Cactus milk - interview with Zoltán Balázs

Stories from the past: a child, rolling sleeplessly in bed, is waiting for his parents to come home, then he hears his father’s firm and hard steps and the brisk walking of a woman trying to keep up the pace; a teenager who runs off with circus performers; a young man who learns from Robert Wilson, how he can “recreate” an old man on stage –not “with Stanislavski techniques”. Exciting, beautiful, original stories from your previous interviews, which, unfortunately, will be left out from this conversation. At least I don’t want you to repeat yourself.

And if there are no more stories? It is all done, the kid’s out, this is all he knows. Fortunately, Wilson has a lot of exercises, at most I will tell you another one. Indeed, I could not even deliver that one exactly. The problem with interviews is that they inevitably simplify everything. It will be like a sect-recipe:- and the Lord says, if you push the handle and enter the gate, the Kingdom of Heaven will be yours – The proselytizer simplifies to get to the destination quickly, and skips a few steps, for example, he forgets about the key.

And you just stand in the doorway and never get to Heaven.

Something like this. A method cannot be conveyed in words, and the interview is further reducing it. Finally, all that remains, is that Zoli Balázs met the great Robert Wilson. Otherwise, Wilson’s exercise knows not only how to unnaturally create a character on stage, but also how to delve into yourself. The task is not to recall all the bad memories: the accident of your great-grandmother, the bleeding of your grandfather’s little toe – so that you can experience-show the old man’s pain, misery, change of voice. No. Wilson gives you very difficult technical exercise: let’s say you shake your head for each “a” letter, stick your tongue out for each “k” letter, and tremble your feet for each “t” letter. So you don’t imitate the old man, you implement an exercise, and you focus inward. And this appears on your face. You speak normally, you say the following sentence: “He went to the store and brought four pounds of bread. You live your oldness but this is your secret, you don’t have to show it, let it out. Old age is just one example, there are many other exercises: with vowels, consonants, breathing-techniques. This method is similar to Meyerhold’s Biomechanics, but first and foremost it is a process of the actor’s safety and calmness. It does not rely on the constraint that regards the actor’s squeeze state as the moment of “inspiration”. We have some directors with methods like this: disassemble the actor, torture the brain, humiliate him, and freak him out, and when he is torn into pieces, you can do something with him. Only then. This is not what I’ve experienced. Usually, they disassemble the actor and they forget to put him back together. And that miserable one runs around in pieces, trying to get his hands, feet and soul together. I don’t believe in this. The actor, of course, is distressed working with his character, but this is his concern. In that sense, we say nothing by the “Stanislavski Method”. Well, of course. Everyone is doing it from “Stanislavski”. The actor works from his soul. Even if he is standing on his head, or he is doing a back handspring, he still works from his soul. But Wilson’s technique allows the actor to concentrate and think. To not keep his nose to the grindstone: “state, state, state!” After all, the “state” develops almost involuntarily as it deepens. You don’t have to pump up yourself in the backstage or to prick yourself with a needle- of course, I am telling you extreme examples-, and you don’t have to go on stage with mere psychosis. Well, that’s all about Wilson’s exercises. Yes, you started with I’m afraid of: repeating things, I can’t surprise you, I can’t say anything interesting.

But you are starting to take on.

Like the Eszterházy-pretty potty. Can I light a cigarette in the meantime?

Of course. Do you smoke?

Recently, yes. But I do not inhale the smoke into my lungs, I can’t even do that. I only like the gesture, which does not even look good for me. So it does not make any sense.

Method. You’ve used this word many times. Is there one? Or it’s just personality? We often stumble upon vulgar and weird results, when the self-proclaimed disciple is “applying” the Master’s methods with his rudimentary skills.

