Finita la Commedia: The Debilitation of Hungarian Independent Theatre
At the time this essay was submitted for publication, Hungary’s independent theatres and dance companies had still not received a single penny of state support. The earliest payment deadline for 2012 grants, voted on and awarded by a professional advisory board—the call for applications having been issued significantly later than the date determined by law, and whose total amount of support was suddenly cut by 36.51percent—was mid-December 2012.
After a series of protests and street demonstrations (mostly against the so-called "education reform") the Ministry of Culture decided to pay out the rest (36.51%) of the independents’ subsidies for 2012. The amount is promised to be wired to the companies` accounts in March 2013 and has to be spent before December 2012, which clearly requires some very creative accounting. With such haphazard decision-making, any planning becomes impossible.
The consequences of this are as yet unknown, but what is already certain is that performances are cancelled and venues are closing because they cannot even pay their bills; some companies have asked for financial help from their spectators, while others have bade indefinite farewell to audiences who had remained faithful to them for decades. We also know of dancers who have indicated on performance invitations that they also accept foodstuffs instead of money. Among theatre professionals, there are many who try their luck abroad, not necessarily in theatres but as shop assistants or bar staff. In order to understand the reasons which led to the current catastrophic situation, we must first go back in time to the beginnings of state support for independent theatre in the 1980s and try and place the independents on the Hungarian and international theatrical map. We shall then briefly set out what has happened over the past two-and-a-half years, from the summer of 2010 until the winter of 2012, a period which can be described as the total debilitation of independents in Hungary.
1. Financing of the independent performing arts from the 1980s to the present. During the years of state socialism, the Hungarian theatre they used to call “alternative” naturally defined itself as being against the party-state. Those were the progressive workshops which, from the 1960s to the 1970s, existed as ‘tolerated’ rather than centrally supported entities: amateur theatre groups, university drama circles and the emblematic figures who led them (e.g. Péter Halász, Tamás Fodor, József Ruszt, András Jeles, etc.). Many of the artists who gathered around these theatremakers would, decades later, play an active part in shaping mainstream professional theatre.From both ideological and financing perspectives, the 1980s brought about significant changes. Whereas earlier, the so-called alternative theatres had been able to take on ideas and principles regarded as undesirable by the Party, by the time the regime started to soften in the 1980s, official politics had lost interest in alternative culture. Audiences dwindled, watching television became a popular pastime, and those working in the independent scene often had to look for a proper daytime job, since ticket sales alone could not secure a living for these companies and state grants were non-existent.
This unsustainable situation, one which left no room for development, changed in 1984, when the Soros Foundation issued its first call for applications for the performing arts, with the aim of strengthening civil society. Artists could submit numerous applications for, among other things, cultural management programmes, performing arts training, cultural events series in the countryside, programming venues, etc. Between 1995 and 2003, the foundation supported, via the Soros studio theatre programme, 80-110 (!) productions, the best of which were selected by the critics to appear before metropolitan audiences as part of the Budapest Autumn Festival. This support structure, which generated several significant processes, was then joined by the Municipality of Budapest, whose main goal was to support new productions through its Theatre Fund, whose annual resources fluctuated randomly over the years.
Another important source of funding for the (independent) theatre has been the National Cultural Fund of Hungary (NCF), established in 1993, which functioned until recently as a state fund with budgetary independence. In June 2012, however, culture was ”appended” to the supervising ministry, whose secretary of state—responsible for the entire cultural field—was appointed as the Fund’s new director, thereby jeopardizing NCF’s independence. Over the past fifteen years or so, financial backing for independent theatre projects (new productions, remounting of older shows, national and international distribution, etc.) has been provided primarily by grants awarded by the NCF. The Dance Board and the Theatre Board, which both used to award the grants have recently been superseded by the Performing Arts Board, whose budget now comprises music grants, as well. NCF funds were never just open to the independent scene; in fact, state and city theatres and dance ensembles receive a significant part of their project funding from this source.
