THEATRE:Hungarian Theatre


Through a Glass Darkly
On the Present of Hungarian Theatre

The Hungarian Theatre is booming. Statistics show that during the past seven years the number of spectators has been growing incessantly. The magazine Heti Világgazdaság has been issuing every years since 2006 the list of the most attended Hungarian theatres, based on the information from the theatres themselves and the data provided by the Secretary of State responsible for culture. According to this, in 2014 the most tickets were sold to the performances of the Opera House in Budapest: namely 446,130. The second most visited theatre was the Budapest Operetta Theatre, yet if we summarise the number of attendances of the Vígszínház in their main hall and the chamber venue, the Pesti Színház, they come in second. The musical theatre Madách Színház on the Grand Boulevard is also on the pulpit, followed by the Turay Ida Színház, a company that roams across the country with entertaining productions. Among the theatres in the provinces the most tickets are sold in Szolnok, Székesfehérvár and Kecskemét, visitors over 90 thousand in each institution.

Based on the data of the Central Statistical Institute after the economic recession in 2008, the yearly number of spectators plummeted to 4.5 millions, yet the following year it started a steady rise. In 2013 already 5.8 million tickets were sold, while in 2014 the total number of spectators rose to 6.5, which is quite remarkable in a small country of only 10 million inhabitants. The number of theatre attendances per one hundred persons rose from 51 in 2012 to 65 in only three years. The average number of theatre performances a year is 25 thousand, more than half of which took place in Budapest. During a single weekend in the capital, from Friday to Sunday night, one can choose from over a hundred different shows. All of the established theatres in Budapest are working in the repertory system, the larger of which – like the National, Vígszínház, Thália or the Katona – keeping a monthly 13-14 productions on the repertory, each with one or maximum two performances a month. The large music theatres keep a smaller number of shows on the repertory at a given time, more readily offering longer runs of their 7-8 productions.


More and more spectators

Of the yearly 25 performances almost every third is a production specifically for the youth. Children’s theatre is thus a very important slice of the theatre system, where we can experience the same division of  ‘commercial theatre’ and ‘artistic theatre’ that we see in the case of the theatre for ‘grownups’. In the larger provincial towns permanent puppet theatres are operating, very serious artistic workshops, like Ciróka in Kecskemét, Mesebolt in Szombathely or Vaskakas in Győr. Beyond these, the established – state or local government-supported – theatres in each of the county seats programme some shows for the young people, one or two each season. Budapest has two separate theatres with this profile, Kolibri Színház and Budapest Bábszínház (Budapest Puppet Theatre). Both are quality theatres, which lately have been very much involved in theatre education. TiE programmes have become the norm in these theatres, with pre- and post-show activities led by trained teachers. In the capital one can find a handful of (independent) companies – like Káva and Kerekasztal – which exclusively specialize on theatre education. Beyond the established children’s and puppet theatres private troupes, travelling companies and masses of private ventures operate all through the country, in view of the fact that demand is virtually inexhaustible. There is always and everywhere a public for children’s theatre: in the theatres, culture houses, malls, streets, public squares, fairs, kindergartens, schools. Children’s theatre performances come to life on the most various levels of quality, from well desired to the undesired.

Within this genre the art of puppetry has undergone a conspicuous development during the past decade. This is mostly due to the fact that the University of  Theatre and Film launched a major in puppetry exactly twenty years ago, giving many talented artists to the field. The forefront of the present-day Hungarian puppetry – to which belong writers, dramaturges, directors, actors, mangers, from Dóra Gimesi, Angéla Kolozsi to Gábor Tengely, Jankó Schneider to Rozi Kocsis – are able to display artistic results which go well beyond the traditional means, programme, forms and content of the children’s theatre. Moreover, these artists sometimes also produce for adult audiences.

The statistics are impressive, yet on the matter of the theatre historical importance of thes achievements one should tread carefully, since a large part of the spectators attend the so-called lighter genres, musical comedies in the venues – let’s call them commercial – which receive state subsidies from the central budget just like arts theatres. The three most attended shows of 2014 are all world-famous hits: Mamma Mia, Mary Poppins and Gone With the Wind. It cannot even be expected in the near future that the entertainment theatres – especially those performing large-budget musical shows – could manage to get by on their own ticket sales or sponsorship. The financial means of the Hungarian audiences do not allow theatres to set unsubsidized ticket prices. There are no private sponsors nor wealthy entrepreneurs either who would be involved to a considerable extent in the support of theatre, maybe only some large state-owned companies, but nowadays they  also try to align their sponsoring activities with government politics, as their activity and incomes largely depend on the state. Larger banks were somewhat involved earlier in arts sponsorship but now they are toiling under large tax pressures. And it must be said that theatre – and culture generally – is not the field which would be of a strategic importance for the state leadership.

