Mladen Kiselov was in Bulgaria on the eve of having heart surgery, but he was in constant touch via email with friends and collaborators about upcoming projects, including directing "Dream of Autumn" in April for Quantum Theatre. As he prepped for the operation, he asked to see a video of the site chosen for the play.
A few days later came news of his death at age 70. Mr. Kiselov, international director and educator at Carnegie Mellon University, known for his bold theatrical choices and generous spirit, died in Sofia, Bulgaria, last weekend. He was buried there on Wednesday, his wife said in an email to friends.
He and set designer Narelle Sissons, his frequent collaborator since 2000, had been juggling three projects, including the one at Quantum. The others were David Hare's "The Life of Galileo" at the Baltic House Theatre in St. Petersburg, Russia, and a production of "A Streetcar Name Desire" in Talinn, Estonia. He had recently emailed Ms. Sissons to say that "Streetcar" had been postponed until next year because he might need post-surgery recovery time.
"He was working on contingency plans all the time," said Ms. Sissons, who chuckled recalling an adventurous bus ride from Estonia to Bulgaria as they prepped for plays.
"Mladen was a brilliant artist who influenced almost everyone that encountered him, and he was just a great artistic mentor to me," she said. "He was a master of subtext, a thinker on a grand scale. We could sit for hours working out a new idea, re-inventing meaning, discussing the journey of the play ... students' eyes would open wide with his original thoughts."
Laurie Klatscher and fellow CMU professor Gregory Lehane, married actors who were to appear in the Quantum show, provided a home away from home for Mr. Kiselov and his wife of four years, Eneken, after he retired from CMU. They had stayed there for the month of August.
"He was an enthusiastic storyteller and he would talk about his theater projects, so it was a combination of having a dear, joyful uncle and a master class in theater at our kitchen table every day," Ms. Klatscher said.
She noted with sadness that he had only recently reconnected with his Estonian wife, whom she called "the love of his life."
Mr. Lehane picked up the thought, "They hadn't seen each other since they met in drama school in the 1950s and '60s. He found out she'd saved all of his letters -- almost everything about him was like that, a grand story."
Although he was spending much of his time in Estonia, where his wife is the head of the theatrical union, Mr. Kiselov was trying to become an American citizen, Ms. Klatscher said, and had been a frequent visitor to Pittsburgh to update records and renew his green card.
The director was born in Ruse, Bulgaria, to an English-teacher father and a mother who was the director of the local opera house, according to IMDb.com. He studied directing in Moscow and was active in theater and film projects in Eastern Europe before his work brought him to Yale University and then CMU in 1992, where he became an associate professor of directing and acting at the school of drama. He had been resident director of the Bulgarian National Theatre and assistant professor at the theater's academy from 1975.
"He was a real celebrity there," Mr. Lehane said. "People recognized him and stopped him in the streets."
The director settled in the United States in the early 1990s after his talent was spotted by a visiting theater exec from Louisville.
Mr. Kiselov directed professional productions throughout North America, including locally at City, Bricolage and Quantum theaters. He met Ms. Sissons in early 2000, when they worked on "Side Man" in Seattle, and he was instrumental in her joining the CMU faculty. He also directed David Edgar's contemporary "Pentecost" for Canada's Stratford Festival in 2007, after helming the play for CMU in 2003.
Quantum artistic director Karla Boos first met the director in 1996, after he was in the audience for her company's "Antony and Cleopatra." He invited her out to discuss the show.
"He called me up; I didn't know him. I was a little nobody and he was a famous guy," she recalled. "He made a date to tell me passionately what he thought of 'Antony and Cleopatra.' Some of it was critical, but he was the most loving and amazing person, and we recognized that we shared a passion for theater."
Two years later, he directed "Knives in Hens," which Ms. Boos called "my favorite project Quantum has ever done." She regrets that they waited so long to find a second.
"Maybe the weight of that magnificent project was such that it seemed we must be careful about finding the next thing we would do. It's sad, isn't it, that it would be now ... It seems right that the project should go on, but now it will be a tribute," she said.
Mr. Lehane had been looking forward to acting for his friend for the first time in "Dream of Autumn." Ms. Klatscher, also a member of the cast, had worked in one of Mr. Kiselov's earliest Pittsburgh productions, City Theatre's "Temptation," in the 1992-93 season.
"One of the reasons it is hard to think of him not being around, you felt as if you were so important to him," Mr. Lehane said. "He would get so excited, like a little boy, about an idea that he might have or that I might have that he would recognize as a good one. It's so rare, in an age of cynicism and inarticulateness, to find someone totally noncynical and completely articulate, even in his broken English."
Going over a new curriculum, Mr. Kiselov told his colleague, "We have to have a brain attack," of course meaning a brainstorm.
"That was part of his charm that kept a smile on my face," Mr. Lehane said.
Besides his wife of four years, Mr. Kiselov is survived by children Marya, Ivor and Martin, and his sister, Ani, and her family.
Sharon Eberson: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1960.