"We are the black sheep of our theatre society" - Interview with Zoltán Balázs and Sylvia Huszár

For 20 years, Hungary’s Maladype Theatre has sought to maintain independence within an increasingly authoritarian political landscape. Nick Awde talks to producer Sylvia Huszár and director Zoltán Balázs about creative integrity, international touring and turning adversity to advantage.

Though it takes different shapes at national and even local levels, many nations across Europe have coagulated into an neo-authoritarian landscape where even ‘normal’ theatre can find itself unwittingly breaking the new norms imposed by society or politics.

At the epicentre of this is Hungary, where culture wars have proved to be a potent weapon in the march towards democratic breakdown – meaning that theatre there absorbs conflicts that reflect the wider divisions, presenting artists with hard choices if they want to work with integrity.

At Budapest’s Maladype Színház (Maladype Theatre), producer Sylvia Huszár agrees that the choices facing theatre makers in Hungary are hard, but the challenge is in implementing them. Making the choices is the easy part. “The balance is not between standing on the right or the left politically, but between making valid and invalid theatre. It also goes without saying that unethical, retrograde theatre productions promoting antisocial ideas cannot carry high quality. If any power – right or left – expects this or forces this on theatre, it leads to the death of quality theatre.”

“It is doubtful whether Witold Gombrowicz’s Iwona, księżniczka Burgunda (Yvonne, Princess of Burgundia), Tankred Dorst’s mega-epic Merlin oder Das wüste Land (Merlin, or the Wasteland), a contemporary Israeli play like Roy Chen’s Someone Like Me, or even King Lear or Three Sisters can be directed and acted in a right or left-wing way. But the fact is that the need for external support makes theatre vulnerable, and there are constant political attempts to influence theatre – in Hungary, the theatre elite itself uses and misuses this – and as a consequence, the opportunities that open up are often not linked to artistic quality.”

That high bar lies at the heart of Maladype, which in its 20 years of existence under artistic director Zoltán Balázs finds quality through striving to be an independent, autonomous company in both spirit and operation.

”We have never felt the need to conform to fashionable ideologies or artistic trends,” says Balázs. “Right from Maladype’s beginning, we have represented the outsider’s trend. We are aware that we are the black sheep of our theatre society, but we also know that artistic sovereignty liberates us. Black sheep will remain black sheep. There are no days off.”

And that’s quite a balancing act – to stay within the bounds of society so your voice will be heard, yet push the boundaries of that same society and risk being ostracised or silenced. Indeed, to be labelled ‘underground’ or ‘reactionary’ is not always the best move if you’re making professional theatre in a place where the government has the power (and the mandate) to arm and aim society against you.

Being hard to categorise is one way to stay in the game. As Balázs explains, the Maladype “brand” stands for content and form that refuse to fit within any canon, showcasing unconventional concepts and staging that differ radically from the expected or traditional. In the volatile reality of Hungary, this gives the company the capacity to react to unexpected factors that might infect its everyday work externally or internally, to adopt a structural-artistic strategy shaped by the situation, with flexibility and a quick reaction.

This may be helped by the fact that Hungary has a long, strong tradition of independent theatre that developed in parallel with state theatre during the Communist period, building on structures that were already established by the early 19th century. ‘Independent’ means losing financial autonomy but gaining creative independence, which has seen Maladype taking its creative process beyond Hungary’s borders to the point that working abroad has become key to sustaining the economics – and the integrity – of that independence.

“We are compelled to hold fewer performances at home and we receive less funding every year, but we travel over the world with the company and also as individual practitioners – from Poland to Sarajevo, from Amsterdam to Hanoi,” says Huszár. “We have now travelled to nearly 25 countries, played in over 50 cities. This is something few Hungarian theatres can do.”

It’s a textbook example of turning adversity to advantage, yet a certain skill is required to produce work that is as accessible to audiences in other countries and cultures as it is at home. Like fine wine, theatre doesn’t always travel well.

“I want theatre that attracts, and I want it to do so in a highly creative way,” says Huszár, but she is frustrated by the barrier of not having a fixed base in Hungary. “Our company is made up entirely of qualified artists, with five productions in its repertoire and we are a regular at international festivals, but we have no permanent venue equipped to create contemporary and innovative programming that inspires artistically and pushes the audience out of its comfort zone.”

There’s solid background to this – the company’s evolutionary arc came not from a peripatetic model but via the bricks and mortar of Maladype Base, a theatre-apartment in Budapest that became a laboratory for the vision that drives today’s Maladype Theatre.

Again it’s those choices – as Balázs puts it, that evolution has been an easy journey to maintain in a difficult world since Maladype’s productions are stage events “born out of the spirit of humanism and not political manifestos”. As the powerlessness all around us drives so many people into hopeless life situations such as the Russian invasion of Ukraine, art and compassion are becoming endangered.

“Fear and empathy form the backbone of our functional aesthetics, the imprint of our collective experience,” says Balázs “Our performances try to interpret/reinterpret the reality of the stage and auditorium in the light of valid, authentic and true concepts – without direct statements, stage messages and theatrical platitudes.”