Nonetheless, there are some examples for committed private businessmen to operate a private theatre, with the aim of quality entertainment in mind. Orlai Production Agency, founded by Tibor Orlai, can already look back on a history of ten years. During this time it brought to life several dozen performances, performed at the Belvárosi Színház and many other venues across the country. In 2014 only in the capital they had more spectators than the National Theatre (73,351). Zsofia Zimányi’s venture is also a success, who opened Rózsavölgyi Szalon in 2012, upstairs in the building of the Rózsavölgyi Music Store, where light comedies are put on in a café environment. Private theatres can also come to life in another way: the bankrupt Játékszín on the Boulevard was privatized by Kristóf Német under shady circumstances, and quite probably Centrál Színház will soon also be freed from state ownership and operated as a private venture by the present-day managing director Tamás Puskás. In the past three years the state closed two Budapest theatres – an unprecedented event in the past several decades – first Budapest Kamaraszínház with its three studio venues, and later Bárka Színház was slowly bled out and closed.

Now let us take a quick look at the judiciary status of the theatres and their financial operation.


Law and Money

At the end of 2008 the Parliament passed the performing arts act, which required theatres to register, classifying them in different categories, which, then, were the basis of their subsidies. Originally there were six categories, differentiating between theatres based on their number of productions, number of performances, own productions created and the presence of absence of an own company. The famed VI. category comprised the independent theatres active at least for two years, who, due to the fallacy of the implementation and financial cuts, which led to the freezing of the subsidies, finally did not receive the 10% of all state theatre spending which was originally meant to be guaranteed to them by the performing arts act. By 2013 the number of categories was reduced to only three, which specified the national and featured categories of theatre institutions which would get a normative subsidy each year. The rest of the theatres, in the third category, could only receive funding on a yearly application basis.

After the European Union had approved in 2009 of the financial move of the state to give up on a part of its tax income from private corporations, in order to restrain ticket price income and the loss of audiences, companies could decide to subsidize theatres from a part of their taxes to the registered theatres, who can receive this subsidy (called TAO) up the 80 percent of their ticket income in the preceding season. A war started for these incomes. (Bad luck for theatres that now TAO can also be given to certain privately-owned ‘spectacle team sports’, like football for instance. Now, the government in power is exemplary in finding sports, especially football, to be much more worthy of state subsidies than theatres.)

The entrance of TAO managed to solve the most ardent financial needs of theatres in 2010, but their adverse side effects were visible quite quickly, while on the long term, it can also be held accountable for serious negative tendencies. On the one hand, typically of the Hungarian ingeniousness, a means was instantly found for the horrible statistical pumping-up of visit numbers/ticket incomes. Documents were born to verify tours in foreign, exotic countries with fabulous visitor numbers, which strongly increased the TAO income of certain theatres the following year. Secondly, mediating companies stepped in and unwritten rules were devised for what the percentage of the received TAO was to be immediately sent back to the subsidizing company, or paid as a mediation fee for the mediators. Legislation constantly tried to amend the rules but the system itself is still quite far from being perfect – a system which was originally designed by the maintaining organs to be a supplementary source of subsidy, but by today, it has become an integral part of the theatre subsidy system. In December 2015 the association called Tiszta TAO-ért (For a Clean TAO) was founded, fighting for a corruption-free cultural subsidy system, without mediating parties. The association was founded mostly by the theatre managers who were proponents of the amendment of the theatre act.

Even more, the system of theatre subsidies is exactly regulated by the performing-arts act. How, for instance, the ‘artistic motivating subsidy’ should be calculated, based on quality quantifiers, the experience is that the legislators feel free to divert from these algorithms in ad hoc manners. In the budgetary act of 2011 it happened that 50 million forints were regrouped on an MP initiative, to supplement the ‘artistic motivating subsidy’ of the Petőfi Theatre in Veszprém. This increment is only 10 million less than the subsidy received by Béla Pintér and Company from the central budget that year, the most outstanding independent theatre group, recognized home and abroad.

