A new era - interview with Zoltán Balázs

Zoltán Balázs (1977) graduated both acting and directing department at the University of Arts. However, only the latter has received real attention so far. He was first discovered because of his approach, specific performances made with the Maladype Theater, and then he also directed at the Bárka Theater, where he is a member of the company. Now, he has become the protagonist in both parts. He first directed Empedocles with Maladype at Bárka, then he has had the leading part in Tim Carroll’s Hamlet.

How do the director and actor get along in you?

I think it is now when the two are in balance. At last, I can be in a work as an actor with such a role which is progress for me. Empedocles means so much to me because it represents another important stage in a long-term workflow. I just need a sparkle to get acting and directing in perfect harmony. So important is the work with Tim right now, that this experience now affects my directions as well. A new era is starting in my head, that’s for sure. This acting tool, which goes back to the basics of improv, that Tim requires- a concentration and responsibility similar to the circus’s risk-taking nature- not only challenges my acting condition but also shapes my theatrical approach. A lot of things have been brought to my attention by this work, so maybe I don’t consider any more the overly rehearsed performances more genuine. It’s much more important that the actor gathers inspiration during the rehearsals so that he can be himself over and over again every night on every performance.

You say, that only now has this unity between the actor and director been formed, but if we look at Hamlet and Empedocles, we may discover a radically different kind of theatrical approach in them. In one of them, total freedom and the resulting eventuality prevails and in the other one, the restrained forms are determining. One would expect these two to argue in you.

It’s not, because Empedocles’s form is restrained, but inside it has just as much freedom as Hamlet. Any actor would confirm this if you would interview them. On one hand, they are incredibly safe, because of the structure, on the other hand, because of the thoughtfulness of the performance, which they’ve embraced, and thirdly, because they know that their colleague’s responsibility, good taste, mood, sanity and joy is guaranteed that night. But in acting Hamlet is the same from the inside. For Tim, the form is also decisive, meaning the space he had invented with Judit Csanád, which determines the changing stage (that changes from act to act), and the place of the audience. But it is also restrained because you can and may improvise only by taking into consideration the truth of the situations and the differences between characters statuses- added to which you’d never reproduce the same ideas, even if you held onto them. We may improvise only along prohibition boards. But during the two-month rehearsal, with the unraveling situations and the constant improvisations, a common and internal vocabulary emerged between the actors, so that we could understand the rules unspokenly as well: what is what we can do with the spectator, what is the thought that can be reproduced in a later performance. This Hamlet performance seems to be extremely free, but it is also very starchy inside. This is what makes me happy. I am in love with this production. It almost hurts if we are not playing it. Now I am in love as a director and actor as well – finally.

In this performance, everything is in motion, the space, the casting, the music, the use of props. What was the director’s intention with this targeted uncertainty? Did he want to move the audience outside their usual role? Or he wanted the get the actors out of their routine?

Both. And he wanted to dust the piece itself. In the end, Tim, which I’ve never seen before in the Hungarian theater, achieved that the students with required readings and older generations, who have seen the play with old, great and legendary actors, can both enjoy this performance. And they will be happy to come back. This proved to me that Hamlet as the subject-matter is still exciting today. The reading rehearsals did not take place in a way that we’ve first read the text and then everybody stood quiet. We had to do the play right away, and situations were born, where we realized we did not know anything about it before. Then we had to play it without the text in five minutes, and after that, we had to condense the essence of each scene in one sentence. Tim played millions of games with us, but we could never repeat ourselves. The rehearsals were truly about unfolding the actors’ personalities. I think you can feel it through the performance of how much we’ve enjoyed the work. We learned many things about each other in two months. I surprised the others as it turned out later. They, knowing my directions, it was unbelievable for them that I can exist this freely on stage as an actor as well. But I'm also amazed by the others on what they do, how far their courage went. Of course, all this could have been a huge failure. Because the audience could have said stop provoking me. Now I experience that they almost offer themselves, so we can involve them in our game. Perhaps this brings back the joy of childhood to the theater.

So far, we considered the essence of the rehearsal, when the actor and the director are working together to find the best, most credible solution that can best express what they want to show together from the piece, the character. What were the rehearsals here about, if not about finding the ideal solution?