But the mere act of taking Maladype’s work to other countries brings an entirely new level of expectations, notably the idea not only of performing on stage but of ‘performing’ as a ground-breaking company from Hungary. One would expect there to be pressure to adapt shows according to the political/social restrictions of those countries, but Balázs says this doesn’t happen with his productions.

“Co-production partners who contact us are aware of the artistic independence that defines us. Our avant-garde characteristics automatically select for us a circle of partners who have a serious interest in our creative strategy. We always take into account the religious, linguistic and cultural customs of the given country, on the other hand current political and social ‘landslides’ never influence our artistic concepts. In our encounters with local audiences, we do not need a ‘dictionary of secret codes’ or ‘message book’ containing insider information.”

Adds Huszár: “Nothing is more boring than listening to the same record over and over again. We are currently working in Poland on the second part of Adam Mickiewicz’s drama Forefathers’ Eve (Dziady), and something new and unusual is happening because we’re exploring that part of Polish national drama that unconventionally takes this play out of the realm of traditional theatricality. This is not politically motivated but deals with serious social issues that affect all of us.”

“We integrate the ideas of our foreign collaborators and partners into our ideas, which is a logical consequence of our creative commitment and our global citizenship based on active presence.”

But does this mean that adapting a show for another country can be a form of self-censorship? Or are there rules that justify artistically – and perhaps morally – making a show accessible to other audiences beyond one’s society?

“The aim is not to tailor our presentations to the political boundaries of another country. It’s more important to be understandable wherever we play,” says Huszár. “For example, we staged King Ubu in Iran, at the Fadjr International Theatre Festival. This is a country where Alfred Jarry is not performed, where subtitles are not allowed, but the advantage of our production was that all the roles were played by four male actors, so the censors didn’t have much to do with us.

“In that way the play creatively extracted the message from the symbolism of the words and made it easy for the audience to understand, and Jarry’s message came through. Our non-verbal performances, inspired by literary texts – be it poetry or prose – use associative elements and games that engage the audience, who become unseen partners in the play. And spectators like to play – whether in Tehran, Hanoi or Prague.”

The company’s philosophy is based on the ‘play of chance’, and its shows, whatever country they play in, are based on sharing unusual, engaging situations. With King Ubu, Maladype made the rehearsals open, bringing in 35-40 members of the public who played the role of ‘active participants in the process’. They were invited to be involved in the work of the actors and director from the initial run-throughs right up to the first night. Based on Maladype’s concept of working while always attuned to the audience, it allows a show to be adaptable for different locations and cultures in keeping with where the piece is performed.

Balázs sees adaptation as an essential measure of artistic creativity and flexibility. “King Ubu presents the madness of power in the form of apocalyptic clowning, and for us this means a completely different task in adapting it at Fadjr in Tehran than at the Ex Ponto International Performing Arts Festival in Ljubljana. Verbal and non-verbal communication have different values ​[depending on] the socio-cultural, linguistic and religious context of a given country.”

So does this create an extra level of creativity, or does it risking hindering things politically?

“It clearly enhances our creativity,” says Balázs. “The gradual strengthening of our theatre was possible through the reasonable neutralisation and diplomatic overcoming of obstacles. The cultural and political actions that threaten our operation and sovereignty have united the Maladype community in an ars poetica. The serial taming of problems has made our company more imaginative, smarter and more inventive. The toxic wind surrounding us has strengthened our inner emotional structure.”

That statement is delivered very much in shorthand, loaded as it is with the experience of pressures in Central/Eastern Europe that are not encountered in Western Europe. So is there a lack of understanding of those pressures from Western European theatre?

From a Western European perspective, the international theatre scene is a buyers’ market that works on terms that are as ideological as they are artistic. This is something that Huszár addresses candidly. “They are mainly interested in issues concerning the values and reactions of the society and the role of man in it, and that is what they are mainly looking for here. However, the economic situation here and the uncertainty of our financing structures make them cautious. After all, one day there is a company, the next day it may be in the process of closing down. As travel costs become more expensive, inviting productions becomes more difficult.

“We are able to go on our way convinced that our survival mechanism works and that we represent values at home and abroad that we have established over the last 20 years. Even though we don’t bring current political topics into the theatre, we do more than just entertain. Our most recent production Someone Like Me deals with the social issue of mental illness in young people – like other taboo subjects, it needs to be talked about and that is what we are doing.”

Of course there is friction, as Balázs observes: “The political, social and cultural involvement of all our theatres is different, our values ​​are diverse, our manifestations are variegated, but our efforts to reveal inner truths all point to a unified direction. Sooner or later, every theatre community needs to realise that there are no absolutes in our world.

“Theatre in Central and Eastern Europe needs more caring citizens, who make it clear in their words and actions that there is no place for prejudiced, mediocre, small-minded creators or elite predators, that a rigid approach lacking empathy and renewal is a reality-distorting force, that a more direct relationship between the creators and the receivers is needed. At Carl Jung’s funeral, the pastor said that the psychoanalyst encouraged people to have soul again. Well, maybe it’s time to take the master’s advice.”

Nick Awde, SEEstage, 2022