We can find something like this, but this is a reflection of the disciple and not of the Method. There is a Method, of course. We are living in the twenty-first century, we don’t have to start everything all over again and experience everything ourselves. They are thousands who have already walked the path you are starting as a beginner- it is worth learning from them. Many things from different people. Then you keep some of the things, some you throw away. I often refer to Wilson, because I was lucky enough to meet him. I could also mention Vasiliev because thanks to him I could take a glance at the birth and realization of sacred theater. As an actor,I attended Miklós Benedek’s class, and I studied directing with László Babarczy. The question is whether I can mush together something personal from these and how do I find my path through them. And stepping on that path will I be able to incorporate “new methods” into my work. I do not believe in simple solutions. I am not going to tell my Maladype actors, that “from now on, we’re just working by the Grotowski-method.” I am responsible for this Gypsy Company. I must show them as many ways as possible. But I also must determine the starting point, from which they can deviate in countless directions. I truly believe, for example, in the Holy Trinity of eye-word-body. I believe in a word’s meaning. If I say: “I am very sad”, I find it enough, and I think it’s unnecessary to confirm this with intonations, physical emphasis. There is no reason. Because if you just follow the punctuation, here is a full stop, here’s a dash, here a colon, you are already interpreting and communicating exactly the text. “I want you” – it’s enough if I say this. There is no reason for me to overdo it. You will find in the look the fear of what the other will answer, or if he is answering at all, and the body is probably listening, wearing a mask. After all, the mask itself is the discipline with what you cover and protect yourself. The secret lies in this Holy Trinity that is the fundamental part of acting.

There is a strange contradiction in what you are saying: we usually say that the Hungarian theater relies too much on text. What you have just said is that it does not believe in words, because it is trying to support it with other tools.


The aforementioned “holy trinity” can help with what I consider the most important thing on stage: to present at every moment the richness and complexity of the world with the simplest tools possible.

This richness in being concentrated on the actor. He says clearly and correctly a sentence, but the concentration, the extravagant fantasy embeds the sentence into the richness of a created world. Cătălina Buzoianu said, that despite her attempt with visual humor, the audience was only receptive to verbalism. József Nagy, who comes from Vojvodina but works in France, experienced the same thing. We were accustomed to this. Both the audience and the actors. If the actor does not believe in it, it’s not going to work. There is nothing more desperate than an unbelieving actor: “sorry, I’m an ostrich now, because this is what the director came up with, but this is terrible.” I have no problem with the verbal theater- but behind words must be the thought. It’s good to think. It is important, that me, the actor, Zoltán Balázs can support the spoken word with my thought. I need time and freedom for this. “It was sleet falling and I got drenched.” - if I say this I need to know what this means to me, and I should not chase a general state. There is nothing more beautiful and exciting that a thoughtful person. For this, the best example I’ve seen was in Szeged, in Sándor Zsótér's Galilei direction. Levente Király did not move, but he was constantly wondering if the world is a sphere or not, does it spin or not. If he is truly interested in something, I, the spectator, will also be interested in it. Beyond that, you need personality and the pleasure of thinking. The actors hardly know this because they are being driven: “state, state, push it, push it, you are foaming at the mouth- that’s it! All of this is important, but it comes by itself. Because that’s the instinct. Whoever gets into this career hopefully has this kind of instinct. You have to learn (and assume!), to dare to think boldly on stage, one meter away from the audience. As a director, I am now interested in the “non-verbal” theater, in which the actor cannot depend –with eyes, body- on spoken words. There is a need for this in both the actor and the spectator. I don’t think that the spectator is stupid. They always warn me that “Mary and Rosie won’t understand”. But yes, they will. To them, an image, a taste, a sound means at least as much as it does to us, who always “understand” everything.

Are you sure in the term “non-verbal” theater? Because you trust words, use and even play with them: In the School of fools you mixed Latin, Gypsy and Hungarian texts, in Teomachia, which you are currently directing at Bárka, you are planning a different ruse.

