The strormrider - interview with Zoltán Balázs

Dear Reader, you are holding an edited version of a summer interview. While the topics that have been discussed between us haven’t lost their relevance, we cannot pretend that the unfortunate accident that left Zoltán Balázs caught in bed for months had not happened. Luckily he is now nearing the end of his recovery, playing Treplyov at Bárka Theater in the Seagull directed by János Szász, and in addition, he is preparing at full blast for Leonce and Lena’s premiere in spring with his own company, the Maladype Theater.

On July 3rd, director and actor Zoltán Balázs, the director of Maladype Theater, one of the most important independent companies, recently celebrated his 30th birthday. We’ve had a conversation on Margaret Island in the summer about the Ostrovsky work, the Storm, which have had its premiere at the end of the season at Bárka.

I’ve seen all your performances since the School for Fools, and after Teomachia, we’ve talked about having five or six more performances, so that we somehow get used to the special theatrical language you and your company, the Maladype represent. How conscious are your choices or the path you take?

I don’t really believe in that directorial approach that relies only on spontaneity, the art of being present. If you run a company, it is your dog's duty to lead them consciously on a path that has an essential purpose, an endpoint, to which the company is headed. Of course, there is a performance in my head that I want to get to, but in order to, I have to go through the stations that I have touched, touch or will touch. In genre, style, form, content and taste. They will –hopefully- all write the path I see. If I didn’t see it, I’d just bluff, and bluffing isn’t my genre.

Let's talk about The Blacks for example. What did the company have to learn from this?

The Blacks was a special choice. Genet belongs to the category of incomprehensible authors in Hungary. It is better to not work with it because we have no traditions of that theatrical world he represents. But I think this is a bad attitude because it is like saying that everyone can only eat goulash in the restaurant, while I think it is good for the guest to choose from a wide variety of dishes, at most he does not like one. If curry chicken is not sometimes served with goulash, we will never know what it tastes like. With Genet, I was trying to give the audience a different, spicier taste. But to answer more concrete: László Sáry, by writing a contemporary opera on this complicated text, created a situation in which the actors were at the mercy of musical piece dictated by singers. Through music, singing and this strange playback-technique they’ve learned discipline, concentration, and strengthened their individuality, and it was this teamwork that slowly led them to cope with individualized situations in The Storm.

In The Storm, you throw away the tools that have accompanied your previous performances so far. For example, live music...

I will not drop them, on the contrary: they are all integrated. The occurrent “disturbances” of our performances so far perceived by the audience and a part of the theatrical scene have taken on a new meaning in The Storm, and they have become more easily receptible. Just as the burdens on the actors which do not make sense on themselves, but in the light of the next performances. Without The Blacks, I would not have gotten to Empedocles, and without Empedocles, Acropolis would have not been born, which might be a failure outward, but inward, in a long term, would be a huge profit for the actors.

What are you winning with this?

Lots of things. The meeting with Sanyi Zsótér through a piece, that was not guaranteed to be successful, and the actors knew this. I think this is how it's worth failing, not by doing Tennessee Williams, which can more likely guarantee success. During the five-week rehearsal, the actors learned four separate acts while working with two different directors and two separate costumes and scenery. But in the same amount of time, they had to learn the very complex percussive accompaniment of the fourth act, in a way that the singer's voice depended on their accuracy.

Does an actor know how to play drums?

Is it you who is asking this, a musician?

Just consider I am a layman.

No, an actor does not need to know how to play drums, does not need to know how to playback on an opera, he doesn't need to exist like an icon, does not have to walk in „butoh”, and to live through a Hölderlin’s story in slow motion, unless the actor does not think himself that it is very good for him if he plays the drums, he works with operas and puppets. He will be empowered with a whole new kind of acting, discipline and culture through such collective work...

To have a stronger presence in a realistic style of acting?

Psychological grounding is essential, even if it hangs upside down, it still uses its soul, and this does not depend on form. But the form wraps it up, creating a unified thinking, taste, visual and acoustic world in which the actor has its place like the puppet in the puppeteer's hand. But here, he moves the threads himself. Maladype’s actors are not robots and executives of a directorial dictatorship, but co-thinkers of a system that this company has developed and is constantly developing.

The Storm seems like a new starting point in many ways, for example, this is your first performance that has a strong tradition here as well. So this new production can be compared with other performances.

