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Where do parallel lines meet?

If you want to understand what’s going on in the Hungarian theatres, you have to be aware of the fact that Hungarian culture is politicized to the utmost extent. The party of Viktor Orbán, Fidesz, first won an absolute majority in Parliament in 2010. Since then system of democratic institutions and the financing of culture has become totally different. Simultaneously, the walls between left and right-wingers have become higher and higher.

“Távoli dal”, Vígzsínházs, directed by Mark Eitzel © Daniel Damolky

Left-wingers (creators):
are usually liberal, too
are urban and cosmopolitan
were too subsidized by the political system before 2010, today their subsidies decrease or stagnate
focus on the Western world
would not limit methods of creations
are provocative
think theatre raises problems, enhances critical thinking and triggers debates.

Right-wingers (creators):
are rather conservative
are mainly from the countryside, strongly believes in national values
too subsidized by the present political system
focus on the East
would limit the methods of creation
think provocation is self-important
think theatre should represent values, give answers, enhance a common standpoint.

These are of course stereotypes, some of them being attached to one side by the other side. It is also a characteristic of the cruelty of this divisiveness that related to something even those count as left- or right-wing who would never label themselves so (though might consider themselves as sitting in the opposition). If we want to understand how this condition affects the circumstances of Hungarian theatre, we have to clarify some basic concepts.

Funding of Theaters

Currently, the majority of theaters in Hungary are being sustained through municipal support, which means that performing arts in Hungary largely depend on state subsidies. Examples of patronage exist, but given the small size of the country, the system is rudimentary; sponsors prefer to invest in more “spectacular” projects. Besides financial aid, theater revenues result from seat sales and the so-called TAO [Corporate Income Taxes] which means that national business establishments may offer part of their corporate taxes to theaters, which may receive 80% of their annual seat sales through this method. (This system is rather recent and according to its opponents, it benefits the larger, stronger, high-seat-capacity theaters in addition to facilitating a huge number of abusive practices.) Based on the financing of the different institutions, theatres can be divided into the following groups:

Stone Theaters: Repertory theaters disposing permanent troupes and playgrounds. Partly
subsidized by the municipality, partly subsidized by the state, there are countless such theaters in Budapest, amongst which the most significant are the Katona József Theater, the Örkény István Theater, the Radnóti Miklós Theater and the National Theater (this is a subjective list). In addition, there are stone theaters outside of Budapest, primarily in regional municipalities, specifically in larger cities. There is a significant difference, inasmuch as the theaters in Budapest may easily establish their own identities, whereas this task is more difficult for regional theaters, since it is the same establishment providing operas, musicals, children’s plays, studio theater performances, etc.

Private Theaters: they exist sporadically, generally playing tabloid-type presentations. The most significant among them is the Orlai Produkciós Iroda [Orlai Production Office] and the
Átrium Film-Színház [Atrium Film-Theater]—these also participate occasionally in setting up independent theater performances, or at least act as host establishments.

Independent Theaters: formerly referred to as amateur theaters, later alternative theater troupes that have no sponsors, functioning on project funding from tenders and competitions and usually having no permanent playgrounds. The bulk of dance troupes and numerous children’s theater-and-theater education companies belong in this group. The accomplishments of independent troupes are recognized worldwide, but in Hungary these troupes are forced to work under increasingly harsher conditions. Thus, as a matter of course, part of their presentations automatically takes place in international co-productions. The troupes struggle in different ways with this situation: Viktor Bodó’s company, the Szputnyik, chose to close down due to uncertainty and unpredictability. Béla Pintér’s company resigned from the two annual presentations and raised ticket prices (luckily, they can afford it, having a huge fan base, tickets are sold out for months, within hours of their announced performances on the Internet). Kornél Mundruczó’s company, the Proton, always present their show abroad, the same is true for the productions of Árpád Schilling’s company. (Incidentally, he has completely disconnected his artistic activities from Krétakör, [Chalk Circle] now primarily engaging in projects of social dialogues and responsibility-taking.)

Host Theaters: these present guest performances and productions of troupes without a permanent playground. Their important role is to pave the way for startup troupes. In this regard, the Jurányi Inkubátor Ház [Juranyi Incubator House] is a unique phenomenon, operating out of an old schoolhouse building, which offers a rehearsal room and other infrastructure to “lodger” troupes, serving as well as a host platform for community groups. The Szkéné [Theater of the Budapest University of Technology and Economics] works largely with permanent troupes, the MU Theater concentrates mainly on dance, startup troupes and lately on community presentations. The most significant host theater is Trafó, the only place where foreign guest performances can be seen continuously during the year.

