The Hungarian Independent Theatre Scene During the Pandemic


The pandemic has taken its toll on the theatre sector of Hungary, resulting in many freelance artists delivering pizza, developing other skills to find a job, living on their savings, and desperately missing performing for a live audience. Independent theatres, however, had already been struggling to survive long before the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020.

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Fishy allocation of state funds

In Hungary, the distribution of state subsidies is not free from political sympathies in the art scene either. There are at least two of every main artistic umbrella organisation or festival: a Government-friendly one, and one that does not enjoy official support, such as the renowned Budapest Spring Festival that used to be co-financed by the Orbán Government and Budapest City Council led by the opposition figure Gergely Karácsony, mayor of Budapest since 2019. The former has recently decided to pull its funding and create two other heavily-subsidized festivals instead through state grants with which the City of Budapest could never compete. Erzsébet Gy. Németh, Budapest’s Deputy Mayor, responsible for culture, expressed her regret about this situation to the daily Népszava in February, as the Government was throwing away a brand with a 40-year history without explanation.

This lack of transparency, a lack of equal representation in the allocating bodies, and breaches of law on several occasions in the allocation of state funds to cultural institutions were the subject of an open letter issued by the Alliance of Independent Performing Arts (FESZ), the umbrella organisation including most of these independent groups, to the Ministry of Human Capacities (EMMI), which is responsible for arts, public education and public collections, on 7 May.

Government interference in the cultural sector

On 9 May, on behalf of the European Alliance of Academies, the Executive Director of the Széchenyi Academy of Letters and Arts, Professor Győző Ferencz, and the President of the German Akademie der Künste filed a petition to the European Parliament following a complaint to the UN Special Rapporteur for Culture drawing attention to “the dismantling of the independence of cultural institutions in Hungary” and “state cultural policies” that “allow for undue government interference in the cultural sector”.

The complaint outlines three main domains of encroachments on artistic freedom that exemplify “the Orbán administration's attempt to bring the Hungarian cultural landscape into line and eliminate any form of dissent and opposition […] Since winning the 2010 elections, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and the governing Fidesz party have systematically limited institutional independence in the field of culture by (1) reshaping the organizational structure of cultural institutions, (2) appointing cultural administrators on the basis of political affiliation, and (3) redirecting resources to Government-conforming institutions and artists.”

Untransparent funding

Zita Rihay-Kovács, the executive secretary of FESZ, told the author of this article: “My concern is that the state allocation is lottery-like. You may think you’ve written the best proposal of your life and then end up receiving nothing - without knowing the eliminating criteria.” This is the case of the 30-year-old, acclaimed international independent theatre festival called THEALTER in Szeged.

According to their Facebook post, the organisation had successfully applied for public operating aid since 1995. In 2019 they received 21.5 million HUF (60,535 EUR). However, following the restructuring of the tender system, the aid started decreasing without any further explanation. In 2020 this aid sank to 7 million HUF (19,709 EUR), with the pandemic on top of that. As for 2021, the ministry’s current list of the organisations eligible for performing arts operating aid was published on 30 April. THEALTER’s organiser, MASZK Association, received zero funding and found the decision totally incomprehensible, as they had fulfilled all of the requirements to qualify for the grant as in years past.

Among the aid-winning “professional theatre and dance organisations” there are dubious ones, such as “an organisation that has turned from a basketball club into one ‘protecting traditions’” and others that do not even fulfil the application criteria, according to the Facebook post.

Speaking to the author of this article, Katalin Martinkovics, Managing Director of MASZK Association, the organiser of the THEALTER festival, recalled that the call for tenders contained a passage that might have given a hint to what kind of artistic events would be financed by taxpayer money “A further priority […]: depicting the values of Hungarian culture in a high-quality, affirmative way, reinforcing our national self-identity, as well as representing our belonging to European Christian culture positively, with professional excellence, using the means of contemporary theatre.” Nevertheless, the call for tenders did not indicate how many extra points would be given for this criterion, Martinkovics explained, leaving them with yet another unanswered question about the final decision.

The decision-making curators’ names have not been disclosed and the questions have remained unanswered so far. Following their financial losses of 2020 and with no savings left, the festival is left in a predicament. “With such an unpredictable funding system, no long-term planning is possible for any artistic organisation,” added Zita Rihay-Kovács.

Pressuring into conformity

The petition from the European Alliance of Academies notes that “untransparent and selective funding” is used “as a way of pressuring institutions and artists into conformity”. For example, “municipal theatres only receive funding if they agree to the appointment of theatre directors by the central government”, a practise institutionalised by the culture law of December 2019, although Fidesz had already “sacked directors and boards of provincial theatres and replaced them with local Fidesz-appointed figures […] since it won the municipal elections in 2006.”