I can call it a meta-communication theater as well. The name is not important. Let’s call it cactus milk. Or guinea fowl. Not all the same? Yes, I use words. Only vowels, or foreign text, or different languages collide, we disassemble the words, and we babble like kids, we try to re-assemble the sound fragments, we come up with new words. It has to do with my Transylvanian origin: I grew up among Romanian countrymen, me, Zoltán Balázs Visky, the nobleman. I am sitting on a cart, chewing on the cheese given to me by a Romanian kid, and we are communicating very well without understanding each other's words. But I understand his intention and he does mine. And this vocabulary is born form that particular Trinity. In theater I’m looking for my vocabulary. So this particular cactus milk is my own personal, theatrical vocabulary. It is also the vocabulary of that particular company for that particular performance. The path to the performance is a learning process. This is why I approach any piece with an open mind. Of course, I have attractions: the works of Babits and Weöres are close to me, also I could not imagine myself directing Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. As a director, my fantasy is inspired by texts, which have not been put on stage so far. I have to find that one from six billion other options. In which the actor and spectator will also be my companions. I don’t want to create off-the-wall productions. The audience should not be frightened or should not be leaving like: Wow, this was surely very artistic, only the director understands it! The spectator should be surprised in a good way, should be happy to discover its fantasy. Is my concept good or not, brilliant or brainwashed? Find it out on the fly. Zoli Balázs’s freedom lies in: taking and unknown path- whether his companions join him or not. The Teomachia, this never-before-seen masterpiece compels you to do so.

You started with Pessoa poems, Babits’ The second sing, Ionesco and Ghelderode’s barely played works in Hungary, and now you are working on Teomachia, and then you are directing again Babits at Berehove. These are works that could hardly be accessible by traditional Hungarian acting tools. However, you also have a plan to direct Wesker’s play, Kitchen. It certainly does not fit in the queue. At first glance, this is a so-called “realistic” play.

Actually, socio-drama.

This would be a real surprise. Zoltán Balázs is directing a realistic play.

I’ve done that before! When working with Gábor Székely, we’d written short stories based on our personal experiences and we’d put them on stage. It was one of the most difficult tasks of my life. How can I be micro-realistic while expanding the dimension of theatrical tools? The location is a room-that makes me sick. A sofa stacked in the middle, the “coziness” is born, the actor immediately finds that moment to sit down, he then lays back, stays there for ten minutes, stands up after that particular sentence, lights a cigarette, after drinks a cup of water, sits back, settles in- and the toolbox is narrowed down. Yeah, I forgot about the hand in the pocket. Anyways: do, what the teacher asks you to do- but don’t forget about yourself! This is not defiance. I have no intention to confront, to self-realize at all costs. I am curious. This is how I have been raised. I’ve gathered many beautiful things at home, to be open-minded and curious about the world! My life took me this way. Took away my home, my country, but gave me something else. I hitchhiked across Europe. I’ve said: I’ve lost one thing, let the rest come easy. I am still hitchhiking. Yes, I think directing is a sort of hitchhiking for me. Not knowing what will happen to me in the next moment. The actors may slam the door on my face tomorrow. But maybe not. So that mentioned short story based on my personal experience was about my father, whom we have not met in a long time. I wrote a very strange reunion. This work is significant to me because perhaps the special experience that still intrigues me was born back then. I took on micro-realism, the “room”, but I expanded it. The great thing about the 52 classroom is that its windows open onto the corridor, which overlooks the open air, the infinite sky, the vacancy. I raised the level of the corridor, the windows became doors, the actors could walk in and out, and the specific “illogical”, irregular movement became the well-rehearsed rhythm of their everyday actions, in one word, the predictable realism got into a new dimension. This also required me to sit around in that room a lot, observe its facilities, and devise my performance there. You don’t have to put a set in a space, you have to use that space well, turning its disadvantages into advantages. We did the same thing with Judit Gombár in the Jack, or The Submisson’s case between the pink walls and flower curtains of the Roma Parliament and we are doing it again in the Teomachia, in the Bárka’s fencing room.

I’m sitting here with a bright young man. I’m not ironic, I’m serious. I know you got a “Comet” - prize last year.

