuela Yonova, Miroslava Zahova, Petar Meltev, Todor Stoyanov, Alexander Daniel, Stella Krasteva, Margarita Petrova, Nevena Dencheva, Milko Yovchev, Elena Dimitrova, Mariy Rosen, Nathan Cooper, Georgi Georgiev, and Nevena Kaludova.
In June 2014, at the urging of Drama League alumnus Cosmin Chivu, members of The Drama League staff attended the Sibiu International Theatre Festival. Upon introduction to the vibrant Romanian theater community, we began exploring options for fruitful exchange between artists in our two countries.
Two research trips to Bulgaria are attended by artists including the Tony Award-winning director Rachel Chavkin, Ms. Varon; Cara Reichel, Artistic Director of Prospect Theatre Company; Kevin Moriarty, Artistic Director of Dallas Theater Center; and Jesse Berger, Artistic Director of Red Bull Theater.
The Drama League facilitated the exchange between the female leadership of two established arts companies: Neda Sokolovska of Studio Vox Populi (Sofia, Bulgaria) and Sanaz B. Tennent of Built4Collapse (New York, NY). This exchange expanded on their initial introduction during the 2013 International Theatre Festival Varna Summer and led to a collaboration in 2016 (see below).
The Drama League partnered with the Teatrul de Comedie in Bucharest, Romania, to offer a workshop in playwright/director collaboration led by award-winning director Lila Neugebauer and Pulitzer finalist playwright Clare Barron. Participating in the workshop were Catinca Draganescu, Radu Iocoban, Cristina Modreanu, Mirela Sirbu, and Valentina Zaharia, among others. The success of that workshop led to our further collaboration with Romanian artists, including the support of Ms. Draganescu and Ms. Zaharia in New York City developing new plays in The Drama League’s Artist Residency Program.
In November 2015, the American directors Michael Barakiva and Shelley Butler, alongside Petar Kaukov, led a seven-day workshop with a focus on choreography and musical staging at the Sofia National Puppet Theatre. Bulgarian actors, directors, and musicians worked for the first time in history on scenes and songs from A Little Night Music, Avenue Q, and other musicals.
Ms. Tennent continued the relationship with Bulgaria’s Studio Vox Populi by traveling to Sofia for workshops and pre-project planning with the company.
Clare Cook, an American director, choreographer and Artistic Director of Basin Arts in Louisiana traveled to Bulgaria with Ms. Butler to continue the Musical Theatre Workshops there, leading a musical theater workshop at the Derida Dance Center in Bulgaria, focusing on the musical Waitress and more with over two dozen dancers and vocalists. At the same time, the Artistic staff of The Drama League – Artistic Director Gabriel Stelian-Shanks, Associate Artistic Director Nilan, and Artistic Producer Travis LeMont Ballenger – were featured guests at the A.C.T. Festival’s symposium focusing on the 1969 Youth Revolution, which was held in Sofia.
Imagining America: A Promenade Through The American Avant-Garde transfers from the Varna International Festival to Sofia, in a new production featuring the same directors and primary casts, over the campuses of New Bulgarian University, in close collaboration with professor Vazkresia Viharova and Snezhina Petrova. It is seen by thousands of audience members.
Ms. Sokolovska, the Bulgarian Artistic Director of Studio Vox Populi, and three company members traveled to New York City to work with the American theater company Built4Collapse to culminate a year of collaboration between the two companies. Their production of Under Water premiered at LaGuardia Performing Arts Center in Long Island City, NY under the leadership of Associate Artistic Director Handan Ozbilgin.
Bulgarian Katrin Hrusanova was selected for a practicum in the artistic leadership of an American nonprofit arts organization. Hrusanova gained valuable insight into production planning and execution, and worked with Drama League leadership to produce twelve projects during her exchange. With this experience, Hrusanova learned skills and techniques to better equip the Bulgarian institutions she serves through a focus on the development of independent theater, innovative theater-makers, and the creation of non-traditional theater space. She later became the co-leader of the A.C.T. Festival.
Director Yavor Kostov participated as a Drama League Hangar Directing Fellow in Ithaca, NY, in the summer of 2016, only the second non-American director in history to do so, following Ms. Sugareva.
