I persistently follow my own path - Interview with Zoltán Balázs

It wasn't our first meeting, and I hope it won't be the last either: talking to Zoltán Balázs is like getting a lesson on what true freedom and independence are like. The actor-director who has led the Maladype Theatre for more than twenty years is perhaps the most unique creator of Hungarian theater life. Their latest performance, Merlin, tells the story of the greatness and horror of man in the company's usual bold style.

- Tankred Dorst's drama Merlin or the Waste Land is a rarely performed play, what interested you so much in it?

- The dual nature of man of all times, which emerges in Dorst's visionary work from the monumental summation of the historical and metaphysical experiences of the 20th century. The epic drama, written forty years ago, has only been presented four times in Hungary: in 1984 at the Comedy Theatre, in 1995 at the Új Theatre, in 2012 at the Örkény Theatre and in 2021 at the Maladype Theatre. It is no coincidence, since the structure, based on a specific dramaturgy, consists of ninety-six scenes that are extremely diverse in terms of genre. The staging of the multi-actor play, running on a thousand threads, requires an exceptional creative vision and a decisive and complex directorial concept in terms of content and form. I don't have a troupe as big as the mentioned theaters, but I have a nine-person ensemble in great shape, whose members are actor individuals who are capable of virtuosic transformations and kaleidoscopic, focused teamwork. The defining element of this ever-changing game is also the minimalist set, in which there is a house that can be used in many ways - it can even be turned into a round table - and can be folded in and out. The attention of the actors of the show, which is based on complicated artistic and technical solutions, with a whirlwind momentum, cannot wane for a minute...

- Neither does the spectator. I can say from experience that the Maladype performances work the audience thoroughly.

- The cathartic moments of recognition require devoted and in-depth attention, the process cannot be rushed. Otherwise, the theater experience remains just an affected version of an excellently written speech. The audience fulfills its role when it organically merges into the events on stage and becomes an active part of the given story without being noticed. Instead of contrived messages, the Maladype troupe wants to present spectators who are open to special adventures with the experience of initiation. We try to create this mostly by consciously avoiding theatrical clichés and direct statements for our fellow players in the auditorium. It is not the job of any creator to tell anyone what to think and how to feel. I abhor any stage message that lacks empathy. It is worth paying attention to the fact that people from different religious, linguistic, cultural and social backgrounds are sitting in the auditorium every evening, who may be more sensitive to certain topics due to their age, upbringing and personal experiences. Our encounter will be truly lasting if the story or the personal impulses expressed by the characters evoke different associations in everyone.

- However, there is always a main point that can be decoded by everyone, just as there is always a reason when a director selects a play. What was the reason for Merlin?

- A few basic themes have determined my choices of plays since the beginning, their presentation on stage in new aspects accompanies my career as a director. For me the interest in the relationship between individual and the community, the individual and the power is almost monomaniacal. Recently, I'm mainly interested in people thrashing around in the trap of civilization, the procedure, how we are engulfed by modern conditions. We have provided our planet with knowledge and information, we are connected, so we need a new kind of awareness - and not only in the field of climate change. It all depends on how we relate to the change itself. The world we knew is disappearing, our certainties are losing shape at lightning speed. In this mad chase, the man who is constantly scratching his head longs to be able to hold on to something. In God, in ordinary happiness, or in an idea that leads him to the right path and gradually reveals his dual nature. In Merlin, as in Mickiewicz's verse drama, The Ancestors, which I am currently directing in Poland, I am trying to interpret the paradigm of the pagan-Christian relationship system using theatrical tools. It is an extremely exciting question whether in the 21st century it is still possible to talk about an identity based on common cultural references and values ​​between people living in different parts of the world...

- And is it possible?

- My experiences abroad show that the majority of artists are in despair due to the large-scale "secularization" of their craft and are showing signs of "artistic sclerosis". This is especially the case with those who have been deprived of their resilience by the compulsory process of assimilation into the consumer society and turned their talents into mediocre ones.

- Why?

- Because before, their position and behavior were determined by the traits that spontaneously arose from their guts, which separated them from the materialistic society, and from which autonomous forms of stage action were born. Many people feel that their profession has lost its dynamism and avant-garde character, that the theater has become an institution and the actor has become a clerk. Artists consider performances less and less as an event and the mental-spiritual connection with the audience as an unrepeatable flow of energy. There are those who experience the interpretation of stage texts as a public humiliation caused by words. There is a lack of real reflections, demanding, direct discourses between creators and receivers. In Romania and Poland, the standing ovation after the performances has become a reflex, in Hungary the standing ovation. The state of creation, the organic cycle of creation has broken down, so the majority of theater makers are forced to represent an artificial model of artistic attitude based on extreme pragmatism, efficiency and automatism.

- Why was this close relationship with the audience lost?

- This is strongly related to the fact that the creators, with respect to the exception, exchanged their long-term relationship with the theater for a casual relationship: they are looking for an easy and superficial adventure. They no longer respect and love with the same passion as at the beginning of their relationship, they use it according to their own interests. They see a career, money, fame in it. They forgot that theater art is not a concept or an object, but a person. A mysterious and capricious creature with a complex nervous system, who has to be conquered step by step and can only be approached again with caution. Unpredictable, cruel and vindictive, at other times generous and noble. Certain creators are just as detached from the audience and the truth of everyday life as they are from more complex forms of theatre-making, and their human-artistic expressions lack curiosity, dignity and generosity.

