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A Journey Begins: Reflections #1

Updated: Jan 25


An Introduction from Philip Arnoult:


Dear Friends, I’m delighted to share this first edition of REFLECTIONS: Hungary. For the last 8 months, we have been conversing with Fulbrighter Julia Mann— sharing possible contacts before her 9-month research and residency in Budapest. Her informal updates have been invaluable: she’s whip-smart, diligent, and is deeply involved at a critical time for both the theatre and political ecology. (A national election, now with a single opposition candidate, Péter Márki-Zay, is scheduled for April.) Julia has at least 3 more editions of REFLECTIONS lined up: an in-depth interview with director/playwright Andrea Pass, and profiles of 2 of the most important organizations supporting the development of many independent theatres, dance companies, and projects - The Trafó Center for Contemporary Arts, and Jurányi House. This inaugural edition’s centerpiece is an interview with director Martin Boross. Martin just finished creating a US version of ADDRESSLESS with Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre, collaborating with Rattlestick Artistic Director Daniella Topol and playwright Jonathan Payne. I first saw this production in Budapest 4 years ago, and it was a singular theatre experience for me. I left the theatre changed. I’ve never looked at the homeless in the same way. Daniella shared with me that same response. The Rattlestick production is very different: the team started work on this one pre-covid and continued development through the many phases of pandemic life. They came up with a virtual, interactive, theatrical game where you encounter firsthand the complex challenges of housing insecurity. The whole team’s dogged persistence has paid off. I urge you to check it out. Here is a link to Rattlestick’s trailer for ADDRESSLESS. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BivQw3yBfKc There are 15 performances left in the run, ending 13 February. For tickets: https://web.ovationtix.com/trs/cal/34100/1641013200000 Stay healthy, stay sane, stay strong, Philip
 

At the beginning of September, I embarked on an exhilarating (and absolutely daunting) journey—to move to a country I’ve never been to before and learn everything I possibly could about how it’s theatre institutions, artists, and present-day politics interact.


A year prior, in the midst of the pre-vaccine era of the COVID-19 pandemic, I’d applied for a Fulbright Research Grant to Hungary to study the impact of the changing availability of public funds on the independent theatre scene. Since learning about Hungarian theatre from my college roommate who worked over a summer with Árpád Schilling, I’d been curious about the seemingly contradictory concept of Hungarian independent theatre. I wondered what exactly independence means when artists rely on government institutions for financial stability? How do artists push to maintain this idea of independence in the face of unpredictable and polarized cultural funding? What art has emerged from this struggle?


In April of 2021, I learned that I had been named a 2021-2022 Fulbright Research Fellow and would be moving to Budapest for nine months. My grant proposal stated that I would analyze how resource distribution amongst independent artists affects who gets to tell stories and which stories are told. But, just as importantly, I would also have the opportunity to gain a more global perspective on theatre through listening to the experiences and ideas of independent artists.


What started out as a single conversation via Zoom with Árpád Schilling evolved into a network of relationships with Hungarian artists, critics, and scholars of theatre. After discussing his experiences creating, expanding, and ultimately discontinuing Krékatör— his internationally successful independent company— Árpád referred me to Máté Gáspár, Beáta Barda, Tamás Jászay, and Philip Arnoult. Each of these people consistently and graciously answered my abundance of questions, connected me to all sorts of artists, and welcomed me to the Hungarian theatre community. Through Philip, I have been lucky to meet both the Hungarian and American participants in the LINKAGES: Hungary program. The team at CITD has been supportive of my research from its early days, and encouraged me to create REFLECTIONS to document my time here.


There will be several editions of this journal, in which I will publish interviews with thought-provoking artists, write about shows that have made an impact on me, and generally report on what I’ve learned. I am by no means an expert—I’m very new here. But, I’m hoping that this journal will serve as a window into a theatre scene that most Americans do not get the chance to experience firsthand. If you have any questions, please feel free to reach out to me and ask them.


Initial Impressions


On September 4th, 2021, I moved into my studio apartment right by Kálvin tér on the Pest side of the Danube. In a stroke of luck, I found myself living at the convergence of three universities; coming straight from university myself, it was easy to feel at ease amongst the rushing of 20-somethings between classes, the library, and cafes. The city was fully back to life after a spring of COVID lockdowns, and the theatre season—which lasts from September to May—had just begun. Premieres that had been canceled in the spring of 2021, or even the fall of 2020, were finally getting the chance to go up in front of a live audience. COVID had made it impossible for me to see any live theatre from March 2020 onward, so after nearly a year and a half without seeing a live show, I was ready to consume as much content as possible.


