All my life I have sought freedom - interview with Zoltán Balázs by Tamara Susoi

Born in Cluj in 1977, Zoltán Balázs studied Acting and Directing in Budapest at the University of Theatre and Film Arts. He continued his training through workshops with world-famous directors and choreographers, such as Anatoli Vasiliev and Josef Nadj in Avignon, and studied with Robert Wilson in Paris. He then graduated the course in directing of the Union of European Theatres in Stuttgart. In 2001, he founded the Maladype Theatre in Budapest, one of the most important independent theatres in the Hungarian capital, and he continues to be its artistic director. His company and the productions he directs are regularly invited to festivals all over the world. He has directed productions in the United States, France, Germany, Slovenia, Slovakia and Romania. His work is versatile and multi-faceted. His productions, which experiment with a new theatrical language, have received numerous awards. The Romanian public knows him for his productions in Timișoara, Sibiu, and Târgu Mureș, and for the two plays he has directed at the Odeon Theatre in Bucharest: Gardenia by Elżbieta Chowaniec (2018) and For Your Own Good by Pier Lorenzo Pisano (2019), both staged as part of the European project Fabulamundi Playwriting Europe.

Tamara Susoi: You are an actor, a director, and a theatre manager. I have heard you say several times that you didn’t choose these professions: they chose you. How did this come about?

Zoltán Balázs: It just happened, by accident. I was born in Cluj, but I spent my childhood up to the age of twelve in Sighetu Marmaţiei. It was like a very remote island that offered me the possibility of immersing myself in adventure. I was fortunate in my family. Even if there were rather complicated situations sometimes, I saw in the family that problems can be solved if you want with humour, with attention, with care. Maybe things are not the way you want them to be from the beginning, but you have to find the solutions and the most suitable methods to reach the goal you have set yourself. That comes to me from the philosophy of my parents and grandparents, who had some unpleasant experiences on my account. For example, one time I got annoyed, ran away, and didn’t turn up for two days. I came back home because I was hungry and cold, but not to my own room, to the cellar. From there I could hear them searching for me, and I was pleased that they cared about me. Then I knew what value I had, and that they missed me. And because, as I walked around in the cellar, I made a noise, my grandfather found me. I’ll never forget the look on my mother’s face. She didn’t know whether to beat me or hug me. The expression of a complex emotion could be read on her face. Equally, I can’t forget when my mother decided we were leaving the country, and I couldn’t understand why, because it seemed to me that we had everything we needed. We went to have our passport photographs taken. My very complicated emotions show in that photograph too, because I was furious and I couldn’t believe what was happening. In one moment a lot of emotions are captured. The complexity and colouring of my childhood were repeated later on. As Sufi philosophy says, up until the age of twelve you have the opportunity to understand the world and how you can live in it. You are born with an energy more inclined towards fear, towards fury, or towards love. The sort of energy you have puts its stamp on your life. I know that I am more inclined towards fury, with an elementary curiosity to understand the anatomy of the world, of humanity. After a while, I realized that art offered me an unseen opportunity, and if you are aware and attentive, it can become seen too. Once I understood that, I found my destiny, but only after I had left Romania, had left Maramureș. Then I felt that I had lost everything and I had nothing more to lose. This situation relaxed me completely. I hitchhiked across Europe, and various drivers, men and women, gave me lifts. In Switzerland, one women offered me soup in her home, and then she found me another car to take me further, and so on. Then I understood the mechanism of possibilities. Don’t panic. If you’re stuck for a night in the rain, in a gas station where there’s no one to take you, someone is sure to come the next morning. It’s much easier to make the right calculations if you don’t panic and use your head.

T.S.: Experiences like that taught you something.

