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Bíborka: Welcome to PUHA podcast, which stands for Performative Unity in the Hungarian Arts, produced for HowlRound Theatre Commons, a free and open platform for theatremakers worldwide. We’re your hosts, Zsofi and Biborka.

Here we go. So, welcome to the seventh episode of PUHA. The topic today is autobiography. Do you want to say your name and your profession—what you consider yourself—and anything else you want to share? Just as an introduction round. Do you want to go this way?

Judit Tarr: Okay. My name is Judit Tarr. I’m an actress. I am a member of a little company called E-Mancik Színházi Manufaktúra the...

Bíborka: Manufacture.

Judit: Yeah. Yeah, that’s it.

Zsófi: Okay.

László Göndör: Hi, my name is Laszlo Gondor. I’m a performer and director, little bit, and I don’t have my own company, but I have my own people who I like to work with. But I’m always open to discovering new people in Hungary, especially Budapest. But I also work internationally sometimes with other companies. So I’m a theatrical creator; theatremaker.

Panni Néder: I’m Panni Neder and I’m living in Berlin for eleven years. Basically, I’m a stage director but author for my pieces or projects and performer as well. And I’m doing autobiographical theatre for eight years.

Kristóf Kelemen: My name is Kristof Kelemen. I’m a playwright, dramaturg, and theatre director and a little bit performer, also, I can say. And I’m working in an independent and also in the state theatre field as a dramaturg and director.

Zsófi: Thank you. Cool. So, we like to start the conversation with this one little innocent question, which is: What is performance or performance art to you?

Bíborka: Try to answer it in one brief sentence. We know it’s challenging, but that’s part of the deal.

Zsófi: It can be just one word.

Panni: Okay. To me, performance, it can be two things: one is to achieve something, to do a goal in a performance, or it can be a show, like the performance-performance.

László: What first came to my mind—it was nice to relax—something I was thinking a lot of was something like being playful with a particular purpose.

Bíborka: Interesting.

Kristóf: Maybe it’s interesting that in Hungarian language performance is this type of art pieces like what made Marina Abramovic or these kind of people. But in the English, it has what only mentioned that there are two different meanings or levels of this word. So I think in Hungarian, if you are seeing “performance,” everybody who knows the art field a little, they’re thinking about this experimental type of theatremaking.

Panni: But what Marina Abramovic did, I mean she always had to goal to achieve, and I think that’s why it was performance.

László: But it should be called performance art. That’s the official name of that and performance is the general term for everything that is theatrical or performative.

Judit: For me, it’s making connection with the audience and that’s true if we are talking about performing art and performances as well, I think.

Zsófi: For me that’s kind of what I would say now. The connection with the audience and the community.

Judit: Yeah.

Zsófi: You want to answer? You haven’t answered it for a while.

Bíborka: Yeah, always. So whenever we record this, we also answer it, but we never gave the two same answers in an episode. So today for me, performance is, I would, say being aware of what you do and how you do it.

Panni: And challenge for me as well.

Bíborka: So, autobiography, we guess it’s engaging with a part of your life in one way or another using some performativity or theatricality. So what part of your life have you engaged with in this way and could you say some relevant projects or pieces that you have had or maybe you are currently working on?

Panni: Okay. So I’ve had many, and I think the first important was the German title is Aschmutter and Cinderella in German is Aschenputtel and mutter is mother. And it was a project based on my—not only based on my mother’s story, but I wanted to understand why did my mother become such a person as she did. And then I involved six other—some actors and just some people who liked theatre and that kind of arts and we were researching their stories as well together. So it was a motherhood project. But back then I didn’t realize it was autobiographical, I just wanted to do that. So I think it came later or years later that I met this word, “autobiography.”

And then for me, my most important show with a long title is When Was the Last Time You Had Sex on Top of a Mountain. And it’s 100 percent autobiographical—I’m onstage as well, and I wrote it in fourteen different languages with the helping hands of Google Translate. And it’s about everything, really: minorities; politics in Eastern and Western Europe; difficulties with a foreign language because I just started it when I moved to Germany and started to study there. So it was about how did I feel lost in a new country, not only because of the language but because of the culture as well. And it’s about very, very personal fears as well. So global fears and very personal sexual fears or family patterns or whatever. And it’s 100 percent autobiographical, and it’s more I wouldn’t list anything. And my last premiere, it was in November in Berlin, and it was about love and relationships and relationship patterns and intimacy, and it was my story as well.