Theatre in Budapest functions on the repertory system; this is wonderful for someone like me who is visiting for just one theatre season. I get to see new premieres, but also have the chance to see successful productions that have been running for several seasons. Luckily, a magazine called “fidelio” publishes a program each month that organizes every single performance happening at every single theatre into a nice little chart. My research mentor, Máté Gáspár, helped me to go through this magazine for September and October and pick out performances to see. To me, this program-like magazine is indicative of the type of collaboration between institutions that is necessary for a repertory system to function. Actors are often in several productions at various theatres at once, and the administration of each theatre must work together to arrange their performance schedules around the availability of their collaborators—a task that has only been made more difficult by a slew of COVID-related postponements.


Trafó House

I spend the majority of my time at two theatres: Trafó House of Contemporary Art and Jurányi Incubator House. Each of these institutions is funded by the city of Budapest and they serve as the primary homes for independent artists. Without ensembles of their own, these institutions design their repertories around pieces that they co-produce with outside companies and artists.


Trafó, the institution where my research is based, was founded in 1998 by György Szabó and has become easily the most internationally recognized theatre venue in Hungary. Their season consists of international and local independent artists: both emerging creators and famed professionals like Kornél Mundruczó. Dance, new-circus, and mixed-media performances are just some of the genres of art that can be seen in Trafó’s Main Hall. The team at Trafó is actively pushing the boundaries of what theatre should look and feel like, while also cultivating a space that showcases some of the best of Hungarian independent theatre. Coming from the United States, I find Trafó to be extraordinary because it is simultaneously one of the most prestigious and one of the most experimental venues in Budapest. However, what I used to define as experimental—for instance, shows that have no narrative or play with the relationship between the audience and the performers—is a norm here. Because ticket sales are not the prime source of revenue like in the United States, independent artists have freedom to explore what the theatrical form can be, rather than focusing on selling seats to shows. This means that artists are able to focus on innovation and pushing the medium to new, uncharted territories, rather than responding to commercial pressures.


THROUGH LIGHT [photo credit: Ofner Gergely]

During one of my favorite performances I’ve seen there—Dávid Somló’s Overheard—I was blindfolded at the entrance, led to my seat by an usher, and proceeded to hear a 75 minute sound-scape unfold. Here, what started as the recorded sound of footsteps and overheard conversations built into a multi-textured, rumbling crescendo of live sounds and various recorded tracks. At the conclusion of the performance, a cassette recorder plays on repeat a voice saying “this is the end…..this is the end” (followed, after a few minutes, by another recording saying “this is really the end…..this is really the end”) until we, the audience, figured out that we should exit the stage. As I cautiously pulled off my blindfold, I realized that I had not—as I had assumed—been seated in the audience section of the theatre, but had been in a chair in the center of the stage the entire time. At another Trafó show, Through Light by Máté Mészáros, I entered the Main Hall through the backstage door, while guiding myself with the small flashlight I was handed when my ticket was checked. The audience members were free to wander the hall, which is essentially a large, well-equipped black-box, throughout the duration of a dance-show that played tricks on perception using lighting design. Large, lightsaber-like LED rods illuminated the dark space, at times focusing only on specific body parts, creating illusions such as pairs of legs moving without bodily attachments. I’ve learned to expect the unexpected when I enter Trafó, and find that I am rarely let down.


Jurányi Incubator House is a much more recent edition to the independent theatre scene in Budapest—it was founded in October of 2012 by Viktória Rozgonyi-Kulcsár and run by FÜGE. Designed to help sustain the work of independent artists, FÜGE is a public benefit association that supports creatives with administrative assistance, funding opportunities, and performance/rehearsal spaces. When I first walked into Jurányi, I was astounded by its size. The 6700 square foot building used to be a school, and has been transformed over the past ten years into a hub of collaboration. The colorful halls are lined with posters for upcoming performances, calls for grant applications, and advertisements for workshop opportunities. Artists can book rehearsal rooms and the building houses office spaces for more than sixty organizations: ranging from NGOs to performance groups.


EX CATHEDRA [photo credit: Bartha Máté / STEREO AKT]

Just like Trafó, Jurányi has performance spaces that independent artists frequent. While their main Theatre Hall is smaller than Trafó’s Main Hall, many artists move productions between the two spaces over the seasons. The shows I’ve seen at Jurányi range from STEREO AKT’s Ex Cathedra, a reflection on growing up and attending school in the 1990s in Hungary, to the first collaborative work between Anna Nemes, Lili Raubinek, and Zita Szenteczki—entitled Own Drive. This plot-less piece, which explores the weight of entering adulthood as a woman, used moments of performance art—such as one actress duct taping every item on the stage onto her body until she was rendered immobile from their heaviness—to convey feeling. From hosting independent artists that are collaborating for the first time, like the women of Own Drive, to established companies that have already been hosted around the world, Jurányi is a home for the entire independent community.