Z.B.: Without talking further about personal events, let me just say that these things showed me the concrete road not only through life, but to the centre of art. That means to seek the basic values, already known by the masters or by our parents, who have discovered things before us, who have made their path and gathered the fruits. But it also means to somehow find your own personal, modern, contemporary values and to be able to cast an eye towards the future, to somehow let the past, present, and future guide you in a natural, organic way. You don’t have to always want; sometimes you have to let things happen to you. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be prepared and aware of the moment. If it comes, it needs a strong presence on your part. Continually preparing myself for this moment is a mental condition. This necessity is the basic baggage that I acquired in my childhood.

T.S.: How did you discover the theatre?

Z.B.: The theatre discovered me. In the eighth grade I had to choose which direction to go in. My literature teacher told me that, from what she knew of me, it would be good for me to go to an art high school, where they did drama too. I passed the exam, and indeed I had a good time there. From the high school teachers in Szentes, I received guidance, and a strong calling for art and especially for theatre. They weren’t aggressive. They just showed me creative methods through games, exercises, the way of thought, in a relaxed and reflexive manner that made you attentive to the changes around you. I liked that very much. Theatre coloured my life.

T.S.: It sounds as if you started to do theatre before you saw theatre.

Z.B.: I had already seen theatre when I lived in Romania, in Cluj. It’s true that it didn’t impress me. Because it was somehow—and this is something that bothers me today too in some theatres—like in a shop window. It was displayed, interpreted. In general, before expressing themselves in words, actors play too much with mime, with various gestures. There’s not much room for minimalism and economy of means. It wasn’t the theatre that attracted me in my childhood. I was attracted by the circus. Because it involved risk, freshness. The artists were a bit naïve, a bit demonized, lost, with something of the original magic, and immediately attracted me when I was a child. When I went to the circus for the first time, at the age of six with my grandfather, what impressed me was a chubby snake with a tired-looking woman who did some primitive tricks. But for me it was wow! There were other artists who didn’t do their job very well, but when I got home I said, “How great it would be to be part of that world, as an acrobat clown, at least to have a taste of it!” Very early in the morning, I made myself a sandwich and went back to the tent. The carts were already loaded. From Sighetu Marmației they were going on to Baia Mare. They took me with them without asking, “Who do you belong to?” or “Why?” or just saying “Go home!” When my family got up and couldn’t find me, they started to panic, but somehow my grandfather, from the look on my face the evening before, guessed the answer and went after me to the circus tent, which was no longer there. He called the police. They caught up with us when we stopped for a break. I went back home and for a month I didn’t speak to my family, because they had “stolen” my future. The circus, with its magic, the profane and the sacred of that world, attracted me very much. Then in Szentes, through my teachers and the situations I encountered, I found something like that again, in the theatre.

T.S.: There are a number of directors who were initially actors, but who gave up acting the moment they started to direct. Why is it important to you to carry on as an actor too?

Z.B.: For me, it’s only important to act if I have something to say. If the theme or the thought in the text can show themselves only through me, than I have to say so. This was the case of Victor Kravchenko’s I Chose Freedom. It’s the manifesto of an officer in the communist regime in the Soviet Union, under Stalin, who from his childhood pursued an outstanding career as an engineer, but who, when he saw the inarticulated things that went wrong after a time and Stalin’s terror, realized that this was not the world that had been promised. He began to consider the idea of defecting to America and helping the Russians from there, with his voice. He wrote a book and he spoke on various TV and radio stations. He was killed like Trotsky, but with a pistol. His life was very complicated, but there are certain elements in common with mine. He was thirty-eight when he defected to America. When I was thirty-eight, I made a two-hour resumé of his 866 pages. Leaving a country had a very personal meaning for me. That’s why I felt the need to express myself. Especially as the book has the title I Chose Freedom. All my life I have sought freedom. Personal freedom, as a man, as an artist. And above all mental freedom.

T.S.: You’re often invited to work with students of acting. Have you detected a certain characteristic or an area of interest in the new generation of actors?