So it’s also very self-ironic because… so it was kind of fun situation because I didn’t learn theatre in school like everybody else here in the room, so I didn’t know how to do it properly. But at the same time, I could do it anyhow I wanted to do because I had no masters and teachers.

Kristóf: I think I begin to work on different documentary theatre pieces, and this was the gate of the autobiographical theatre for me and one of—yes, my first performance in Budapest, what I directed. was a performance with Judit also, so she was on the stage. The title was Why You are Reading this Title, We are Talking About You. And this performance based on an actor exam in 1970 at the University of Theatre and Film Arts in Budapest. And this was a scandalous exam and I made interviews about this event and we thought that we, with the actors in the performance, that we wanted to speak about our present stories and our connections to this event in the past. And the actors tell different stories about the actor training at the university, relationships with teachers, and also the situation of enter in the theatre field as a professional actor or actress. And yes, this was for me a very important performance and maybe you could tell a little about it because you was also part of it.

Judit: Yeah, so we worked together with Kristof and the other ones and the actresses, like actors. And we were working—we had so many conversations together and so much memories came over which we discussed. And finally we choose some, we’ve been spoken onstage and it was really free. It was so liberating for us and for the audience as well because if I speak by heart, it can be so refreshing for the others as well.

Kristóf: Yes. I think one of the main points was that we mentioned names and we tell stories in the publicity, tell stories, these not part of the publicity before or not typically part in Hungary and it’s nice mainly about the culture of dialogue in Hungary. I think we have a tradition from the socialism how we are thinking about, for example, hierarchy and also about dialogues between different people in the professional field. And we try to a little, I think, provoke these questions, how we are thinking about these stories, and what could be a part of the publicity.

Judit: And that’s why it was so hard for the first time to tell these stories in front of the audience because since then I had some performances which was autobiographical but not this way that I was telling stories with names and people who can... [speaking in Hungarian]?

Bíborka: (translating) Be recognized and influence.

Judit: Yeah, influence my work.

Bíborka: Your career.

Judit: My career. But that’s why it was so refreshing I think and for the audience as well, to be part of it. to see.

Bíborka: And what kind of work do you do now since this performance that you took part?

Judit: With my little company?

Bíborka: Yeah, your company.

Judit: We have two performances. We wrote about our stories, our memories, our traumas. For the first one is Szomjas Férfiak Sört Isznak Helyettem so I can translate it like “thirsty man drinking beer instead of me,” which is about our sexual and love life. We brought it really honestly, and it contains many humor as well. It is so outspoken and the next one is Válogatáskazi - Szomjas Fiúk Tolják a Kakaót. I can translate like, “sorted playlist, thirsty boys push chocolate milk,” and it’s about our childhood and teenage. And then it’s the similar way and we are telling stories about our childhood and the teenage, little sense, and songs we wrote.

Bíborka: And who is the we?

Judit: We, yeah. So, “we” is the four actresses, and so we processing our life.

László: Basically. I’m newcomer and also late comer in the field of theatre in Hungary. That gave me a lot of advantages and disadvantages. So to speak to this, my first bigger show—actually this is the third I directed—but this is the first autobiographical and I don’t know if the next one will be autobiographical or not. But let me tell you about this show, and then I continue about what I learned about it and what my style looks like at the moment.

So this show is about my grandma and I and it’s more about me, actually as I got to realize, than my grandma. So my intention was to create a show about my grandma and our relationship, but it’s revealed that it’s really my personal way to digest this relationship and to face this relationship so my perspective is the main perspective of the role. And I’m on the stage so I think it is an autobiographical play because… so, I moved to my grandma for a month in 2020. So it was a personal experiment that I face our relationship, and my original goal was to put this relationship to a next level before she dies. Because she was already ninety-seven years old, and I had nightmares, and I was really anxious about her passing. And I wanted to save a lot from her but also to improve this relationship with what is the most important relationship in my life before she died. And so that was an experiment and a very important personal one, so I did it. And it was successful in a way. I wanted to be successful.

But when I went there, I already knew that I want to create a show from this story. So, it was very meta, so it wasn’t just a separate experiment, but the experiment already included that it’s going to be a show at the point, but we don’t know what the show will be. But we are already working on something. So it was kind of interesting and pretty difficult at that moment. So we had to face and deal with a lot of stuff and not just theatrical but also very lot of personal, emotional difficulties. And so that’s how this show was created, and the show itself is more about my whole struggle to deal with all these questions and stresses and this kind of love. So, it’s also personal, also reflective on theatre and the way I make theatre.

