Freedom determines the extent of the journey - Interview with Zoltán Balázs / 2010

Zoltán Balázs is an actor and director. He talks passionately about his work, his charismatic speaking style is accompanied by an overflowing enthusiasm. It’s like as if something extremely pure energy keeps him alive. He is 33 years old, and his autobiography is already brilliant: his masters were Robert Wilson, Anatoly Vasilyev, but he also attended Josef Nadj's masterclasses. He has directed for theaters and operas and worked in television. In 2002, he founded Maladype, an independent theater company in Budapest, of which he is still the artistic director. In March, at the Gergely Csiky Theater in Timișoara, he directed an impressive performance with an extraordinary structure combining theater and opera, and which also has an unusual theme: a demythized Ulysses presented from several perspectives.

- Tell us a little about your professional journey.

- I wanted to be a clown. I was six years old and the circus was a great pleasure for me. One day a circus arrived in the town where we lived. I was enchanted. The next day I packed a couple of clothes, some food, and went with the circus. And the funny thing is that they accepted me. They didn't ask who I was. Then my grandfather noticed that his grandson had disappeared, he came after me to Baia Mare with the police, and they brought me home. I was so angry with my family that I didn’t even speak to them for a month. I accused them of “ruining” my life. To this day, I think so. I wanted to be a clown to take your breath away like in Fellini’s movies. When I was twelve, I moved to Hungary. I didn't really know what I wanted to do. I lost touch with my childhood, I lost my family, my first love, my friends - everything. And since I had nothing left to lose, I traveled a lot, hitchhiked, became free. The urge to learn theater stems from this freedom and the drive to meet as many people as possible. For me, it was a joy and a game. I thought that if I couldn’t become a clown, I would try acting and I got in. I was admitted to Budapest and to the Paris Conservatoire at the same time, where I worked with Bob Wilson and Anatoly Vasilyev. It was a great opportunity to learn. In addition, I continued my travels. I also started directing by a joke. In the first year of my acting studies, I really liked Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa and his various schizophrenias; I was attracted to his world, and for the sake of the game, I wrote a piece that ended up at Tamás Jordán, who was then the director of the Merlin Theater (he was the director of the National Theater in Budapest two years ago), who himself was a big Pessoa fan, and he offered me to direct my piece in his theatre. The performance went very well. Yet my whole life is essentially a series of coincidences; but if I cut into something, I give it my whole being.

- How did the legendary personalities who were your teachers influence you?

- They are the kind of people who believe in identity, believe in personality. They don’t want to tell you what kind of theater you should make. You can actually guess what kind of theater they would do, but it gives you a huge freedom that they do not to force any of that on you. Thanks to that, I understood what my journey was in the theater, and yet I had the courage to embark on it. I was taught to do my job responsibly and offered several perspectives. This is not the case in Budapest. Everything there is very strict. Many still believe in Stanislavsky’s method, which can sometimes be quite tiring. It was a good method at its time, but it was utilized as hyperrealism, naturalism, and in practice it was always applied with too much effort, with excessive emotions, with a foaming mouth, so the style of acting always seemed agonistic . It’s not honest because you always have to spin at maximum and the end result isn’t authentic. Even today, I often hear that this is Stanislavsky's method. But he wanted silence, to see the metamorphosis come alive, to feel the passing of time on your own skin, thereby discovering the role you were playing. Freedom determines the extent of the journey. Precision and creativity need to be well linked. An Hungarian philosopher comes to my mind with an interesting idea that no matter how many prisons there are in the world, one's mind and imagination can wander anywhere. So it is with acting: so many things limit us, yet we are free.

- For many, not being free is more comfortable.

- More comfortable, that's for sure. But I’m a person who likes to take risks. Being an actor is also risky, not so comfortable. If it’s comfortable, I don’t ask for it. What is risk-free theater? Nothing. Why would I play without risk? Even sports are risky. Why wouldn't theater be that? I want to feel life swell inside me. Just like a waterfall.

- You are an actor, a director, you have already directed for theater, for opera, you have also worked in television...

- Yes, theater, puppet theater, opera, TV. I think it is very important to know these forms of expression. I think opera is very modern. It’s not old-fashioned. I find it important to explore the dimensions of opera and music, they have a special status, somehow more than speech, but less than silence. For me, this is the communication of the gods. The nectar of art. I taught acting at the Budapest Academy of Music. I taught opera singers. Then we made The Mikado with the graduates of the Budapest Puppet Theater.

- What was this mixture of theater and opera like?

- A game of fantasy. I heard from everyone that the puppet could only walk, I showed them that they could fly too. It was a great success. I always try to connect the arts; I don't think theater is just text, writing. I’m trying to create some more complex connection between the artistic branches. I learned in Paris that this is possible. This reality is also known to Polish theater.

- What does European theater look like today?

- Really eclectic. The identity of theater makers could be defined, but these definitions can sometimes be reductive, dangerous for the theater. Sometimes we are afraid to talk about identity too raw, too sharply. This minimalism, which is not necessarily aesthetic, but rather mental, is the result of it. I think the most important things are in our head and in our mind. We need to keep the possibility of observation. If we lose this ability, we will die. Actors don’t use their heads, they rather use their emotions. But in reality, emotion also comes from a thought. I have to observe my thoughts that bring out the feeling and then I have to express it somehow. It takes time, and that is the art of the individual, another way.