Z.B.: For me, the greatest joy is to find a partner with whom I can exchange ideas. Our opinions may be different, but the desire to get to know one another, to concern ourselves with the problems or adventures of the world brings with it a great appetite for life. And this I find very seldom. Especially among my colleagues. Because many of them arrive at greater success with less work. That’s the way of the world; you have to be clever. Drama students learn to be clever faster than they learn their lessons, methods, or about the profession of actor or director. This bothers me, and for this reason I teach very little in drama faculties. I just can’t see the students’ development. You throw water one way and it flows the other way. In a way, I can understand them. That’s the way of today’s theatre world. Everyone has to quickly find the right place in which to show themselves. Apart from that, they have a lot of teachers with different tastes in theatre and each presents their profession through their own personality: “I would do it like this... I did it like this...” Very few are capable of different styles of being present on the stage as an actor or, as a director, of guiding a company towards unknown or unfamiliar areas: “Look, this is how Wilson would do it, this is how Vasiliev would do it, or Nadj, etc.” As a student, I had the opportunity, both in Hungary and in Paris, where I studied in parallel, to meet more integrative, more open masters. I was very fortunate in this.

T.S.: You are very fond of the word meeting. The name of your theatre, Maladype, means “meeting” in Romani. I’d like to ask you which meetings have marked your artistic and human trajectory.

Z.B.: My first important meeting, as I became aware only after many years, was with a nun, in a church where I went with my grandmother. There I saw a nun who was praying. I went down on my knees too and tried to provoke her. How deep in prayer was she really? She would be sure to notice me and to open her eyes. And I liked the idea of provoking a nun. She opened one eye, winked, and shut it again. And long after, I understood what that meant: “You see, dear child, I know you’re looking at me, but I’ve got business right now with someone very important. After I finish my business with the Lord, I’ll attend to you and we’ll play.” And indeed, after she had finished her prayer, she gave me a little icon.

T.S.: In what way was this meeting relevant for you as a man of the theatre?

Z.B.: At the time it was just a silly game, I might say, but a long time after, I realized that it had had a great importance in my life, because I understood what it meant to be present as an actor on the stage, in two different dimensions, one subjective and the other objective. It showed me that priority always goes to the basic problem that the character you are representing with your presence, with your acting, is dealing with. But you can never forget the public who are looking at you. In other words, the public is me and the actor is the nun. The actor as a character has to resolve an important matter with his partners, a dialogue with “God”. He always has to know that he is seen by a “child” who expects his very personal reaction, after the “prayer”, after the problems unfolded in front of him. This was a very important meeting in my life. After that, there followed many others, with very intelligent people. For example, there was one special man, perhaps the greatest theatre critic in Hungary, Péter Gál Molnár, who was there from my very first production until his death a few years ago, understanding where I was going, analysing, helping the audience to understand. He followed my progress as an actor and a director, which is something I don’t much find nowadays. I was fortunate in some of my teachers in Hungary and especially in the teachers in France that I had the opportunity to meet and to learn from, such as Robert Wilson, Anatoli Vasiliev, Josef Nadj, even Isabelle Huppert. Different worlds. Each had their role. For example, from Robert Wilson I learned that a director doesn’t show which way he’s going after ten years. His first production is his identity card. He shows himself and it’s immediately clear whether he believes something about the world or not. If he doesn’t have a strong opinion about the world then, he won’t have one after ten years either. There may be more or less of this or that, but your first production as a director must show your face. As I told you, I didn’t want to be an actor, I wanted to be an acrobat clown. I didn’t succeed, because my family found me and brought me back home. I didn’t want to be a director, but that’s how I ended up out of love for the theatre and personal love. When I was a student of acting at the Academy in Budapest, they asked us what we did when we weren’t rehearsing. Each of my classmates said something: they went to the cinema, read a book, made love, and so on. In my case, because I was alone in Budapest—my mother was in America at that time, and the family was scattered here and there—I took an interest in the figure of Pessoa, the Portuguese poet who had eighty-three identities. I liked his world and his way of thinking so much that I read his books, and for my own pleasure, I began to write a sketch, a play, I don’t know what, very fragmentary, about how he meets his identities. I told my professor of drama that that was what I was doing. The professor seemed very interested, and insisted that I give him what I had written. Reluctantly I gave him the pages, and the next day I was phoned by Tamás Jordán, a great actor and at that time director of the Merlin Theatre, a very important experimental theatre in Hungary. I was amazed that my pages had got as far as him. “I really love Pessoa. I’m director of the Portuguese-Hungarian Literature Club and we really need such plays and directors.” I told him I wasn’t a director. “It doesn’t matter. You prepare your plan, your conception, we’ll pay the actors you want to work with, and in the autumn you’ll put on the production.” That was the first discussion. And I said to myself why shouldn’t I try? I put on the production. And I don’t know how and why, but it was a success. Actors, directors came to see it.