Since the mid-1990s, the call for grant applications has been issued by the Ministry for Culture (which always changes its name when a new government comes to power) for non-budgetary theatres and ensembles, that is, independents. Dancers and theatre performers have to apply either together or separately. In 2004, a separate category was created in both fields for “priority” companies. Groups with priority status could apply for subsidy guaranteed for three years, which would have been a significant step for long-term planning and development, but was vetoed by the Finance Ministry and has thus never been realized. A new chapter in financing opened (in theory) in 2009, by implementing the Performing Arts Act, although as will become clear later, the theory enshrined in law shows striking anomalies when put to actual practice.
The detailed introduction to state financing of the independent scene above seemed necessary in order to show that the sector’s ”independence” is, from a material point of view, just a chimera. With few exceptions, these ensembles have not been successful in attracting civil patronage, and remain, to this day, significantly dependent on state support. A gradual reduction of state support—along with a central preparation of artists and driving them towards private and corporate funding—would have been a slower and less painful operation, when compared to the swift and politicised process of bleeding independents dry that is happening today. One way out is provided by co-production partners and international support, and almost all internationally recognised figures on the contemporary Hungarian independent scene are choosing this option, namely Zoltán Balázs, Viktor Bodó, Kornél Mundruczó and Árpád Schilling.
2. Independent vs. state theatres? Alongside the anomalies of financing, the main problem is the delayed ”regime change” in the structure of the Hungarian theatre. According to critic István Nánay, independents have been unable to integrate fully into mainstream theatre culture, and moreover, with a few exceptions, state or city theatres are unwilling to allow an ensemble with a different approach in their midst. A single example shall suffice to illustrate how immature the grant system is: the most successful ensemble on the Hungarian independent scene in the 1990s and 2000s, which could still function as a model for today, was the Krétakör (Chalk Circle) Theatre led by Árpád Schilling. Forcing Krétakör to apply for grants each year, instead of securing them regular subsidy testifies to the authorities’ perfect ignorance of this company’s talents and significance.
State and city theatres enjoy an incomparably better situation in Hungary. While independents must provide itemised accounts of their activities from year to year, state- and local government-financed theatres can operate free from any form of quality control. Independents cannot plan from year to year, and indeed it seems that today, planning even for one year is impossible. Moreover, grant-awarding bodies can no longer inform an already funded company that it will grant them support for three years in advance, in order that they may develop over this period. In this way, building a national and international network, joint projects and workshops and so on are rendered impossible: in brief, everything that could keep the scene alive and thriving in comparison to the slowly dying, desperate state of affairs existing today.
Frequent charges levelled against independents is that employees often don’t have clear contracts, they attract but a handful of theatregoers, and loudly demand state support without being able to show results. In the history of the Hungarian theatre, the debilitation of independents that has been taking place since 2010 has certainly yielded one sole positive result: independents are now better organized than ever and have begun to take a more unified stand—although the results are another question. In this process, one sociological survey conducted in August 2010 has played an important role. The survey has barely gained the attention of the broader public, but the data therein shows that such disparagement of independents is unjustified. We shall now cite a number of facts from the survey, which drew its conclusions from public data gathered from almost one hundred independent companies applying for ministerial grants.
Almost sixty percent of the independent companies operating in Budapest (we can also mention two provincial centres, Szeged and Pécs), have been in existence for over a decade. It is not true, therefore, that independents register solely in order to acquire easy grant money. Statistics show a gradual and significant decrease in the number of grant applicants. In 2009, independent applicants had managed almost 6,000 performances, while Hungary’s 54 state and city theatres played almost 13,500 performances in the 2007-2008 season. The funding of the state and city theatres, however, was not twice or three times, but twenty-one times greater than that of the independents. It is also inaccurate to allege that all independent productions are performed only once or twice (the average is a series of 30-40), and in fact some independent works have been playing to sold-out houses for decades (e.g. Béla Pintér and Company). The disparity in international connections is also revealing. In 2009, independents represented Hungary at festivals and in theatres 657 times in 31 countries, which means that ten percent of all their performances were held abroad. In 2007, state and city theatres performed 254 times in 25 countries, representing barely two percent of their total performances. Independent theatre, dance and puppet performances over a period of one year (2009) attracted 870,000 people, a large crowd, indeed, if one considers the total number of theatregoers in Hungary who, at the time, was around 4.5 million.
