The British Council, under the leadership of Lyubov Kostova, who succeeded Tony Buckby on January 1 2012, promises a busy year to promote the best of British culture in Bulgaria.
We begin with an event, just passed, but which still merits a mention. British higher education – especially in the scientific field – is still thought to be the best in the world. And to that end a conference on March 29, attended by representatives of some of the UK's finest universities, celebrated the best of British education.
The conference was also due to be addressed by British ambassador Jonathan Allen and Lyubov Kostova, the head of the British Council in Bulgaria, the organisation entrusted with promoting cultural and educational ties between the two countries.
"International ratings tell us that the UK has some of the best universities and the greatest proof of that is the number of international awards and Nobel prize winners from the UK," Kostova told The Sofia Echo.
The open day gave British universities a chance to recruit. The UK is already a hub for international students and Bulgarians – with a 500 per cent growth rate in university applications from students since 2007 – are no exception. Not that a brain drain is the desired outcome. "The great thing would be for these students to return to Bulgaria after they complete their studies in the UK," says Kostova.
The British Council, forever expanding its remit, now offers teachers the chance to sign up to online courses. The British Council also has video conferencing facilities and students at UK universities can now sit an academic exam in Bulgaria. "Imagine you're a Bulgarian student in the UK doing an exam, perhaps a re-take, and forced to stay in a hostel somewhere. Students can cut down on travel and subsistence costs by taking their exam at the British Council in line with all the requirements of their university," says Kostova.
One of the most exciting and innovative ongoing projects – and one we have already written about in The Sofia Echo – is live transmission of National Theatre plays at Sofia's Cinema City. Bulgaria is just one of 30 countries where audiences can enjoy a firsthand British theatrical experience. The plays, which are sometimes given repeat screenings due to overwhelming demand, have included new productions such as Travelling Light and Collaborators, as well as Shakespearean classics such as A Comedy of Errors. Next in line is Oliver Goldsmith's comedy She Stoops to Conquer on April 4, actually a re-run of a play first shown on March 29. In the absence of touring companies, it's as close to the real experience as you will get in Sofia.
"We're trying to reach audiences who wouldn't normally get to performances," says Kostova. "You can see the audience enter the National Theatre auditorium in London and hear them laughing. In so doing, you feel a global connection. You're sitting in Cinema City but there are thousands like you across 700 cinemas worldwide. Imagine you have a buddy in London and you're sitting in Sofia and your friend puts up a poster with your name on it to wish you hello." Kostova says the screenings have proved exceptionally popular. "It shows us that technology is not just a tool – a gadget – it can create real content if you use it wisely."
All productions are subtitled – making it easy for Bulgarians to follow – and are priced similarly to those of a Sofia cinematic premiere – 12 leva for students, 15 leva for adults.
The British Council will also celebrate European Day of Languages on September 26. "Languages bring about employment opportunities as well as opening doors to travel and relationships. We continue to be the major organisation that takes cultural relations into a bilateral experience," says Kostova. "The ultimate aim is to foster greater knowledge of the UK, as well as increased visibility, trust, growth and prosperity."
The big event of 2012 in the UK is, of course, the Olympics. And Bulgaria, aside from its sporting contribution, will play a large cultural role too. Five young singers – all just 18 years old – have been chosen to take part in the 150-strong choir that will launch the opening of the Games. The only other foreign country with singers in the choir is Brazil, the site of the next Olympics.
The singers were chosen by way of the British Council's connecting classrooms project. One of the workshops brought conductor Richard Frostick over to Bulgaria. According to Kostova, Frostick fell in love with some of the voices he heard at Sofia's music school. The exact London venues at which the Bulgarian singers will perform are still unknown but they will include the Houses of Parliament, Covent Garden and Trafalgar Square.
Throughout the year events will be held to commemorate the bicentenary of Dickens' birth, including adaptations of Dickens' films at the European Film Festival in June as well as a readerthon. Keep referring to the British Council website for updates.
This year's Sofia Famelab competition is now open to registration. Details of this year's competition can be found here on the British Council's website. This year's Sofia Science Festival will take place in May. You can read about last year's festival here.