On Funding

The first several months of my time in Hungary was spent meeting independent artists and learning about their artistic goals and experiences navigating the public funding system. As I mentioned, there is much less commercial pressure for artists here than in the United States, due to a long history of state support for the arts in Eastern Europe. Independent artists are defined by their lack of affiliation with a state theatre, which have permanent buildings, ensembles, and repertories that they rotate through. State theatres are owned by the city or state, and get their funding—in the form of an annualized budget—from the respective entity that owns them. In this sense, theatre is considered a public service in Hungary—paid for by taxpayers and supported by the government. Independents sit just outside of this system; they can access state funding, but not on a consistent and annual basis.


There is no single model for what an independent artist looks like in Hungary. Krékatör, run by Árpád Schilling and Máté Gáspár, rose to prominence as an independent group in the early 2000s by operating as a company with an ensemble and repertory of performances. Some independent artists, such as Martin Boross in his creation of STEREO AKT, have chosen to follow in their footsteps and work with a company of artists to create full seasons of performances. Other artists are more true to the word ‘independent’ and operate on their own (and with freelance collaborators) on a project-by-project basis. Some of these artists work with producers, but many also take on the responsibility of handling the financial and production aspects of their projects.


From my conversations, I’ve learned that companies, such as Proton Theatre or STEREO AKT, can apply for funds from the Ministry of Human Resources (which manages fields including health, education, sports, and culture) if they have been registered for three or more years as a non-profit and public benefit organization. Individual independent artists as well as companies can apply for funds from the National Cultural Fund (NKA) on a project-by-project basis. In general, there seems to be little to no transparency from these institutions in terms of why decisions regarding funding are made and funding decisions are often released without allowing adequate time for independent artists to plan their seasons.


I mentioned Trafó and Jurányi previously not just because they are interesting places to watch theatre, but also because they serve as the primary co-producing venues for independents. Because each of these institutions gets annualized funding from the city, they can use portions of their budgets to work with independent artists and provide them extra funding to develop new productions. Additionally, FÜGE hosts an annual competition in collaboration with the Municipality of Budapest entitled Staféta which, over the past six years, has become an important source of funding for new projects. For Staféta, individual artists and companies can apply for one of two categories: one for those that have started work in the independent field no more than five years ago, and another for those who have received artistic recognition, yet still need more resources for their projects. Winners in the former category can receive up to 2,500,000 forints (7,810 dollars) and those in the later can receive up to 3,000,000 forints (9,372 dollars). Projects must be submitted with a production house—like Trafó and Jurányi—as a host institution that promises to house the performance, should it win the grant, and potentially provide extra funding for the artists.


Regardless of where independents find funding for their shows, the money in the field is limited. Eszter Kálmán is an artist who experiments with design elements in her independent work (often without any actors) and simultaneously works as a scenic designer at a state theatre. When we spoke, she told me that her budget for just the set at the state theatre is equivalent to or more than her budget for the entirety of her independent projects. Limited set pieces, costumes, and small casts are staples of independent work, simply due to a lack of financial resources. There are certainly exceptions to this, such as Béla Pintér Company, which has achieved international success and stability in Hungary. However, the difficulty of maintaining consistent financing in the independent field has made it a difficult realm for artists to build stable careers within.


Additionally, the field is distinctly polarized, and resources are less and less available for artists and theatres associated with the opposition. For now, I’ll defer to the experts on this topic and recommend reading these articles—written by Andrea Tompa and Tamás Jászay—for background on the past ten years of politicized funding decisions in Hungary:



Participatory Theatre


As I began to make my way through the independent theatre-makers of Budapest, it became clear to me that the productions I found most interesting were the ones that integrated the audience—or non-performers in general—into the performance.


The most exciting form of theatre I have seen here so far has been ‘board game theatre.’ A form of participatory theatre, ‘board game theatre’ involves the audience taking an active part in influencing the decisions characters make and the path the show takes. Audience members ‘play’ the game of the performance in an almost choose-your-own-adventure style. Different audience decisions during key moments lead to different outcomes, and each game has its own set of rules laid out in the beginning of the performance.


SOCIOPOLY at Bálint Ház [photo credit: Bass László]

I’ve had the chance to see two already while here—Sociopoly and Addressless. For each of these performances, the creators have been wonderfully helpful and given me a copy of the script in English for me to print and use to follow along with the shows. This has been particularly fascinating for me because it allows me to see in writing all the different possibilities for the way the actors could respond to choices made by the audience. And, while my lack of Hungarian language skills prevents me from understanding the details of what audience teams are discussing during decision making periods, it was riveting to see how players quickly became passionate about and invested in the outcome of the game. My team for Sociopoly was composed of high school students, a couple in their 20s, and an elderly couple attending with their middle-aged daughter. Despite the range of ages present in the group—and the fact that most of them had just met each other—the team was able to openly bounce ideas off of each other and function democratically.