T.S.: And so you became a director.

Z.B.: I’ll never forget how I became a director. I was at university in the second year of acting and my drama professor told me that after three o’clock they would come to the class and take me for the directing exam. I said I didn’t want to go, that I wasn’t prepared and I had a rehearsal. They insisted and in the end I went, very annoyed that I had to be in a situation I hadn’t wanted to be in. On the board there were great directors. They asked me why I wanted to be a director. I answered that I didn’t, that I didn’t know how I had got there, that I hadn’t wanted to, but I’d been told to come. I told them I wanted to be an actor, although at first I’d wanted to be a clown. “You like the circus?” they asked, and I started to talk enthusiastically about the world of the circus. After thirty minutes, they said, “Thank you.” I went back to my rehearsal happy that I had closed that discussion. Shortly after they informed me that I was to go to the directing section. And so I ended up there, without wanting to. But a lot of people worked for me to have the joy and possibility of becoming a director.

T.S.: How did you come to be a theatre manager, at the age of twenty-six, when you founded an independent theatre, Maladype, in Budapest?

Z.B.: A number of theatres invited me, because I was interesting and unusual. It wasn’t yet the period in which theatre managers would be afraid of those who are different, more progressive. And because I was unique, I was attractive. I didn’t like all the offers. I knew that if I accepted them, everything would shut down at two o’clock, because the actors had to be allowed to go to TV or radio. And that’s not the way I envisaged myself working. I wanted to rehearse with an actor ten or eleven hours a day at a stretch. Because I couldn’t really find that deal, and they invited me back to Paris, I accepted an invitation from the Barka Theatre, which had been founded then in a very imposing building, with a mobile space. The manager invited me as an actor, but also as a director. I made my debut as Romeo, and at the same time he allowed me to direct my first production, Theomachia based on Sándor Weöres, a rather abstract writer. After seeing it, the manager said, “I’m sure the production won’t have more than two performances, but if that’s what you want to do...” For the principal role, Cronos, the role of a barbarian man, I chose a great Hungarian celebrity, Ilona Béres, an actress who was then sixty-four. And in the second part of the play, in my conception, she had to speak backwards. I mean, to say not “great black storm” but “mrots kcalb taerg”. There was a lot of text, but she accepted. She said to me, “Look, Zoltán, if I have to do something, I don’t look back.” I learned a lot from that statement. I was fortunate to be able to stage that play with that actress and with a very good team. The production was a great success. That was the start of my basic career, as an actor and director, at the Barka Theatre – where, some time later, I had the chance to work with Tim Carroll, who, at that time, was artistic director of the Globe Theatre in London. I worked Hamlet with him, with a lot of improvisation; every evening the conditions were different.

T.S.: In what way?

