Mariann Fabók: A Folktale Heroine

Mariann Fabók, photo: Krisztián Bócsi

Could you tell us a little bit about the beginnings, your emergence as a puppet artist? How did the artform come to your life? What are your earliest memories concerning the genre?

My very first puppet-memory is from the age of six or seven, when my sister and I received two puppet bird figures as gifts. We could fidget with the stringed figures for hours, we were impressed by their grotesque, awkward movements. It took many years for the puppets to leak back into my life again. All my life, I longed to be an actor, and I remember how much pain it was when I dropped out of the second round of the actors’ entrance examination at the SZFE University of Theatre and Film Arts (Színház- és Filmművészeti Egyetem). Today, however, I am extremely grateful for that, because I am sure I would have been less of an artist had I not encountered the puppet-thinking and the fascinating possibilities of the genre. Somehow, I was lucky to get into the studio of the Kolibri Theatre for Children and Youth (Kolibri Gyermek- és Ifjúsági Színház), and after, I managed to graduate as a puppet artist from the Acting Department of SZFE. Later, I signed a contract with the company of the National Theater of Miskolc. After six years on stage, I gave up being a company actor, and I devoted all my energies to our independent theatre, which then was a grassroots initiative. During the rehearsals of our productions, I was able to immerse myself in a single-player game mode that become extremely exciting for me. In this mode of puppet-acting, the puppet comes into contact with the actor moving it, becoming the actor’s fellow player.

Who were your greatest Hungarian masters and role models growing up? Whose art can you resonate the most with at the moment (let it be a puppet artist or someone outside the field)?

I consider myself lucky since, on my journey, I’ve always been accompanied by helpers, like a folktale heroine. I discovered the world of theater properly for the first time with the help of my student acting teacher, Ágnes Farkas. I owe my first puppet masters, Ági Török and Kari Szívós, my interest in puppetry. It is a great honour that my university professors, István Nánay, János Meczner, Tibor Csizmadia, and András Lénárt, still follow my work. Besides, I had masters that practically dropped the traditional, classroom-style teaching, opting for teaching through their own examples. Performances staged by MárkusZínház have also been my defining experiences as an artist during and since my university studies. Even though I did not start my career by copying them, their stage existence and their gestures towards the audience served as models to me. Of course, I cannot miss our two wonderful storytellers, Gyöngyi Écsi and András Berecz, out of the enumeration. I have a very deep respect for their art, I watch their performances whenever it is possible. Finally, I consider meeting and getting to know Attila Vidnyánszky while creating together one of the biggest professional encounters of my life. His theatrical world had fascinated me before, but now that I could get to know the person and the director, while working, I became an even bigger admirer. The list is not really over with him, though. I am inspired by a wide variety of theatrical experiences, and I am very grateful for that.

Who are the international masters or companies you look up to, whose work you always pay close attention to?

An important period of my life was my three-month internship spent at Theater Salz+Pfeffer. The Schmidt couple, Wally and Paul, run a two-piece puppet theatre in the heart of Nuremberg. In addition to getting to know their repertoire, I had the opportunity to see the performances of the Staatstheater Nürnberg and to get acquainted with the masters of one-man puppet shows in the area. I was quite touched when, the internship having ended, the couple gave me a music player and the remote-control system needed to control the machine from the stage. Thus, I brought this “invention” to Hungary, and I am glad that several smaller or private puppet theater companies started to and still do use the system during the performances. Actually, that particular player still works, and my heart bursts every time with joy when I see the few twisted letters that Wally wrote on it, noting “Mariann, du bist super!” Moreover, I would like to mention Ilka Schönbein and Neville Tranter, who keep the tradition of a certain one-man puppet-style alive. On the international stage, I definitely follow their work.

What is Fabók Mancsi’s best audience like?

It is still an elusive secret to me when, how, and exactly why a performance can be a hit. The way “co-vibration” with an audience can develop, removing all boundaries between actor, puppet, and audience, in a playful, receptive way, is magical. I believe it is a claim in physics that burning is perfect when there is no soot, no smoke, no dirt… In theatre, I experience these occasions as moments of grace, and I am very glad to be able to say that I have had them. Therefore, I feel like there is no “best audience,” just “best meeting.”

