From Transylvania to Tibet - interview with Zoltán Balázs

Zoltán Balázs’s name is a brand in the Hungarian theater. Born in 1977 in Cluj-Napoca, at the age of six escapes with the circus confounding his gentility. He wants to be a clown, to enliven the most sacred art. The take him back. At twelve his mother decides, that the family will bid farewell to Sighetu Marmației, and will come to Hungary.

To this day Zoli Balázs still sulks at the train station at Cluj-Napoca. He had no intention to come. He attended drama high school in Szentes. From here he goes to college, in Miklós Benedek actors, later László Babarczy directing class. In Avignon, he attends Anatolij Vasiliev’s workshop, learns from Robert Wilson in Paris and takes directing courses in Stuttgart. He is the artistic director of Maladype Theater of a Gypsy-Hungarian Company, he is performing and directing at Bárka, because of his “bad luck” he receives two awards a year. The most recent one, the Gábor Miklós award was for Hamlet in Tim Carroll’s directing.

It is known that he does not like to talk about his awards. I don’t think because of false modesty. If I’m right, he has his definite opinion about this as about other things as well.

The awards are not about me, but about themselves. Because every year they have to be given to somebody(ies) and a board of trustees decides their fate according to various interests. I’m not saying they don’t matter, but they don’t help you any further.

Your performances have been invited to the National Theatre Meeting in Pécs (POSZT). This year the Empedocles. What do this festival and similar professional meetings mean to you?

Árpád Schilling and I recently arrived from Lithuania, where we’ve attended a one week workshop in Vilnius. We’ve worked with Schilling with four actors from Krétakör-Annamária Láng, Lilla Sárosdi, Zsolt Nagy and Tilo Werner- and with the renowned director’s actors of the Lithuanian Theater. We got into it because we both sensed – and I think the same about POSZT-, that something does not happen what makes such a festival interesting: there is no live dialogue between the creators. Everyone has a day or two, they rush home, or they get drunk and have a good night. They don’t argue or interpret each other’s work.

There are debates in Pécs as well, although the question has been raised whether they can be qualified professionals.

They are not real debates. Those who talk about the performances are prepared –if they are prepared-, so they are elevating the performance or calling it down. Ther are no real, valid arguments and counterarguments. I’ve learned from my foreign masters, that teachers and students do not necessarily have to think the same thing. A disciple justifies its masters' teaching by surpassing him at one point. If the director had chosen this style, he imagined the piece in this construction and I can only comment based on this. Instead, they call the director to account for their ideas. Of course, there are receptive discussion partners at home, who can fit into the finished construction and this is their starting point. In this case, I take into consideration, when one expresses his criticism, his lack of something. But calling somebody out for something compared to ourselves cannot allow anyone to develop, it can’t be the basis for a live debate, meaningful conversation.

For example, you are often accused of excessive aestheticism and formalism that this is at the expense of expressing the content.

For me beauty is orderliness, orderliness is power, power is an aesthetic experience, like a beautiful woman, a slow-motion, an accurately opened book- like the priest is flipping the Bible’s pages. I assume if I’m formalist and arty-crafty from this.

You consider the mass to be the most perfect structure, as Pilinszky wrote in Nail and Oil: “The theater of the future must be like a mass, for only the silent sweep of the mass can revive the bloody events of the past.”

Mass is also an aesthetic experience and I need its aesthetics. It has its exact script, just like a theatrical performance. When the priest lifts the wafer, the worshippers believe that that is the body of Jesus, thus the miracle is born, “it transforms”. They attend a ceremony with bound rules, but the same thing does not happen twice. Just as with two different performances. Content is given form within the mass: they talk about the Bible or the life of Jesus with people who accept the rules of this form. I experience the same thing in a good theater: I am publicly alone. We believe together the set of rules because we want to believe. That’s why you can’t make theater by yourself.

Are these the view-point you are considering while choosing a piece?

You’ve noticed, I’m choosing pieces and authors that don’t have recipes of long-standing at home. They don’t know how to play Hölderlin’s Empedocles or Weöres’s Teomachia.

You want to explore new paths that are quite different from the usual.

