The Grand Communicator: New Projects of Árpád Schilling and The Krétakör (2008-2011)
Ever since I have been visiting festivals abroad as a theater critic, and whenever Hungarian theater is brought on in formal or less formal meetings, foreign colleagues ask me about Arpad Schilling (37) and the Kretakor Theater (Chalk Circle Theatre) in nine cases out of ten. Then I can’t help disappointing them by admitting after a few sentences that neither the old grand performances – The Seagull, BLACKland, W-Workers’ circus and all the rest – are available any more on stage, nor anything similar to these. Those who are well-informed know that around 2008 Schilling – seemingly out of the blue – put a period to the accustomed practice in theater making that gained international success after real hard work of long years, but only a few people are aware of the fact that despite the change, the Kretakor is alive and does want to live on. It is true however that in a different format, under different conditions, addressing a different audience with different tools than what we got used to between 1995 and 2008, when the Kretakor definitely became the most well-known brand of Hungarian theater worldwide.
Understanding the deeper roots of change are beyond the frames of this essay, its aim is rather answering the seemingly simple question: What, why is doing these days the Kretakor and how?
(The calm clarification of reasons behind these is not supported by the fact that in Hungarian press the former members of the company still claim passionately about having lost their foothold overnight. Loosing their security of livelihood and having no more performances abroad, these sounds can be heard frequently also because of the break-up of the exceptional creative workshop.) To be able to get to the heart of the matter, I recall only one scene to the memory of my readers: in Wroclaw, Poland 2009, Arpad Schilling and four other directors received the „little brother” of the Europe Theater Prize ie, the New Theatrical Realities Prize founded by the European Committee. All the prize winners brought one or more performances to the festival in Wroclaw – except for Schilling who held an almost an hour long presentation of great mood with video scenes. As he said: he did not bring a „product”, in other words a performance, he rather chose to bring a summary of the learning stages, stations of a route that leads to an idea of theater that is hardly outlined as yet and is new to him as well. Since then he has moved forward on this route, and although the end point is still not visible, it is worth giving account of the stages so far.
The Theater of Childhood Curiosity
When talking about the theater of Arpad Schilling, it is always a never ending research and quest, and a wish to show and make new things that comes to my mind. Schilling is not interested in anything that is safe or predictable, since he gets used to and bored by such things quickly: „Artists that do not quest and do not send signs, are not artists any more. Those who use their art simply to make their own lives more complete, give up the essence of their profession and by that they write themselves off the ‘circle’.”
How is that? He has tried it, it works, he was a little happy about it, but then the devil is awake, or if you like it this way: he is the eternal child. A child that selects the most complicated structures with a perfect sense to it from the loads of toys given to him, then he dismounts them with well-chosen passes, finds the weakness of the construction and shows it to the whole wide world to let everyone know he has found out the secret. Then he immediately asks for the next task, because his itchy nature does not let him be satisfied with what he has achieved so easily. How can we interpret these all to the life’s work of a significant theatrical creator? Arpad Schilling and his company, the globe-trotter Kretakor Theater has practically achieved and obtained everything in the past one and a half decade in Hungary and beyond its borders that such a small creative company could without a constant place to play at.
It is a rare coincidence: Schilling and his company has received a red carpet treatment both from the audience and critics, Kretakor has developed a solid fan club during the years, their premiers have become social events. Two-third of almost thirty performances between 1995, the year of foundation, and 2008, the year of transformation, were directed by Schilling (who was now and then invited to direct to Schaubühne in Berlin, Burgtheater in Vienna or Teatro Piccolo in Milan), but it seemed that the few guest directors could do anything with them it turned out to be outstanding. The regular performances on tour – from Paris to New York, from Edinburgh to Seoul and so on – and the dozens of prizes recognizing the work of the company has turned Kretakor to be a unique European theatrical phenomenon.
