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Should We Write Differently About Roma Theatre?

Hungary’s largest minority is the Roma community, who are subjected to a number of disadvantages. Should a non-Roma—specifically a theatre critic, who in Hungary is typically a white, middle-class person—keep this in mind when writing about “Roma theatre?”

Let me say at the outset that it is not evident that all performances related to the Roma need to be outlined as “Roma theatre.” As these stories take place in Hungary, it is likely that they concern Roma and non-Roma alike. And conversely, they could hardly be about Roma communities as a whole. Independent Theater Hungary, my own magazine SZÍNHÁZ (theatre), and the theatre department of Eötvös Loránd University organized a workshop where several artists were invited to reflect on this question. Participants complained that in today's Hungary, performances by Roma artists or performances with themes that affect the Roma in general are typically viewed as vehicles for social issues rather than works of art. Why?

In Hungary, Roma theatremakers are not present in the mainstream of theatre. Two kinds of theatres exist side by side. One is bled dry, practically abandoned by the state for political reasons, as it is often critical of the government. Known as “independent,” it will probably soon be decimated because the Hungarian theatre market is too small to support these often experimental, fringe theatres. The other kind of theatre is the state-funded repertory theatre system of the public theatre companies, which, unlike the former, receive predictable (so-called “normative”) subsidy as a legacy of the state-socialist past. In return, their directors are appointed by the current politicians to keep these workshops under control. The small number of Roma artists is almost exclusively found in the independent scene, which is being destroyed through financial censorship. This situation transforms Roma theatremakers’ pieces into “special events,” which they should not be.

A woman reads from a bible onstage.

Mihaela Drăgan in Del Duma (Tell them about me) by Mihaela Drăgan at Giuvlipen, Romania. Directed by Liana Ceterchi. Live music by Radu Captari. Photo by Alina Vincze.

This is largely due to the current system of theatre trainings. Only a few Roma artists graduated from the University of Theatre and Film Arts (SZFE—and the situation, as far as I know, has not changed with the “new SZFE” either), which is where public theatres mostly recruit their companies from. The needs of the public theatres are often reflected in the curriculum of the university courses as well. Also, racism against the Roma and the overrepresentation of the Roma in deprived groups makes it highly unlikely that a young Roma will get through to university admissions. But even if they do, SZFE has always been designed to serve the current public theatre system. Considering that the most widespread trend is directorial theatre, it might be more crucial to note that there are even fewer Roma directors than Roma actors. Also, creative processes with a non- or less hierarchical approach, such as involving creators with no background of theatrical training, are very rare in Hungarian theatre, and are almost exclusively characteristic to the independent sector.

These independent shows working with Roma artists (and to a certain extent, theatre in general) reach only a narrow, typically elite audience. Yet the question still arises: should a critic have any special considerations when writing about performances that involve the Roma? The question of "autonomy vs. heteronomy" is raised—should the critic approach the performance from an aesthetic direction or from a social/ethical/ideological direction? A whole library of literature and dissertations have dealt with this question, so we will not proclaim one truth—especially because our workshop participants did not agree on everything. Nonetheless, they did reach a common ground on not having predetermined rules. Rather, one should decide if a show offers “authentic representation” based on the actual performance.

A group of performers in formalwear speak onstage.

Géza Tóth, Tamás Kalmár, Kati Lázár, Zsolt Kovács, István Szentgyörgyi, László Felhőfi-Kiss, Richárd Tóth, Márta Antal, Péter Lecső, and György Hunyadkürti in Just a Nail by István and János Mohácsi and Márton Kovács at Csiky Gergely Theatre in Kaposvár, Hungary. Directed by János Mohácsi. Scenic design by Zsolt Khell. Costume design by Edit Szűcs. Lighting design by Tamás Bányai. Dramaturgy by István Eörsi. Choreography by Richárd Tóth. Credits with the permission of the Csiky Gergely Theatre.