In a study about the processes of elite circulation and changes in the field of theatre between 2006 and 2016 published in 2017 in the sociological review Szociológiai Szemle, Luca Kristóf observes that the appointed municipal theatre directors mostly accepted the narrative that such positions had always depended on political affiliations (p. 40). In contrast, members of the old elite subscribed to a different narrative: that of a selection formerly based on professional criteria versus one now based on political affiliation. (p. 41)

Structural changes

Replacing the elites in the theatre field was facilitated by structural changes such as the 2008 foundation of the Magyar Teátrumi Társaság (MTT), a national association of theatres led by Attila Vidnyánszky,[i] standing for “patriotism” (Kristóf, p. 41). According to the late theatre critic Tamás Koltai, who was cited in the above-mentioned study, the MTT was created in defiance of the Magyar Színházi Társaság (MSZT), “Hungarian Theatre Company”, the already-existing national association of theatres founded in 1997. In 2012 Vidnyánszky became director of the National Theatre and a decisive figure for the entire Hungarian theatre scene. He was appointed to carry out the authoritarian restructuring of Hungary’s University of Theatre and Film Arts (SZFE) that led to broad national and international protests in September 2020, leaving many of his former students and colleagues aghast at his carrying out the Government’s agenda.

Thealter’s organisers also declared solidarity with SZFE. Whether the current denial of state (i.e., taxpayer) funding for the alternative theatre festival is a punishment for that disloyalty remains a hypothesis, as the justification for it is unknown. The former director of the National Theatre who was replaced by Vidnyánszky, Róbert Alföldi, commented on this in the Szeged Podcast by saying: “What matters is whether you kiss up.”

“I work in a theatre, but I have other skills too”

Despite systemic difficulties, the pandemic has also set off a wave of solidarity within the arts scene. Apart from different sorts of national endowments, the FESZ has also raised money for those who work behind the scenes in theatres and who would otherwise receive little to no funding. While streaming performances online provides minimal income for some, freelance artists who are sole proprietors find themselves in complete precarity. The Facebook group “I work in a theatre, but I have other skills too” (Színházban dolgozom, de máshoz is értek) was created at the beginning of the pandemic by the  award-winning dramaturg Anna Lengyel, who passed away in April 2021; the group has landed short- or long-term jobs for many theatre workers. The most famous of them is the cooperation of set designer Péter Horgas and actress Viktória Kerekes, who have started a business called Dr. HorKer redecorating apartments and redesigning gardens.

The small Gólem Theatre, the only professional Jewish theatre company in Hungary, founded by artistic director András Borgula in 2005, has also created a flourishing new business during the pandemic, that of a canteen. In spite of the very small state grant they have received (which has drastically decreased in the past two years), Borgula has a very positive attitude. “One can often see an Eastern European resignation in artists that will not move us forward. We should not stay inactive for lack of state money, but think of what we could do to make money ourselves. How to approach our audiences, foundations, companies, individuals to support us? We are not completely independent, yet we are doing our best to get there. Independence has its price, but it’s worth it.”    

Theatre is Borgula’s mission. “This is my cross to bear,” he says, laughing. “In the 3 000 years of theatre, since we’ve been discussing the problems of the polis in a common forum, humankind has developed much more than during the previous millennia. Even if we are frustrated by the Orbán Government, if we zoom out enough – and this is my job as a stage director – we will see that human progress cannot be curtailed in the long run. We must persevere and believe that our work will bear fruit in the future, just like in Cloud Atlas.”

(Proofreading by Gwendolyn Albert)

i[i] As we reported before in “Focus on Hungary”, Attila Vidnyánszky is an internationally acclaimed director and a controversial personality. The Ukrainian-born director’s rich career spans from his studies at the College of Film and Theatre Arts in Kyiv to his founding the Hungarian National Theatre in Berehove, becoming director of the Hungarian State Opera House in 2004, being appointed artistic director of the Csokonai Theatre in Debrecen in 2006, teaching at the acting department at the University of Kaposvár as a regular teacher, administrator and vice-administrator, and finally becoming the director of the National Theatre in Budapest in 2013. In that year, “the contract with the internationally acknowledged artistic director of the National Theatre of Hungary, Robert Alföldi, was prematurely dissolved. The Orbán administration had repeatedly castigated Mr. Alföldi for his political views and his homosexuality and finally deprived him of his position as the National Theatre’s director. Instead it appointed Attila Vidnyánszky, who follows a pro-government line, embodying the government’s enthusiasm for patriotism and a nominal Christianity”, as the complaint of the European Alliance of Academies recalls those events.