They were about trying out the extreme possibilities. There were no blocking rehearsals, which is unimaginable in state theaters, though- as I have experienced my own- this is nothing but a simple highway patrol. However, in most places there are no real attempts, most of the time the first ideas are kept. Tim wouldn’t allow anything like that. We did the same scene as an English absurd drama, Japanese tea ceremony, and as an Italian family scene. But we always clarified before, what is important in the situation, what is the purpose and intention of the characters. But Tim didn’t want to make a final decision. For example, he did not want to fix –and it was impressive to me- whether Ophelia was pregnant with Hamlet or not. If my partner that evening decides that she is pregnant, I need to discover this myself from her behavior. It also means, that the actors have to be very sensitive to each other, so they can notice the other’s decision that night. But this does not question the evolution of the character, it only enriches them.

The text allows countless possibilities, but each decision has a series of consequences, otherwise, the pieces’ internal structure would collapse. How can this be sustained while everything is the result of a momentary decision?

It requires an incredible concentration because neither of us can lose any of the information that happens in other scenes with other actors. But there is no need to build character arcs, because for Tim –which I also liked- the scene lasted from beginning to the end. In the next one, we had to switch (many times even several times in only one scene). We didn’t carry our mood as a burden. Although I was sad before, in the next scene I could be happy. Here I was evil, here I will be nice. This is very liberating because nowadays the actors do not work like this, they continuously carry their “moods”. We, during the rehearsal, had to learn how to cut, cut, and cut from the confusion of ideas. Somewhere, this is the essence of improvisation and presence: a thought it is not fixed in a person’s mind, but merely determines its relation to the moment. I realized, that I, as Balázs Zoli, need to absorb more and more from the rehearsals, the National Museum or the rehearsals at the apartment. I need to soak up everything like a sponge so that at any moment I could represent the sentences of the piece as exactly how I see the world. But with the impulses from my partners which they’ve also absorbed during the rehearsals.

During traditional rehearsals, the director helps the actor by selecting his ideas...

Tim also selected.

How, if each idea only came up once?

By indicating what was the wrong choice. It is good, that you’ve tried-he said- but throw it away. It is tasteless, thoughtless, stupid, autotelic. He used such words. And we knew exactly where not to go.

But if the rehearsals were a series of training and exercises...

Not only. Of course, we went from scene to scene, then one act at a time, and at the end, we played all five at once.

Did you get enough reference with this open method, which you could use later in the performance?

We talked a lot with the actors about this. We have concluded that anyone who panics because we just only been improvising, but not rehearsing will lose the match. Because Tim was rehearsing with us, we just only had to pay attention to him. For example, I’ve tried every scene at least thirty different ways. But this did not happen, like, the director told me his ideas, what the scene was all about and what he expects from me. Instead, he told us the parameters with which we began to improvise. And he responded to everything exactly, and I had nothing else to do, but to absorb it like a sponge. Even in my discarded ideas, there were some elements on which I could build something. One time, for example, I’ve used a prop, a cup, which I’ve put on my head. At that moment I remembered the emptiness of the offering of the story. I managed to stay that way all scenes, without the cup falling off my head. However, it fell before the last sentence. I started blubbing, I could not believe that someone creates a situation, he thinks he can do it, keep it, hold onto it, but it breaks in the last minute. Tim told me to keep from all of this that Hamlet is constantly inspired by his failure. That there is nothing that he can show, and this drifts him in helpless situations. This was an important recognition for me. I will not use the cup anymore because it’s forbidden, but I will try to recreate this experience. It’s not the prop that matters, but the result of its use at a given moment.

I’ve asked about Hamlet, what changes had Tim Carroll done in the theatrical rote, when he created unusual terms. Did you ever have that intention of change, when you’ve started doing performances in a fundamentally different way, then we were used to?

My theatrical approach comes from a mass, which had been a defining childhood experience of mine. The same thing happened in every mass, the priest always did the same things, filled the altar wine always at the same time, he read the gospel at that specific moment, he was lifting the objects with the same gesture, but still every time was different. Others were involved in it, even if the same aunts were sitting in the same place. The same choir was singing, but always in a different way, the text from the gospel, which the priest was reading always changed, and he always did this in a different emotional state. But I also was not in the same spiritual state at these ceremonies. Most interesting was the discovery of “public loneliness”: being in the community where I was with them but completely alone. The ritual nature of my performances is inspired by this childhood experience. There is a structure for each of my direction, the structure has a soul, but this does only develop during the performance, and also from evening to evening. It is not only me who gives the soul to it (although I offer it as a celebrator), but also those who are involved in the work as creators, and the actors, who are performing it day by day. They also fill the structure with their personality, but it also depends a lot on the „soul” of the spectator, because in the end, it is them, in whom all of this an experience builds up.

You started with unusual pieces, which as performances do not have precedent.