Moment-prize- this is how I call it.

So they appreciated the start-up talent. It is also true that I know nothing about academic life at the University of Arts. Still, I take a risk: regardless of the “moment” –prize, you were not that known, at least not it the way that the on-call redeemers are pre-announced. They were not talking about it for years, that you were coming. But you are here, and now we suddenly discovered you. Why is this so?

This is because of me.

But your teachers –Székely, Babarczy, Csiszár- obviously noticed the talent.

They didn’t have time to notice it. I’ve stayed there as long as I needed to. I didn’t settle in the university. Neither in the acting nor the directing department.

For this, you have to “stay” there?

Absolutely. You need to be present: always come up with some dazzling idea, to picture that you are important, to move everything around you, to become particularly important for the cleaning lady, the gate-keeper, the classroom officials, so that they could remark this strange, but an already extraordinary human being. As for the teachers, you need to show them that you are different from them, but of course, only to the extent that you are following them. I did not follow them. In college, I received two gifts from my teacher, Babarczy László, and to this day I am grateful for them: Mihály Babits’s The second sing because he recommended it, and Judit Góczán, my current dramatist. But the fact that my teachers are paying attention to me, Zoltán Balázs- I have not experienced it. This is not their sin.

So then where is the problem?

In me. I didn’t stay in their hands. I’m just like that: I can’t stay too much in one place. I’ve been paying attention to them, but I was also focusing on the French Conservatoire where I could study in the summertime. I want to experience everything myself. I’ve already met the people I needed to meet, I passed by those, who passed by me. I’ve never aspired to be a star figure. It was good the way it was, I could work in silence. They finally accepted me: “Zoli is a good kid, but why is he doing something strange again?” In college, I was the “formalist mouse”. Although I have nothing formalist in my performances. I place the story into a well-thought-out system. In this, the most insignificant little thing matters. It is important how an actor goes on stage. He might be in the mood, or he might be not: this is not working. The knocking of a woman heels: you do three steps, stop, rub your feet, step two... This influences and guides the actor- and the spectator as well. In every reading-rehearsal I tell a verse from Radnóti: „Now people fight without you, hey, Frederico Garcia- and there is no Lorca. But you can hear it, you say it to yourself. I’m intrigued by this „Lorca”. I’m telling you again, Laci: I am very grateful for this college silence. I’ve never claimed to start my path as a star-like X or Y. And to be fair, I can’t even say that they did not pay attention to me. Zsámbéki sent me to Stuttgart. But I decided to direct Teomachia at Bárka instead. I’m interested in working on certain things in depth. With things in which others are not interested. To put on stage Weöres, Babits- this is what interests me. And I’ve barely met a teacher, who was interested in me or in how would I do something. It always mattered how you “must” do something. I know nothing about this “must”.

But this is part of learning and part of the “profession”.

Obviously. I know that I have to lead the actor, I have to help the audience, I have to be able to tell a story- but in all this, I have to look for myself. What does a flower, a fir tree, a key, a room mean to me? Van Gogh’s bedroom is slanted. This is how he saw the world. I see the world in the same way I do my performances.

I can consider this an arrogant, insubordinate, selfish, brave, etc. starting point. The question is, does this help you to share your views with “Mary and Rosie”. Will they be interested in you, will they understand you?

