“A series of joyful accidents” - Interview with Zoltán Balázs on Kultúra.hu
“The most depressing thing is that we have to live our profession in a very divided theatrical world. This is almost a task for Don Quixote” - said actor and director Zoltán Balázs, founder and director of the Maladype Theatre, with whom we also talked about aristocratic ancestry, childhood pranks and theatrical perceptions.
- When I saw Hamlet with you in the starring role, Maia Morgenstern was sitting next to me. She was just as impressed by what she saw of you as any of us, average spectators. It’s been over ten years, but looking through your career, I still haven’t been able to figure out who this amazingly versatile young man is and what he’s up to in this world. Do you usually think about this?
- I prefer to focus on the present. Anyway, I’m so glad you’re starting our conversation with your Hamlet experience at the Bárka, because almost every week someone stops me on the street to tell how decisive my Hamlet was in Tim Carroll’s legendary directing. The truth, of course, is that I met the then chief director of the Globe Theatre in London at a good time, in a good place and, above all, in very good condition. The success of the “board game”, which is unusual in all respects, was also significantly influenced by my great partners. During the performance, which was based on improvisations, the biggest challenge was that as a Hamlet I had to exist at that moment at the same time and plan ten to fifteen minutes in advance. It was only after the many performances that the human and artistic power of the diversity of the interplay based on different acting solutions became clear to me. Because of the energies released by my self-burning acting presence
it also happened that I got tired, so I stopped and asked the viewers for a few minutes of silence. After the “public shock”, I reassembled Hamlet’s thoughts word by word, restoring the spontaneous and personal nature of the role-playing problem. I knew it was “not appropriate” to do this in a classic theater performance, but an inner voice tempted me at times...
- I wouldn’t call that Hamlet a classic performance.
- It was novel in every way. Anyone who was able to break with the instincts of traditional Hamlet adaptations could experience amazing theatrical adventures both as an actor and as a spectator. Through the performers ’unique and unrepeatable suggestions for role and text interpretation, situation management, creative contexts of thought and action, the audience also became part of new insights every night. This ever-changing game required a stable nervous system, special acting condition, and widespread attention on everyone’s part.
- You said at the beginning of our conversation that you were always self- and public-dangerous.
- Birth defect. My path searches out of curiosity were also approved by my current environment, so I always went head to head against the wall as a “crash test dummy”. Everything that makes up my human, masculine, acting, and directing selves stems from my daring to risk and at times question certain canonized patterns of action.
- Who allowed you and what?
- Many, many things, in many different situations. If we go back to the beginnings, it is primarily my parents, my grandparents. I came from a generous and integrative-minded family, and their attitude toward the development of the childish soul was unparalleled. I grew up in the last period of communism, so we often experienced house searches and the black car would take my grandfather. Being a Transylvanian Hungarian in Romania was a disadvantage, but our family took on being Hungarian for granted in all circumstances. Even the most difficult moments were made livable by serenity, meaningful and sensitive explanations. Today, a great amount of people use being across the border as a shield, which I find extremely repulsive.
- Honestly, I didn't know you were Transylvanian.
- I am happy about this because for me this kind of a timidly imbued inner belonging and self-identity which is a natural legacy of my family. My childhood was not defined by ideological guidelines and images of enemies, my upbringing was not infected by scapegoating and nationalism. I learned from them that truth is always a good Plan B, and the point is worth looking for is in the silenced word.
I was interested in all kinds of adventures, so I often got myself and my narrower and wider environment into impossible situations. I am a descendant of a noble family, dog skin was also associated with obligations and rules, so my willingness to cross all kinds of borders was clearly coded in my renitent behavior.
- Give an example!
- Although we knew it was forbidden, me and my childhood friend once ventured into an abandoned mansion waiting to be renovated. But at that moment, the floor tore under us and we ended up in a deep stack. An hour, two hours, five hours, ten hours passed, then it became dark and no one came.
We guessed they were already looking for us, but we didn’t know when and how they would find us. While we waited, we came to the conclusion that now at least it will be clear how much they love us and whether our prank will have a relationship-rejuvenating power. We pondered on this until dawn and then they found us. It was an age of intact discoveries in pure intentions and clear actions. It lasted until I was twelve years old.
