Interview with Zoltán Balázs in Critical Stages/Scènes Critique

All my Life I Have Sought Freedom: Interview with Zoltán Balázs

Born in Cluj, Romania, in 1977, Zoltán Balázs studied acting and directing at the University of Theatre and Film Arts, Budapest, Hungary. He participated in workshops with world famous directors and choreographers such as Anatoli Vasiliev and Josef Nadj in Avignon, and he also studied with Robert Wilson in Paris. After completing a course in directing at the Union of European Theatres, Stuttgart, Zoltán Balázs founded the Maladype Theatre in 2001, one of the most important independent theatres in Budapest, where he currently works as artistic director. Balázs’s company and his productions are regularly invited to festivals around the world; he has directed in the United States, France, Germany, Slovenia, Slovakia and Romania. Versatile and multifaceted, his productions experiment with a new theatrical language and have received numerous awards.

You are an actor, a director and a theatre manager. I have heard you say several times that you did not choose these professions; rather, they chose you. How did this come about?

It just happened by accident. I was born in Cluj, but I spent my childhood up to the age of 12 in Maramuresh. It was like a very remote island that offered me the possibility of immersing myself in adventure. The complexity and colouring of my childhood were repeated later on. As Sufi philosophy says, up until the age of 12 you have the opportunity to understand the world and how you can live in it. You are born with an energy inclined toward a particular emotional state: fear, fury or love. The sort of energy you have puts its stamp on your life.

I know that I am more inclined toward fury, with an elementary curiosity to understand the anatomy of the world, to grasp humanity. After a while, I realized that art offered me an invisible opportunity, and if I was aware and attentive, it could become visible, too. Once I understood that, I found my destiny, but only after I had left Romania. Then, I felt that I had lost everything and I had nothing more to lose. This situation relaxed me completely.

After I hitchhiked across Europe, I understood the mechanism of possibilities. To me, this meant looking for the basic values, already known by the masters or by our parents, people who have discovered things before us, who have forged their paths and gathered the fruits. But it also meant to somehow find my 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 me in a natural, organic way.

We do not always have to want; sometimes we have to let things happen to us. That does not mean that we should not be prepared and aware of the moment. If something meaningful comes to us, it needs a strong presence on our part to be recognized. Continually preparing myself for this moment is a mental process. This necessity is the basic baggage that I acquired in my childhood.

How did you discover the theatre?

The theatre discovered me. In the eighth grade, I had to choose which direction to follow. My literature teacher said that, based on what she knew of me, it would be good for me to go to an art high school that also offered drama. I passed the entrance exam, and indeed I had a good time there. From my high school teachers, in Szentes, I received guidance and a strong calling for art and especially for theatre. But it was not the theatre that attracted me in my childhood. I was attracted to the circus because it involved risk and novelty. The artists were a bit naïve, a bit demonized, lost, with something of the original magic, and they immediately attracted me when I was a child. When I went to the circus for the first time as a 6-year-old with my grandfather, what impressed me was a chubby snake with a tired-looking woman who did some primitive tricks. For me, it was wow!

There were other artists who did not do their jobs very well, but I thought how great it would be to be part of that world, at least to have a taste of it, as an acrobat clown. So, one morning, very early, I went back to the tent. When I got there, the carts were already loaded to go. The circus company took me with them without asking me anything. When my family got up and could not find me, they started to panic, but somehow my grandfather guessed where I was and went looking for me at the circus tent, which was no longer there. He called the police, and they caught up with us at a stop. After I went back home, I did not speak to my family for a month because I felt 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, I found something like that again in the theatre.

There are a number of directors who initially were actors, but then gave up acting the moment they started to direct. Why is it important for you to continue acting?

For me it is important to act, but only if I have something to say. If the theme or the thought in the text can show itself only through me, then I have to say so. This was the case with Victor Kravchenko’s book, I Chose Freedom. The text is a manifesto of an officer who served in the communist regime in the Soviet Union under Stalin and fled to America to help the Russian people by speaking out from there. In addition to writing a book, Kravchenko spoke on various television and radio broadcasts. Like Trotsky, Kravchenko was also killed by agents, but he died from gunshot wounds.