On one hand, so that these authors and their works can be known by the Hungarian audience so that they don’t have to watch the same six Tennessee Williams or Edward Albee adaptations every year. On the other hand, these roles are challenging for the actors, because they use the intellect of the actor as well – which is not very typical, because in Hungarian theater there is constant state-mongering. Thirdly, for me as a director and my permanent co-workers, these tasks are to be solved. You have to figure it out visually, acoustically and formally. You have to create an image, visuals, and aesthetics around them. I cannot say too often that: form is not the enemy of the content. I choose a piece, I give it a face. The face’s veins and wrinkles are mostly in my head, but the features smooth out during the rehearsals. When the director tells his actors: it makes a difference how you hold your little finger, how your head turns thirty, forty-five or ten degrees, your spine is straight or not, this turns into power. It is incredibly important that theater is not equal to life, but is a redefined language. I feel sick when it tries to imitate it. There is a good reason they say: theater is a heavenly duplication of life. I don’t want to see Ilona Béres shopping with two string bags. She still speaks of human emotions, even when she is standing still like an idol for two hours.

Or if she says the text backward, like in Teomachia... Generations of actors grew up in what is known as “salon acting”. They are reluctant to stand still for two hours like an idol. A significant proportion of the audience who were not socialized with Zoli Balázs or Sándor Zsótér does not go to the theater to think but to entertain themselves. So you first have to win over your actors and then educate the audience for an open-minded, wide-ranging willingness, which is the basis and the starting point for your work to be understood at all.

That’s right, but I’m not alone. Others think the same. Zsótér, Kovalik, Schilling... The audience is not separate from the theater. They are organic constituents, just like critics. It does not work like we do a contemporary theater, the spectator sits in his velvet chair, sometimes reacts a little – because he paid with his money for the performance to get the catharsis – and then he goes home. Or it would be nice if it didn’t work that way. We can be expected to evolve, experiment, change the outdated rules of the Hungarian theater, to use our great ancestors experiences- it doesn’t have to be denied, but it has to be melt in, we have to move on-, but the audience must also learn a different kind of reception, or more precisely, to revive what once existed. I’m not trying to create a strange phenomenon for the audience. Sensory attention, sensitivity to metacommunication, undetected thinking, deepening, the calmness of observation are all birth-defying qualities, which are dampened by placing the spectator in the dark and they can watch the story just like a soap opera.

This is why you don’t choose story-centered pieces?

The story for me is that we are together. This is often mistaken for the concept of the ceremony, which in some ways is a pejorative term and can point thinking about theater in the wrong direction. Because it’s not that we force the odd, in-depth ceremony theater and the audience will either understand it or not. I try to open up, what was natural to me as a child at a mass or a rock concert. So, I may not understand exactly what the rock star is singing, but I fell that he is conveying something and hundreds of people beside me are involved in this energy flow. That’s why when our audience comes in the theater the performance has already started: the actors honor them with their concentration and preparedness. The spectator should not be a consumer, he/she should be allowed to slow down. Because everything in the theater has its own time.

What happens if the actor’s attitude makes it impossible for the piece to get close to the audience? Let’s say because he doesn’t understand what the director wants, he is convinced that the audience will hate him and he becomes passive and unmanageable.

I’m lucky I haven’t been in this situation so far.

So you have not directed in a theater where...

I don’t want to. Of course, it might happen that at one point I will accept something... The point is: if the actor sees that I am prepared – maybe he does not understand why he will have to walk in an iconic style (like in Pelleas and Melisande) for one hour and a half-, but he feels, that I know exactly what I want. There is a sense of confidence based on the senses: the actor is willing to go crazy if he knows, that everything eventually will come together. Of course, when the rehearsals start, you still have to fight for each sentence.

Do you like it if the actor is asking you back, is thinking independently?

I’m impressed. But I’m aware that Anna Nagy, -mother of Kata Huszárik- is, for example, reluctant to be hired by the directors because she is asking back. This is exactly what I like. The vivacity and enjoyment of thinking is nothing, but the debate of heart and intellect. The two works together: the personality is made up of soul and intellect. If these are in harmony, they are looking for each other, then we can see on stage individuality. It doesn’t matter if it’s a stylized, crazy, abstract theater, Zoli Balázs’s kind of virtual theater or Zsótér’s still theater... The actor will either impress me or not. If there is not, it won’t work, regardless of the forms, contents and forms of expression. The personality must be self-identified. This is my meeting point with myself. I’m interested in whether the actor is thinking publicly in front of the audience, whether his intellect glows in every night.

Can you find these actors? Because that would mean that the lineup is fantastic.

There is a generation that is unfortunately missing. The elder.

You have probably met as actor directors who couldn't bring you to the situation, didn’t like that you were thinking. What did you do in such cases?

I suffered. I hate it if they are using an actor. If they take advantage of his will and creativity. If he does not give me any alternative solutions, then when I present my ninety-ninth variation, he says he does not know what to do. The “I don’t know” is the death of an actor. He gets left alone, panics reaches out to stereotypes, starts playing by himself, save what needs to be saved. As a director, I’d rather tell what to do exactly, but these are just frames in which he can be completely free.