- Simply put: humility?

- Yes. From time to time, it does not hurt to remind ourselves that we are part of a centuries-old theater evolution, and that many people invented Spanish wax before us. We also need to be aware that theater revolutions naturally freeze and become parodies of themselves over time. Our fear that during our artistic development the creative act sinks into a conventional practice can only be overcome by deliberately undertaken risk, adventure and rebellion. Constantly updated knowledge, analytical thinking and openness to the unknown help in this. We should not back down even if we sometimes feel that we are neutralizing the old with the new knowledge. Knowledge that has been used many times becomes the foundation of conformity, indifference and apathy. It is enough to think only of those actors who, at the beginning of their career, represent something very original and exciting in their acting, then less so, then terribly, and finally so irritatingly that the audience tenses up awkwardly. If artists are not encouraged by their own environment to develop and find extreme truths, they must take care of it themselves, otherwise their personality will fade, their talent and knowledge will wear out...

- Who did you learn this from?

- Mainly from my family. Later, from my teachers and professional role models. My grandparents always said: if we want to remember who we are, we should remind ourselves of who our role models are. They were right. Ilona Béres and László Sinkó shaped my vision as much as Robert Wilson, Tim Carrol or Anatoly Vasiljev. I learned from them that I can only remain authentic if I follow my own path consistently and persistently, follow my inner voice and do not conform to any fashion or trend. Their teaching seems to last a lifetime, my curiosity remaind unbroken and I am still passionately interested in man. The "monstre sacré", who fascinates me with his humor, his talent, his love of life, and who horrifies me with his desire to destroy, his nature incapable of lasting peace and harmony.

- Four years ago, you brought almost an entire class with you from the University of Arts Targu Mures, and since then, starting a new era, they have formed the company of Maladype. Do you feel that you’ve succeeded in conveying this kind of open thinking in the best sense of the word to them?

- I think yes. We invested a lot of energy in joint work, in the theoretical mapping and practical implementation of the methodological program called the Five Gates. Our performances require not only a complex acting presence, but also a personality receptive to improvisation and interaction from the members of the company. Everyday creative work is based on the continuous reconstruction of childhood memories and their verbal and non-verbal stage processing. The actors of Maladype do not only play for a Hungarian-speaking audience, so it is important that their thinking is integrative, their expression is diverse, and their adaptability and reaction time are fast. As a trupp touring around the world, they always have to give their best form, whether it's a performance in Montenegro, Tunisia or Vietnam. The local audience does not know them, they are not forgiving with them, so the given performance is worth only one shot, it must be a maximum score. One of the trademarks of the Maladype ensemble is the liberated acting and the relaxed attention ready for change, which is ensured by the disciplined and precise teamwork of the actors.

- Not only Maladype is at home in the world, but also you as a director: from Poland to Chicago you are invited if they want something surprising that shakes up the local actors and audience. In the light of your many experiences abroad, how do you see acting in Hungary?

- With us, with the exception of a few forward-looking significant exceptions, the art of acting out is still authoritative. This is understandable, since our theater culture is rooted in itinerant theater and fair performances. The artistry of figurations, the spread of naturalistic and realistic theater style does not leave much room for more minimalist, abstract or poetic theatrical thinking. We should learn the kind of desire for renewal and flexibility from our greatest school-creating masters, with which they were able to rise above their own methods. Paradoxically, it was Stanislavsky who carried out the most reforms in his own method, but this is not usually mentioned in relation to the father of "psychological realism". Yet this could be one of the most important lessons and legacies of their work. We somehow do not want to learn this form of mental plasticity from them. A more caring theater society would also pay attention to this...

- You said that it is mainly foreign invitations that keep Maladype alive, but of course you have to get to the point where you are given from hand to hand. What kept the faith in you not to give up? Not even when your permanent rehearsal and performing venue in Mikszáth Square got soaked in 2019, which has not been stably replaced since then.

- I am a positive person and I have a strong sense of inner belonging. A sense of humor also helps a lot, as does the circle of civil and professional friends who have supported our journey in the theater since the beginning. Also, there's Fran Lebowitz's life advice: Think first, talk later! Read first, then think! Then you can think about things that didn't pop out of your head... I learned to appreciate, enjoy and respect life. I strive for the same with the theater. I will never know what the recipe for theater making is, but I feel the need to move towards more and more perfect content and form from performance to performance.

- Can there be a perfect theater at all?

- Perhaps the mass is the closest to it. Or a circus production. As a child, I had my most lasting theater experience in the church. The liturgy is enchanted as much as the universe of the circus. The two worlds are not as far apart as we might think at first: both have their own iconography, where hand and head postures, colors and shapes have meaning. They are the teaching tools. If we look at them for a long time, the impact of complex messages will be unavoidable for us.

Anita Farkas, Mandiner, 2022

Translation by Zsuzsanna Juraszek