Photo from a performance by Mariann Fabók, photo: Botond Márk Németh

What is your relationship with the Hungarian language? To what extent the staging of a performance gets complicated with the meeting of a richer, a more archaic text and a younger audience?

I really love the Hungarian language, especially the idioms, dialects, vocabulary, and folk thinking that our regional language collections preserve. The many tasteful forms of humour and the poetic and image-based depictions of our universe which are the characteristics of folk poetry are simply fascinating. I have never found it difficult for a child or adult audience to embrace the language through performances.

Your performances are staged together with your husband and co-creator, Árpád Keresztes-Nagy. How can one imagine the background work? Who is responsible for the different elements and phases of the rehearsal period?

I consider a huge blessing that we can work harmoniously with Árpád not only in our private life, but also at work. When planning, and drawing the sketches, it is usually my job to choose the theme, write the script and build the director’s concept, and Árpád creates a musical atmosphere to the piece, which is actually the soul of the performance. During the actual rehearsal process, we are stretching into each other’s territory, our roles getting blurred…

You had already taught a course at the SZFE University of Theatre and Film Arts (Színház- és Filmművészeti Egyetem), but recently your name has been mentioned in connection with the position of the head of the puppet actors’ department of the Institute of Theatre Arts. What is your experience as a teacher so far? What are you planning to pass on?

The head teacher of the puppet class starting in September 2021 will be András Lénárt, I am just one of the instructors of the puppet classes. I choose not to take up the position of the head of department at the university. Being a head teacher is a very complex task, I would have little to do with it… I am full of excitement and anticipation when it comes to teaching, though. My experience so far is very positive; however, it felt great meeting the next generation of actors. Their drive and energy reminded me a little of my university student-self. I think not only do teachers make an impact on students, but vice versa. It is an experience also similar to theater performances, as it is not just the actor influencing the audience…

Which one of your previous performances and achievements are you most proud of?

It is a great pride that two of our latest adult puppet shows are staged regularly in theatres in Budapest, one is the lewd, naughty play, titled Azért a kis bolondságért (“For That Little Foolery”) played at Bethlen Téri Színház (Bethlen Square Theater), and the other is the aforementioned Mikszáth-story, A fekete kakas. I find it grand that these performances became “accessible” to adult puppet theater audiences. Our secret wish is to somewhat break the stereotype that the puppet genre is primarily for children. We want the genre and the masters of the puppet art to be able to show their true aims, worth, ​​and limitless possibilities.

Photo from a performance by Mariann Fabók, photo: Botond Márk Németh

What are the next, post-opening, and long-term projects you are currently occupied with? Did you rehearse at Mancsi Fabók’s Puppet Theater during the pandemic?

Yes, we worked real hard to be able to present a puppet show for children, titled A szőrdisznyócska (“The Hairpiglet”), post-lockdown. We tend to recommend our performances for kids over the age of 5, and we look forward to finally re-meeting them…
Also, my husband and I have been working to achieve our ultimate dream for nearly seven years now. We would like to build an open-air theater space at our property in the village of Zsámbék. It would be for about a hundred people, to be built on the model of Greek amphitheaters, made of authentic Zsámbék limestone. The plot has a view to the majestic old church in Zsámbék and the entire Zsámbék Basin. We plan to open our theater in the summer of 2022, but we still have a lot of work to do. We are very confident that the natural beauty of the place and the demanding performances will lure many to our theater, to the foot of Nyakas Hill.

Mariann Fabók
Mariann ‘Mancsi’ Fabók was born in 1982, in Budapest. Her parents and her sister, Endre Fabók, Edit Oroszy, and Katalin Fabók, are all teachers. Endre Fabók, Mancsi’s brother, is a poet. Mancsi worked at the studio of the Kolibri Theatre for Children and Youth, and with the company of the National Theater of Miskolc. From 2014, she has been managing her own productions as a freelancer, both at Mancsi Fabók’s Puppet Theater, and all over Hungary. For her outstanding approach to and achievements in contemporary puppetry, she received the 2021 Géza Blattner Award, together with visual designer Klaudia Orosz.

Interviewer and translation into English: Eszter Ozsváth, cultural journalist
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