The theatres deemed to a yearly application instead of a continuous support, which are listed in the so-called third category, are predominantly independent, ‘alternative’ theatre groups with a fate dimmer and dimmer each year. And this not only because the say of the boards of professionals is less and less each day in the evaluation of applications submitted to the National Cultural Fund and the ministerial allowance for culture, and decisions are increasingly defined on an ideological basis, favouring theatres and organizations with strong ideological and political ties to the government. The fate of independent theatres is sealed also because the decreasing amount of subsidies are more and more used by those institutions, without regard to the conflicts of interest, the leaders of which are sitting in the boards, and the activity of which is also strongly preferred by the institutions receiving regular subsidies (e.g. the National Theatre, the Pesti Magyar Színház, the National Dance Theatre). The presence of professional organizations is even more limited in the restructured decision board of the National Cultural Fund in 2016.

Altogether, the subsidies of the theatre field are ever decreasing, with its balances also shifted, being more favourable for the commercially more successful theatres and party to the companies grouped under the Magyar Teátrumi Társaság, a theatre association which from its onset was organized along political lines.  The arts theatres in the capital and the small independent companies sentenced to a slow death by the current practice of state subsidizing, find harder and harder to survive. We should bear these in mind when looking at the achievements of the past three years of Hungarian theatre, the ways how theatres work, the artistic trends and results of theatres.


The National and what goes with it

The history of the National Theatre has never been free of politics. Each political regime has the tendency of seeing the theatre as a reflection of national identity, the flagship of Hungarian theatre, or even the crown jewel of the cultural government. To this it  has never been added a well thought-out and widely accepted concept about the role of the National Theatre in the 21st century (or even the 20th). The appointment of the managing director of the National Theatre of Budapest has usually been done without considering the professional aspects, but rather based on ideals, ideological expectations or political reliability. Attila Vidnyánszky is the sixth director of new venue of the National Theatre, inaugurated in 2002, and only two of his predecessors completed their five-year cycles. The last manager change was peculiarly tempestuous, partly because of the specific circumstance of the application assessment, and partly because the preceding manager, Róbert Alföldi, managed to boost general interest in the theatre, the last premieres being followed eagerly by a large number of enthusiastic visitors. There is a sharp difference: compared to the theatre of Alföldi the one by Attila Vidnyánszky is simpler in its message, more declarative, more educational. But at the same time it is poetic, visionary, sometimes even mystical in its form language, which the general audience finds a challenge to follow and comprehend.

Attila Vidnyánszky, beyond being the manager of the National, plays an important role and has several functions in the theatre life of the country: he is the president of the Magyar Teátrumi Társaság, deputy rector on artistic matters at the University of Kaposvár, and before his appointment as theatre manager he had been the leader of the Theatre Arts Commission, an influential body in the decision of the division of subsidies and appointment of managing directors. His outstanding lobbying skills and will to conquer territories did not only have serious, sometimes even dramatic consequences – like the gradual erosion of independent companies, the dead-end road of the National Theatre Festival of Pécs or vacating the theatre department of the Kaposvár University – but also a positive one: MITEM. The Madách International Theatre Festival is an international theatre showcase organized by the National Theatre, which first took part in spring 2014 and second time in 2015, with a government decree guaranteeing the financial support for 2016 and 2017. During the past two MITEMs we could see 15-15 foreign performances at the National. Such a lavish selection was last seen in 2000 only, when the festival of the Union of Theatres of Europe was organized in Budapest.


Bastions in the Capital

There are some safe spots on the theatrical map of Budapest: the Katona, the Örkény and maybe still – or rather: again – the Radnóti. There was a manager change at the Katona József Színház in 2011, in the healthiest possible way, which was sadly not habitual in the practice of the past ten years in the country. Gábor Zsábéki was followed by the principal director of the theatre, Gábor Máté, so youth-training was carried out from within. The first cycle of Máté as a manager was characterized by both the continuation of the previous directions and an opening towards a new style, vision and audience. (His second year will start from January 2016, based on the application and decision already carried out.) The building has undergone a serious design facelift, it is a lot trendier now, more appealing for young people, as for what concerns the content, at the Katona Gábor Zsámbéki, Tamás Ascher are still putting on classics on an unchangingly high artistic level, while Gábor Máté’s interest has shifted more towards contemporary plays, and the issues that today’s society finds most challenging (The performance Gypsies translates a comedy written at the beginning of the 20th century by Józsi Jenő Tersánszky into the context of the 21st century Gypsy killings in Hungary. The show Illaberek deals with the wave of modern-day emigration, while Rükverc has a homeless person as its protagonist.)