I deliberately broke the tradition in which in the center of cabanovism is a sullen, black-dressed, wicked figure who walks with a cane, so that this role of a mother can be played by Olga Varjú, a hedonistic actress of a mature age. I tried to unravel the very strange eroticism of Ostrovsky’s world, which was written by the author in a melodramatic way, appropriate for this day and age.

So you think this is opportunity is in the Ostrovsky piece? So the mother won’t be a Russian Bernarda.

Yes, they usually do it as a Russian Bernarda, though in Ostrovsky’s fundamentally cynical and grotesque view, lust and sometimes sickly eroticism play an important role, serves as an elixir for women and men who are joyless and struggling in their relationships.

Do you refer to the relationship between Kabanova and her son?

Maybe. But the same kind of paralysis characterizes the other relationships as well, and the different kind of workable relationship is established between Dikoy and Kabanova, but the meeting between the two lonely people is a foregone love and early orgasm. I think, the unfolding of this shows the real darkness of Ostrovsky. Not locking ourselves into Kabanova’s house, from where neither in nor out. That’s why the storm is important as a symbol and the way the lightning illuminates something in a family’s life in this little town called Kalinov. László Németh’s Lightning or the suddenly startled horse on Delacroix's famous painting shows this moment of lightning in the same way. In the case of The Storm, this means twelve days, during which time the life of a family is ruined, a woman dies, but nothing changes. Unfortunately, Ostrovsky is bitter, because he says that nothing will change the world with the death of a non-hero predestined man. Problems remain, the lightning just pointed these out for a brief moment. Obviously, the light design, the cinematic solutions, the cranes, the camera dollies represent this kind of search, the spotty, stripy, sweeping lighting. And they can strictly get to the intimate sphere of the actors, who know exactly how to see and receive them. This way the characters are never alone. Not even Katerina, in her death. I wanted to put the actors in a position where they have to create a very lively situation in a sterile place because the whole town of Kalinov is like a studio. And they are taking themselves seriously and they are fighting against their situation, which applies to both the role-play and the actor’s meta-situation as well. The cinematic character here is a metaphor just like the opera in The Blacks.

But opera is also an important metaphor through the background music. Now, where are we, in a movie, an opera or an opera-movie?

At the time, Janáček wrote an opera from a play called Katya Kabanova. An important common feature with Ostrovsky is the musical expression of the romantic-melodramatic emotional line, which makes the opera sound very cinematic as if it was born in the Hollywood studios of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. The painted canvas behind the actors expresses the monumentality of the opera and the feeling of widescreen by seasoning the story with irony and cynicism, which between the huge sets looks exposed in front of us, while it is very tiny and micro, because of the insignificant history of an insignificant family. But I deliberately put in the performance not only the backstage scenery but also the opera marches and the in-and-out walks on the long ramps.

And beside all this, you have a main character who could even be a ballerina because of her body shape.

If I don’t see Katerina in Kátya Tompos, then it won’t work. Let’s not forget that she is half Russian. The most beautiful thing about this female protagonist is that she is not in love with a man, but with the feeling of love itself, and when that feeling ceases, the sense of existence ceases. Therefore, she can only make one decision: to commit suicide. She has no other option. If she was in love with the man, a long writhing would start, she would write letters, Like Tatyana to Onegin. That’s why Ostrovksy’s world is exciting. But in my other performances, I am always interested in the monomania of the heroes, their obsession, whether it is their commitment to black or white, whether it is the support of Empedocles or his denial.

Is this a kind of a preaching ardor?

Sure. This is how our life works: first, you vote with absolute determination for something, and then you deny it with the same determination. Because you realize that you have grown old, your attitude changed or the word has slipped out of your hands. But still: you say, this is what I think now. Very few people begin to think about why they thought about it in a way, and why are they thinking differently now... I have changed, or I have already realized, enlightened. But the good pieces work well because they formulate these problems very precisely. If this requires a family history then there you have the family history. Life of the little town Kalinov it’s just an apropos.

You were talking about changes and these changes seemed to be reaching you too: new members arrived as the founders have left the company. It is as if the character of the company is being transformed.

I think it’s quite normal for a company to change from time to time. But perhaps the biggest treasure in Maladype is that everyone says what they think, we can look into each other's eyes and not lie to each other. That sounds pretty sanctified, but it’s true. If we have a problem with each other and why not, we can always discuss it in some way. The necessity of the departures and arrivals were also been discussed.

As far as I know, members of the company are taking part in a continuous inner-training.