- By the way, another way. What do you think of what can be innovated in the theater now?

- The man.

- The actor?

- No. I'm interested in people. If you can play as a child, it’s very good, if you play as an actor, I don’t care. The acting comes from the game. I love the game and if I know it, I can mold it. The form is created by the understanding. I want to see the man. The real man.

- And does it work with the actors?

- Mainly with my own company. But wherever I go to direct, I always try to do that, because I believe in the opportunities provided by encounters. I also tried that in Timisoara, in France, in Hungary, in Slovakia, I tried carefully and responsibly to create the physical, mental and verbal conditions. I want balance in the actor. I want you to be calm and to be intensified at the same time, but focus on what you’re doing. It is a long road that we are still at the beginning of. Each of my performances is a separate journey.

- Do you continue to work on your performances after their premieres?

- I always try to be present at my performances. I have to be there because I’m interested in the relationship with the audience and it should always be fresh. To me, a performance is like a child you raise. Or a bonsai that you need to look out for because it is very demanding.

- Tell us about your relationship to the texts. It seems to me that you only choose tough topics, heroes that are hard to deal with: Empedocles, Faust, Ulysses ...

That's right, Faust wants freedom, life, death. A person who makes mistakes because he searches for new paths. Who stays in motion will make a mistake, who stands still, won’t. They are characters full of impatience and curiosity. As Jack Kerouac said, the road is more important than getting somewhere. I’m more interested in going than in arriving. I like to search. And there is no recipe for these pieces. I mean, I have to discover the theater, the form, the central thought in them. I can’t follow the advice of an old recipe. That is, I have to make an invisible theater visible. I’m interested in how I can give a face, a spirit, a body to the invisible theater.

- Just like Ionesco.

- Exactly. And like Ghelderode, Genet, Hölderlin.

- The characters you play are also problematic: Hamlet, Treplyov, Romeo...

- I found joy in them. I am interested in problems as well as how to find a solution. Although I long for harmony, I am aware that harmony is surrounded by a fence that sometimes needs to be climbed. I like to climb over them. Sometimes I get stuck, other times I succeed, but no problem, at least it keeps me trained.

- You work hard for harmony... How does the audience receive your performances?

- The audience is usually very open and wise. If the spectator doesn’t understand something, it’s not his problem. They have the right to ask questions, to intervene, to find out things. Of course, things aren’t easy, but theater is basically a game, and if the game is taken seriously, it’s as beautiful as a good champagne. I have a very intensive and close relationship with the Hungarian audience. Our audience is made up of different age groups, not just young or old. I believe in dialogue. I always talk to them after the performances. I want to “grow old” with my audience.

- How do you find the right form when you are directing?

- The forms are different, I take care not to repeat the styles as much as possible. That’s why I’m always looking for different ways of expression. But I'm not looking for form. Form is born from the understanding of the piece. The piece finds its own mold. I am just the person who makes the connection between them.

- In your performance in Timișoara, in the Return of Ulysses, Ulysses is not a hero. He is demythized. Why?

- This Ulysses of mine is not classic - the Ulysses of Homer, Monteverdi or even Sándor Márai, whose we see from another perspective, from the perspective of his wife and son. I don't consider Ulysses a hero. In fact, I’ve never seen real heroes, for me, heroes are people who struggle through cruel conditions with hard work for their families. They are the real heroes, not the characters known from ancient Greek mythology, or the characters of German, Scandinavian, Chinese mythology... For the heroes to make sense, the world should be straighter, more consistent, sharper. Ulysses’ story is special because it does not begin when he leaves for Troy, but when he returns, but not ten, but twenty years later. This man is no longer the same one his wife remembers or his son who doesn’t even know his father. Another example comes to my mind: I don’t know what goddesses look like. I have never seen a single goddess in my life. However, I have seen women struggling, who want to break my heart because they want to be a part of my life. These are my goddesses.

- What was your intention while directing this performance?

- To revise Ulysses. Because he is not the hero we need. He leaves as a hero, but he can't stay that way. It's the truth. Reality is not what we learn from the stories of Penelope, reality begins the moment Ulysses returns to Ithaca. Yes, you’re getting old, your appearance has changed, but where has the light in your eyes gone? In this story, women are right. They have the right to kill Ulysses. They believed in him with their whole being, they saw him as a hero. However, their hero left them nothing but anticipation and failure. The death of Ulysses gives them an opportunity to coexist. Death evokes a flashback, but at the same time it gives a meeting place for those who have been a part of his life, all of whom are affected and let down by him. When his body is thrown into the sea, Penelope says she doesn’t know who this Ulysses is because she was just his wife.

- This is a pretty sad sentence...

- It's sad, but that's life. It is not much different from in what we live today or tomorrow.

Daniela Magiaru, Teatrul Azi, 2010

Hungarian translation by Panna Adorjáni

English translation by Zsuzsanna Juraszek