Although his life was complicated, Kravchenko’s experience shares certain commonalities with my own life path. For example, Kravchenko was thirty-eight when he defected to America; when I was thirty-eight, I completed a two-hour review of his 866-page book. Also, like Kravchenko, leaving my native country had a deeply personal meaning for me. That is why I have felt the need to express myself through his work, especially since his book is called, I Chose Freedom. All my life, I have sought freedom: personal freedom as a man and as an artist, and above all mental freedom.

You are very fond of the word meeting. The name of your theatre, Maladype, means meeting in Romani. So, I would like to ask you which encounters have marked your artistic and human trajectory most decisively.

My first important encounter, as I understood many years later, was with a nun in a church where I went with my grandmother. When I saw the nun praying, I got down on my knees to imitate her posture, trying to provoke her. How deep in prayer was she really? I thought 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. At the time, it seemed like a silly game to me, but years later I realized that the incident had impacted my life significantly.

Through this experience with the nun, I understood what it meant to be present as an actor on the stage, but in two different dimensions, one subjective and the other objective. It taught me to prioritize the basic problem that the character is facing, the character who you are representing with your presence and with your acting. But, at the same time, you can never forget the public who are watching you perform. 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, through a dialogue with God, so to speak. He always has to imagine that he is seen by a child who expects his very personal reaction to a prayer of sorts after the problems have unfolded in front of him. This was a very important encounter in my life.

After that, many others followed. For example, there was one special man, perhaps the greatest theatre critic in Hungary, Péter Gál Molnár, who was there for me, from my very first production until his death a few years ago, who always understood where I was going, analysing, helping the audience to understand. He followed my progress as an actor and a director, which is the kind of support and sustenance I do not much find these days.

I was fortunate to have studied with my teachers in Hungary and with teachers in France, such as Robert Wilson, Anatoli Vasiliev, Josef Nadj and Isabelle Huppert, whom I had the opportunity to meet and to learn from. To me, they all represented different worlds; each had their role. For example, from Robert Wilson I learned that after working for ten years or so, a director does not show where he is headed; rather, his first production is his identity card. He shows who he is, and it is immediately clear whether he believes something about the world or not. If he does not have a strong opinion about the world when he begins his journey, he will not have one ten years later.

When I was an acting student at the Academy in Budapest, they asked us what we did when we were not rehearsing. Each of my classmates described how they spent their leisure time: they went to the cinema, read a book, made love, and so on.

In my case, I was interested 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 do not know what, very fragmentary, about how he deals with his numerous identities. I told my drama professor that this was what I was doing. The professor seemed very interested and insisted that I show him what I had written. I gave him the pages reluctantly, and the next day I received a phone call from Tamás Jordán, a great actor and, at that time, the director of the Merlin Theatre. I was amazed that my work had gotten all the way to 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 was not 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?” So, I directed the production, and I do not know how or why, but it was a success.

And so, you became a director.

I will 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 to the directing exam. I said I did not want to go, that I was not prepared and I had a rehearsal. They insisted, however, and, in the end, I went, very annoyed because of the situation. There were some great directors on the board, and I told them I wanted to be an actor, although, at first, I had wanted to be a clown, and I started to talk enthusiastically about the world of the circus. Thirty minutes later, I went back to my rehearsal. Shortly afterwards, they informed me that I was to go to the directing section. And so, I ended up there without wanting it. But because of the people who worked for me, I experienced the joy and possibility of becoming a director.

How did you come to be a theatre manager at the age of 26, when you founded an independent theatre, Maladype, in Budapest?

A number of theatres invited me because I was interesting and unusual. It was not yet the period in which theatre managers would be afraid of those who were different, more progressive. And because I was unique, I was attractive. I did not 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 is not the way I envisioned myself working. I wanted to rehearse with an actor ten or eleven hours a day. Because I could not really find that kind of arrangement, and they had invited me back to Paris, I accepted an invitation from the Bárka Theatre. The manager invited me as an actor but also as a director.