Theatre in Education (TiE), inspired by the British tradition that originated in the 1960s, is another type of participatory theatre in Budapest. Two major independent companies specify in TiE work—Káva and Kerekasztal. I’ve had the chance to speak to the leadership at each of these organizations, and I’m looking forward to attending TiE productions for a variety of ages of audiences within the coming months. These pieces handle a multitude of dilemmas: ranging from social problems to age-related issues to ethical questions. One performance I’ve attended addressed the familial tensions inherent to teenagers growing up, and another explored the passing down of tradition and identity through folk-dance. The way these questions are addressed can range from direct audience participation in the plot of the show to short performances with group discussions afterwards. Káva and Kerekazstal have built up relationships with teachers all over the nation and often travel from Budapest to the Hungarian countryside to visit classrooms.


Participatory work holds value in its capacity to bring viewers into the creative process and allow them a more tangible stake in the outcome of the show. Instead of observing the events of a play unfold—in both ‘board game theatre’ and some TiE performances—audience members are asked, on the spot, to put themselves into the shoes of the characters. This type of direct engagement in storytelling creates an immediate emphatic link between the characters and the audience. Plus, audience members are just as much a part of the show as the actors, and what they say can change the course of the story. In small ways, by reminding someone that their ideas matter, participatory theatre can promote democratic engagement. A study led by Káva with eleven other European countries—entitled “Drama Improves Lisbon Key Competences in Education (DICE)”—was conducted on the impact of TiE programs in 2010. The study found that the students who participated in TiE programming were “significantly more tolerant towards both minorities and foreigners, more active citizens, show[ed] more interest in voting at any level, have more interest in participating in public issues, [and] are more able to change their perspective.” While DICE was specifically studying the impact of TiE on children, it underscores the importance of work that reinforces the value of each individual’s voice.


Participatory theatre also has the potential to reach outside of the typical demographic of theatre-goers and be an engaging way for people of all ages, socioeconomic statuses and political views to sit down and share ideas with each other. Many artists that I have spoken to since I arrived here have talked to me about how there is a very specific ‘bubble’ of audience members that tend to attend independent theatre productions in Budapest. They tend to be liberal-leaning and of the upper-middle-class—giving them the disposable income to afford to see these shows. This demographic shares oh-so-many similarities with the theatre ‘bubble’ that I am a part of back in the United States. Addressing this in her HowlRound article entitled “Rethinking the Purpose of British Arts Institutions,” Lyn Gardner argues, “....unless theatre embraces a wider civic role, it will simply come to be seen as increasingly out of touch and elitist.”


Some of the most exciting theatre I’ve seen here, such as Colony and Social Karaoke, embrace this ‘wider civic role’ and make everyday people a key part of creating the text and performing it. In these cases, the performance was collaboratively devised based on what non-performers wish to communicate with audiences. By striving for authentic representation of communities on stage, these independent pieces make performance a space for collective reflection on one’s own society—and, they work to break out of the ‘bubble’.


Final Thoughts

It seems to be a time of much uncertainty in Budapest. We have just exited the fourth wave of COVID here in Hungary and have moved almost immediately into a fifth wave because of the rapid spread of the Omicron variant. Shows are continuing to be canceled or postponed due to sickness amongst cast and crew members. A national election is looming in the near future, the result of which is certain to impact the availability of funds to independent and state artists alike. In the midst of all of this, I hope to highlight the artists that are adapting to the current moment and continuing to build community and empathy through theatre.


Next, I plan to zero in on the work being done at Trafó and Jurányi through conversations with their administrative teams—about how they are navigating COVID, their relationship with the public funding system, and hopes for the future.

 

Thoughts on a few of my favorite productions from the past few months….

Colony

On October 3rd, I boarded the 9 bus and made my way to the outer part of District VIII. Here, an audience gathered outside of an old tobacco factory to be a part of STEREO AKT’s production of Colony. The only marker of the show is a flag with the logo of the Budapest Autumn Festival—a two-week long contemporary art festival sponsored by the city. Otherwise, there is hardly anything to indicate that a show is about to take place behind this building. Two women greet the audience and we soon find that these women grew up in the very building that we are standing in front of. Their families came to Hungary in 1950 as refugees of the Greek civil war.


With the support of STEREO AKT’s ensemble, these two women—Irini and Piri—recount memories from their childhood in Budapest while we get a tour of the building they used to call home. In the second half of the performance, we meet Abouzar and his young son Armin—Iranian refugees who had just been granted legal status in Hungary. As we continue to walk around the premises of the tobacco factory, Abouzar recounts his recent experiences making the grueling journey from Iran only to arrive and be held for well over a year in the transit zone at the Hungarian-Serbian border. Kolonia is interspersed with the ensemble performing excerpts of text about immigration taken directly from news articles and the mouths of politicians. These excerpts, performed in parallel with the stories of Abouzar and Armin, add familiarity and context to the show. When I spoke to Martin Boross—the director—about this show, he explained to me that not a single element of this performance is fictionalized.


