Compared to a soap-bubble - interview with Zoltán Balázs
Zoltán Balázs earned his acting degree in 2002, then in 2003 he graduated as a director at the University of Theatre and Film Arts. He made his first work as a student (Pessoa: Anxiety - Merlin Theater, 1999). As an actor, he has contracted to the Bárka Theater after college, where the Hamlet was one of his most important roles, staged in 2005 by Tim Caroll. He made his first arrangement with Maladype Theater in 2001 (Ionesco: Jacques or the reign). The originally Gypsy-Hungarian theater became an independent theater with its own brand. Between 2004 and 2008 Maladype worked in Bárka, and in 2008 they moved to the Thália Theater studio. In 2009 they occupied their own base at the Mikszáth Kálmán square, but their performances were played not only here but in reception areas. Meanwhile, Zoltán Balázs regularly creates performances, organizes courses and workshops abroad.
Could it be easier?
You have an acting and a directing degree, you were member of professional and independent companies, you play and direct, you are the head of the Maladype Theater, and you also theoretically process your work. How would this many activities be summarized? What do you consider yourself to be?
I would say that I am an angular axis that keeps the running axes together. Combination of a thinker and an active creator. I rarely can allow myself to cut the different functions (actor, director, company leader) and tasks (organizer, strategist) out of the context.
Wouldn’t be your life easier if you did not have so much to do?
I can hardly imagine how it would be...
What would be easy to leave, lay down?
Since I have quite a lot of requests from foreign theaters, I could organize my life to work only outside of Hungary. I could also host workshops and courses since I have my own method, whose practical value on the international cultural market is very high; various festivals and theaters are constantly interested in it. I would take one or two creative companions with me. If I’d chose this, I would no longer suffer from headaches for daily living: how to pay for our base, permanent members and guests, and the costs of the various Maladype events. I would not be agonizing about the grant applications if those suit our plans, and if so, then if we could make the program out of the amount we were awarded. If I were to get rid of these problems, I might be able to concentrate much more on my own personal development. Now I have to dividemy strength and attention with the goals I have set myself and the tasks I have jointly undertaken with others. I also need to think of those who can realize their ideas with my help.
A chance to stay alive
And why didn’t you choose the role of the international director?
This is an every-day question for me. I still see a chance to go through with all we have set as goals for ourselves with Maladype's founders eighteen years ago... For some reason we have survived the most difficult times... Somehow we have always crossed the crises periods and managed to redesign the work, we were able to develop and new miracles were born... In short, there is potential in Maladype for what it is worth doing. I do believe that from time to time I’ll be able to synchronize Maladype with my work abroad. I try to organize the life of my company in a way that while I work abroad, other directors work with my actors. Once we have to end Maladype's story, I'll accept it and I'll let it go. I will not wait for the disaster tourism to begin like at other independent companies in the last few years. If we do not go any further, we will leave with dignity and try to prepare the people in time.
What chance do you see to stay alive?
The world does not favor communities with common thoughts; the independent theater formations. Indeed, the world is not favorable to theaters or the arts. However, there are three factors that can give you a lot of energy for everyday’s struggles, for survival. One is sense of humor. To be able to observe the world around you with irony and creativity, and to easily dissolve in the everyday’s abstractions. Another important factor is good company, if we can meet and work with creative people who inspire us and if they also consider the commonly-formulated issues in work and in private life. I also find it important for everyone to get the amount they deserve in return for their work, because without this it is difficult to keep the enthusiasm alive for many years. In fact, moneylessness will sooner or later shake faith, confidence. The third factor is the central idea, which confers different intentions and defines a creative period. "Inner affiliation" can be an organic organizer, a coherent force that can motivate us to act together. As long as these three factors have been given, we have the reason to keep the company alive. This does not mean, of course, that we do not need support for planning our safe operation. The problem is that many people do not even know that the life of independent theater formations can be planned..
It’s a kind of kamikaze action
That multiplicity means a real community? Besides Maladype do you feel connection with other independent companies?