I made my debut as Romeo, but, at the same time, he allowed me to direct my first production, Theomachia, based on Sándor Weöres, a rather abstract writer. For the principal role, Cronos, the role of a barbarian man, I chose a great Hungarian celebrity, Ilona Béres, an actress who was then 64. 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.

The production was a great success, and it was the beginning of my basic career as an actor and director at the Bárka Theatre. A while later, I had the chance to work there with Tim Carroll, who was the artistic director of the Globe Theatre London at that time. I worked with him on Hamlet with a lot of improvisation; every evening the conditions were different. The audience brought objects and music. My partners did not know what roles they were going to play on any particular evening. I knew I was Hamlet, but I did not know whom I would have in front of me. A lot of questions, risks, expectations, a very strong mental state and a state of readiness for change, that is what my encounter with the role of Hamlet brought me then.

I had already overseen the Maladype company for seven years when I changed both the actors and the basic conception of the company and I staged Leonce and Lena. There are 25 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 did not know which version we would play. We worked only with bamboo on a tatami mat.

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. 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 would not know one another. So, each evening the actors would choose a man and a woman from the audience, guide them and have them perform Leonce and Lena in the last scene. Their human, simple, organic reactions were exceptional, from Hungary to the Netherlands, from America to Iran.

What about the last two productions you staged at Odeon theatre in Bucharest in the frame of the European project, Fabulamundi Playwriting Europe? Why did you choose to use opera arias in Gardenia, since the musical component in your productions is so very important?

I did this simply because it adds another layer, another dimension, to this story of four generations of women. Their relationships with each other take on a different value if they can also be expressed through extracts from classical arias, from Mozart to Strauss, Puccini or Wagner. My conception merged with the talent of the actresses, their physical, mental, spiritual and vocal talent. And I was also very encouraged by the fact that they entered into this game, related to it well and used it to their advantage.

What in particular inspired the idea of the scenery in your production of For Your Own Good?

One time, when I was in Tel Aviv for a festival, I was going to the sea, but I never got there. I happened to see a house on a street along the way, and in the yard, there was a broken-down boat: beautiful, black, damaged, abandoned, with a story from the past. The photograph I took of this boat was the inspiration for the scenery.

I realized that the saying “We’re in the same boat” fit this family, hence, the hierarchy in my conception, vertical, horizontal and multidimensional. Immediately, their relationships and the points of change in their relationships, seen and unseen, became visible. If I had to define the style of these two shows, it would be minimalist-monumental: a monumental theme, but expressed in a minimalist form, a reduction in which everything seems motionless but allows for a strong inner movement within the souls and minds of the actors.

How would you describe the sort of theatre you practise?

I would call it the theatre of curiosity. I am very curious, very motivated, to find glimpses, personal moments, verbal or nonverbal gestures, to have a continuous collaboration with the text and especially with various styles of art. I am inspired a lot by the related arts: different styles of movement, music, the art of the circus and of film. I have done opera, too, and puppet theatre as well. The complexity of the arts gives me the stamina and the appetite to deal with the situation on the stage in a relaxed and free way.

I change my language permanently. I do not 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 in Bucharest. 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 is a gamble. But it has to be creative and to keep moving.

That is my wish, to remain curious, just as I was at 12.

*Tamara Susoi has a degree in Theatre Studies from the University of Theatre and Film in Bucharest, Romania. After graduation, she worked at Theatrum Mundi and National Theatre. Since 2003, she is an Artistic Consultant at Odeon Theatre in Bucharest, where she coordinated the European project Fabulamundi Playwriting Europe, for three editions, between 2012–20. Since 1994, she has published articles and interviews in the magazines Teatrul, Scena, Teatrul azi, Canava. She is a member of UNITER and of the Romanian Theatre Critics Association.

Tamara Susoi, Critical Stages/Scènes Critiques, 2021