The abuse and harassment that Abouzar and Armin face contrasts with the experiences of Irini and Piri, who were welcomed into the country with relative ease decades ago. However, the common thread of their accounts is their developing relationship to their newfound Hungarian identity. Each of their stories are vulnerable and honest, while holding a mirror up to Hungarian society and how it’s attitude towards immigration has shifted over the past several decades.


STEREO AKT does a beautiful job of creating a piece of documentary theatre that does not feel exploitative of the immigrant narrative. Instead, it is imbued with humanity and compassion. Irini, Piri, Abouzar, and Armin guide us through their experiences, and the ensemble brings the memories they speak of to life. Being present in the tobacco factory and being able to look the performers in their eyes as they spoke reminded me of the true potential that live theatre has to create connection and understanding. This is easily my favorite piece of theatre that I have seen in Hungary so far.


Social Karaoke

In MU Színhaz, a prominent theatre that has recently started purposefully moving towards more community and participatory theatre programming, six non-actors took the stage in Social Karaoke. Created by Eszter Dobos and Napsugár Trömböczky—two recent graduates of SZFE who comprise a collective called Femini—this performance was inspired by Daisuke Inoue’s 2004 win of the Ig Nobel Peace Prize for his invention of karaoke. The video of Inoue’s acceptance of this joke award is played during the performance, and karaoke is lauded as “providing an entirely new way for people to learn to tolerate each other.” In this vein, Social Karaoke seeks to bridge social divides by inviting community members to speak openly and honestly about issues they care about.


When I met with Eszter and Napsugár, they explained to me that after issuing a casting call for ‘anyone interested in karaoke’, they had interested people fill out a Google Form that they proceeded to use to cast the show. Their goal was to reach outside of the typical theatre-goers and find a cast of non-performers from various different sectors of society. Ultimately, they cast six people. Each participant performed a monologue or scene explaining a social topic they were passionate about, and then sang a karaoke song along with it—such as “Imagine” by the Beatles or “Creep” by Radiohead. Topics included Jeff Bezos’ ridiculous and enormous wealth (and superfluous trip to space), the wastefulness of fast fashion, Budapest’s treatment of homeless people, the recent LGBTQ+ law, the painful reality of being a police officer in this city, and the rise of the current government and the political apathy and cynicism that it insights.


I appreciated this piece because—besides being both politically engaging and a ton of fun—it provided a platform of expression to those who would not usually have the opportunity to reach an audience of this size. Simultaneously, this performance seeks to broaden the ‘bubble’ of theatre-goers by bringing the individual communities of the six different performers to MU’s main stage.


Addressless

Tucked away in the small, black-box Studio space of the Örkény Theatre, this absolute gem of a performance takes place. Created by STEREO AKT and directed by Martin Boross, this piece of ‘board game theatre’ puts the audience into the role of someone experiencing homelessness. When one enters the studio, the audience is divided into three sections, each section marking the team that the one will play the game on. Four performers take the stage—one social worker, two professional actors, and one unhoused person who is currently an advocate for the homeless. The social worker serves as the ‘game-master’ and walks the audience through the rules and helps them to select which character that they will be helping make choices throughout the story.


Once teams are given a character that they will represent, the rules of the game are explained. Each team is handed a series of laminated charts that outline the possible financial choices that they can make throughout each month of the game (the story takes place over the course of six months). Each character in the story is correlated with a structure that demonstrates their health at a given time, and if any trauma is inflicted upon the character—be it cold, stress, or hunger—their health depelets. Teams choose if their character will beg for money or work, the advantages and disadvantages of each choice are explained by the social worker at the helm of the game. Then, the game begins. Each character goes through scenes that are interrupted in moments of decision—then, the audience teams have the opportunity to make choices. Their choices dictate whether or not the characters keep their jobs, find housing, and remain healthy.


Ultimately, this piece of game theatre demonstrates how the systems in place make it nearly impossible to escape homelessness. Frustrations are met at every turn, and while re-entering the housing system is the goal, everyday survival needs to come first—making it extremely difficult to save money. The social worker dispels myths about homelessness and emphasizes the very real struggles thousands of people in Budapest alone face on a daily basis. Putting the audience members in the shoes of these three characters allows them to feel the stress, dread, and uncertainty that comes with being homeless and develop empathy for a group that one might not usually think about.


Addressless is being adapted into English and presented as part of New York City’s Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre’s season in January and February of 2022.