It is important to know what the above concepts mean because, as we will see, divisiveness is not only a political, but a structural question as well.

Two Theatrical Organizations and Two Performing Arts Acts

There are two organisations for authors and young writers—or even history teachers—one is left-wing, the other is right-wing. In some cases, the right-wing organizations came into existence as opposing organisms. This is what happened in the case of the Magyar Színházi Társaság (MszT) and the Magyar Teátrumi Társaság (MTT – both names mean Hungarian Theatre Association with the only difference that ‘színházi’ is the Hungarians version of the word theatre, and ‘teátrumi’ is a less used, Latin version). The MSzT was established in 1997, its purpose was to represent the interests of the Hungarian theater profession and its main ambition was the legislation of the work in performing arts. Parliament finally adopted this law in 2008. In essence, it was the dissatisfaction with this law that gave rise to the MTT, which primarily included regional theaters as members, with Attila Vidnyánszky becoming its leader, who is currently the most influential person in the Hungarian theater world, with numerous positions: director of the National Theater, president of the MTT, and the director of the Kaposvári Egyetem Színházi Intézet [Kaposvár University Theater Institution]. The purpose of the MTT was the enforcement of the interests of regional theaters which,—according to them—have not sufficiently prevailed within the MSzT. They stressed the fact that the law should have included the esthetical and qualitative aspects. This point of view, according to their critics, has not succeeded in the case of theaters clustering in the MTT, as those at the helm were political appointees, presenting mainly tabloid-type plays or shows for entertainment.
In 2011, the 2008 law was finally modified (currently this version is in force), and the MTT has reached another important modification. The 2008 law guaranteed that the independent associations would receive 10% of the subsidies destined for theaters. The modification terminated this guarantee: now the law only states that the Nemzeti Erőforrás Minisztérium [Ministry of National Resources] may grant an aggregate, unspecified support to independents theaters. The Független Előadó-művészeti Szervezet [Independent Performing Arts Association] (then still Független Színházak Szövetsége [Independent Theaters Association]) protested, understandably, against the modification, since, as of this year, the allocation for their support has been considerably reduced.

Festivals

It is due to this bipolarity, i.e., the existence of two theatrical associations, that a rather absurd and a seemingly insolvable situation has surfaced, namely that when the Hungarian theater scene is expressly aspiring to bury the rifts and reach a balanced decision, they summon individuals from “both sides”. The best example for this is the POSzT- Pécsi Országos Színházi Találkozó, [Pécs National Theater Festival], one of the most important festivals, for which a selector nominated by the MSzT and the MTT has been choosing the productions for years, and where the seven-member jury is also carefully chosen to represent people from both sides.
From the outset, a certain kind of indecision is encoded in this situation, since the two associations to this day could never reach a definite agreement regarding the POSzT’s fundamental mission. According to certain opinions, the best productions should be participating in POSzT, while according to others, the nature of the festival is a more important viewpoint, namely, that the greatest possible number of theaters be in attendance. Thus, many hold the inherent situation of the festival as hopeless, and they have been neglecting it for years. The owners (The city of Pécs and the two theater associations) posted a contest for the management of POSzT. Thus, the winner set up a professional advisory board, intended for the reinvention of POSzT, which is currently under way.
For a long time, there was no international festival in Hungary that would also be considered significant in Europe. This is the gap that the MITEM [Madách International Theater Festival] is currently trying to fill, with the festival organized by the National Theater under the direction of Attila Vidnyánszky, for which, for that matter, there is plenty of state support, since Vidnyánszky is favored by the authorities (especially when compared to the former director, Róbert Alföldi, who, even before the Orbán regime, has managed the National Theater with much less funding). According to festival critics, the concept of the selection is not apparent in the program, leaning primarily toward Eastern Europe and Asia, concentrating on major national theaters. In 2017, for example, performances by Silviu Purcărete, Krystian Lupa, Eimuntas Nekrošius and Alvis Hermanis will be coming to the MITEM.
The Magyar Színházak Kisvárdai Fesztiválja [Kisvárda Festival of Hungarian Theaters] is mandated to present Hungarian theaters beyond the border. That is to say, that there is a considerable Hungarian minority living in Slovakia, Ukraine, Romania and Serbia, whose theater professionals had hitherto no chance to meet each other, or those of their homeland. That is why a festival came into existence in a small Eastern Hungarian town, which does not even have its own theater. At the time, this seemed to be a practical solution due to the geographical situation; today, however, the lack of infrastructure makes the organizing quite difficult. Nevertheless, the town is fond of the festival, while their demand for “audience friendly” performances is clearly expressed.
Besides these, a number of smaller festivals are provided with full or partial theatrical profiles and given topics or artistic genres. International audiences take part in limited number in these festivals, an exception is the rhapsodically held Kortárs Dráma Fesztivál [Contemporary Drama Festival] due to financial reasons, and, of course, the showcase-type DunaPart [Duna Banks] festival, specifically organized for foreigners, set up every two years (next in November 2017). These last two festivals are often accused of being biased and of ignoring the achievements of countryside theatres by the right.