We are very few who are self-identical and truly independent. Few teams have permanent actors with whom the repertoire performances can be maintained and developed. The rehearsal and performance structure in the institutional theaters does not allow them to think in processes; the person leading an independent company can work as an experimental, researching creator.
After all, why did you choose the independent existence?
It was an instinctive choice, my personality. If I wouldn’t have elementary attraction to this quality of creative freedom, I would have avoided this way of life far, as there was no perspective in structural or financial terms. I can assure you: to establish and operate an independent theater, you have to be crazy. It is a kind of kamikaze action.
What does it mean to work in an independent company?
We need to have a very serious audience-building strategy to find and maintain our own audience base. Our precise ideas must be about how we can address, merge, and initiate those who are really interested in our work. This integration process has to be consciously carried out by the actors of the company. This extra task is naturally incorporated into our day-to-day operations.
When I started Maladype in 2001, I didn’t know how to build a brand; we did our job because we loved it, we had a dangerous energy: gypsy and non-gypsy actors were euphoric on the stage. We had the courage to chase with our imagination, our desire for freedom, with renitant authors (Ionesco, Ghelderode, Sándor Weöres, Genet, Hölderlin) who offered us all the antecedents and recipe pieces. Analizing their worlds focused our energies. After a while I noticed how few people have this pace. For those who were initially novel in our theater-making technique, soon became tired, polite and dispatched. They have invested less and less on the understanding of our internal processes, the analysis of our performances, and the tools for decoding the viewers. Because the deep work with our performances proved to be too complicated, most of us have put us into a box: ritual theater, poetry theater, movement theater, etc. People sometimes appeared at our performances as at an exclusive and elite event, but after the unidentifiable experiences they disappeared for a long time. Meanwhile, the interest in our work has increased. This is how foreign festivals, theatre gatherings representing the various theatrical traditions and contemporary aspirations have invited us and we established a long-term partnership with mutual interest.
Does this mean that you have experienced greater openness abroad to the practice and theories you represent than at home?
Yes, clearly yes. Even in a medium where documentary theatrical trends and current political phenomena make it more sensitive to the situation in Hungary. Most recently, in Switzerland, where we played our Great Sound in the Rush performance. For the Geneva audience, it was a huge revelation that in László Sáry's "semi-serious" opera, which is not the greatest good either in everyday events as a poster for a flagship work or for the manifestation of social processes and socially fragile fragments, has always been discovered by the dubious "human factor" that the theater performers slowly forgot while advertising the "certainty ". It is possible to announce "the verb" along the lines of all kinds of tribal wars and intimate political battles, but the essence of theater is only man. It was astonishing and shocking as the elite Swiss audience - like the Dutch audience at the Dutch Festival - Leonce and Lena, in 2011 in Amsterdam - also discovered the primal and the very personal feelings in them watching Great Sound in the Rush. It was a gigantic feed-back about our experiments with the Maladype company for many years: the concept of „human beings”.
Can you determine what your main aspirations are?
Most importantly, theater as a self-identified person should be seen by viewers and creators who have somewhat "dissipated" over the past decades. I often feel that theater artists exploit the rich nature of theater and use for their own creative and economic interests. They discouraged it as a commercial tool, forgetting that the theater artists were ever humble and well-versed media in the complex nervous system of theater art. We strive to look for the essence, approaching the theater dramatically and humanly. Our theatrical processes shoud be determined by the content-form relation and the diversity, not what the audience or critics liked. We need to change, refresh our existing knowledge, redesign, rethink our previous results, to reach a new topic, to find a new form. This is our main aspiration.
So safe operation is not the most important.
Rather, the risk factor. If I reflect on Maladype's seventeen years, then I can say that our theatrical endeavors have always been in the focus of risk. Due to this, many people love and follow us in our way, regardless of age and cultural backgrounds. Of course, we have done a great deal for our inaugural and open trials, with our programs of various value proposers. In order to be a truly integrative theater for theatrical creators and viewers, bold and innovative thoughts are needed, in which we can rely on many of the practical factors of thinking about theater. I also find it important to put our intuitive insights into words and share with others.