So it’s also very self-ironic because… so it was kind of fun situation because I didn’t learn theatre in school like everybody else here in the room, so I didn’t know how to do it properly. But at the same time, I could do it anyhow I wanted to do because I had no masters and teachers. So I just read books and, okay, I went to really nice workshops, and I studied in the States for a while acting. But I felt it’s a very free experiment or field for me to—and also the stress is even higher and bigger when you don’t have any fundamentals in it. So the show itself reflects on it as well. So I have no tools, I am not skilled enough and stuff, but I’m on the stage and I want to do something good and important. And the trick was originally that maybe the good thing would be I make something good, at the same time I do nothing really classically good. So I cannot sing beautifully, I don’t know how to speak perfectly and these classical… so it’s also like an attack on these classic values of what we think theatre should be and how the classic qualities should be. And without those, we cannot do good theatre.

And I feel I managed to do a good show without all these skills. And I think that’s an interesting thing for the future, how we can create interesting things in theatre. And that’s why I’m really interested in autobiographical and experimental theatre, in a way, how I understand. Because we can bring a lot of reality and life and very interesting ideas on the stage and maybe it’s more interesting than singing beautifully or speaking perfectly and I think that’s the big question of this whole topic for me. Maybe I don’t say these are important values and can be very, very useful and sometimes I wish I could speak much nicer—I don’t. But at the same time, maybe this focus is more important nowadays in theatre and maybe young people are more interested in that.

So that’s why I’m really interested in documentary and autobiographical theatre as well. I think… so this piece was autobiographical, but what I’ve learned from it is that and how I want to work. So I started to learn a working method. If I do a next show, maybe can be very different, but if I want to show something like this, then I really started to improve this method. So first I call myself a researcher and, in this sense, maybe it becomes autobiographical, maybe not. If the researcher itself later part of is part of the show because the researcher’s perspective is important, then it can be autobiographical. If the researcher stays outside of this personal storytelling context, then it’s maybe just documentary. I think that’s my differentiation. So in this case, I was a researcher and it was my story and it can be different next time, but maybe I make a research first.

For the research phase is that I’m the researcher, and I interfere with the reality somehow. So it’s not just I’m observing reality, but I do something with reality. So, I move to my grandma. And if I do a next show, I want to do something like that. So I want to do… like it should be a big thing, a big project in interaction with other people interfering with the reality. So, I want to do something, not just observing but creating these new realities, new situations. And I want to make a show of this process, so how it happened. But maybe I won’t be onstage, so it maybe won’t be autobiographical. Maybe I was only the researcher or the creator of this project.

So that’s my method. So in my case, there’s an important step that I… not just collecting documents or observing reality, but I also want to change reality first. And then I bring it to theatre, and in theatre, hopefully, that kind of thing will change what we see there or what we present. It’s not just something from the past, but it can change the audience reality again. So it’s like a two phases reality change. That’s what I’m really interested now as I’m thinking of… like I want to do something like this in the future.

Judit: I think I want to tell once more that it is so important to use humor and reflect on yourself. And I would like to tell a little story. I used to have very painful period, and I brought sin of my first period, use so much humor. It is [really funny] and I recognize that my period is not painful anymore, but I didn’t respect this; it just happened. So it can be so helpful in your life. So you asked what effects on our personal life, it can be.

Zsófi: Yeah, I mean now I’m dating a guy who’s not rejecting me.

László: I just had this conversation a few days ago in a workshop. So they asked me how long will I play this show, and this is very important question because—in this topic of course—but now last time, also last week, in Bánkitó Festival, I played this show. And I felt like I overcome some of my difficulties with my idealizing people so much as I did, and that was because of this show for sure. That’s why I improved so much in that topic. And I just changed in so many levels, and my relationships also changed. So I was standing there onstage performing this play, and I heard myself in the recordings, and I was making that role. I was actually a year ago, and I felt that it’s slowly becoming a role that I play myself one year ago. And this was so funny, it’s so interesting. How long do you accept and tolerate—or do you tolerate it—a role that you play your previous self?

Judit: That’s why I always change text.

Yes, but I think there is also a rule that if you are telling with your name onstage something, the audience watch that as a true story. So I think it’s an interesting question, that: How could you play with this role? How could you rewrite this role?

