Photo: Daniel Domolky

Point of No Return - Tamás Jászay, #1 – 2024

An Essay by theatre critic Tamás Jászay about the situation in the independent Hungarian theatre scene 

How did we get here?! This is the question that viewers, creators and critics ask themselves day by day in the context of the bleeding out of the contemporary Hungarian independent performing arts scene, which has been going on for almost a decade and a half but is now entering its final phase. A view to the apocalypse, or independents on the brink of extinction.

Let’s start outside the theatre! In October 2023, Gábor Reisz’s third feature film, Explanation for Everything, was released in Hungarian cinemas. The film was seen by more than 55,000 viewers in Hungary in one month. The film, which is not supported by the Hungarian state, won awards in Venice, Chicago and Rome and will continue its tour of international film festivals in 2024. A miniscule misunderstanding turns into a national political scandal. We build up to the magnificent, yet disheartening climax, in which a right-wing father and a liberal history teacher try – unsuccessfully – to understand each other’s points of view. Their pointless battle of words evokes many personal experiences in the Hungarian viewer: since the beginning of the right-wing government in 2010, how many times have we tried to convince our friends and relatives that the country is going in a very bad or even a very good direction…

Gábor Reisz brings something new to the narrative of a divided Hungary that is experienced by millions every day. He names the head of government, Viktor Orbán, the former leader of the opposition, Ferenc Gyurcsány, who is demonised by the right-wing, and talks about George Soros, migrants, manipulative and biased media, the fear of position, self-censorship – in short, everything we live in and how we live: welcome to Hungary!

This kind of honesty and outspokenness is practically unprecedented in contemporary Hungarian art. During the decades of communism, it became commonplace to have a hidden message between the lines, and now it seems as if we are back again. At first, I thought it was a matter of excessive caution on the part of the artists, or perhaps the reintroduction and maintenance of the most dangerous institution of self-censorship. Now, however, I sense more apathy, disillusionment, resignation on the part of artists: as we shall see, the private sphere has been valorised and public life and politics have become a dark region not worth mentioning. I am not saying that this is the right direction, but given the history, there is nothing surprising in its strengthening.

While I am disgusted by the war rhetoric that pervades Hungarian public discourse today – the prime minister and his comrades fighting againt Brussels, protecting Hungary from George Soros, etc. – a sketchy overview of the history of the independent performing arts community in Hungary reveals a picture of a decades-long war, punctuated by ceasefires and small victories and big defeats.

One has to go back a long way to find the antecedents: amateur theatre companies that started in the 1960s at universities in the capital and in the countryside are the ancestors of today’s independents. In their performances, they took authors, themes and aesthetic considerations that went far beyond the official line of socialist realism. Peripheral existence is the most characteristic feature of the sphere, and the language used to describe them is revealing. The term ‘amateur’, or non-professional, is still associated with a pejorative connotation, but the label ‘alternative’ that replaced it in the mid-1970s is also ghettoising. (Árpád Schilling, an internationally renowned Hungarian director, initiated an unsuccessful dialogue with theatre critics about the exclusionary nature of the term in the early 2000s.) The wording of the Theatre Act, adopted in 2008 and amended several times, is also revealing, when it classifies institutions and groups into three categories: ‘national’, ‘priority’ and ‘other’. Independents are listed under ‘other’: they will therefore never be of national or priority importance…

Although the term “othertheatre” („másszínház”), which appeared in the second half of the nineties, did not spread widely, the concise definition of László Bérczes, who coined the term, points to the essence of the independent existence of these kind of theatre: “Whatever name we apply to othertheatre (marginal, radical, alternative, avant-garde, oppositional, etc.), it will always mean a theatre standing or finding itself in opposition to the prevailing authority. No matter if that theatre is in the institution or outside of it” (emphasis mine – TJ). The most important thing to understand about the independents is that their name is in fact a euphemism: we are talking about the area most vulnerable to the current cultural government, the area of extreme dependence.

I will not even attempt to outline the theatre funding system in Hungary, which is so complex that it is difficult to understand even for those involved. I will merely point out that the independents have had access to modest sums of money through tenders since the mid-1980s, thanks to George Soros and the Open Society Foundations. After the change of regime, from the mid-nineties, the Ministry of Culture launched an annual operating grant: the funding system, which still exists today but is rumoured to be radically reformed from 2024, actually supports the background, not the creation of new premieres. The latter is possible under the National Cultural Fund project grants, set up in 1993, where ridiculously small sums can be won to create new shows. It is a well-known fact, but it needs to be pointed out: culture cannot exist in Central Eastern Europe without state support. That is why it is alarming that the new minister for culture is talking about the future being exclusively project funding.

Anyone who lives in Hungary today has often felt that politics has crossed a certain line from which there is no return. 2023 will probably mark a turning point in the history of independent theatres: their already low annual operating grants were cut by the Ministry of Culture by forty percent (!) without consultation or explanation. The unexpected decision is a death sentence for independent theatre groups on the verge of burnout and closure. When Réka Szabó, director-choreographer and leader of The Symptoms (Tünet Együttes), founded in 2003, announced in February 2023 that she would be closing her ensemble, it was clear that the radical but necessary move was in fact an overture. The company director’s open letter is both a self-critical vision and a prophecy: “Many defining moments and important people have been rendered insignificant in recent times by the cynical manipulations of politics and our collective indifference, which feeds on many sources.”