“This is how I see the world”- this is not an arrogant sentence of a limited animal. By this, I would like to emphasize personality. This is what I can give myself, this much and in this way. After all, I want the performance to be mine if there would be something from me as well in it. But there is something else: I’ve been listening to one of Babarczy’s statements these days, he was talking about the old Kaposvár’s Theater. If behind this worldview –“This is how I see the world” is only a self-aware, self-realized personality, he would not hire him, no matter how talented he is. Because this person could destroy his company. Babarczy is right, and this is how a director should protect his company. But the mentioned worldview only works if you win the whole company after the first reading-rehearsal. If the single number turns into plural: we see the world like this. For this, the director must be a prepared professional with a strong personality. It is not a burden, it’s a pleasure to be able to tell the actor how you’ve got here. I started here and got here. Now we start together from this point, and we can only move forward together. The actor is a co-creator, not a serving staff. I like Babarczy’s statement because as a director I have to know that danger is born over and over again: I, the self-realized one, hit the road, I start shouting “me, me, me”, I run across the company, and I go along the previsioned path whatever it takes. This is a real danger. You have to get to the performance so that everyone can say with conviction that this is how we see the world. And if you can’t take the spectator with you, he can still reject it. But if he goes along, he can complement your worldview with his own. With his personality. This is what happens during the rehearsals too. But if the actor comes up with sixty ideas, the director has to make a decision. He does not have to accept everything because that would cause an inconsistent diversity.

You are talking about a theater that you want as a director. I suppose as an actor you would like to be involved in the same kind of theater. But neither in Szolnok, where you’ve spent your practice nor at Bárka, where you work with us, are you doing-did such performances. Rodolpho in the A view from the bridge, Paul in the Les Enfants Terribles, Gyuri the waiter in the Spiro’s Liliomfi-version, Fred in the Moonlight, Tuzenbach in Three Sisters, and now Romeo. Very different performances, but they all have something in common, that they are far away for your non-verbal theater.

Let’s stick with cactus milk.

This is what they call the double life of Zoli Balázs.

As an actor I am disciplined during rehearsals and I have faith in the director; I’ve experienced this during Moonlight’s rehearsals myself. For example, you could experience at me the total insecurity: I bring sixty versions, and there is no decision. I know myself, if we would work together once more, the same things would happen. There are many directors. I never direct as an actor and I never act as a director. I believe that anyone who chooses me is curious about me and wants me. I have to know that for László Bérczes the character of Fred is only Zoli Balázs and no other. That’s why I don’t accept to be an understudy. I’ve never done it before. In your case I did: in The homecoming, in Rémusz Szikszai’s place. I loved it, it was one of my most beautiful experiences.

I was constantly thinking about The homecoming when you talked about the realistic room: table, chair, cigarette- I felt stupid because I am arrogantly proud of The homecoming.

Laci, I don’t think that everyone should do what I do. It would be terrible! God forbid to have a lot of zolibalázs’s running around playing in cactus milk-performances! The actors (and the audience!) would go crazy. So if I am working with a director, I truly hope that he wants me, and at the same time, he gives me a chance. Not all the roles will face you in life. And if you come across it, you have to find out why. If Pinter, then him, if Shakespeare, then him. But it is neither my duty nor my right to constantly criticize someone during work. That’s not my business. My job is to be a part of a whole performance with maximum dedication. Even if I disagree with certain things. I have to find my place in it. This is especially rewarding when we find harmony with our partners. The The moonlight is a very good example of this: Robi Kardos and I are two very different actor-personalities –both in stature and thinking-. And during rehearsals and performances, a very strange friendship evolved, we paid close attention to each other. But this requires a process where, yes, uncertainty has often overcome us, because you are the type of a director, who finds something good in everything and regrets throwing something away to win the other. Either way, in the The moonlight or in others, I fit into the system and represented myself to the maximum. I am not a service staff, Zoli Balázs will always tell you what’s on his mind. I’m fighting for Fred, Romeo because it’s me, who is going to stand on stage. So the director, just like me, can imagine whatever he likes, everything will go downhill if the actor is not able to interpret it personally. Sure, acting is a more vulnerable genre- but you can’t lose yourself. And performing is a great pleasure. I’ve had a lot of trouble with Romeo. But I like doing it, just like Tuzenbach in Three sisters. Because Cătălina was constantly picking on me, she wanted to get more and more out of me. She compelled me but gave me unique freedom. Acting is torture, agony – but above all, it is joy. I wanted to be a clown, I turned out to be an actor, and by chance, I became a director. Actor and director: for me, this is not a contradiction. I am me and I will remain that way. Well at least now.

