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Bulgaria: Theaters' Future Demonstrates Drama

Sofia, 17 November 1997(RFE/RL) -- A ticket to the movies in Sofia sets back the average Bulgarian about $2 and 50 cents. By contrast, a theatre ticket is just above 80 cents.

At the theatre, 20 to 50 actors take part in a live performance for several hours. At the cinema, a film, usually imported from the United States, may have some superstars in it but does not take more than a projectionist and an usherette to run.

This apparent anomaly in entertainment pricing is one of many in today's Bulgaria. For example, a taxi ride from downtown Sofia to the airport costs less than a frozen chicken in the supermarket. And a pack of cigarettes costs less than a bottle of Coca-Cola. And the average Bulgarian salary, of about $45 a month, cannot pay the heating bill for the average family.

Yet, the theaters are full and people queue for tickets. According to Koprinka Chervenkova, the Editor-in-Chief of "Kultura", a weekly arts newspaper, the situation reflects in part the general crisis in Bulgarian culture. Copyright for an American film alone costs more than the salary of a dozen local actors.

But it also reflects the inconsistency in Bulgarian cultural policies over the past eight years, Chervenkova adds. While film distribution, once a monopoly of the state, has been liberalized, the art of drama has not. Currently, all films imported from abroad come through private distributors while most theaters in Sofia and the provinces are run by the government.

One side effect of this has been the proliferation of American blockbusters which everyone would prefer to the home-made movie. And this has resulted in the almost total collapse of the national film industry.

In an ongoing debate about the fate of theater, opposing factions of playwrights and directors have fought bitterly over ways to reform the entertainment industry. Some assert the market, including private sponsorship, must dictate what and how to produce. Others say such ways will endanger what they call the national character of theater.

At the moment, actors and directors alike get full-time jobs regardless of their talent and their abilities to attract an audience. Many are reluctant to introduce a modicum of market mechanism in their profession, as they see it as a danger to their own existence. The state-run academy in Sofia gives prospective actors university education and no-one can expect a job as an actor without a state-recognized diploma.

But while Bulgarians traditionally pride themselves on their theatrical artists, the production quality, particularly in the smaller cities outside Sofia, has deteriorated.

One leading theater director in Sofia who wishes to remain anonymous does not hide his desire to emigrate. Neither he nor his wife, an actress, have any illusions they can practice their profession in a non-native language environment. While being applauded on prestigious stages throughout the country, they bring home just over 500 000 leva a month -- about $300. They just want to get out and provide a better life for their daughter.