Make theatrical language more exciting
Why do you consider it important?
Because if we do not open, the soul shrinks in us. It's getting harder and harder and finally we cannot express our thoughts and creative intentions. We can not find the right terms, do not specify our expectations for ourselves and our partners, we will not be able to translate our feelings and ward off our faithful instructions. It turns out that we do not have common concepts, we can not refer to them, there are no fertilizing arguments, so we do not know how to be interested in our creative processes ... In this context, I also consider the theater performers have the task to end to some blocked theatrical processes.
What do you mean exactly?
Representatives of Hungarian theatrical art are still keen on the Stanislavsky-method, and they are not affected by other innovations. Despite the new intentions and methods which already gained space around the world, for the guardians of Hungarian theatrical traditions these will remain only „exotic raids”. This is how the innovations of puppetry and circus art are removed, and our theatrical formulas become more and more schematic and predictable. To make a theatrical language exciting, new vocabulary, new concepts and a new interpretation strategies are needed.
In your own pursuits, is it important to utilize the results of puppetry and circus art?
Wherever possible, I strive for that.
Can you give examples?
I used rope in the Swans Lake performance at the Budapest Puppet Theater as an animation tool, which seriously challenged the performers. The „transfiguration" of the various ropes did not only require artistic sensitivity, but also technical knowledge, but at first the actors did not have this type of manual skills, so, the rope could not come to life, become airy, obey the various tricks and enchant the audience for a long time. That is why I think that a theater manager - if you have the opportunity to share your company with the richest means of expression - needs to plan in advance that - in the form of a workshop - actors can acquire the new techniques that will enrich their acting toolbox. Thus, it is not the task of the designated rehearsal period to technically develop the actor, to adapt to his or her new means of expression, but to provide a common opportunity for the director and the players to build on existing knowledge.
So, richer theater language (and theatrical knowledge) would be needed.
By all means. I would be delighted to see much more professional need and audience openness.
Finding a Golden Bug
You say that the majority of the audience is looking for the usual, the redeeming. Maladype, however, faces this expectation of playing unusual pieces in unusual realizations. Even though you are quite different in this. You play classical pieces that are always repertoire in Hungarian theater. For example, Richard III, which is staged by Sándor Zsótér in a special theater form. You also introduced some of the lesser-known contemporary authors such as Matei Vișniec and Dada Cabaret in a completely surrealistic performance. You translate a book that is mostly unknown to us, Viktor Kravchenko I choose Freedom, a part of which you present as a monologue. These are quite different kind of theaters and require different attitude by the spectators. Is there any common purpose in these works? Or is this diversity important to you?
We strive for the style of „stylelessness". I'm relieving ourselves of the temptation to transfer anything from the previously conquered content into didactic shows. This kind of awareness is also linked to the Golden Bug method, which is based on analytical thinking, well-suited to actors, educators or even executives...
What is the Golden Bug method?
A full description of the method can be read on our website. The Golden Bug is the title of an Edgar Allan Poe short novel about the voluntary exile of Professor Legrand and the deciphering of the outer and inner parts of the Golden Bug. Thanks to the professor's analytical thinking, he discovers the only path to a treasure that has ever been hidden by pirates on the island. The Golden Bug is therefore the knowledge itself. There are important and less important signs. Those who can distinguish them from each other can separate the essential things from the unimportant, the useful ones from the useless ones. The four phases of finding the Golden Bug are observation, conclusion, combining, and finally editing. The acting pedagogy method I have developed is based on this four steps. Since the Golden Bug method mainly induces analysis, self-observation-based professional discoveries in those who are seeking the internal processes with the changes in the environment and new ways towards the future „terra incognita", it leads the participants of the training to a totally different kind of thinking and attitude. Double synchronization of their human and professional nature to make the familiar and unexpected impulses present at the same time as actors' creative strategies.