In July 2016, Yasen Vassilev, a Bulgaria playwright, was selected by Drama League artistic leadership to participate in the Directors Project through its Artist Residency Program with American collaborator Elena Heyman. They produced Elevation 506, with two workshop presentations on July 13, 2016 at the Drama League Theater Center in New York, NY.
In September 2016, a delegation of five female leaders of the Bulgarian theater community gathered in New York City for a week of attending theater and meeting with colleagues and industry professionals. This visit included a panel discussion at The Drama League Theater Center exploring European theater practice, U.S./European theater collaboration, and challenges within the global arts community. They included Yuliana Decheva of the America for Bulgaria Foundation; award-winning actress Margita Gosheva; Kamelia Nikolova, a professor of European Theatre and Head of the Theatre Studies Department at the National Academy for Theatre and Film; Mira Todorova, the artistic director of the National Palace of Culture in Sofia, Bulgaria and the artistic curator of DNA; and Kalina Wagenstein, director of Art Office Foundation Sofia.
In October 2016, American writer and director Elena Araoz, presented her one woman show Two Arms and a Noise at the 3rd Annual Bucharest International Theatre Platform (BITP), its international debut.
Drama League Alumnus West Hyler traveled to Sofia to co-direct the Bulgarian premiere of Avenue Q at the Sofia Puppet Theatre, in collaboration with Petar Kaukov. The production would go on to win the Ikarus Award for Best Production – the Bulgarian analog of the Tony Award – and remains a sold-out hit to this day for the company, having been seen by hundreds of thousands of audience members. Mr. Hyler would go on to direct the Bulgarian premiere of Shrek The Musical for the State National Opera.
In June 2017, a delegation of nine prominent artistic leaders from American arts institutions– including the Brooklyn Academy of Music, HERE, New Dramatists, and the LaGuardia Performing Arts Center, were guests of The Drama League for the Parallel Programme panels at the 25th Annual International Theatre Festival Varna Summer (VIAFest). They saw over twelve Bulgarian and international productions, and had daily meetings to better understand the culture and climate of the Eastern European arts sector. This exchange was achieved due to the productive conversations developed during the Drama League’s September 2016 delegation of Bulgarian female theater leaders in New York.
The Drama League expanded its relationship with Derida Dance Center and its iconic director/choreographer, Jivko Jeliazkov, who offered his first-ever training workshop at The Drama League in June 2017 for over 20 American directors. Jeliazkov was accompanied by photographer Yana Lozeva, who documented the workshop and subsequently presented an exhibition in Sofia showcasing the exchange collaboration.
In October 2018, an American delegation of artistic leaders, new-generation directors – including Zi Alikhan, Estefania Fadul, Rebecca Martinez, Nicole A. Watson, and playwrights Tim J. Lord and Nilan traveled to the 9th Annual ACT Festival of Independent Theatre in Sofia, Bulgaria. From October 18–26, 2018, they saw over a dozen Bulgarian and international productions and exhibitions presented and had daily meetings with key theater-makers to better understand the culture and climate of the work. The Drama League delegation led two events at the ACT Festival—a workshop on new play dramaturgy and a panel discussion for festival attendees.
The Drama League expanded its relationship with Peculiar Works Project and New Bulgarian University on an original promenade performance, Water: Reflections. This work was created through a 12-day developmental workshop and performance collaboration with over fifty artists, students and NBU faculty.
Bulgarian theater director, Mariy Rosen, was selected to participate in the Drama League’s Stage Directors Exchange with a regional observership at Arena Stage in Washington DC. Rosen observed rehearsals for ANYTHING GOES, a musical with music and lyrics by Cole Porter and book by Timothy Crouse and John Weidman. The musical was directed by Molly Smith, Artistic Director of Arena Stage and noted American musical theater director. The observership took place from September 30 – October 7, 2018.
The Drama League, with the support of the Asian Cultural Council, sent an artists delegation to Beijing and Shanghai, China, where they met with cultural leaders of theaters to support international production collaboration efforts.