László: Okay. But I respect that material so much because it’s a very important memory of that age. But maybe it’s a little bit… the interesting part is that it becomes a little bit fake in a sense because that guy who’s standing onstage is playing his previous self. So it’s not true that he is, or maybe it’s not a problem for you. But I was thinking as a developer.

Judit: Can you imagine that somebody else would play this show?

Panni: You can choose.

László: That’s a very good question because maybe, two years later, I will be so different than even another person could play maybe even better, so that’s a good question.

Kristóf: Yes. And I think that was what I tried to explain before: that there will be fictitious persona on the stage. You can tell your own stories, but it’s not a real situation that I’m telling my stories in front of a hundred or two hundred people. So it’s more about this situation, that how could you be together with the audience and how do you like to be in front of this many people? And I think it’s also important that what kind of… kisugárzás?

Bíborka: (translating) Radiance? Radiation? Vibe? Vibe, yeah.

Kristóf: Yes. What kind of vibe do you have onstage? Because I think there are people who couldn’t tell their stories, not because they are not professionals. The reason why they couldn’t is they don’t like this situation and it’s not good to watch from the audience and it’s not… the situation makes not free these people. And I think it’s very important because you could have mistakes, but I think you should somehow enjoy yourself on the stage

László: For sure.

Panni: Yeah, of course.

László: For sure.

Panni: Yeah, but I think it depends on a form—you know, what you are performing and because you’re not the same person, etc. But as I mentioned, I always rewrote the text and that kept it alive, where I can imagine in your case that maybe autobiographical dance or physical theatre, that you are still the same person and maybe you would perform your pain on another level because of course it’s changes but you are not your past self, right? Or, I don’t know.

Bíborka: I also started thinking about your question—whether I can imagine another dancer or another person doing this performance and I don’t know. Like, I really don’t know. In the same way then I think it would become a choreography with very intense moments but not my story anymore—

Zsófi: And not the trends.

Bíborka: Not the trends. It would be interesting to watch, but I think this connection that I mentioned, it would be still probably good to watch. But I don’t think that sharing the connection with the audience, like that whole thing, would be there in the same way, I don’t know.

Zsófi: And it would be acting like it would be not… I don’t know, performing, but acting in every case, I think. So it’s just a different thing.

Bíborka: Completely.

Kristóf: Yes, but I think there is also a rule that if you are telling with your name onstage something, the audience watch that as a true story. So I think it’s an interesting question, that: How could you play with this role? How could you rewrite this role? And I think there are lots of artists who are playing this role. There is a, I don’t know… a woman who tell a story of a man on the stage as, “I am this man.” And I think it could use or it could make an interesting play on the stage. For example, if Judit tell or play your show, I think it begins to speak about the theatricality and more like meta. It makes more meta context of the whole show, and the question is how could, for example, Judit tell your story in an authentic way also or how we could imagine that you did these.

Panni: Yeah, but then it’s not autobiographical.

Kristóf: Yes, it’s not autobiographical, but it’s more like… it could be, for example, verbatim theatre, but it’s more like an experimental theatre.

Panni: I think it’s interesting that it’s not autobiographical anymore. And about this rules, I don’t know if there is any rule like this but the audience, I mean at my shows in Berlin, sometimes they don’t believe it’s autobiographical because sometimes it’s so hard that no, no, no, it couldn’t have happened, sometimes. For instance, my last show, I mean one actor and one actress were onstage, but it was explicitly my story, and it was told at the beginning of at the performance with my name and whatever, but at the end of the show, many people thought that it was the story of that two people onstage and that they are in love or whatever. Although, we told that, “No, it’s not their story. It’s the story of the director.” So I think the audience would believe what they want, and I think there is no rule, even with names or whatever.

Judit: I think the audiences create their own story—

Panni: Absolutely.

Judit: —of any performance, and it depends.

Panni: So maybe they think that you are grandma. It’s the grandma of Judit.

Judit: Yeah. And I can believe it because I’m actress and if I do any role but brought anybody—instead of Shakespeare or somebody—I believe I need to understand that person. And if I do it, I go onstage every evening that in that moment I think what she’s taking, the road.