This is a kind of risk-taking. These pieces, as well as the content and forms associated with them (which are always the results of deliberate decisions), obviously show that I do not want to follow already tried and tested paths. Because now it’s the time for me (at 28 years old) to test myself. However, since I am not playing a lonely, self-serving game, I’ve also made my colleagues interested in the piece, and also made the actors curious, so they will be interested in doing it. And I see, that the risk-taking –including the choice of pieces without prelude- inspires my colleagues, my company, physically, mentally as well. Of course, it is a challenge to bring together an instinctive, free-spirited team from the Roma Parliament with professional actors from the state theaters who already have various acting tools. In the meantime, I am trying to extend more courageously to freedom, which we already have as a company. While using seemingly extreme restrained forms, I am looking for, how this can explode or disappear in such a way that only its essence is what remains. In other words: we are taking part in a deconstructive process with my actors, in which starting with very powerful pieces, Gehlederode and Genet, I am constantly simplifying the tools, so that the actor can easily do a Seagull or The Beggar’s Opera, while of course, he has all the tools in his possession: movement, dance, vocals, text. Now we often use an unknown, complex set of tools, so in a sense, I am testing them, but not just because of the use of complex forms of expression. During work, they come across ancient texts, philosophy. So they also have to start using their brains. This is not necessary for the theaters they are working in. You have to be nervous, nice, and beautiful, this is what matters. But you can’t make theater from this. I want to educate them, so that when they have learned so much, yes, I can say that through hard work –what we consider to be natural for a ballet dancer, a musician or an acrobat- we can manage to make the performance that causes the purest and simplest mass happiness. The School for Fools, the Blacks, and the Empedocles is each a station of this road.

You don’t need to dust the pieces, because you usually choose texts that are hardly known by us. How do you find such works, like for example Hölderlin’s Empedocles-fragments?

I read. That’s my simple answer. I am curious, there are all kinds of pieces on my shelf, known or less known, ones that someone has already worked with, others that have not been touched before. I read and there are meeting points.

What were you interested in Empedocles?

My recurring theme is obviously from my past, the conflict between the individual and the environment, between the individual and power and the inner conflict of a man himself. Like Empedocles, I struggle with myself. On one hand, I think I am the favor of gods, on the other hand, I find myself in a very unfortunate situation. Because could it be more fortunate than starting my career at Bob Wilson, but after that, it is very difficult to listen to the instructions of much smaller directors. That’s why working with Tim was important. Before it was Mary Stuart with Sándor Zsótér. Meanwhile, there were times when I almost went crazy because of inertia. Then I remember what Wilson once said, that you have to create the “inner run” yourself. Sometimes, you succeed, sometimes you don’t. Reading Empedocles I feel that on one hand I am challenged by this work, on the other hand, I can show through it what has touched me in a way that will be interesting for both the actors and audience. I direct a piece in which I can talk about myself. At the heart of Hölderlin’s fragments is a contrast between the protagonist and his era. I am also constantly asking myself how I work in my era. Am I falling behind? Or am I moving forward? Are we in sync? It was not by chance that Hölderlin had chosen a philosopher of Agrigentum as the protagonist of his creation, who as a philosopher represents the still time. Because he knows exactly what he must do, even though he can’t convince his era of that. They do not understand, that when Empedocles said that I am a god, he did not speak from the aspect of a haughty man, but he wanted to suggest that contrary to the concept of multi-god faith represented by priests, the man himself it is god, so there is no need for a mediator between man and god, thought and freedom, because people can speak with their voice, because they are all individuals. This is what I am referring to when talking about Empedocles. That every human is an individual, but much depends on whether or not he or she will commit himself or herself, will he or she stand in the crowd behind Hermocrates (the high priest). Later, the citizens of Agrigentum call back Empedocles, but it is too late. Such a city, such a world must be destroyed to create a new life on its ruins. Babylon and Nineveh were destroyed, so did Pompeii. It is no accident that Etna appears in the Empedocles as a symbol of death. But it also could be Fuji. I think that Japanese aesthetics is also strongly embedded in Hölderlin philosophy. But there is also Greek-ism and Christianity in it. The author lived in an era in which these effects could fit well with each other. I could go on with the list, that how many things the great German Romanticists took from the aesthetics' festive boards of precious eras. After all, this table is our stage-setting. But we can also think of a platonic feast. I think Hölderlin talks about things, which are the focus of past and present as well. People are capable of reception. I can see on those, who watch the performance, they open themselves up. Therefore, I must serve not only easy-to-eat meals. Maybe over time, they will feel the more sophisticated foods taste as well. Maybe some people could become gourmands over time.

Zoltán Kondorosi, Ellenfény
Translation by Brigitta Erőss