Let's talk about some concrete performances! Why did you want to work with the Dada Cabaret?
I didn’t. I wouldn’t have thought about it if Matei Vișniec would not send the piece two years earlier. First I put it down, but two scenes put a suspicion in my mind and I read it again. I realized that there is a very serious potential in the material. In my final decision Matei Vișniec's instructions were very helpful, written by him in the „textbook": the director can redesign the play following his own dadaist ideas. Erzsébet Kútvölgyi, with whom I had been longing to work together, immediately came into my mind for Lenin's role. She saw the School of Fools at the time, and thanks to that, for the pleasure of every one of us, she changed her intentions of leaving the theatre. Studying the role of Lenin, I felt that Erzsébet Kútvölgyi is a „predator-actress” just like Ilona Béres as Chronos in Theomachia or Andrea Ladányi's Vergilius in Dante’s Hell. Dada Cabaret has properly moved my dadaist imagination and I also had the opportunity to make a sort of „clearance" through Tristan Tzara's personage in the „theatrical relics" pent-up over the years. I could think over the period from 1914-16 to the present, the all kinds of musics, the artistic and human aspirations of different ages. In Dada Cabaret, as in the other Vișniec-piece (The History of Communism for Mental Patiens) which I directed at Trap Door Theater in Chicago or as in my one-man performance by Viktor Kravchenko's bestseller, I was interested in the metamorphosis of freedom. The killer nature of utopian and dystopic games. The responsibility of the individual and the community. Mechanisms of manipulation. Dadaism has helped me to get rid of the many unnecessary things I've been carrying for years. That is why I reset the previous repertoire and that's why I began to design the sets of my performances after Judit Gombár's death. At the same time, it was a great opportunity to work with Gábor Gábriel Farkas and his orchestra so that the actors of my company could challenge themselves on a completely new field, which meant to learn and represent the criterias of musical theater on a very high level.
Why did you want to tell Kravchenko's book?
Because I had the desire to do so. Because of my childhood, my upbringing, my grandparents. From where I come freedom was a fragile national but strong family value. The dilemma that Kravchenko's father says is „We are either pigs or humans", deeply defined my attitude to freedom. I was searching for Viktor Kravchenko's book after I read an interview with Ariane Mnouchkine, who mentions this work among the most important five books of her life. Mnouchkine's credibility and the title of the work - I chose freedom - was twisted within me as a twin DNA spiral and did not let me rest until my persistent colleagues found Andrew Kravchenko, the only living son of the author. We managed to get the rights and translate the work with Péter Konok, and then make my own adaptation from the originally 866 page-long book. Viktor's story wanted to speak to me, and I happily interpreted it. All of the performances - including the tours across the Hungarian borders or in Washington - are a special internal journey because this work can be performed personally, in first person singular. Not only for those who have survived this era, but also for young people who can assign the events from the book to their social and human events of our everyday lives and the political processes seem to be deformed. It is an intelligence service and a responsibility to tell the story of Viktor and to speak in a "one-man manifesto" against the repeating phenomena.
Why did you want to present Richard III?
Because Sándor Zsótér was interested in the piece, the anatomy of power, and I also was curious in the flexibility of the figure, the spiritual modulation, and the special technique as Duke of Gloster infiltrates unnoticed under other man's skin... And we also had the chance to work with a hundred and thirty years old translation of Ede Szigligeti, where the plasticity of thoughts, the skill of composing, and the refined packaging of words open completely new channels in both actors and viewers, which is reinforced by the intimate space of the Maladype Base, which creates a space of directness. These circumstances deprive me of all sorts of responsibilities associated with Richard III's stereotype; I do not have to be wicked and I do not have to present different therapeutic aids during the play. I did not get such a burden from Sándor Zsótér, so the rehearsal process was very liberating. I had the same feeling with Tim Caroll with the Hamlet title role. Zsótér watched that performance and he really liked it. Perhaps these are the facts that we chose Richard III. For a long time, I did not play, and if I did not meet Kravchenko's book, I would not go back to the stage as an actor. But I trust in Sándor Zsótér, that he knows what and why he wants and has a reason for his cast. I am glad to be able to play in this concept because an important condition for my play is the contribution and the reflection to the minds and intentions of partners. As an actor, it is a serious challenge that I have to be almost unnoticed and implement with my program. When the rehearsals were to find out what Richard's distortion is, where his ugliness comes from, we realized that, compared to a soap-bubble, which is the most perfect form, everyone, even the most beautiful woman or man is a gnome. So we marked out points of attachment that place the already known accents elsewhere.