The survey clearly shows that if we compare intakes, independents have achieved undeniable results from a truly modest amount of money. In 2007, state and city theatres’ total intake was around 37 billion forints (€131m), while that of independents was barely 2.5 billion forints (€8.9m). At the same time, independents are far more flexible in attaining other sources of support than repertoire theatres are: while 66 percent of repertoire income came from state support, the proportion for independents was 44 percent. Their remaining income is divided as follows: 20 percent from distribution income and 36 percent from other sources. In aggregate: for every 10 forints of state subsidy, state and city theatres receive another 5 forints from other sources, while independents supplement every 10 forints with a further 13.
Internal discrepancies afflicting the theatre world are accompanied by other problems, too: solidarity between players in the profession is seriously lacking, and the viewer of this bizarre drama is left with the impression that even well-known names fight tooth and nail to defend their own positions when they would have nothing to lose from unequivocally standing up for the independents. Wider distribution of independent productions in the countryside would also be of great help, although contemporary works by young directors are in any case difficult to sell in the centralised, experimentation-averse Hungarian theatre world.
3. The systematic bleeding dry of independents, 2010-2012. The Performing Arts Act passed in 2008 provided guarantees to what the law defines as category VI ”non-profit and public arts and civil organizations” (the decisive majority of independent groups): ten percent of what locally funded city theatres receive in state subsidy. In 2010, this meant almost 1.3 billion forints (€4.6m, and by way of comparison, we should note that this is also the cost of building 1 (one) kilometre of motorway in Hungary), a mere 3.8 percent of the total support (32 billion forints/€114m) for Hungarian theatre, the proportion of which, in previous years, was much lower, barely exceeding two percent. Ideally, the ministry would issue the call for grant applications for the calendar (and not theatre) year in the middle of January, for which companies would submit applications until the end of February, the results of which would be announced in late April or early May. Grants would then be transferred to the companies in June at the earliest, to be accounted for by 31 December of that year.
Concerning operational grants for the year 2010, it was an alarming omen that the ministry only issued the call in March and was supposed to announce the results by mid-June; however, in time, the advisory board’s decision was irrelevant, since the results were only made public on 2 August. The change of government contributed to the delay: the outgoing left-wing administration and the incoming right-wing government each blamed the other, while independents waited in vain for their funding. And the cold shower was yet to come: citing cutbacks, the government blocked and later ultimately withdrew 34 percent of the total promised to independents, thereby breaking the law and without confirming the date that the remaining 66 percent would be transferred (this finally happened in October 2010). Every single company had to reorganize the remainder of its season, many came close to closing, and although the independents tried to put on a united front, thanks to internal conflicts, the weakness of professional interest protection and what we see retrospectively as unjustified optimism or naivety, this did not come about.
By this point, the independents had already found themselves in the crossfire of political battles: the government side frequently accused them of being ”left-liberals” who do not respect national values, therefore should not hanker after state funds. Following the 2010 general election, the well-known director and head of the Csokonai Theatre in Debrecen and the next director of the National Theatre as of July 2013, Attila Vidnyánszky, became the definitive influence in national theatre matters. According to Vidnyánszky, independents include many ”bluff theatres,” and everyone would be better off if the entire medium and the ”efforts” of the independents were integrated into the state theatres. He caused further havoc with his statements on the Performing Arts Act (any guarantees of how much money goes to independents should be left out), referring the call for applications back to the Minister of Culture who can decide whether (!) to issue the call at all. To this day, the demonization of independents has become an everyday affair for those close to decision-making circles, and those affected have had no chance to give open, meaningful responses; they have tried in vain to arouse attention with actions such as the march backwards through a few hundred metres in downtown Budapest. In December 2010, parliament reduced support for independents from ten to eight percent.