Z.B.: The audience brought objects and music. My partners didn’t know what roles they were to play in any particular evening. I knew I was Hamlet, but I didn’t know who I would have in front of me. A lot of questions, risks, expectations, a very strong mental condition and a state of readiness for change - that’s what my encounter with the role of Hamlet brought me then. For you to understand my trajectory as a director and the extent to which my acting experience helped, let me tell you about a situation that arose in one performance of Hamlet. The heart of the play was about to follow: the monologue “To be or not to be”. My partners had spoken their lines and it was time for me to enter too, but I realized that I had nothing, no effect, no object. I stopped there and I felt completely empty. I told myself that I was a professional actor, that the audience were waiting. “Open your mouth and speak. You can say the monologue, you have a voice, you know how you should construct it, but you’re not present. Open your mouth; a minute has passed already. But you’ll lie. Open, don’t open.” After that confusion in my head, I said to the audience, “Excuse me, I need two minutes; I’m tired.” I don’t know how I could say that; the audience hadn’t heard such a thing before. After a minute, I began to say the monologue, word for word, and the public was witness to a very personal moment. We finished the performance, and I went home thinking how many of my partners must have hated me at that moment: “What’s that boy doing? He’s an amateur. He’s stealing the scene.” I was really ashamed. I thought to myself, “How did I get here? In the morning I’ll go to the manager. I’ll give in my resignation, apologize, and that’ll be it. This is dilettantism.” But then I thought about why I had done it. And I realized that indeed I was tired. But why was I tired? Because I had really given all my personal attention to Hamlet’s problems. Hamlet has a problem, whether his father’s spirit exists or not, and if it does exist, whether or not it is permissible to kill Claudius. This wears him out. By setting Hamlet’s problem to myself as a person, I had worn myself out. When I got to the monologue, I was no longer capable of getting together the proper energy to speak. I had got mentally tired. Just as Hamlet gets tired, continually going round and round a problem. But an actor must always be ready, like a Duracell battery and... “The rest is silence.” Then I understood that it is not for nothing that such things happen to an actor, if he is really attentive. But not all theatre situations and not all performance conditions offer this possibility. You have to find the company, the appropriate parameters, where you can construct a language over these movements. I had already had the Maladype company for seven years. I made a new change both to the actors and to the conception, and I staged Leonce and Lena. There are twenty-five scenes in the play, and we did each scene in four versions. We had a hundred versions, and when we started the performance, the actors didn’t know which version we would play. Because each version had a title—Mission impossible, The Czech robot, etc.—I would say the title and the actors knew what was coming. We worked only with bamboo on a tatami mat. Like a white page of paper, on which we drew well constructed situations with bamboo.

T.S.: How did the performance proceed?

Z.B.: I announced to the audience the version I offered, and I asked them to choose one of the other three. So we were supposed never to give the same performance. There was an infinite variety. Most interesting was the ending, where Büchner wrote that Leonce and Lena finally meet before King Popo, but masked. And when they take off their masks, they recognize one another. Each sees the other’s face for the first time, but associates it with the voice and the smell they have already encountered at night in the forest. I knew that if I did this with two actors, the gesture would be a lie, because the actors knew each other well. How could I capture that moment, for it to be absolutely fresh and fragile? I realized that if I put the audience on two sides, those sitting face to face surely wouldn’t know one another. So each evening the actors would choose a man and a woman from the audience, would guide them, and would make them Leonce and Lena in the last scene, where their human, simple, organic reactions were exceptional. From Hungary to the Netherlands, from America to Iran. If I hadn’t had very personal experiences with Hamlet, under the guidance of an extraordinary director like Tim Carroll, and I hadn’t had the chance to choose the Barka Theatre, where these possibilities were fulfilled, and I hadn’t been grateful for the chance, if I hadn’t had a constant discussion within myself and hadn’t drawn conclusions, if I hadn’t had the chance to work with a company of my own, where the language was displayed, changed, constructed, then I could never have become an artist as free as I wished to be. And it doesn’t depend on the country, on the theatre, it depends a lot on me. And if I can really be free, then I can help artists, my collaborators in the countries, in the theatres that invite me.

T.S.: How would you describe the sort of theatre you practise?