The Drama League expanded its critically-acclaimed festival, DirectorFest, by adding productions by Bulgarian directors Boyan Kracholov and Christian Bakalov for their American premieres. Kracholov presented his piece This is Not Hamlet at LPAC in New York City, exploring the limits of an individual and of the stage through the ideas of Shakespeare, Beckett, Moliere, Cervantes, Stoppard, and de la Barca. Bakalov presented his latest large-scale immersive work, Pure, with a mostly American team of performers, taking over two floors of LPAC’s campus.
Following DirectorFest, Kracholov traveled to Dallas, Texas for a regional observership at the Dallas Theater Center on Sarah DeLappe’s The Wolves, directed by Wendy Dann. He also received mentorship from Kevin Moriarty, Dallas Theater Center’s Artistic Director, and Travis LeMont Ballenger, The Drama League’s Associate Producer.
The Drama League attended the Malta International Festival in Poznań, Poland to meet international contemporaries and explore potential partner collaboration opportunities. Drama League Associate Producer Travis Ballenger traveled to Poznań, along with Handan Ozbilgin and Lusia Alarcon of the LaGuardia Performing Arts Center. Malta Festival Poznań provided festival passes and theater tickets for all participants, coordinated by festival programmer Kasia Tórz.
Argentinian-American director Ben Villegas Randle led, alongside The Drama League’s Artistic Director Gabriel Stelian-Shanks, Associate Artistic Director Nilan, and Board Member Susan Lang, a workshop in musical theater techniques at the State Puppet Theatre in Stara Zagora, Bulgaria, one of the most acclaimed puppet companies in the world. The workshop includes scenes performed by the company from Stephen Sondheim’s Company, and Alan Menken’s Aladdin and Little Shop of Horrors.
West Hyler returned to Bulgaria in 2020 to direct the Bulgarian debut of Shrek The Musical at Sofia’s National Opera and Ballet, which opened to rave reviews a few weeks before the global COVID-19 pandemic shutdown.
As the COVID-19 pandemic temporarily ceased international travel and halted projects across the International Directors Exchange, The Drama League launched a podcast for international theatre directors, TA(L)KING DIRECTION. Many of its episodes featured its international partners, including Petar Kaukov, Kalina Wagenstein, and from Romania, Maia Morgenstern, the Artistic Director of the State Jewish Theatre in Bucharest, Romania.
A very special episode returned to the source of the International Director Exchange 12 years earlier, when The Drama League’s Artistic Director Gabriel Stelian-Shanks sat down with the Center for International Theatre Development’s Philip Arnoult and Yuri Urnov, co-Artistic Director of the Wilma Theater in Philadelphia, to discuss their ongoing work to amplify intercontinental exchange in the arts.
When the war in Ukraine began in early 2022, The International Directors Exchange joined the worldwide coalition to produce readings of new plays by Ukrainian writers. The Drama League staged readings of Return to Sender by Olga Braga and Labyrinth by Oleksandr Viter, the latter translated by Tetiana Shilar. The cast included Kelley Curran (The Gilded Age), Vincent Nappo (New Amsterdam, The Blacklist), Hunter Francisco, 2021 Bessie Award winner Catalin Stelian, and Drama League Associate Artistic Director Nilan, directed by Gabriel Stelian-Shanks.
While we waited for the return of safe international exchange travel, The Drama League launched its first virtual International Directors Summit. From October 2022 through March 2023, the Summit brought together a group of the world’s most exciting next-generation stage directors online to explore the changing nature of the theatrical art form.
Summit participants from the nations of Bulgaria, Georgia, Poland, Romania, Ukraine, and the United States gathered monthly to share their experiences making performances at home and abroad, and investigating how the discipline of direction may change given the overlapping global challenges of climate change, economic uncertainty, global pandemics, and reemergent authoritarianism.
The Summit cohort included Maksima Boeva (Bulgaria), Avto Diasamidze (Georgia), Natalie Ester (Romania), Dima Levistskiy (Ukraine), Gwynn MacDonald (United States), Stefan Prohorov (Bulgaria), Lisa Rothe (United States), Anna Smolar (Poland), Mei Ann Teo (United States), Mr. Stelian-Shanks, and arts leaders Giorgi Toradze (Georgia), Kalina Wagenstein, and Nilan.