Sociopoly

Originally developed by the Lifeboat Unit—a branch of Viktor Bodó’s Sputnik Shipping Company before it dissolved—this was the first piece of ‘board game theatre’ to take the stage in Hungary. Directed by Gábor Fábián in 2014, this innovative performance is based on the work of sociologists Kata Fodor and László Bass, the latter of which performs the role of the game-master in the production to this day. When I saw this, seven years after its original premiere, it took place in Laboratory 123 of Jurányi. Hardly any set pieces—besides a game board on the center of the floor and a white board—are necessary. Like Addressless, the audience is divided into sections. This time there are four sections. Each section represents a family struggling with deep poverty and debt in a small Hungarian town. The families each have two children, and must both work to stay financially afloat while maintaining the mental health of themselves and their developing children.


Over the course of 30 days, the families are put in situations—played out through one scene per ‘week’ per family—that challenge them to make choices regarding anything from whether or not to cover funeral costs or buy shoes for their child. Everyday expenses such as food must be paid for regardless of financial status, but players have the option to pay for other expenses such as medicine. Teams debate what is the best financial course of action for their family and often end up needing to borrow money from the local loan shark. Over the course of the board game, it becomes clear that the political, social, and economic structures of everyday life are inherently discriminatory and inaccessible to those who are impoverished.


Throughout the production, László Bass—a professor in the Department of Social Work at Eötvös Loránd University—explains the situations that our four families face to the audience. He relates the scenes to the facts about poverty in Hungary, reminding players that what is an informative theatrical game for us is the everyday reality for many. After 30 days have passed within the story, each team’s financial situation is assessed. When I attended the production, every single team ended with their family tens of thousands of forints in debt.

 

Interview with Martin Boross

Martin Boross, the Artistic Director of STEREO AKT, and I chatted via Zoom about his upcoming adaptation of Addressless at Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre in New York City and his plans for the coming year. This is not Martin’s first time working in the United States; with the support of CITD, his production of PROMENADE was adapted for Baltimore in collaboration with Single Carrot Theatre and for Albuquerque with q-Staff Theatre. In Hungary and abroad, Martin has consistently created pieces of theatre and film that delve into relevant social issues and experiment with the role of the audience. You can learn more about the work of STEREO AKT here: http://stereoakt.hu/about-us and buy tickets to NYC’s Addressless here: https://web.ovationtix.com/trs/cal/34100


JULIA: I wanted to start by talking about this version of Addressless that is going on in New York right now. How do your American colleagues and collaborators react when you talk about ‘board game theatre’?


MARTIN: Very excited. We don’t even have a word for ‘immersive theatre’ in Hungarian. I mean we sometimes say ‘immersive’, but that sounds like something we took from abroad. It doesn’t sound Hungarian. I find ‘immersive’ a very attractive, exciting word and I see how people react to that. When I say ‘participatory’ or ‘interactive’ in Hungarian people get scared immediately. “Oh my god, is this a place where I will be harassed?”


There are some references that people resonated with very intensely: Dungeons and Dragons, role-playing games, choose-your-own-adventure. These are all keywords that bring nice references or associations.


In talking about the theme, everyone—specifically the people who live in New York—know how much of a challenge housing insecurity is. Whatever I mention about the Hungarian context, it seems highly foreign to the people. Of course, the service system is very different and the number of housing insecure people are different and politics are different, but the core of the situation is the same. There is a lack of affordable housing and the wages are low—in comparison to high-rents. And there is a giant amount of prejudice about poverty in general and housing insecurity in people who experience homelessness.


JULIA: When I saw the version of Addressless here in Budapest, I was struck by how much detail went into making it about the city—about the exact routes that people who do not have access to housing would travel the city throughout the day. How has the process of learning about the specifics of the housing crisis in New York been? And adding that kind of specificity about New York to the show?


MARTIN: It was a very long journey, and I can’t even tell specifically what had the deepest impact on the script. We started off the research two and a half years ago, when I first came to New York for this project—that was our first 10 day long workshop with Jonathan Payne, the author. We had a series of meetings with experts, social workers, homeless people, and politicians. So, we started to dig deeper into this. Jonathan is also a social worker during the day, so that was a big help. And we were scanning through the original script—the English translation of the original Hungarian script—and we pointed out what is relevant, what is not relevant in New York.


For example, we eliminated a scene about the street paper. Which is a very iconic, emblematic attribute of homelessness in Hungary. A lot of people can make a living—well not a living—but can make some money selling this paper and from donations. It’s not really a thing in New York. So, that was, for example, something we threw out. A lot of other things needed to be transposed. And other things got into the script.


Later, this spring, we had a series of meetings with a social worker and she reflected on the—back then it was just a treatment—two or three pages long treatment and the synopsis of each scene that we were thinking of including. We practically interviewed her and based on her own experiences and stories we updated the synopsis. And then, the writing process in the intensive sense started. This fall, we had the final cast including the social worker from here and the activist who had been experiencing homelessness. When they read the text, of course they had a lot of thoughts and ideas and questions that also contributed to the final version.