Indeed. From Monday to Friday every morning from 9 am to 10 am they have movement training with Ildi Gyenes and Tamás Pospischil, then from 11 am to 3 pm they have rehearsals. Several times a week, in the afternoons they have speech training with Györgyi Illés and Éva Kiss, singing lessons with Bea Berecz and in the evening another rehearsal or performance. Besides these they also have workshops held this year by Gábor Dettre, next year will be held by Árpád Schilling and Claudio Collova, one of the renowned directors of the Palermo Theater. I want our actors to keep up with the hard work and develop, maintain their basic actor toolbox and I think they do it very seriously.

So they are employed full time.

All for a very small amount of money, while many of them have families. Artúr Kálid and Balázs Dévai have families, Nóri Parti is expecting a child, to the delight of all of us.

Yes, but the three of them are members of Bárka’s Company. They get paid from there and this does not charge Maladype’s budget. Is it true?

Yes. The Bárka Theater has hosted the Maladype Theater as an independent company, here is where we create our performances. The director of Bárka, Robi Alföldi provided further assistance by offering a contract to our three most employed artists, so they all work in one place, which has made it easier for us to have an agreement, which has been extremely difficult so far. So the three of them get their salary from the Bárka Theater. The rest, however, get it from Maladype, and in addition to the ten thousand forints per performance, they receive fifty thousand forints per month which you find ridiculous, especially in the case of this type of intensive workshop.

From what source do you run the company?

Almost exclusively from the support, we receive from the Ministry of Culture, this year we had eight million forints. Out of this sum, we do two performances a year (one of our own and one co-production), we are having our older performances, we train, we pay for the scenery and costume, and we give our actors and cast their salary. Like our actors, Judit Gombár designer, László Sáry composer, Judit Góczán playwright, Andrea Demeter production director and myself, we have been working for many years for free or for a symbolic amount of money. If we did not believe so much in each other and in work, this company would have disappeared a long time ago.

I think your situation is not quite clear to the world. Many may think that you are part of a state theater, the Bárka Theater.

Then let’s clear it up: two companies operate side by side on two different budgets. The Bárka has its own budget, maintains its own company, Maladype has this eight million. Specifically, last year it was 8,4 million, but this year we did not want to apply for the minority board of trustees because we are no longer a minority theater in terms of taste and style, so instead we applied as an alternative theater. Here, our activities were recognized by being classified as top alternative theater workshops, and for this, they gave less than last year, only eight million forints. So basically we have to sustain ourselves from this. The Bárka hosts us, otherwise, we would probably not be able to operate under these circumstances, since the infrastructure, lighting and technology are provided by the Bárka. But we are saddled with the financial responsibility for our own performances, the cost of the performances, the actor’s salary, the staff salary and the co-production contribution has to be managed by Maladype. And after this year’s decision, that amount is not sufficient. Once again, Maladype is still a stand-alone company, which has been able to have its performances for three years thanks to the Bárka Theater.

Do you have other sources?

No. There are very few opportunities to raise money for alternative theaters, basically, the National Cultural Fund of Hungary and the Capital Theater Fund could still support it, but the Capital did not even launch an application in 2007. Honestly, we are in serious trouble because obviously, no one will be interested in the fate of Maladype, there is enough problem with the state theater’s structure. But being a continuously working, workshop-based company, you have to see it even with having your head in the sand because these actors really work from morning till night and try to do quality work. Of course, you should know that if it wasn’t for Maladype, I wouldn’t be here anymore.

Where would you be?

In Tibet, or in France, it doesn’t matter, anywhere. I could work in other theaters abroad as well, as an actor and director. In some ways, I've put a heavy burden on my back when I started to raise this company. But I see its bearing. I have a real curiosity for the companies development, when, how, in what time, with what energy can we achieve what we want. That’s what keeps me here. If it wasn’t, I would do it anymore.

Can you tell me the title of the piece we’ve talked about, what you consider as a “terminus”?

No. They’ve been trying to get this out of me for years. How should I say it? If this company disappears, it will only leave me with a bad feeling that I haven’t done it. I'll keep this one for myself, out of superstition. It’s enough for me and my colleagues to know it.

What are the next steps?

We will do Leonce and Lena, as our own production. Then, in spring it will be the Katie of Heilbronn, a co-production between Bárka and Maladype. This would have been a 2007 premiere, but since Nóra Parti is expecting a child, we postponed it to spring.

Is Nóra Parti coming back by that time?

Of course, her child will be six months old when we will be starting the rehearsals.

