The 12th Hungarian Contemporary Drama Festival

Mária Szilágyi
Teaser Image Caption
Festival director Mária Szilágyi

How do you organise a drama festival with international guests on a 6,000 € state subsidy? Well, you need a lot of enthusiastic volunteers, as well as visitors, who are completely committed to the cause. There are other theatre festivals in Hungary which focus on directors and productions. The Hungarian Contemporary Drama Festival focuses on the pieces themselves, on contemporary authors; it aims at inspiring Hungarian and international playwrights and theatre professionals.

Unique in many ways, the idea was born in 1997 to festival director Mária Szilágyi, who is the heart of this extraordinary enterprise. The festival office is her home. Entering the hallway of the typical 19th-century Budapest building, the December sun shines through the mosaic windows, inundating the shabby, once-beautiful, tiled staircase. One of the volunteers, in her early 20s, welcomes me and leads me into the flat. More young people are coming and going, bringing materials and taking away more festival flyers. I am seated in the kitchen. A huge pan of pumpkin slices has just been taken out of the oven (the volunteers need to be fed) and its sweet smell fills the kitchen. Mária arrives with a huge smile, prepares a coffee for us and tells me about the festival’s beginnings.

Due to her contacts within the German theatre scene in the early 1990s, she was often asked about new Hungarian theatre pieces which might have been hidden as a consequence of censorship before the change of the political system. The general sense of relief brought a new interest in drama writing.

This was not only a Hungarian phenomenon, but also a European one which actually began in England with the appearance of two young playwrights, Marc Ravenhill and Sarah Cane, breaking taboos through the structure and topics of their work. Like the Beatles, they rocketed through continental Europe, as Mária Szilágyi puts it, first finding resonance in Germany among playwrights and directors such as Marius von Mayenburg, David Gieselmann, Thomas Ostermeier and Roland Schimmelpfennig. A new era seemed to rise on both sides of the former Iron Curtain and it was in this fruitful period that Mária Szilágyi proposed to her employer, the Hungarian Theatre Museum and Institute, to organise a contemporary theatre festival and present Hungarian pieces to an international audience. Lacking a positive response from either her own or other international theatre institutes, Mária decided to organise the first festival in 1997 herself with the help of other volunteers.

With a state subsidy equivalent to around 9,000 € band 52 international visitors, the 1st Hungarian Contemporary Drama Festival turned out to be a great success. Government help also rose in the years that followed, peaking at 36,000 €. For some reason, it decreased again after 2010, reaching zero in 2012, just as the Hungarian film industry was also paused for 2 years. It is at least ironic that in its 12th edition in 2014 the state subsidy sank to 6,000 € – even less than at the festival’s inception. Whether there is a correlation between declining state subsidies and the types of pieces presented at the festival remains an open question, but the festival director has not received any explanation from the state representatives for culture.

Similarly to German “Theatertreffen”, the Contemporary Drama Festival also has a “showcase” part which offers a potpourri of contemporary pieces – selected by a 7-member jury and outstanding in their subject or form. In order to welcome the international guests, and to promote these contemporary dramas, the pieces need to be subtitled or translated, yet without the solidarity and willingness of the international guests to cover their own expenses for travel, accommodation and even tickets, none of this would be possible.

Apart from the showcase, the festival also aims to inspire the Hungarian theatre scene by inviting certain foreign productions, placing Hungarian theatre in an international context and initiating a dialogue about current European trends, which in recent years has included issues such as climate change and the situation of the Roma. This year, the effects of the fall of the Iron Curtain, the emigration of the younger generations and social sensitivity seemed to dominate the performances, enabling the audience to feel the reality of extreme poverty, such as in the workshop and presentation of the theatre board game Sociopoly by the Lifeboat Unit of the Sputnik Shipping Company, Budapest. The board game’s purpose is to reduce poverty-related prejudices and let the audience experience real-life poverty through role playing, which is then performed by actors. The workshop was an event of the two-day international conference “Culture for Free? The Theatre of Hope? Myth and Reality” organised within the framework of the festival by the Heinrich Böll Foundation on the opportunities and possibilities of self-sustaining theatre. The latter has provided relevant financial and intellectual support to the festival.

In 2014, the explicit international programme had to be omitted due to lack of sufficient financial support, although they still managed to stage some foreign productions, such as The Fatherless by Csaba Mikó, performed by Theater Regensburg, Germany, and Slovak Sláva Daubnerová’s solo performance, which was invited to the festival with the help of the Heinrich Böll Foundation. As for the Hungarian pieces presented during the festival, they follow the current trend of documentarist theatre and that of project-based, collaborative creation – so-called “devised theatre”. Lately, this has even featured in publicly owned theatres as well as on the independent scene. Luckily, explains Mária Szilágyi, a few new young Hungarian authors have recently been publishing new pieces, bringing along a kind of revival of authors and playwrights – which has become the focus of the festival – accompanied by seminars about drama writing.

The geographical centre of the 12th Festival is symbolic: the Jurányi Art Incubator House on the Buda side of the Hungarian capital, near the former Moszkva tér, aims at helping young, talented groups to find their way. Mária Szilágyi emphasises that the goal of the Contemporary Drama Festival is not to present “established theatre”, but to support the young and creative. Apparently, the programme attracts a wide range of theatre professionals: festival directors, journalists and theatre critics have come all the way from New York, Iran, Algeria, England and around continental Europe to participate in the Visitors’ Programme. They are looking for pieces to invite to their festivals and for inspiration.

One of the most provocative pieces, Parallel, was a performance by the Hungarian-Rumanian group GroundFloor from Cluj, a forceful, lyrical stream of thoughts on questions of being a lesbian, gender expectations, and playing with gender roles – a very brave production.

The most entertaining piece was a bit difficult to understand for the international audience, despite the brilliant simultaneous translation, as its genius lay in the language itself. The young and acclaimed novel author Márton Gerlóczy describes the daily grind of a butcher in Diary of the Guy at the Deli Counter. The monodrama by Ildikó Lőkös and Pál Göttinger managed to convey the daily struggles and philosophical entries of the young experimental butcher in a quick-witted way.

All this can also highlight tiny mosaics of the abundant programme of the 12th Hungarian Contemporary Drama Festival. The sheer fact that it was possible for the festival team to invite such an inspiring and manifold range of performances and that they actually came, as did the international visitors and the Hungarian audience, already provides an answer to the main question of the festival conference – whether there is hope for theatre.