In Spring of 2011, the Ministry of Culture unexpectedly gave notice to the professional board of advisers, earlier appointed for three years to oversee the independents’ funding (which included, for example, Máté Gáspár, former Managing Director of Krétakör, and György Szabó, Manager of the Trafó), replacing them with their own ”trustworthy” people, most of whom had no experience with the independent scene and many of whom had not seen most of these companies’ work—the very same companies whose fates they were to decide in a few sessions. (And while independent theatre and dance ensembles were successfully turned on one another to scramble for ever-decreasing amounts of money, the internationally-renowned Trafó House of Contemporary Arts, after thirteen successful years, became the latest scandal in the chronicle of the independents’ ups and downs, when an attempt was made to transfer its running to unworthy hands.)
In the summer of 2011, parliament modified the Performing Arts Act, deleting the earlier six categories and replacing them with three (uncertainly defined) new categories of normative support: national, priority and “the rest”, who have to apply for grants every year anew, which latter category includes among numerous other organisations all of the independent performing arts groups. The main losers of the amendment were the independents, since the new law—unlike the earlier 10 and then 8 percent quotas—makes no attempt to define how much money is to be divided between groups. Moreover, the advisory board is not obliged to grant a single penny of support, while the ever-decreasing funds available are, without doubt, unpromising.
This desperate situation also contributed in August 2011 to the choosing of new leadership in the Independent Performing Artists’ Association (Független Előadó-művészeti Szövetség, or FESZ): Kata Csató, Balázs Erős, Gábor Goda and Árpád Schilling. In the beginning, the atmosphere was hopeful. Independents began to communicate with one another, and finally realised that the regime simply has no need for them. This optimism then evaporated. The determined group bombarded the ministry with official letters, but the representatives of power would not even speak to them. FESZ’s task was enormous: harmonizing the recommendations of over one hundred of its members over months, FESZ composed a detailed, five-page long text as a suggestion for the call for proposals for the 2013 grants (with which the ministry did not deal on any substantial level).
A further turn of events came in 2012, when the ministry issued the 2012 call for grant applications to independents as late as 15 June. After a lengthy delay, the decisions were announced on 25 September and, on 8 October, the government decision to freeze and cut 17 billion forints (€60.5m) in the ministry of culture was announced, without yet naming the victims of the cuts. On 8 November, the ministry announced that 36.51 percent of the amount granted to independents would be frozen to an operating total of 420 million forints (€1.5m) which, compared to the 2009 frame, represented an unprecedented reduction of 62 percent! A separate grant already allocated to most of the independent applicants in several categories for new drama, national touring, TIE workshops etc. was simply withdrawn without even announcing it in the daily papers. A week later it was stated by the ministry that this year, 2012, independents will not receive the support that they must, in theory, account for by 31 December. And the newest episode became public a few days before Christmas 2012: after the huge street demonstrations against the government’s education reform the Ministry of Culture decided to give back the 36.51 percent of the grants to the independent companies—according to their plans in Spring of 2013.
In lieu of a conclusion, a few facts on the present state of affairs. In May 2012, the Nestroy Prize-winning Viktor Bodó announced the termination of his ensemble, the Sputnik Shipping Company (Szputnyik Hajózási Társaság), known throughout Europe. Their performances were cancelled, one section of the company was dismissed while others are trying to find work in international co-productions. The reserves of the Central-European Dance Theatre (Közép-Európa Táncszínház), which has been in existence for over two decades, have now been exhausted, and if they ever receive their grant, it will be used to pay the accumulated bills and rent before the company, in all likelihood, winds up. Anna Lengyel, leader of PanoDrama, whose verbatim performances are unique in the Hungarian theatre field, is running her theatre mostly from international grants, her own funds from other sources of income and personal loans, and still pays her actors and collaborators higher fees than most (not only independent) theatres in Hungary. The new production by another internationally-recognized ensemble, Béla Pintér and Company, The 42nd week, has been rehearsed for three months with all participants working for free.
The independents in FESZ have produced a video compilation of their desperate situation which, in less than three months, has been viewed over 16,000 times on YouTube (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YfenOc7leA0), yet the Ministry of Culture has, instead of providing a meaningful response, only come up with a cynical video message. ”2013: Independent theatres are coming to an end in Hungary” is the opening sentence of the independents’ short film. Let us hope they are wrong.
Tamás Jászay Edited by Lissa Tyler Renaud