The actors arrive at the top of the hill on a misty, cool Saturday morning. As they stretch and warm up in the parking lot of the George Washington Masonic Memorial, they get the phone call they had been worried about: rain should be falling in an hour and they need to get ready sooner than expected. They pile into a car that’s already half full with costumes and props and drive down to Alexandria’s Waterfront. The newest show for Ambassador Theater, a play titled Hopa Tropa Kukerica is in its final week of rehearsal. On Sunday, April 1, in renowned director Lilia Slavova’s original and improvisational exhibition of Bulgarian culture, ordinary objects will come to life with the touch of an imaginative family. As they dance through the world of the Kukeri (costumed individuals designed to ward off evil spirits) the audience can sing along and join the fun in Bulgarian and English. But right now, the Bulgarian and American actors are working hard to promote the play. In front of the joggers and dog walkers they change from their rehearsal blacks to white shirts and dresses adorned with vibrant reds and yellows and jingling head pieces. The young man in the group picks up a loud bell and begins to chant, hopping and clanging behind the women as they pick up their puppets and parade up King Street. An hour after their colorful antics begin catching attention of shoppers in Old Town, the rain sets in and they have to run back to the car. As they drive back to the temple they practice vocabulary and cultural lessons to prepare for rehearsal. However, they are not practicing English. These are the American actors. “Some days the rehearsals are mostly in English, and other days it can be about 50/50. You learn to understand through body language, facial expression, or wait for them to catch themselves and explain what just happened.” Says Amie Cazel, an American in the cast.
The Bulgarians are a half hour away promoting Hopa Tropa Kukerica at their day jobs. They have a much easier time with the language of the play, but even they have had to adapt on the fly to a new skill set: puppetry. Bulgarian actress Daria Kondova laughs “It was maybe the 5th or 6th rehearsal that we played with puppets for the first time. I wasn’t sure what my puppet should do. He looked confused as well.” None of the actors had experience in puppetry before this play, which combines many disciplines into a tight one hour production. In addition to singing, dancing, and acting, the actors placed their trust in Bulgarian director Lilia Slavova to teach them to be puppeteers. Her passion and their dedication have led to some real onstage magic. Gwendolyn Torrence remembers the first time that one of her puppets came alive. “[Another actor and I] were practicing in the mirror, and both of us saw it happen. The puppet was breathing, and all the parts were moving together. Then he woke up, got scared, and ran away. When we were done, we looked at each other and almost couldn’t believe it. It was awesome!”
Developing a new skill set is just a part of the challenge for these actors. There are language and cultural barriers to overcome. Two of the five actors in the cast are Bulgarian, while the other three are American. The entire production staff is Bulgarian. The producer, Ambassador Theater founder Hanna Bondarewska, is Polish. She has exactly the cast and crew makeup she wanted for her show from the very beginning. “This is a perfect example of what Ambassador Theater is all about,” she explains “Our belief in the power of theater to both entertain and educate through multicultural productions is something that we hold very dear to our hearts.” The mission of the Ambassador Theater International Cultural Center is to promote an intercultural dialogue through high quality repertory- theater, and this production fits that concept quite well. The process itself provides a great deal of education for the actors. There seem to be examples in every rehearsal of the challenges of multicultural and multilingual casting. Daria Kondova, who is fluent in Bulgarian and English, often translates to speed up notes after each scene. Lilia Slavova has to remind the American cast members that in Bulgaria, shaking ones head from side to side actually means “yes.” And everyone still jokes about one rehearsal where a Bulgarian actor asked an American “What you smell?” for five minutes before anyone could figure out that he was really trying to say “Why are you smiling?”
Hanna Bondarewska knows why she is smiling. The Masonic Memorial Theater is the biggest venue that Ambassador Theater has played to date, and the first in Alexandria, VA. The Alexandria Commission for the Arts gave her a grant to bring this show to Old Town. She is even teaching a workshop about the puppetry and dancing in the show in between the performances. Breaking through language barriers to bring a new show to a new audience in a new theater is both an exciting and intimidating challenge. But the challenge is part of the draw for this cast. Every day they come in and greet their puppets like old friends. For many actors, the prospect of finding an entirely new theatrical experience can sometimes be small, and the largest obstacle they face is the dreaded “been there, done that” mentality that can make hours seem like days in rehearsal. This show is fresh, and the cast knows it. And they aren’t the only ones. What began as an idea to continue with Ambassador Theater’s desire to highlight international cultures and bring them to the DC area, has expanded into a grand celebration featuring the added talents of Orfeia, Svitanya, Zharava and the St. Kliment Okhridski Bulgarian School. Audience members are likely to feel as though they have walked into a Bulgarian village just in time to witness the highlights of a festival. On April 1st, at 11:30 am and 2 pm, this high energy production is just right for bringing out the fun loving fool in everyone.