Theater Esthetics

There is indeed a striking difference between the regional and the Budapest theaters, especially as regards the characteristically conservative esthetics in the countryside, especially since people appointed by Fidesz [Hungarian Civic Party, i.e. Viktor Orbán’s party] landed in the directors’ chairs. This, of course, is a tendency at best, and does not mean that there are no exciting, good quality performances in the countryside – more and more of what the left-wing press considers to be right-wing theaters and politically appointed managing directors are inviting progressive directors to their associations. Neither does it mean that the fresh, contemporary productions are exclusively in the non-right-wing theaters of Budapest.
However, the observations about esthetics expressed by the directors of the MTT nevertheless show some common traits. The expression “theater of hope”, by now a household phrase, may be linked to these esthetics, according to which theaters must transmit positive messages to the spectators, giving answers to issues raised by the plays in question. According to them, the theater is a tool for the cultivation of the Hungarian language, and there are certain stylistic and dramaturgical solutions that distort the author’s intention. The arts and the theater formerly supported by the cultural/educational policies (prior to the current Orbán regime) shift excessively to the West, copying the German theater, where provocation is the strongest element.
According to the esthetics of the opposition, the most important mission of the theater is the posing of questions, the purpose being collective thinking. A work of art, a production, can only be important if they also have relevance in the present. In an ideal case, theater should educate the spectators for open and inclusive social responsibility, and should basically be political, since in given cases it deals with social issues.
How much emphasis it receives, how these esthetics are carried out and how well they are able to actually address the audience, that is another matter. The opinions of different generations in all likelihood disagree in this respect. We could say, in a somewhat polarizing fashion, that in stone theaters, above all, psychological realism and theater direction still predominate, while the characteristics of the majority of independent theaters are risk-taking experiments, among which several genres, slants and trends may be found. These specifically include documentary-based, physical, community-and-participatory type improvisational and devised theater. We may also state that in stone theaters, in certain constellations (in cooperation with guest directors and associations), where sometimes excursions to unfamiliar territories are made, the “results” of independent theaters certainly are, in many respects, an inspiration to stone theaters as well. Meanwhile, theater-makers of the youngest generation who would like to distance themselves from these battles and from the point of view determining whether people belong to “them” or to “us” are coming forward. They reference all this in their productions and often ostensibly dissociate themselves from politics.

Election of Directors

The present government avows itself to the aesthetics of the right side, and has done a lot for the spreading of it by putting “its own people” in the positions of theatre directors.
In Hungarian theaters, the funder invites tenders for the position of theater director every five years. The applications are judged by a committee (whose members belong to the profession, to the given theatre as well as to the funder), who will read the applications and audition the candidates.
The publication of tenders is not compulsory, but the majority of applicants avail themselves of the opportunity (or the “pirated” copies of a given tender are often diffused). The committee proposes a motion to the funder of who would be considered qualified for the post of director, although the funder is not obliged to take the committee’s opinion in consideration. Thus, it often happens that the powers to be know in advance whom they would want to have as a director of their theater, but nevertheless get to act out the entire charade.
It happened, for instance, in György Dörner’s case, who, in 2011, was nominated to be at the helm of Újszínház [New Theater] by István Tarlós, the mayor of Budapest, despite the objections of the committee and a protesting crowd. György Dörner had applied together with István Csurka, a former president of an extreme right-wing party; he and the artists he likes working with have made several anti-Semitic, homophobic statements. Incidentally, György Dörner was re-elected in 2016, notwithstanding his moderate success even in right-wing circles.
The newest case is related to Tamás Jordán, the founder (!) and current director of Weöres Sándor Theatre in Szombathely. His theatre is very popular and successful, but when Jordán’s mandate ended, the municipality did not choose him as director again despite the fact that he was the only aspirant and that there were demonstrations in his favour. His contract was only extended by a month, and instead the municipality will soon tender his position.. The municipality seems to wait for the “right” aspirant, anyone but Jordán is acceptable for them. Jordán is probably “punished” because he invited directors, namely Róbert Alföldi and János Mohácsi who are considered to be enemies by Attila Vidnyánszky. In the past few years, it even happened a few times that a director was replaced before the end of his mandate. According to recent regulations, the funder is not obliged to publicly justify the removal of the leader, so the reasons for the premature change of directors never came to light.
Thus, to a large extent, theaters depend on the authorities and funders who in the past decade have but rarely been mindful of professional opinions. Barely known people in the wider profession with little experience were being appointed to the helm of well established theaters with a great past.