Consequently, the burning question is: what criteria can we use to decide that a performance really is “authentic representation?” When answering this question, the two approaches of aesthetics and heteronomy are inextricably mixed. If we think of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak's renowned essay "Can the Subaltern Speak?", in which she writes both about the dangers of having others speak for those who have no voice, albeit with goodwill, and at the same time considers such a position utterly problematic, then we are seemingly talking about a purely ideological problem. But who could deny the theatrical power of someone who stands up on stage to speak for themselves? Moreover, to make things more complicated, several members of the workshop mentioned János Mohácsi's show Just a Nail in 2008 as one of the most important Hungarian performances on Roma issues, even though its Roma characters were white.

Do we want to use art for confrontation…or would we rather place care at the center of the work? 

At this point in the workshop, we began reflecting on the objectives of theatre. Do we want to use art for confrontation, to display current negative tendencies of how Roma are treated, or would we rather place care at the center of the work? In both cases, the question arises: what should we as members of the audience do about the problem of whether we are supposed to notice an actor's skin color on stage or not? The historian Zoltán Imre, while preparing for the workshop, gave an account on a current trend in Anglo-Saxon theatres to use colorblind casting (or, as it has evolved further in past years, color conscious casting). This trend did not originate from the majority (white), but from the minority (Black, Asian, and others) artists, arguing that they would also like to be able to play King Lear—but if skin color matters, they are excluded from that opportunity. For a Black actor, Othello is almost the only option left in Shakespeare. As a spectator, however, it can be difficult to grasp—as in the Shakespeare's Globe Theatre production a few years ago—that while Juliet was cast as a Black actress, her mother and father were played by white actors, and this had no consequences on their relationship in the production. A colorblind cast will most certainly require a new theatrical language. As a positive example of this phenomenon in Hungary, I think of performances of the Maladype company and the independent theatre director Zoltán Balázs. In Leonce and Lena in 2008, they used bamboo poles that required extreme physicality, technical skills, and concentration. I don't remember having any thought of the skin color of protagonists Kamilla Fátyol and Hermina Fátyol. I was all the more in awe of what these actors were capable of, and this was likely due to the fact that this production spoke its own language.

The purpose of art and theatre has been, for many times in its history, to push the audience out of its comfort zone.

It is an axiom in identity politics not to talk on behalf of others, as every struggle belongs to the concerned group itself. This axiom raises fundamental questions with aesthetic consequences: are we writing about Roma self-representation or does the performance formulate from an external perspective? My personal opinion is that critics should not focus on “who,” but rather on “how?” Otherwise, we could only tell autobiographies. But here lie more delicate questions: should the critic take into account whether the performance is criticized by members of the oppressed group for reflecting badly on their already marginalized group? On the one hand, it would obviously be a mistake to treat some voices of objection as the official opinion of a diverse, and in many ways conflicting, group. But the diversity of individual sensitivities makes the debate endless. The purpose of art and theatre has been, for many times in its history, to push the audience out of its comfort zone. Peter Handke's play Offending the Audience is a direct insult to its spectators. But of course, it referred to the theatre of a privileged social strata, the presumably middle-class spectator of bourgeois theatre, and not of an oppressed group. It was not about the oppressed group because they typically do not get to go to the theatre in the first place. Criticizing them in their absence is a little different from criticizing them face to face.

A group of performers hang in small hammocks onstage.

József Szkiba, Robertó Német, Emilia Lovas, Angelika Németh és Edmond Oláh in Feather Picking by Rodrigó Balogh at the Independent Theatre Hungary. Directed by Rodrigó Balogh. Costume design by Judit Sinkovics. Music by Edmond Oláh. Lighting design by Levente Csornai. Dramaturgy by Márton Illés. Photo by Bálint Kovács. 