Panni: And I think a huge difference as well, because if Judit would do your show, of course it would be acting and maybe you could do that in a perfect way. But anyways, it would be acting. But I think in autobiographical shows, you don’t have to work explicitly with actors or professionally trained people, and that can be dynamite, really. Dynamite, that I could see some people onstage who can’t speak or sing or whatever perfectly. But I can just see and there are that, “Whoa, it’s your story,” about minorities or whatever. I think it’s much stronger if a professional trained actor or actress would sit there and just pretend that, I don’t know, she’s a Roma lady from a small village—of course, I wouldn’t believe that. So I think that’s important too, that you don’t have to work with professionals.

Zsófi: There’s a difference when you also perform in your autobiographical shows and then your last piece, you didn’t perform in it and two people did it. How is it different? I don’t know, just the process when now you weren’t in it.

Panni: Yeah, I think because… I don’t know if it’s correct that I developed my method somehow and in the writing process, I’m a director as well, so I’m just not writing a text but really thinking as a director and putting video material and music. So each part just develops itself. And so I did it and When Was the Last Time, blah, blah blah, and it wasn’t planned then I would be part of the show. So I just wrote the text, the first version for three actresses and it was mainly only my text, but it was the first version.

But one of the actresses just jumped out two days before. It was not like a real premiere because it was a stage reading and she just jumped out and we were just sitting there: “What the fuck is going on? We have to read it in two days.” And then I just told them, “Okay, I wrote the text. I mean, it’s about me mostly, I know the languages, so I can do that.” So it was not the plan, it was an accident. And then I realized that okay, I can do it well because it’s not acting thing.

Judit: But the others were acting because it was your text, your story, your life—

Panni: Yeah, but then later on, they are telling but they’re not only storytelling but very choral parts and they are political parts. So now that it just happened to me, I think they’re different. And then because it was just the short thing at the beginning, and then I made interviews with them. And they are telling their own stories as well where it would just change sometimes parts, but they have autobiographical parts as well. But the show itself reflects of the show making and of a director who is scared to direct. So it was my story, and I think it was concrete that they are sometimes, not playing me but performing me, and sometimes themselves, but it was clear.

Bíborka: So I think we are coming to an end soon. Do you have any last remarks that you want to add?

Panni: I just want to tell you because I saw all of your shows—not yours. Yes. But I have very fresh memories of these shows because yours—when was it?

Kristóf: In 2016.

Panni: Yeah, so six years ago. But it’s very fresh really in my brain because I said, “Whoa, so brave.” Really, you had so much courage.

László: Which one?

Panni: I mean all of them. It’s While You are Reading and that’s why those words are so important to me and I’m having fresh memories only it was six years ago. But yours I think as well, the first one. But yeah, I felt this super strong connection and how brave people you are that you are telling your personal stories or acting or dancing or singing.

Zsófi: I also want to relate to what Panni said but you said that it’s very inspiring to hear all of this and really everyone is so brave, and it just keeps up this kind of honest and amazing theatre work. And I really want to see your performance, and yours, that I haven’t seen before.

Bíborka: Me too.

Zsófi: Even if it’s autobiographical or not autobiographical or whatever it is. If it’s like a fish and… I don’t know what, just keep it up. Let’s do it.

Bíborka: Let’s do it.

Zsófi: This has been another episode of the PUHA podcast. We are your hosts, Zsófi and Bíborka. This podcast is produced as a contribution to HowlRound Theatre Commons. You can find more episodes of the series and other HowlRound podcasts in our feed on iTunes, Google Podcasts, Spotify, and wherever you find your podcasts. Be sure to search HowlRound Theatre Commons podcasts and subscribe to receive new episodes. If you love this podcast, post a rating, and write a review on those platforms. This helps other people find us.

You can also find the transcript for this episode along with a lot of other progressive and disruptive content on HowlRound.com. Have an idea for an exciting podcast, essay, or TV event the theatre community needs to hear? Visit HowlRound.com and submit your ideas to the commons.

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Thoughts from the curators

A dazzling performance art scene is being born in Hungary, which, though quite small, boasts artists from all walks of life. Puha means “soft” in Hungarian, and PUHA stands for Performative Unity in the Hungarian Arts. It is an ambitious project by theatremaker and performer Zsófia Kozma and choreographer-performer Bíborka Béres that brings makers and creators of the Hungarian performance art scene together for discussions. From dancer to set designer, jazz musician to game designer, we talk with all sorts of people about thoughts, approaches, challenges, and ideas in their work. They sit down to explore topics like climate change, gender, queerness, improvisation, and public space in order to replace division and competition by fostering unity and dialogue in the field.

Performative Unity in the Hungarian Arts


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