The Critics

The Hungarian critical discourse is dominated by non-right wing voices. However, Tthere is less and less room in Hungary for professional critics, and nowadays one can no longer make a living from writing reviews or editing. Thus, writing reviews is becoming a hobby; most of the critics have a primary job in some type of earning trade and do their writing on the side. Fees received for articles (40-50 euros) have been stagnant for at least ten years, and some theater segments save precisely on complimentary tickets or tickets sold to professional establishments. According to one part of the critics, the fees received for their articles barely cover the amounts spent on theater tickets. Another problem is that not too many critics can afford to attend small town/countryside performances, as most of them live in Budapest. Employers can no longer afford to pay travel expenses and accommodations, not to mention how time-consuming it is for critics, beside their work, to travel back and forth in order to attend a performance. Hence, criticism is often accused of being centered in Budapest. What is also strange, that some primary jobs held by some critics are linked to theaters, associations or lodgings, which, for the time being, produces uncertain situations. There are also many “career-changer” critics, who decided to abandon the strenuous, amphibious way of life.
The critics have an organization to safeguard their interests, the Színházi Kritikusok Céhe [Hungarian Theatre Critics’ Association] (where the members themselves vote to decide who can be a member). In recent years, the prestige of the organization has grown somewhat, thanks to the Színikritikusok Díja [Theater Critics’ Award]. These awards are given out every season in fifteen categories, based on the voting by the association’s members, in connection of which it has been more and more emphasized that they are judged by an independent corporate body—which is interesting, especially in light of state awards and the often cautious, balancing POSzT-awards. However, the above mentioned crisis in the critic’s profession is also reflected in the awards: according to the rules, only those critics may vote who have seen at least ninety Hungarian-language performances in a given season, which less and less young critics can afford to do (working at other jobs, hence, very busy), so there are more and more older people among the voting members. As a consequence—or at least according to the critics of the critics’ award—the views about the awards are somewhat conservative and rather predictable.
Without the critics’ award, theater critics do not have much prestige; rarely do theater critics decide the fate of a performance.
There are a few (non-professional) theater blogs with comparatively wider readership and numerous critique and cultural portals with a strong theatrical review column (e.g. Revizoronline.com). There are three trade magazines: Színház [Theater], Ellenfény [Backlight] and Criticai Lapok [Critique Pages] (which, for a small country, is no small feat), although even the most popular, the Theater, only prints 1,500 copies, of which a vast number is unsold.
The bulk of the revenue from theater magazines is state sponsored, with considerably smaller proceeds from sold copies and advertisements. Thus, when in 2016, due to the reorganization of the NKA [National Cultural Fund] and the funding system, state subsidizing suddenly decreased substantially, the magazines found themselves in big trouble and could not publish for months. (What will happen in 2017, to this date, is impossible to know). The MTT also has a magazine called Magyar Teátrum [Hungarian Teatrum], but its professionalism is questioned since it is partially subsidized by theaters, and the chief editor was, until recently, the director of a countryside theater. Theatre makers within the MTT often express their dissatisfaction with the Hungarian critics, who are, in their opinion, biased, while they also voice their desire for the need to train a new generation of critics. The success of this effort is yet to be seen.
As a whole, this dialogue between the critics, the creators and the spectators, cannot be considered too lively, nevertheless, more and more attempts are happening toward the animation of this dialogue.

 

Published on 2 May 2017