At such a price I did not want to be an actor
Why didn’t you play for a while?
Because after the Hamlet I had bad experiences. And I work with very good actors in Maladype...
What bad experiences?
I played in performances without that kind of creativity, personal aspect, courage and risk factor that the Hamlet directed by Tim Caroll opened in me and what I experienced on those performances. I noticed that even though an important role was offered with whom I could find the common denominator, during the rehearsals Trepljov or Captain Macheath started to come to fruition with the ideas and expectations of the directors, shunning Balázs Zoltán's personality. I'll give you an example. During the Seagull rehearsals I asked the director to let me, Zoltán Balázs, - who was nicknamed as the „dare-devil" of the theatre – play the role of Trepljov - seeking new forms and arranging a performance for Nyina where she will fall into flames - as I thought about theater at the time, but I did not get the chance. I am convinced that I am fighting for the right thing if Trepljov's role is covered by a rebellious personality. Even if it's bad or good, I take the responsibility for it and I fight till my last breath for Trepljov's truth. As the director did not allow me, I had one chance: as Zoltán Balázs I assisted the director’s Trepljov-idea which had nothing to do with my ideas. So I could not stand behind the Trepljov-problem as I knew and wanted. So the radicalism of the form, the personal anger and the deeds were missing from the piece. Zoltán Balázs was clamped in the background, and Trepljov became dull and secure. Another example: when I was trying to beat Trigorin on the stage in the same performance, the director stopped the scene and put the situation in a conflict-free direction saying that Trepljov did not do that... I did not read such instructions in the play and I considered the conflict to be valuable for the relationship between the two figures and their later history, but this was already beyond the boundaries that the director imagined about the role. I would have let the role play out from me, but there remained only the possibility... After Hamlet it was very difficult to participate as an actor in less personal tasks. I felt like I did not want to be an actor at such cost. Meanwhile I had great actors in Maladype, with whom we made outrageous performances (Leonce and Lena, Eggshell, Ubu King, etc.) and I focused all my energies on them; I had absolutely no lack for acting. In this spotlight I consider it even a more wonderful gift that today I can play Richard III.
Do I read it right that you do not play Kravchenko, just tell it?
Well, I exist it. I hope so. There are no special effects...
Actually, only the text is important, right?
Not the figure behind him.
The figure’s problem is the matter which I can represent in the evenings. When I begin the nearly two and a half hour trip, I strive to deal with the story, myself and the audience. Even with Kravchenko or Richard this commitment organizes the evenings. It is important that I shouldn’t push myself before the text, but I also shouldn’t drop behind. A very good sense of proportion and wide-ranging attention is needed and a continuous contact with internal and external events.
I'm angry, not frustrated
Is the today’s political climate frustrating you?
Because of the constant struggle for survival, I'm angry, but not frustrated. Very angry. I feel unworthy of our situation and it is indignant that no result achieved at home or abroad is a value for those who are taking confident decisions about our destiny. Many of us are in a similar situation and everyone is trying to remain loyal to the value system chosen by them; other alignment points do not exist. Perhaps this gruesome situation makes it easier to magnetize creators of similar thinking and values.
István Sándor L., Ellenfény, 2017
translated by Brigitta Erőss