JULIA: With adapting it to an online platform, have there been any major challenges to that? Or anything that you found within that creatively—any new directions?


MARTIN: In the sense of the theatrical form, of course. Because it’s an interactive play and through making it online there is more emphasis on that because it is like a computer game this way. The term ‘avatar’ that we often use for the characters makes even more sense. And, when we say things like “how many years you are losing off of your life” and “how much money you gained” and “choose a banker” and “let’s look at the wage lottery now”—these funny terms make much more sense as a computer game.


JULIA: So are the people who attend the show playing in teams, like they were in the in-person show? Are they sorted in a Zoom room into different teams, is that how it works?


MARTIN: Yes, yes. They are assigned to teams and we all watch the same scene. For example, a scene called “Shelter.” There is a dilemma, and then we switch to live. The scenes are pre-recorded, and we switch to live for the interactive part. And, there is a breakout room for a given character's team and they get to interact with the character. But, everyone else—the other parts of the audience—they are flies on the wall and they can’t really talk into it, but they witness the team discussing. And then, we get back to the scene and we play out either route A or route B, based on the decision of the audience.


JULIA: I understand. I think one of the most interesting parts about seeing the version here was being able to watch my team interact and discuss in an impassioned and heated way. They really debated the issues, and it shows much they were invested and cared. So, it’s cool that you get to watch everyone have those conversations in this version. I’m excited to see it.


I know that here you have collaborated with many theatrical institutions, such as Trafó and Jurányi and Örkény. Are there any major differences that you can pick up on when you are collaborating with Single Carrot or Rattlestick in the US? What are the major cultural differences surrounding theatre that you experience?


MARTIN: So, for example, I experience that there are—I don’t know, I can’t really go in priority or relevance order—but, the first thing that comes to my mind is there are much more actors who are seeking a job. It happened a few times that someone fell out of the show because of conflicts or illness or whatever reasons and it took just a few days to find someone else. Or sometimes just within 24 hours there was someone who was available for the next four weeks. Which is unbelievable for me.


I think there is a way smaller tradition here for stylized forms. There is a much stronger tradition of naturalism and linear-storytelling dramaturgies. Which does not mean that people are not open to other forms, and other kinds of dramaturgies, it's just not typical or as obvious as in Europe.


JULIA: Yeah, I think that was the first thing I was struck by when I arrived here—in the opposite sense. I went to Trafó a lot in the first two weeks and I was just seeing what I would consider in the United States to be insanely ‘boundary-pushing’ work, whereas here it is normal to experiment with form in that kind of way. So for me that has been really interesting because it feels like all the styles that people experiment with in Europe can make art more exciting at home.


MARTIN: And, also, the fact that the works are not made for being on repertory for years, but only for a short period of time. And then they strike and everyone is gone. It’s a very different mindset.


JULIA: Do you think there are pros and cons to that?


MARTIN: It’s really a question of norm or cultural difference. It’s not interchangeable. Because if you wanted to do the opposite, it would not work, I think. Because that’s how the audience is conditioned. I don’t really know the pros and the cons yet, because Addressless was not tested this way. But, to me, honestly it feels more often necessary to plan this way because the repertory system is more open and you don’t have to plan ahead how many shows you do. And, you commit for one or two shows a month throughout maybe half a year? Or five years? We don’t know. We will see. It definitely makes it easier to plan here because you hire people for a fixed period of time.


It also seems more stressful to sell tickets here because you need to fill twenty shows in a very short period of time. There is a bigger emphasis on marketing here. Theatre has to be more commercial here. It’s also necessary production-wise and artistically too, because there is no cultural fund; less cultural grants and foundations. No state involvement. And this is something that is reflected in the quality or the attitude as well. What I see, generally, is that it is way harder to be an artist in the United States, I think. Yea, most of our collaborators have multiple jobs at once. Day-jobs. And I see that it is hard to even pay your rent with the salary you get here, and I think it is a difference too.


JULIA: Yes, I think very similarly about that. While you’ve been in New York—not just as a theatre-maker, but as an audience member—have you had the chance to go see shows? Have any stuck out to you?


MARTIN: At this time I have only seen two shows. One at Rattlestick— In The Southern Breeze. And one at HERE—that’s the name of the venue. I can’t recall the title. I wish I had seen more because I think the season was just starting when I came and now they are calling off a lot of shows.


JULIA: I was going to ask—has COVID affected your production in any way? Have things had to change because of that?


MARTIN: So the original plan was that the actors would gather at the space of Rattlestick and that would be our common center and studio for the live broadcast. All the scenic elements and cameras are there and there is lighting design and all the streaming-technicians are there. That was impossible. We started to adapt this maybe two weeks ago, when the first positive COVID case occurred in our staff. There were quite a few cases three-weeks ago. Because they have already recovered, many of them who did test positive are back in the game already.