You often emphasize that your performances are the stages of a longer process. Then you should see the end. What is the goal?

I see a single performance in my head, after a long time.

More specifically?

I will not tell you. But the next step is the Acropolis of Stanislaw Wyspianski, our collective work Zsótér. I’ve invited him to the Maladype. Acropolis has no help, no preview, it is extremely difficult, and it has nothing to do with the Hungarian acting. He is going to direct the first two acts, and I will direct the last two ones. Ten actors will be in it. They are going to work with two different directors in one performance: different tools, different style mark, but under the aegis of a single thought. As a director and artistic director, I see this as a very important step.

You obsessively explore the undiscovered values of world literature. It’s your method to match the found complex materials with simple tools. What’s the point of this?

I can only get to that particular performance through deconstruction. This means that in terms of concentration, of intellectual community I strengthen the actors who are by my side and who are working hard. All this with years of work to make them aware of common toolbox and language. Then, when this is built up, we begin to deconstruct the whole thing. We destroy it by building something very strong before.

What are you deconstructing?

For example aesthetics. I could picture that one climbs up a mountain and then, when it reaches the highest peak, falls and the flying compresses the climbings fatigue, work, into a single weightless moment. I have to build up the falling. Unlike those who talk confidently about how to do theater, I don’t know how to do it. I’m interested in it instinctively. I look for it like an animal, because it excites me.

Where does consciousness begin?

The theater is not a solitary genre. The actors are not puppets, I need their unconditional confidence, dedication and the full power of their personality.

According to this, there is serious confusion about clarifying the concept of director-based theater. The circle of directors which Zoltán Balázs is part of, is often accused of self-realization is anti –production, -actor, -spectator. Many people affix the latter stamp to the director’s theater.

Yes, we are self-actualized formalists, who luxuriate themselves on actors, while their personality is negligible to us... But this is not true. It is not a sin to have a director prepared for the performance and to think something about it clearly and precisely. It is also not a sin if the director is consistently and consciously building up its actors whom he can work regularly, and he also tries to rethink himself over and over again. Fellini said he was making movies to meet himself. Which artist doesn’t play, paint or direct for the same thing? The most basic artistic philosophy must be reconsidered if the creator does not justify it. On the other hand, we still have actors who believe in these directors who are curious about their “insanity”. Ilona Béres, Mari Törőcsik, Enikő Börcsök, Olga Varjú, Nóra Parti, Artúr Kálid... They do not see rules as barriers, but as liberating, safe frameworks. They know every night where they are coming from, where are they heading and what guidelines do they have. While in another type of performance, the wretched actor is standing in the backstage being anxious. I do not believe in this slavering and slivering “pretty sad” acting, because I think it is out of date. The new generation overtook the lead. Not to mention, Lars Van Trier brought theater into the film, but the theater was not able to bring the film into its framework. This is also a task that has to be solved. This is why a tried to slow down time in Empedocles: so we can see how we can freeze a moment. Because if somebody can watch a movement for a long time, it’s like watching a slow-motion movie. It is essential to reflect on the century we live in. We also say consciously to an actor that now you are playing a man, now a woman, now an old man, now a young man, because your personality can handle these contours...

In most cases, the directors' mid-life crisis is put on the table by the mixed-gender casting.

There is no such thing. The actress gets the male role, the actor gets the female role because it is him or her who can do it. For example, Márta Martin, is a more powerful man than any other of the companies’ actors. At that point, the directors moving force is the battle of real energies on stage. I believed Ilona Béres as a man, not because she was speaking in a deep voice. We need to realize these deep-seated problems. We live in a strange, genderless society: the mixing of the sexes, the inferiority of the weaker, or its eroticism is a must so that it will affect the theater. If we ignore this, we will work as we did before Christ. I don’t want such theater, only in a good sense, I want the the public spirit: so that the audience it’s part of the theater and the theater it’s part of the audience’s life.

You repeatedly emphasized the importance of intercultural meetings and dialogue between cultures. This is why you were committed to Maladype? How did the company originally run by Dragan Ristic get to you?

They started under the name Vareso Avar. Ristic is a Serbian-Gypsy man who had already dealt with Gypsy Theater in Serbia, and he thought he will introduce it to Hungary as well. Zoltán Lendvay was the first one, who directed the Blood Wedding at the Roma Parliament, which was a kind of traveling theater experiment. There was one thing Dragan didn’t like: the Gypsies were stabbing and escaping the bride in the Blood Wedding... It was a good performance, but it reinforced the image, the stereotypes that were imbibing thinking about Gypsies anyways. And Dragan did not want a folkloristic theater, he didn’t want to imitate traditions, but he simply wanted a theater where Gypsies could also perform. This is the difference between what Vareso Aver was and what Maladype had turned out.