And indeed: in 2023, several groups have announced their closure, and the list below is by no means exhaustive. After ten years of operation, the FAQ Theatre, a theatre company made up mainly of young people experimenting with new dramaturgy, bid farewell to its audience in a burial ceremony. The Narrative Collective (Narratíva Kollektíva), founded a few years ago, started with ambitious plans: four members of the young generation of Hungarian directors, two women (Andrea Pass, Zita Szenteczki) and two men (Máté Hegymegi, Dániel D. Kovács), with their own identifiable theatrical aesthetics, founded the group, which is now on the verge of dissolution. In contemporary dance, the permanent company is a rule that strengthens the exception: the Ziggurat Project, experimenting with technology, public spaces and interdisciplinary means, has suspended its activities.

There is an emergency around the theatre education companies with a long history: the work of these groups, which aim to educate young people in critical thinking, democracy and a culture of debate, is probably considered dangerous by the government, which is why it does not support them. Be that as it may, their work is made impossible by ever-diminishing funding opportunities. The Proton Theatre, led by Kornél Mundruczó, needs no introduction in the German speaking area: the director, who creates his performances in international co-productions, has now practically given up theatre-making in his native country. In the summer of 2023, the Proton Theatre announced an action entitled The Olympics of Survival, a sad irony referring to the Theatre Olympics that took place in Hungary for months with horrific government support. Mundruczó and his virtual team are now caught in a vicious circle: in order to (possibly) receive an operating grant from the ministry in 2024, they will have to create a new premiere and perform their repertoire, but the radically reduced subsidy will no longer even allow for basic operations.

The outsider might think that the disappearance of the independents will hurt a few, but cultural statistics show otherwise. According to 2021 data, seventy registered companies in the independent field played 5,350 performances in front of more than 710,000 (!) spectators. We can say that the independents are popular, their performances are in demand, and the average state subsidy of around HUF 9,4 million (around EUR 25,000 at today’s exchange rates) per team in the same year is amply recouped – remember, most independent teams do not have their own venues, so they do not bear the infrastructure and logistical costs of their own venues. While in the 1980s and 1990s a few stone theatres with permanent companies and repertoires (e.g. the Katona József Theatre, for many years Budapest’s most important artists’ theatre) represented Hungarian theatre culture abroad, this all changed by the 2000s. It was mainly thanks to the Chalk Circle Theatre (Krétakör Színház), led by Árpád Schilling, that Europe and the world became aware of the work of Hungarian independents, including Viktor Bodó, Kornél Mundruczó, Béla Pintér, Zoltán Balázs, also born in the 1970s.

The 2010s brought new changes: in 2018, Schilling left Hungary, and Bodó and Mundruczó’s theatrical activities also shifted abroad. Viktor Bodó’s internationally renowned company, the Sputnik Shipping Company (Szputnyik Hajózási Társaság), was dissolved in 2015, after which the director worked in Hungary, at first sporadically, but in recent years regularly: his annual premiere is a raging success on the main stage of the Örkény István Theatre. Mundruczó envisages productions on a scale that can only be realised with the involvement of serious foreign partners – his only Hungarian partner, Trafó, remains committed to him.

Speaking of success: the case of Béla Pintér is a unique example of the movement between periphery and centre mentioned above. His troupe, Béla Pintér and Company, which has been in continuous operation since 1998, has been at the forefront of public and theatre professional interest for many years. Their annual premiere became a real social event, some of their shows have a waiting list of several months, and their journey is marked by a series of professional awards and festival invitations. Pintér’s performances are his main means of communicating the mental state of Hungary today: when he rarely speaks in public, he attracts attention with his pithy, outspoken speeches that do not hide the responsibility of politicians.

But what about now? We have had an exceptionally busy four years: since 2020, the country, the region and even the world has been reeling from one crisis to the next, with few encouraging signs. And yet: a new generation of young creators in their twenties and thirties has emerged and is present, who think and formulate theatre from a different starting point than their mature colleagues. The near future is one of low/no-budget productions with a small cast and easy travel. International co-productions can be as much a way out of this desperate situation as those productions, where the structure and dramaturgy are fixed by the creators, but local versions can be created anywhere. With a few exceptions, permanent companies are probably finished for good: nowadays mostly project-based, flexible collaborations create shows.

As I have already indicated, this generation is not concerned with (current) politics, their primary focus being the private sphere. Which is not to say that they turn their heads away from contemporary Hungary: they often report on the state of public affairs through the telling of personal stories and research-based forms of theatre. Family and historical traumas, distortions of memory politics, gender stereotypes, the situation of minorities are also addressed in some of the performances. At the same time, productions based on classical dramatic texts that reflect on the present in an indirect way have not disappeared.

At the other end of the imaginary scale, there are also productions that suspend the traditional role of the spectator, sometimes offering active participation. Freeszfe is a Budapest-based partisan institution for students and teachers who have voluntarily left and/or been expelled from the University of Theatre and Film Arts (SZFE), where in-depth professional work is carried out on a minimal budget. Some other performances, produced with civilian contributors, often from ethnic minorities, are attracting a lot of attention in the circles of theatre professionals. Meanwhile, pure genres have all but disappeared: theatre, dance, puppetry, circus, performance art, music theatre, film, contemporary technologies often appear in the company of each other, sometimes in non-conventional spaces.

A few months ago, when a foreign journalist asked me to name the golden age of independent theatre in Hungary, after some hesitation I identified the second half of the 2000s as the best years of Krétakör, Szputnyik, Maladype, Béla Pintér. The right-wing government since 2010 has meant a clear break in initiatives that were already working well and promising. And while on the surface today, as I write this article, at the end of the cold November 2023, almost everything is still fine, with teams, performances and spectators, I am much more pessimistic about whether a new golden age is coming. I wish I wasn’t right.