The success-story has twisted around 2008: Schilling has wound up the repertoire that by then contained significant works of mainly classical authors, sent off the actors, and kept the name „Kretakor” – cutting off the last word: „Theater”, with the approval of the company – to be able to operate it as a creative team of a few members as a production office specifying in independent projects in the future. What professional press and the fan club called termination, can be regarded today simply as a radical transformation, Schilling mopped up the telling emblem of the company, namely the Chalk Circle, and then he re-drew it in dynamic movements to be able to fill up the well-known format with new contents. The essence of the changes in a nutshell: audience specific projects instead of rich repertoires, burning and uptodate social issues, instead of dusty classics.
Schilling, who chose to excruciatingly build a company and then achieved international recognition could not be farther from that young theater worker who has reached illustrious results in the amateur and student theater movement of Hungary in the beginning of the nineties. I believe that most of the playfulness, archness, curiosity and openness to the world of the latter one can be found in the first one. After having sketched up the premise we will go on with exploring how the essence of the ars poetica of Kretakor can be determined from the perspective of the projects after the grand change.
Creative Community Games
Although at the time of the change only a few people realized its significance, today we can clearly see that the overture of the new era of Kretakor was the dynamic Shakespeare paraphrasis in 2007, titled hamlet.ws composed for three actors, an empty space and numerous guest texts. The performance that was played more than two hundred times since its premier mainly in high schools to youngsters, defines exactly what Schilling does not want to make in theater and also shows the directions of theater that he is still interested in. The most important change that explains all further consequences is that the director who was interested in actors now focuses all his attention to the audience.
Let’s think of what is usually happening in a theater! A completely packed message arrives from the stage perfused with light to the audience sitting comfortably in the darkness of the auditorium. The only conventional form of feedback is applause: the interaction and communication between the stage and the audience usually ends with it. When Schilling, the great communicator asks one of his actors to give the script of hamlet.ws to the hands of a randomly selected member of the audience to let him/her read some places about customs of theater-goers, he is doing only one thing at that very moment: forces people in a given space to do what they originally came for, play together and it helps in giving birth to a common experience.
The hamlet.ws, written for three actors is the most „theater-like” performance of the new Kretakor, even if its radical aesthetics takes it far away from former works of the company. The common denominator of other projects is the audience that is always in the center even against their grains, the audience that is never predictable, that is never the same so that it never gives security or comfort neither to the performers nor to itself. The greatest enemy of theater is boredom: and the major antidote against boredom in the new Kretakor is the audience itself, because it is so unpredictable and so unforeseeable within the process of theater making. What Schilling is really interested in is the greatest challenge of theaters of all times: sending a unique customized, private message from the stage to the audience. For this, turning the audience into participants is crucial: if the members of audience really have to do something for the common goal, that is ideally their own goal as well, then the theater will suddenly have a stake and a goal, in other words it will be not just a simple evening entertainment. It might be strange to hear these from Schilling who reached his major success with a cover version of The Seagull from Chekhov with a unique tone, but if we remember Treplyov and his passionately repeated saying „new forms are needed”, we are immediately on the right track.
So the key word of new Schilling projects is unrepeatability that has a serious social stake: the director has undertaken a role that is almost as grand as that of Brecht, when trying to make useful theater. „On the long run we plan to naturalize socially conscious, socially committed theater in Hungary that is well-known elsewhere, whose functional frames are changing, but the content is constant. We have started organizing actions that motivate the citizens of a ... country to be active with the tools of theater... – he wrote in 2009.
A quick overview of the most significant projects so far answers question of readers on practical implementation. The actors of Kretakor tried to make an audience of larger number of people move in 2006 for the first time: they founded a space base in a small Transdanubian village, they spread communicative aliens among inhabitants, making the audience think of the relationship between stranger and local, exotic and familiar in an entertaining format of experience. „The headpiece and use of such events is the relationship generated between the two different communities (locals and the company).” – as Schilling later explained. In May, 2008 the company performed the happening titled Eloge de L’Escapologiste (Apology of an Escapologist) fifteen times at MC93 Bobigny in Paris: fragmentary, everyday stories to and about people who have hardly ever been to any theater. Schilling and his company showed with ease and elegance how unbearable everyday life can be turned into theater with a slight of professional support, and the fact that theater is not the place where someone keeps talking boringly at some length, while others are almost falling asleep in the darkness.