Who asked you for the first directing?

Ristic. He was looking for a director who was willing to work with a Gypsy theater, by the thought he represented. I was recommended by Zsótér, and Maladype is the most beautiful gift of my career.

How did you become the artistic director?

Ristic had to leave due to embezzlement and the company asked me to be the artistic director.

The goals of Maladype include care for the Romani language, promoting Gypsy acting, approaching Hungarian-Gypsy culture, and exploring alternative paths to keeping the tradition alive. But what matters is a good contemporary theater. How much do you consider the original purpose of Maladype in your selection of pieces and directions?

Absolutely. Because there are members of the company of different ages, cultures, colors, they interact in many ways. It is a fantastic task to keep them together. The pieces I am choosing all require the same thing. The Blacks could only be performed together, just like Jack, or The Submission, The School for Fools, Empedocles as well. What is important, I don’t bring folklore, stereotypes, I don’t want to see Gypsy girls in pink skirts.

What are you most interested in them?

Their mentality, their relationship with the community, the idea of individual and power, which is more pronounced in their lives, it is present in a tougher, riskier way than in ours. It is difficult to break out of this social environment: if one starts down this path, he will become an outcast. It is difficult to build a bridge between Gypsy and European white culture. Few succeed. The Gypsy members of Maladype Company are often despised of their kind for selling themselves off, they “whitened” because they work together with a white director in a company with a non-Gypsy control. They take a much higher risk than those who only deal with the idea of being in a good or bad theater.

How is your company seen by the audience?

I think well.

The situation of Gypsies causes serious social tensions in our country. How can You relate to this general feeling of prejudices and fears?

People are not born with prejudices, and I have not brought this from my roots. I was Hungarian in a Romanian medium. My family had lived against his will in a place called Romania and not Hungary. My grandparents were detached from the motherland and couldn’t do anything about it, but they stayed Hungarian even under the most difficult conditions. For me this is exemplary, this is why I look for strong individuals in the theater. Our identity will not be dependent in regards to whom are we dominant. I am Hungarian in Ethiopia, Romania, and Tanzania as well, and I think this is what’s more important and not that I fix kituz my nationality on my chest. This affirms about inner life. I see Gypsies as having the same inner life.

You’d come to Hungary in 1989, the year of the regime change. You often say that you were angry at your mother because Transylvania was your home despite all sorts of atrocities. Were is your home now?

Anywhere. I need to get from Transylvania to Tibet, it doesn’t matter where I am. This is why I was hitchhiking across Europe. I’m a free man. I have nothing to lose. The one thing I care about it to get closer to myself through the world.

I don’t want to get into politics, but what I say it’s also a moral issue. How did the referendum from 2004 affect you? Did you like to live here then?

Yes. I am not tied to borders. I find it appalling that this question came up in any form. That people had to decide involuntarily, though the answer is obvious. Hungarians across the border are included here. It is not a question of yes or no. This is how it is. There is no question that they are not Romanians, Serbs, Slovaks, but Hungarians living in Romania, Serbia and Slovakia. This is the basic question, for example, they still say about me that I am Romanian. So the country should not have been put in this situation. But if you have already brought it up...

That was what the question was about, no one could argue with what you have just said.

I went and I voted with a yes. Many told me that they did not go because by abstention they wanted to emphasize what I have just said earlier. They just didn’t think of those who live outside. All of these people felt that they have been disowned by their brothers living in the motherland. We could analyze, explain, clarify, redress the stories, you can clue them up, but it is a psychologically terrible feeling. It’s a bigger trauma then the Treaty of Trianon.

What is like to live in Hungary as a transborder?

I do not hold transborder as a shield. I had a beautiful childhood, to this day I miss the mountains a lot. I do not work, I do not get money, I do not think in one way or another because I am a minority. I was born that way out there and I will always be like this everywhere, as long as I am thinking differently than the majority. I would not like to turn this into a virtue, and advantages, I do not want to deal with it at all. I became cosmopolitan. I’m Hungarian in China and I’m Chinese in Hungary if I have to. If this influenced me, I would be unable to work freely, I could not do anything with the objectivity and boundlessness of the theater. If I consistently made something from this hypersensitive damage, I would bring it up a lifetime. Life is more exciting than people always dealing with one problem.

Orsolya Kővári, Kritika, 2006
Translation by Brigitta Erőss