Latest Fidesz moves put independent Hungarian theatre at serious risk
14 July 2022
Over the weekend, I had multiple conversations with a number of our partners in Hungary.
What emerged was an alarming set of national government moves initiated in the past 10 days—moves placing the independent theatres in serious jeopardy.
I asked our partner, Noémi Herzog, editor of Színház Magazine, if she could find someone to write about this summer move. The Fidesz government has historically committed their cultural skullduggery during this “slow” time. And this summer, I expected even more than usual—the first in the new 6 year second term of Mr. Orbán and Fidesz.
Sadly, you will read Tamás Jászay’s update, chronicling debilitating attacks on Átrium Theatre, Róbert Alföldi, Béla Pintér and Company, and the Central Theatre—as well as the collateral damage to the larger independent theatre community.
In one of my last Zooms, I asked a very savvy partner about a fall visit to Hungary I am planning (I haven’t been in Budapest since 2018) and asked if he thought there would be any problems for me. He told me no, he didn’t see any safety issues for me, and that he didn’t expect any of the cultural opposition to be arrested or put in prison.
“No, Philip. They are simply starving the independent theatre into irrelevance.”
A profound and sobering prediction…
We’ll keep watching, I promise.
founder & director
UPDATE FROM TAMÁS JÁSZAY Hungarian theatre critic, editor, university lecturer, & curator 13 July 2022 ÁTRIUM THEATRE At the end of June, the successful private theatre Átrium on the Buda side of the Hungarian capital issued a dramatic statement. According to it, they have run out of funds, said goodbye to several staff members and will hold their last performances in mid-July before closing for good. The reason: none of the state subsidies promised for this calendar year (!) have arrived in their accounts. BÉLA PINTÉR AND COMPANY A few days later, the flagship of Hungarian independent theatres, Béla Pintér and Company, announced that, with a budget shortfall of around 50 million HUF (123,000 USD), it would raise ticket prices from autumn and move all but one of its performances to a venue that can accommodate far more people than the current one, thus generating significantly higher ticket sales. THE CENTRAL THEATRE Central Theatre, a popular private theatre in the centre of Budapest, also announced in a statement that, like the other two theatres, it will have to start the 2022/23 season without public funding. Budapest City Emergency Support - with Strings The capital's municipality reacted with exemplary speed to the alarming news by announcing a 150 million HUF (370,000 USD) emergency grant to support independent and private theatres located in Budapest. The financially strapped opposition-led capital is withdrawing the money from its own cultural institutions, including the Trafó - House of Contemporary Arts, the Radnóti Theatre, the Örkény Theatre and the Katona József Theatre - but it says it will not be permanent... Committed Funds for Independent Theatres Frozen In the meantime, the Independent Performing Arts Association (FESZ), an advocacy group of independent theatre companies, has written to the new Minister of Culture, János Csák, to say that not only the above-mentioned companies, but all independent theatre companies are in serious trouble. The contracts for the annual operating grants awarded to the independents in April by the a board of experts had not even been signed by mid-July. Meanwhile, the government has announced severe freezes across all ministries, which does not bode well. The most important thing to understand is that the performing arts in Hungary cannot sustain themselves without state funding. The situation, which is now close to explosion, has its roots in 2018. (On the essence of the tax system, see Andrea Tompa's article Control and Silence in the September 2019 issue of the Hungarian Letter of News.) One could only guess at the time what has now become a certainty: on the one hand, the abolition of the corporate tax (TAO) system opened the way for theatre funding on an overtly political basis, and on the other, the functioning of the Hungarian performing arts funding system, which had been built on a fragile balance for some time, was disrupted by the unexpected inflow of 37 billion HUF (91 million USD) into the system. The State Secretariat for Culture has set up a system of tenders for this huge sum, but there is no official information available on who makes the decisions and on what criteria, four years (!) after the system was overhauled. I summarised the result in the second volume of Hungary Turns its Back on Europe: “While friendly institutions are not stopped from spending countless amount of public money, theatres or groups that make a critical noise (or that the anonymous decision- makers assume to be such) are always applying in vain, despite their considerable domestic and international presence, weight and extensive network of contacts.” Róbert Alföldi's Voice While the culture government is in denial, or as usual in all such cases, simply refuses to comment, the pro-government media is publishing its left-liberal conspiracy theories. Unique on the Hungarian theatre scene for its loud campaigns and divisive presence, Atrium has long been a thorn in the side of the right: its star actor and director is Róbert Alföldi, who ran the National Theatre in Budapest until 2013, when he gave way to Attila Vidnyánszky, the number one decision-maker of Hungarian theatre. Alföldi's La Cage aux Folles has been a sell-out at the Atrium for years, but he also stars in two productions by András Urbán, a director from Vojvodina, which was made here, such as Mephisto, which explores the relationship between power and art, and The Battle of Trianon, which analyses the consequences of the Trianon peace treaty with radical theatrical language. (Alföldi is also a core member of the Central Theatre, mainly as an actor, but also as a director.) Béla Pintér has long been a critic of the government: in addition to his public speeches, he also criticises excesses and injustices in all his sold-out performances. The Beginning of the End... The war between the Hungarian right and independent theatres has been going on for more than a decade, see the beginnings in my article, Finita la Commedia (2013) on Critical Stages. Free, independent, critical, sceptical voices admittedly have no place in a place where the government's pro-government mouthpiece says that the only cultural product worth supporting is the one that claims that "being Hungarian is the best thing in the world". I could argue with the latter statement, but I can see that the desperate announcement by Atrium has started something: between 27 June and 10 July, more than 61 million forints (about 150,000 USD) in donations and support from individuals and companies were received to keep the theatre running. Atrium, which communicates with targeted messages and a strong (perhaps to many arrogant) tone, has handled the situation with exemplary skill, responding immediately and relentlessly on its social media pages to the government media's repeated lies and baseless accusations. The amount raised in two weeks - and growing - is a huge achievement. Far be it from me to be a kill joy, but I must make two comments. On the one hand, this amount is still only a third of the institution's annual operating costs of 200 million HUF. On the other hand, it is only a symptomatic treatment that does not solve the anomalies of the system itself, neither in the case of Atrium nor in the case of the other Hungarian independent teams. Tamás Jászay