After the periphery of the metropolis the downtown of the Hungarian capital city is next: in Spring 2009, Kretakor held an almost two-month city therapy action-series in Budapest, whose title was Apology of an Escapologist. The calling signals of the grandiose series of events that was brought to life with efficient civil cooperation were: birth, family and community. Schilling organized a giant parlour game aroud these seemingly simple notions within the streets and squares of the city, whose stations could not be reached in a traditional way, but only in accordance with the strictly democratic rules: attendance (in its strictest sense of presence) at given stages of the game made participants able to move on to the next entrance and so on. The multi-level series made groups at the periphery of the society – pregnants, retired people, youngsters balancing at the boundary of childhood and adultery – become main characters, also the scenes were on the verge of social memory (for example a hospital waiting to be closed down, a twilight home in the suburbs, an un-frequented spa). The three-day long may-fair turned into a similarly grandiose performance in Pecs, Cultural Capital of Europe in 2010, the Jaroslav Jicinsky Utopia College. The program prepared with civilians and numerous children forced the city that earned its living from minery for centuries and that lost industry and its memory immediately after the end of communism to face up to learning in an entertaining way. An interactive exploration of the past, a round trip in the city with walkie-talkies, domestication of a transhuman machine were all in the menu.
Another important change in the scene and tone took place in Summer 2010, when the members of Kretakor and Kava Cultural Workshop settled in two villages on Northern-Hungary where mainly gipsies live in deep-poverty, to talk about most uptodate issues of the communities with mixing theater and drama pedagogical methods. Here art, the theater advanced to be the force that generates the necessary, but not by all means (possibly not) probable change. In both settlements actors, drama teachers and civilians worked hard for a fortnight to be able to bring about a new „performance” every evening, which is of course far far away from the common notion of a theatre performance. The end-result was a so called interactive river drama of a family: showing and negotioating small problems of small people (love, marriage, home, car, money etc.) in different trainings by the audience and participants, in other words friends, relatives, heighbours in many cases. The main goal of this project – and of course that of those mentioned above – was establishing meeting points: making people to become part of a common adventure, people who are not making theater to be part of their everyday lives. (The offer from the Bayerisches Staatsoper to direct the contemporary opera titled Ungrateful Beasts, on stage in July 2011 in Munich, might be directly connected to the above premise of strong political message. In this, Schilling offers his opinion on the rarely staged problem of child abuse through a multi-generation harassment story.)
The above quoted examples tried to convince the reader about the fact that the theatrical laboratory of Arpad Schilling is not closed down, on the contrary, it works at its highest efficiency. If we are able to recognize it, then it is high time to stop claiming over the disappearance of the old Kretakor and start looking into the future with hope. The director does not doubt that we can find ourselves in Shakespeare and Euripides, but wants us to realize – in his mildly aggressive manner – that if we are curious, open and brave enough, then it is sufficient to look deep in ourselves, instead of surrogates, to be able to find answers to our questions.
 Tamás Jászay, Theatre critic, editor, university lecturer. Since 2009 co-president of the Hungarian Theatre Critics' Association. Lives in Budapest and Szeged. Having taken his degrees at the arts faculty, since 2003, he has been publishing theatre critiques and other theatre related writings. Since 2009 co-president in the Hungarian section of International Association of Theatre Critics. Editor of the critical portal called Revizor (www.revizoronline.com) since 2008, and besides that teaches theatre theory to future actors on the University of Kaposvár. At present he is working on his Ph.D. Thesis, whose subject is the history of the Krétakör Theatre.
 Arpad Schilling: Apology of an Escapologist. Bp., Kretakor Theater, 2010, 85.
 Arpad Schilling: A text on Kretakor and the Escapologist to the program guide of the ceremony in Wroclaw on receiving the New Theatrical Realities Prize. p 48.
 Arpad Schilling: Artproletarz – notes (part of that). p 7.