The general expectation of audiences has been shifting slowly but surely – and not necessarily in the right direction, which could be connected also with the quality of television, the omission of arts and culture from mass media. Today a stating of Gorky or Brecht cannot look ahead on such a long series as 15-20 years ago, not only at Katona. This makes the undertaking of Katona even more brave and beautiful to stage both parts of Goethe’s Faust in spring 2015, directed by Árpád Schilling, performing on two consecutive nights. Not only the resident directors work with the outstandingly high-quality troupe of Katona – beyond the ones already mentioned there is Péter Gothár and the fresh directing woman graduate, Kriszta Székely – but also many young artists and guest directors.

Of the company of Örkény Színház we can also only say the best. The former boulevard theatre was transformed by manager Pál Mácsai in the past fifteen years into a valuable and entertaining arts theatre, where the best staging are hallmarked by directors like László Bagossy, János Mohácsi, Tamás Ascher and Ildikó Gáspár (Hamlet, Liliomfi, Professor Bernhardi, Mary Stuart). In the small theatre on Nagymező street, Radnóti, András Bálint managed for twenty years a solid, quality bourgeois theatre, with the artistic leadership of director Péter Valló. The theatre might have become somewhat tired by today, its value of novelty and appeal diminished, but it is just facing an interesting change, since from 2016, the leading actress, Adél Kovács will become the manager, who, in her application, stands up for offering plentiful opportunities for young directors.

The appointment of Adél Kovács is delightful also for the fact that that thus she is to become the third woman theatre manager in Budapest. The largest drama theatre of the city is still led by actress and directress Enikő Eszenyi, who sets a dazzling pace for the establishment with three venues, hosting over 1600 spectators a night. For instance in the 2012/2013 season they came out with 11 premieres, performing 568 nights for altogether 335 thousand spectators. They reached both professional and audience success with shows like The Good Man from Sechuan (directed by Michal Dočekal and Enikő Eszenyi in the leading role), The Government Inspector by Gogol (directed by Victor Bodó, 2014), The Master and Margarita (directed also by Dočekal, 2014). Enikő Eszenyi can congratulate herself for quite an unprecedented achievement: last year Robert Wilson produced a show titled 1914 together with Vígszínház, the Czech National Theatre and the Slovak National Theatre, which is occasionally performed in Budapest by the ad hoc international cast, of which Enikő Eszenyi is also a member.


Further Away From the Fire

In the life of theatres in the provinces in the past five-ten years what everywhere happened was that the maintainers of the theatre, the city governments, chose the theatre managers (always actors), not taking into account the suggestions of the theatre professional organizations.  This most certainly is connected to the fact that city officials have a first-hand experience about the actor and his/her work, and their expectations for the functions of theatre are much more modest as to be thinking along lines of artistic concepts. Theatres in the provinces these times seem to be following the same patterns in putting together the programme of a season: routine comedy, well-known classic, successful musical show (rather operetta than musical), children’s show. Contemporary Hungarian drama, experimental shows, if any, can only be found in the small chamber hall or studio. The Szigligeti Színház in Szolnok, managed by Péter Balázs can boast with the largest audience, which offers on a generally modest level the kind of spoken and musical theatre which was already outdated in the eighties. We are able to double-check this ourselves on every New Year’s Even, when the public television broadcasts (almost traditionally now) the festive gala of the theatre. (Theatre performances are broadcast on state television only from two-three, unimportant theatres. It is to be feared that from the most important theatre productions in the past five years none were preserved in recording at the Hungarian Television).

There are some, however, among the provincial theatres which undertake more exciting theatrical ventures, like the Katjona József Színház in Kaposvár – which regularly gives the stage to the probably most significant director of the middle generation, Sándor Zsótér – and the Miskolc National Theatre, which came to its present promising state through a chaotic leadership fiasco. The Móricz Zsigmond Színház in Nyíregyháza must also be mentioned, where the 16-year leadership of Csaba Tasnádi, who left last year, hallmarked a period of high artistic quality. We find notable attempts in Debrecen and Dunaújváros, too, with the leadership of managers Anna Ráckevei and Lívia Dobák.