And then?

We have plans, the question is what we can manage from the amount we have. But perhaps by now, we have ridden out a storm after seven years.

Are these seven years over?

It would be good, this company had been punished for voting for a “formalist” theater director. But I think if they saw us going in the wrong direction, they could replace me at any time.

Do they have such power?

Rather! If they feel they don't make progress or they are set back by failure... but you should ask them. It is nice that we have followed the same path since the School for Fools, which was greeted with euphoric ecstasy as a great celebration of Hungarian acting. And when this compounded in later performances, some analysts plunged into this world, while others shut themselves out, they labeled our performance as aesthetic, beautiful and formalist. If it was up to me, I would just open up communication between the audience, the critics, and the theatermaker.

I deeply agree. We are slowly returning to our starting point. But let’s do a bypass. While we were walking you told me that you ride in your free time. Why did you choose this sport?

Because it means infinite freedom and happiness to me and because there are real friendships between me and the horses. In addition, I am very excited about the trick riding, which I am learning from my stunt friend Zoltán Molnár. If I could develop myself within two years, to be able to ride, not to just love it, I would take into consideration doing stunts as a part-time job without hesitation. I'm serious about this because ever since I got this experience, is it as if my childhood circus dreams had been fulfilled. Because I wanted to be an acrobatic clown, who falls down, the stunt is bizarre and risky, but he gets back on his feet, shakes himself, and everyone sees that he is fine. Somehow, I can relate to this as a stuntman. Besides, the new performance, The Storm, and the fact that I riding, somehow connect in me: I feel like I'm present as a stormrider. Sounds funny, but sometimes I find myself thinking about the theater through horses. After all, this whole acting thing, which we are doing could be a common sport. You should know, for example, that a horse is more afraid of me than I am of the horse. Those who don’t dare to get on horseback, are wrong here. I am more afraid of the theater than the theater of me.

Are you afraid of the theater?

Of course, because it’s all secrets and mysteries, and I have no idea what I can unravel from it. Whether the kind of interest or desire for a risk that I have about the theater is how much the theater will allow me to show about itself. Will it be a rummage or a real expedition. Equestrian tour. It's like riding, this performance and Maladype’s odd situations it's not by accident. And perhaps the terrible financial condition makes us even stronger, more intense and more connected, while still avoiding inwardness. That’s what I want to believe in.

How important is your 30th birthday to you?

I can't wait. It’s the prime of life. I really loved all my ages and I still consider myself a happy person. I wouldn't have thought I’d come so far... I live intensely, and obviously, the nervous system and physique fret sooner. What I know, I make up for it and compensate for it. So far I've been paying less attention to myself, but in the last five months, I've started paying attention again. Somehow the way I work or my theatrical thinking changes. I say this stormriding because it’s dangerous, but it’s really good to go back and forth from gallop to sprint race and from sprint race to close-trot, and getting to feel the rhythm of these shifts over and over again.

But then there is theater on the horses back as well? And what if you get off the horse?

The theater goes on. The horse called theater goes on. (Laughs.) But by that time I got off and I'm sorry that I had to run beside the horse and not on his back, but more likely wouldn’t run after him.

Because you would be a stuntman?

I'd be a stuntman because then everything would come all around, the circus, the theater and the stunt. And I’d make that big trick riding moment with my master Zoli Molnár. Without energy, lukewarm there is no point doing it. Be more dangerous and fall, but be something.

What other works will you have besides Maladype?

I'm now filming “1” movie directed by Pater Sparrow, in which I am Richard Lance. In August I am starting the rehearsals for the Seagull at Bárka Theater, directed by János Szász, who gave me the role of Treplyov. This will have the premiere in October. In the meantime, I am working at the Nitra festival, where I will be making a thirty-minute etude with Ádám Tompa. Then, at the end of the season, I will be Johnny Grain o'Corn from Pongrác Kacsóh’s John the Valiant. But I am not giving up riding. Because as a stuntman, or in the riding hall I am learning healthy thinking and this reflects on the theater. You can talk about anything with those there, about women, horses, politics, and meanwhile, you are learning a technique, to let go of these intrigues. For me, this is infinite happiness because I want to remain a healthy theatermaker. I'm not insulted, I have no problem with the world, the profession. I'm just angry and helpless when I feel that our work is much more complex and complicated than the extent to which I can reward my actors. That’s it.

Gábor Pap, Criticai Lapok
Translation by Brigitta Erőss