If I understand you well, this is a reference to what you usually refer to in statements: that you will be a short-lived person. Is Romeo now holding you back, or is this a funny acting pose, a showy and imposing bluff? Should we even take this statement seriously?

We could. It’s not a bluff. You know me: I’ve lived very fast. I do and did a lot of things in my short little life. There are so many things I’m interested in- Wow! This is a feeling: I’ll have a short life. For example, my private life which it’s always a victim of my work. I can’t stay with anyone for a long period, or they can’t stay with me. By the time they would hold onto me, I leave. I am driven by energy, curiosity, I run into the non-realistic life: the theater. I chose the fake one from my double life: fiction. I try to exist in the non-realistic world as a living being, and I rarely come up in the real world, only as a stranger, a weird goblin. But I don’t care so much about real life. I feel much better here, on stage, in the theater than outside, in what is called life. God may give me a long life. But for me, it’s more important to have a meaningful life. And I have it. And I’m happy about it. I am lucky because somebody is always watching over me, call it God, Blue Thing, Anything. I’m not used to relaxing, or when I have time I read, think and watch a performance. I’m not going to fall like a cabbage leaf, “well, eat me, caterpillars!” no. When my grandfather died, death struck me for a moment. Acting, art, and the Gypsy theater, etc. are all nice things – But what’s the point? It won’t save anyone. I will stand before the Lord, I will tell him: “I was a director, Teomachia and so on, I’ve been acting as well, Romeo, Fred, Tuzenbach“ “So what, my son?” I have no proof, no alibi for my life. That kid, that twelve-year-old teenager, remained somewhere in Transylvania at the train station. My mother told me that we are moving to Hungary. There was hatred in me, sadness and despair. She dragged me to do a passport photo somewhere, so that photo tells it all. The smile of inability. At the train station, she pushed me on the train, it was raining, and all the circumstances were all suitable for a tragic moment. I was sitting on a cold Romanian train in Sighetu Marmației, at the end of the world, my tears were running down my face, I was looking out the window at others saying goodbye, and the train set off. And it stopped. I nipped up, wanted to jump off the train, it is all done, the nightmare is over- but then it departed again. Like in Kosztolányi’s novel, Skylark. I was ripped in two. I am now talking to you, but I’m standing at that strain station, I am waiting for myself to come back there once more. There I am waiting in peace, calmness, stillness- here I am rushed for time. I am constantly doing something, there was the university, Bárka, Paris and New York, but I’m still standing there and nothing happens.

What is there, that isn’t here?

My childhood. No one could have more than that. We had a strange life there. My grandfather was persecuted because he was Hungarian and because he ran a business. My grandmother cried for amnesty, there are many stories, it doesn’t matter. But at home, I had an incredibly intellectually rich life with my mother and grandmother. They never lied to me. Everything was in order. The evening was evening, bathing, dinner as needed. On Sunday we went to church, where they did not refer to the old, bearded god, who sits on a throne and chooses whom to chastise. By the way, he would have had a reason: I was a very bad kid. When people came to visit us they asked: “Is Zoltán home?” If so, they would not come in. Of course, my mother afterward says that I was a very good child. This good-bad kid is still there. The mountains are still there. The mushroom pickings, the waterfalls, the haystacks, when I treaded-out the hay on hattocks-

In what?

Haystacks. I now many words like this. Although I’m more cautious now. I used to stay: wake on. They were picking on me, so I gave up using it.

I’m not picking on you, I just don’t know the word.

I am careful with words, but I don’t want to forget them, or where I came from. Of course, every day I put aside the life I’ve lived there. I am living the one here, the stirring one- like this would be the real one. But I know that the kid is sitting there, at the Sighetu Marmației’s railway station, the rain is falling peacefully, and he is still waiting, waiting for me.

László Bérczes, Hajónapló, 2003
Translation by Brigitta Erőss