The Hungarian theatres abroad work on a reliably high artistic level. In Transylvania it is the Tamási Áron Színház from Sepsiszentgyörgy, The Kolozsvár State Hungarian Theatre (the first managed by László Bocsárdi, the latter by Gábor Tompa), the Tompa Miklós troupe of the National Theatre in Marosvásárhely and the Hungarian theatres in Vojvodina, Serbia, have been the ones achieving serious success in Hungary during the past few years. Opera ultima by the Újvidéki Színház (directed by Kokan Mladenović), a theatre whose existence is threatened now because of administrative measures, received prices both at the National Festival of Theatres in Pécs and the Festival of Hungarian Theatres Abroad in Kisvárda. The performance of The Viceroy (Bánk Bán) by the Kosztolányi Színház in Szabadka, directed by András Urbán, is a revolutionary interpretation of our national classic, the play by József Katona. Looking at the fate of contemporary Hungarian theatre we can say that ‘salvation’ also came from beyond the border, in the person of Csaba Székely, whose ‘Mine Trilogy’ was a revelation for the Hungarian theatre profession and the audience alike, with its outstanding dramaturgy, humour and unique world-view. The trilogy portrays hopeless deeply alcoholic heroes, minority Hungarians, who live in deprecated Transylvanian villages, with Chekhovian empathy and McDonaghian language.

Following his first staging of Mine Flowers in 2011 at the small independent Yorick Studio in Marosvásárhely, Székely has had 19 different productions all around the country and worldwide. Such a quickly booming and fulfilling playwriting career has no match in the last decades.


Where Is the Future?

The aforementioned independent sector is the strand of the Hungarian theatre life which work in the most free and unconstrained manner, under also the most impossible conditions. For years on, they have been living in the poorest circumstances without any security. They are propelled by youthful swerve and strong ambition, as long as they have the energy and patience. Árpád Schilling with Krétakör has already handed in his demission to the state, Viktor Bodó disbanded his company, the Sputnik. The promising artists of the new generation – Csaba Polgár or András Dömötör – (also) direct abroad, Viktor Bodó and Kornél Mundruczó are also rather thinking in international projects lately.

The subsidies to the independent theatres were reduced to a quarter of the previous amounts in the past five years. The sum set aside for the MITEM festival in 2016 and 2017 (two times 200 million) is more than what was left for the independent theatres in 2015. The Independent Performing Arts Organization, restructured in 2011, is an NGO uniting 50 independent theatres. Among them are (or could be) listed: dance and physical theatre companies (like Tünet or Forte Társulat), full classes of acting students (HOPPart, K2 or AlkalMáté Trupp, coming out every summer with an ‘autobiographical’ piece), and the renowned Stúdió K and the star-companies often invited abroad: Béla Pintér and Company, Sputnyik by Viktor Bodó, Proton Színház by Kornél Mundruczó, Maladype by Zoltán Balázs or Árpád Schilling, who refills Krétakör always with new societal content. This body unites all the young experimenting theatre makers who are most certainly rehearsing the theatre of the future for the audiences of the future. A new tendency here is physical theatre, which gets its supply from the relatively recent training in physical theatre at the University of Theatre and Film, hallmarked by performances like The Notebook by Forte Company, a stage version of Agota Kristof’s novel, where the usage of vegetables becomes the suggestive expression of the fight with nature (including human nature), or Kohlhaas by Máté Hegymegi at the Szkéné, where water rules.

The innovative trends coming from the independent theatres are in best cases accepted and incorporated by the most overt workshops of the established theatre system. This made it possible for Csaba Horváth to direct Orestes at the Radnóti Színház, Viktor Bodó and his actors to find a new home and work community at the Vígszínház or Csaba Polgár to commute with ease between the Örkény Színház and HOPPart, while at the Katona József Színház this spring Béla Pinter will direct a transcription of Puccini’s The Cloak, who with Our Secrets brought to life one of the most important theatre performance of these years with his own company. Our Secrets presents – through the personal drama of a folk musician with pedophilic instincts and by portraying the operation of the secret police – the inhumanity and hopelessness of the socialist seventies and eighties in Hungary, the consequences of which are to be felt also in the political climate of our days, through the still uncovered past of the former secret agents.

Naturally, important events do happen in the established, normatively subsidized repertory theatres, too. For example We Live Once at the National Theatre, which is the theatrical investigative report of the Mohácsi brothers on the boisterous decades of the 20th century Hungarian history. Or the performance Our Class by the Polish Tadeusz Słobodzianek at the Katona, which was inspired by the historical event of Jedwabne, Poland, where in 1941 almost the whole Jewish population was exterminated.

The Streetcar Called Desire at the Radnóti Színház. Or take the modern, lean Tennesse Williams performance, Vágyvillamos (Desiretram). But looking for the future, we are scanning the independents. If they have a future at all.

Andrea Stuber
theatre critic
translated by Attila Szabó



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