So then, we very quickly had to shift to a new scenario where everyone—every actor—is streaming from their own homes. They join the show from their homes. Like a year ago or two years ago, we shipped lighting gear and technical gear and scenic gear and props to their places. Or, for whoever was not able to do it from home, we set up an area in Rattlestick. But, we are trying to minimize the in-person meetings.


JULIA: That makes sense.


MARTIN: Practically what is happening now is that we are programming the show instead of rehearsing it really. So, the method and attitude and the whole preparation process had to adapt and it is really different from what I originally imagined, but I think it is going to work very well.


JULIA: I saw Outstanding Workers at Örkény the night that one of the cast members was sick and you Zoomed them into the show. So, I know that you are used to adapting on your toes to COVID restrictions.


As we enter this third year of the pandemic…a time of people’s brains shifting in terms of what they want in media content and a time of a lot of stress in the world—especially as Omicron spreads—how do you think that art should adapt in response to that? Do you think there is a way that theatre can respond to that?


MARTIN: I think art has already responded to it. Not in a very conscious way, but in an organic way. Artists were tested in the sense of if they were able to adapt and create something for the screen or for the outdoors or for small audiences. The institutions were challenged on if they were able to support their artists and workers in challenging times. The audience was tested on how important theatre is and if they are willing to watch something online, or if they were willing to sit in a theatre for two hours with a mask. And there is no conclusion. Every institution and artists and theatre-goer has their own experiences and some nice experiences are attached to this for me, at least.


We created Ex Cathedra—one of our latest shows—between the second and the third wave in Budapest. There was not a lockdown, but everything was very lowkey and very quiet and everyone was very cautious. That was the first time for us after the first lockdown that we started working within different policies. We were testing regularly and wearing a mask and so on. But, it was one of the most focused and most calm rehearsal processes I have ever had. It was very deep and very intense and very special. And we parallelly prepared for

screening and for live performances. From the beginning we could prepare for what the streamed version would look like and how the in-person version would look like. And there weren’t really compromises because of that. So, that was a nice experience professionally.


For STEREO AKT, it was a very intensive period. We had an international collaboration with Volksbühne, we filmed two short films, and also we—not really because of the necessity, but just luckily how it turned out—produced a site-specific performance as a mostly open-air walk with the participation of Greek and Iranian refugees. So, for us, it was really refreshing to think outside of the box.


JULIA: I feel like the kind of work that is necessary in the pandemic is very well suited for the kind of work that you and STEREO AKT have done with experimenting with the relationship between the audience and the people in the show and how that can continually evolve. So, looking forward into 2022 and the future, are you looking to experiment with that relationship between the audience and the performers in new ways? Is there anything that you are looking forward to playing with or delving into in the new year?


MARTIN: Oh my god, what are the plans for the new year? We start a long term process this spring. It will be a multiple step project. First, it will be a site-specific podcast. Then, it will evolve to an in-person walk. Then, it will transform into a staged production, which is about activism and local….how do you say that? There’s a word in Hungarian that is foreign sounding, but I always realize it is not English. The literal translation would be ‘local patriots.’ So, people who are very into their neighborhood or city or area and are not really activists but people who are very active in their community. We focus on these people and their mindsets and their windmill fights and their burnouts. That’s a Hungarian-German collaboration that will have these different transformations throughout the year.


JULIA: And when will that start?


MARTIN: It will start in April and the first staged version will be in October and then we will do a Hungarian adaptation for it sometime later that season.


We also film—we make a film—next summer. That’s a feature film but based on a real personal experience that was a documentary film we made together with Roma youth from the countryside, near Pécs. Based on that experience we developed a script and we are filming that. The title is Raw Material. In a nutshell, it is about controversial community projects. A film crew from the city goes to a small village and they conduct a community workshop and they uncover some secrets and they conclude that the mayor is oppressing the locals. They shot an exposé, which becomes an incredible success, but because of the exposé and because of their activities, the mayor has to resign and this community that was—with questionable methods but it was—on the developing track, it really falls apart. They drive a wedge between the families there.


JULIA: Wow, I’m excited to see that.


MARTIN: Yeah, and then, we will have a collaboration with a theatre in Kiev that we already collaborated with for a workshop. That’s where we laid down the foundations of this future collaboration. And we have, more or less, the story. It will be a false documentary on a collaboration between a Belgium and Ukrainian theatre. About a scandal. The reason for why they can not premiere a show that they were working on.


JULIA: Will that be performed in Budapest? Or Kiev? Or both?


MARTIN: Hopefully both. First in Kiev.


JULIA: You’re very much expanding the global network of STEREO AKT, it seems.


MARTIN: Maybe not global, but European-American, definitely.

 

Thank you for joining as we share our first entry of REFLECTIONS HUNGARY by Julia Mann. We'd love to hear your questions and thoughts in the comment section below!


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