- And then what happened?
- We left home because my mother saw our situation as hopeless. Then I didn't understand why. My friends, my first love, remained on Maramures Island. We went to many places in Europe and America, but in the end we ended up in Hungary, and I continued my studies here. My mother and I have experienced “seven-pound” situations many times, yet we have laughed a lot. My mother’s energies to this day shame my dynamism, watched in amazement by many. I inherited this kind of vitality, the love of life from her. I don’t know and don’t want to live my life with a bitter taste in the mouth, although there’s a lot of it that I’m not happy about, either humanly or professionally.
- What do you mean?
- The most depressing thing is that we have to live our profession in a very divided theatrical world. This is almost a task for Don Quixote. Cultural policy identification processes are taking place that do not allow young career starters or professionally driven artists to do their job as members of a more caring theatrical society. Neither I nor the theater I have been running for twenty years are willing to take part in this. We do everything we can to preserve the origins of our thoughts about theater and our creative intentions in order to remain literally independent.
We have one point of alignment, the exponentially changing theater itself. Although many used to want me for themselves, they also offered theaters and positions, I preferred to follow my own path, which always led back to the diverse complex possibilities of doing theater; I chose to be the creator of the avant-garde, Maladype - which still has a name on the international stage today -, and the special lifestyle that comes with it.
- What do you mean by the Maladype lifestyle?
- Soaring freely. We never had to compromise on artistic issues, and our specific experiments in content and form also found a high degree of understanding and recognition in different theatrical cultures around the world. This is one of the reasons why we were able to survive at home for twenty years, because they know what Maladype is from Vietnam to America, from Iran to France. This theatrical thinking, nourished by many cultures, is the reason that Hungarian theatrical traditions, theatrical and dramatic foreshadowing did not project a shadow over my personality and method. I could be objective in my own subjectivity.
I didn’t undertake and do anything that would make me remorse, and there’s nothing I would regret because I missed it. When I started running a company, I had to learn to take responsibility for others, not just for myself. Since then, I have had to walk ten steps ahead of the members of the company, and it doesn’t matter what development path I set for them, the morally, ethically, professionally atmosphere I have created for their daily work. Everything behind us - and, I hope, even before us - stems from this dynamism and passionate conscious, risky thinking. With all of our performances, we strive to ensure that neither content nor form impulses repeat themselves.
Therefore, it is not easy to put Maladype into a box. By the time our theater was proclaimed by critics as ritual or physical theater, we were already searching in another creative universe for a style to fit that particular work and director’s concept. Contributing to this multipolar process was the fact that I quickly reached the international scene with my company and as an individual creator. My personal experiences at various festivals, theater workshops, and genre-specific citadels around the world have had a liberating effect on my creative approach and have given me tremendous strength to find my way daily in the spirit of freedom. We have also incorporated another core value, generosity, into our artistic strategy, our long-term operation.
- What do you mean by generosity?
- Recognizing the changing factors as part of the anatomy of creation and giving space to new impulses that will shape and recreate our worldview in the future. It will always drive me.
- That's why you're not old. Because of constant development. You didn’t tell me what Maladype’s sense of life was.
- The word maladype means encounter in Lovarian. A kind of instinctive, unexpected and joyful feeling of life that has united us all since the beginning. Our lives do not always consist of festive moments, so we need to pay more attention to ourselves in everyday life. Proper mental condition is essential for this. Maladype’s sense of life also includes artists taking pleasure in individual and collective redesign. They don’t panic if rehearsals or performances don’t go the way we planned, they perceive the momentary change and are able to turn what has happened to their advantage.
During an American tour, at an audience meeting following King Ubu, viewers said our production was a series of “happy accidents”. I find this very apt and expressive. However, only those who are in constant training and like to take risks can stay in the context of the performance after the unexpected events and react smartly and easily to the changed situation. This particularly complex attention-based acting presence is very rare among Hungarian actors and is highly sought after.