Z.B.: The theatre of curiosity. I am very curious, very motivated to find glimpses, personal moments, verbal or non-verbal gestures, to have a continuous collaboration with the text that is offered and especially with various styles of art. I am inspired a lot by the related arts: different styles of movement, of music, the art of the circus and of film. I’ve done opera too, and puppet theatre. The complexity of the arts gives me the stamina and the appetite to deal with the situation on the stage in a much more relaxed and free way compared with other directors. Many directors put on two or three productions in the same style. By this choice, they offer the audience and the critics the chance to get to know them well. After two or three meetings, I know that if I go to see a certain director, I’ll see a production in his manner. Those who, like me, are more attracted to risk, to changes, to different themes, forms, and content don’t offer this possibility. When the public starts to get accustomed, I change my style and they have to learn it afresh. And then I change my language again. I don’t want to stage Jean Genet’s The Blacks the same way as I staged Maeterlinck’s Pelléas and Mélisande. And I have no wish to stage an opera in Rennes, in France, Le vampire, the way I staged Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado in Budapest or The Master and Margarita in Sibiu, or Gardenia at the Odeon. It’s not the same company, not the same area. The writer, the story, the language, the dramaturgy, the rhythm, none of these are the same. And of course all the threads have to come together through me. It’s a gamble. But it has to be creative and to keep moving. That’s my wish, to remain curious, just as I was in my first twelve years.

T.S.: The musical component is very important in your productions. Why did you choose to use opera arias in Gardenia?

Z.B.: Simply because it adds another layer, another dimension to this story about four generations of women. Their relations receive a different value if they can be also be expressed through extracts from classical arias—duets, tercets, etc.—from Mozart to Strauss, Puccinni and Wagner. Of course it depends on the ability of the actresses. And because the cast consists of four actresses, Antoaneta Zaharia, Paula Niculiță, Simona Popescu and Mădălina Ciotea—in fact now five, with Ioana Mărcoiu—, who are very talented—physically, mentally, spiritually, and vocally—it would have been a big mistake not to take advantage of this fact. My conception met with their talent, but I was also very much encouraged by the fact that they entered into this game, related well to it, and used it.

T.S.: What in particular inspired the idea of the scenery for the production For Your Own Good?

Z.B.: I was in Tel Aviv, at a festival, and I was going towards the sea. But I didn’t get as far as the sea. On one street I saw a house, and in its yard there was a broken-down boat. Beautiful, black, patinated, with a story from the past, abandoned. It attracted my attention so much that I photographed it. This photograph was my inspiration for the scenery. I realized that the saying “We’re in the same boat” fitted this family. Hence the hierarchy in my conception, vertical, horizontal, in depth. Immediately their relations and the points of change in their relations, seen and unseen, became visible. There is a personal dramaturgy in the scenery, as in the music, the text, the lighting. A complex, but minimalist art. If I had to define a style as far as Gardenia and For Your Own Good are concerned, it would be minimalist-monumental. A monumental theme, but in a minimalist form. A reduction in which everything seems motionless, but gives the possibility of a strong inner movement, in the souls and the minds of the actors.

T.S.: How do you see the Odeon Theatre in comparison with other theatres where you have worked?

Z.B.: I’m very subjective and it’s easy to say that I like being here. It’s not for nothing that I keep coming back. When I know I’m coming to Bucharest, to the Odeon, it warms my heart. I’m not afraid of what I’ll find: “How will they receive me? Where will we start from?” I know the theatre’s actresses and actors. I know that we respect one another’s talent and energy. The management’s wish to stage something else with me, a guest director from abroad, to add to the theatre’s repertoire, inspires me and frees me a lot. I haven’t been disappointed regarding the artistic and technical team and the people who make the personal connection between me and the theatre. A company that has the desire to do something unusual, new, of quality. This attitude is very precious for a creator like me. Given the chance again, I’d be very happy to come back, not tomorrow or the next day, but I’d start at the beginning again with all those who have a taste for atypical adventures with me. And I’d produce something on the big stage. Perhaps even the play I talked about with the management when I was invited for the first time to the Odeon.

Tamara Susoi, B-CRITIC, 2020