The construction of Sunny Beach began in 1958 in an area of the country that was described as “empty and deserted”. Within a few years it had become the largest resort in the People’s Republic and a destination for tourists from both Eastern and Western Europe. Following the political upheavals of 1989 and subsequent crash in fortunes for the local tourism industry, Sunny Beach is now rapidly recovering as the tourists return boasting more than 100 hotels and 45000 beds. In winter the resort changes completely. Preparations for the next summer begin. New hotels are being built, the old hotels are being renovated, repaired or maintained. Some hotels accommodate workers and a few stay open for business people, but most of the hotels, shops, bars and restaurants stay closed and empty.
In February 2005 Daniel Ladnar, Esther Pilkington and Kaspar Wimberley visited Sunny Beach for two weeks to explore and document the site out of season. Arriving towards the end of winter, the presence of tourism was more explicitly revealed through its absences. We asked ourselves questions. How is Sunny Beach designed for tourism? How real is Sunny Beach? How is our journey a comment on the place of departure? What does Sunny Beach itself tell us of the absent tourists – their desires and aspirations, their hopes and dreams? What is our role in Sunny Beach?
In Sunny Beach we found a place of contrasts: Private and public, freedom and restriction, the personal and the impersonal, realities and abnormalities. We collected traces and left traces of our own. We observed and we were observed. We looked behind the curtain where the next show was being prepared. We had complete freedom in Sunny Beach to walk through hotels and across empty swimming pools but psychologically felt restricted; this was a place where fun and laughter felt out of place. We felt out of place, as if we had turned up too early for the party – or too late. For half a year the intended function of Sunny Beach is temporarily out of use.
We began to place ourselves as performers into this environment, experimenting physically with ideas that explored these initial reactions. We also worked within our two identical hotel rooms, examining privacy, impersonality and boredom, using existing research and imagery to initiate our actions. All of our experimentation was documented and provided many of the starting points we went on to develop following our return from Bulgaria.
In many ways we organized our time in Sunny Beach as if we were on holiday. We developed routines and rituals, made daily plans to ensure that we made the most of our limited time and personalised or referenced our living space. We made a very strange place feel more like home – but still felt a huge relief when we escaped one day to a nearby town for a breath of normality.
The emptiness was never silent; a constant reminder of the construction work taking place that disappears when the tourists arrive in the summer. Although we had expected building work to be underway, we somehow hadn’t expected the builders! Should we comment on these issues with our limited amount of knowledge? Can we ignore these issues? Another unexpected development came the moment we left Sunny Beach. By necessity the project began to deal with memory, how much control do we have over what and when we choose to remember and how do these memories twist and turn over time.
Our first public presentation took place directly after our visit to Bulgaria, culminating in a performance on March the 17th and 18th at the Schauspielhaus in Vienna. The video and photo material collected on our journey was used to create a performance that deals with both the reality as well as the promises of tourism. Daniel Ladnar and Esther Pilkington performed a new version on July 9th 2005 at the Ip-art festival in Ipswich. The Sunny Beach Project proved to be an unusual opportunity to study what takes place behind and between the scenes of this complex theatre of tourism. Standing out of place we have been able to research an area that is rarely examined in performance.