At Maladype, we have well-articulated rules of the game that, when used properly, have a liberating effect on both actors and audiences. This typically Maladype-style approach requires playmates who intend to explore the special quality of theater with exceptional commitment, who over time become key players in a particular creative era. Maladype’s current company is made up of actors who, without sparing their time and energy, use their talents to represent the thinking that characterizes our theater at home and abroad. I met them at the University of Arts in Târgu Mureş when, as an invited teacher, I directed them an exam performance based on Bruno Schulz's short stories. Looking at them at work, it immediately became clear to me that they would have great mediums for everything I wanted to define as the Maladype of the future, so I contracted the entire class.
- So you also take on pedagogical role.
- This goes hand in hand with directorial and artistic leadership roles. I also have a methodological descriptions called Golden-Bug and Five Gates, which I regularly share and consult about with the actors of the company. These aspects, of course, only work if the actors really want to meet a stripped-down stage copy of themselves and vote trust for themselves, their peers, and me. I don’t want to train theater workers who work diligently like ants, but have no idea what they’re building, so I think it’s important to share with them the causal intentions behind a given task or goal. Maladype’s artists have not yet been seen by spectators sitting on a couch with a glass of water and easily exchanging words about the banalities of life, their acting toolbox activating the complexity of polyphonic-edited games. Being able to talk, sing and move at the same time is part of this unusual stage existence.
- What is most important to you in your current stage of life?
- Friendships based on authentic, honest, lived encounters. I am more and more impressed by the intricately flexible elephant memory and unwavering loyalty of the older generation of actors I respect and love - Ilona Béres, Erzsébet Kútvölgyi, Éva Almási. None of them forgets to mention their masters and what defining encounters shaped their careers and energized their artistic development. Listening to them, I feel the triumph of the bright spirit. Concentrating their experiences from many sources into haiku-like parables fascinates and inspires me, as a person and as a creator, to look even more for the point, the minimum necessary for the exact expression of what I would like to say.
- Your talent is a great gift, but as I listen to you, it is certainly a burden because you are particularly sensitive to the world around you.
- My sensitivity is also a kind of talent. I can live with it and abuse it. That is why I consider it important that, at a company level, we should nurture and develop our qualities consistently. The artistically advanced and well-powered company attracts real talent, positive and clean-minded playmates as a magnet.
- With what do you spend your time currently?
- I’m getting ready for Merlin’s premiere in Budapest and a stage adaptation of a contemporary piece by an Israeli author, Roy Chen, with Maladype’s company. With the graduating class of the University of Arts in Târgu Mureş, I am finally about to bring under the roof their exam postponed due to Covid, the Group Portrait with Lady. At the end of the season, I will be staging La Fontaine’s Animal Tales at the Odeon Theater in Bucharest, where we will soon be holding a plan-accepting reception. In parallel, I am working on Adam Mickiewicz’s romantic work Ancestors, which I will be staging in Poland next summer. The most important task, however, is for Maladype to find its own performing venue. If we succeed, we will finally be able to play regularly at home and we will be able to welcome our audience, our domestic and foreign partners under worthy conditions. We’ve put a lot on the table over the last twenty years, our results speak for themselves, which is why we have a hard time bearing the fact that we still work under unworthy conditions.
- How do you prepare to cross the second X?
- With work. Fortunately, the festival invitations started to flow again in the spring, but due to other things that have been congested in the meantime, they are not easy to implement. If we can keep up with the current pace and a new wave of the pandemic won't strike, our situation will consolidate pretty slowly. Plans for the anniversary season include a showcase-like review of our repertoire performances, roundtable discussions related to our anniversary premieres, conferences, a tour series, and the preparation of a book.
- What is your favorite city among the many you have visited?
- Ljubljana. I directed at the Mini Theater and loved it, it’s a wonderful city. For a long time, Paris was my favorite because I lived and studied there. Today, however, everything is connected to Budapest, this is my base, my home. I love nature, I love hiking, playing sports, I am fascinated by the sea, but lately, if I manage to take some time out, I feel really good at home, in my apartment. I love people, my family, my friends are important, but the experience of finally being able to shut ourselves off, take a book off the shelf and open it is quite special. I can’t wait to be retired and just read in a rocking chair for days.
Gáti Katalin Teodóra, Kultúra.hu, 2021
Translation by Zsuzsanna Juraszek