But instead of the makers’ skin color, I consider it more important to ask: is the piece replicating existing stereotypes, or is the goal to subvert them or respond to them? For example, Romanian Roma performer Mihaela Drăgan who has performed in Hungary several times with the Independent Theatre Hungary criticizes her own Roma community from a feminist perspective in many of her performances. Would this be less valid had she been white? She criticizes a community that is otherwise plagued by a lot of prejudice and discrimination. Does criticism contribute to the negative status of this group? Should the creator(s) and the critic be concerned with this? Or, does theatre showing internal debates to the larger public help a marginalized community to build a complex picture about themselves? During this discussion at the workshop, it seemed as if we were also talking about the function of theatre in a given society, for whom it is maintained, and whether there is a society-wide discourse on problems/issues concerning Roma people, or on anything at all. It is highly questionable whether theatre, or even art in general, can solve problems on its own if there is no social discourse, discussion, and will.

As a consequence, it is perhaps worth paying more attention to the sensitivities of high profile productions, especially in the media, while taking into account the limited publicity that theatre and its criticism have in the current media landscape in Hungary. But let me immediately contradict myself, because while theatre may be insignificant in terms of audience compared to commercial TV channels or Netflix, theatre has a select, privileged audience. And from that elite group, it is even more shameful to hear rude comments. This is why it makes sense to write about the 2017 production of Countess Maritza as Anna Lengyel did, even if it does not bring much new theatrical depth. The author observed that the creators artificially remove the Roma character from her contemporary social context.This was done in a city theatre in a municipality with a large Roma population. (Although hardly any of the Roma population make it to the local theatre.) These problems might be avoided if theatres had information about who their community is, and an ambition to engage with said community, beyond the current paying audience. At the workshop, we agreed that critics should have an idea and a conviction about what the theatre’s role(s) is/are. If they believe that theatre is a social phenomenon, they may be surprised if the creators seem oblivious to the society in which they live and work.

The above mentioned Countess Maritza can be taken as an example of a performance that presents stereotypes about the Roma. Should theatre do that? In the case of media platforms reaching large audiences, or genres that reach groups with high symbolic capital, this question bears a social significance. Aesthetically speaking, a stereotype is very close to a cliché. For example, in the production of Gypsies at the prestigious Katona József Theatre in Budapest in 2010, a number of negative stereotypes about the Roma were included. Although the director Gábor Máté wanted to use them (if I understand correctly) as a romantic trope present in the social consciousness, this intention was not clear from the outcome alone.

A group of actors stand in a cluster onstage.

Tamás Keresztes, Zoltán Rajkai, Ádám Kovács, Péter Takátsy, Lehel Kovács,  andJenő Józsi Tersánszky-Krisztián Grecsó in Gypsies at Katona József Theatre, Budapest, Hungary. Directed by Máté Gábor. Scenic design by Balázs Cziegler. Costume design by Anni Füzér. Music by László Sáry and Tamás Keresztes. Movement by Péter Takátsy. Dramaturgy Tamara Török. Photo by Dániel Dömölky.

As a critic, it would be difficult to ignore that the credibility of this performance, which was meant to create solidarity with the Roma, is questioned. The open letter to director Gábor Máté written by young grantees of the Independent Theatre was answered arrogantly and condescendingly. The response rejected the legitimacy of the request, instead of seeing it as an opportunity for dialogue. In this case, criticism can help to make up for the lost exchange of views.

In conclusion, after so many perspectives to consider, this may be a liberating thought: research suggests that the critic influences the readers not by what they say, but by what they write about (this is called agenda-setting theory). So we shouldn't worry too much, at least not to the point of staying silent. If anything, it is important to write about Roma theatre, both good and bad. As in criticism in general, the key is to find a tone that allows for an open, sensitive, accessible, and professional discussion. And in doing so, it is paramount to honor the Roma artists by ensuring that the social cause that these performances inevitably represent in contemporary Hungarian society does not overshadow that this is art, and these artists are engaging in theatre as an artform.

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