In the elegant surroundings of the Fészek Klub dining room, with its statuary and paintings evoking the atmosphere of an age where creativity was stimulated by hours of conversation around the table, Géza Csemer, author and director of plays and musicals, introduced me to Oszkár Nyári, a young actor, who very kindly agreed to an impromptu interview. He stayed in Budapest to play a part in a Gogol piece in the Thália Theatre.
Oszkár Nyári: My name is Oszkár Nyári and I am an actor in Kaposvár. I graduated from the College [now University] of Dramatic Arts four years ago. The theatre in Kaposvár is one of the most celebrated in the country and it has been a great honour for me to be able to perform there. I have played several roles, including leading roles, in both Hungarian and classical dramas, ranging from Titus Andronicus, George Dandin to musical productions, such as the Count of Luxembourg or Sweeney Tod. The theatre in Kaposvár caters for lovers of the operetta but also for audiences interested in more serious genres. At the same time, it harvests the various "trophies" to be won at festivals organised all over the country. There are many young actors on the scene today and many of them are extremely talented.
I am familiar with the theatre scene in Hungary and feel best qualified to talk about that, although I have been able to get to know foreign theatres as well as the result of having made several trips abroad. I was able to watch a few musicals in London, for example The Phantom of the Opera and then Fame the following day. I also took part in a couple of courses in the Royal National Theatre.
The most interesting feature of my second trip to London was that I travelled with students of the Gandhi Secondary School, which is run by a Foundation and provides secondary school education for Roma children. As a matter of fact, I actually took part in its course on children's theatre as the professional from the theatre. I was charged with the task of directing the children in a production of The Spirit of the Age, written by Bernard Kops, at the school and we were able to put on two performances in Budapest as well with the Roma children from the school.
We also shot a documentary about putting on the production or, to be more precise, about what the experience was like for the children, how they identified with the roles, the extent to which they think according to the value system represented in the roles they played. The film was very well received and shown at the 1999 Film Festival. After it was screened at the Corvin Film Palace, the children took a bow in front of the audience and the film proved a major success.
The struggle for a Romani theatre
Even in my days at the College of Dramatic Arts I felt that I had to take part in the struggle for a theatre to be created for the Roma, for us to have our own actors and actresses. At the outset, of course, I tried to go about it in an incredibly naive manner. I stood up in front of the assembled theatre directors of Budapest at a meeting and told them to give the Roma theatre premises.
Afterwards, I put on a play containing folklore elements, which was shown in the Budapesti Kamara theatre—now up and running once again as the Józsefvárosi Theatre—and in several other venues. In those days, there were no young Roma actors I could have worked together with, with whom I could have put this on stage. So I called upon the services of a folklore ensemble, and together with my classmates from the College, some amateur actors and two dancers we got the show on the road. It was fascinating work and it was from that moment on that I felt something more serious had to happen so that the Roma could display their artistic and creative abilities outside of the realms of music and art.
It was with this ambition in mind that I wrote at a later stage the Musicians of Mátyás Square, a one-act stage play. It premiered in the Eight District in a Roma Community Centre in front of a large Roma audience, with actors from Kaposvár, fellow-students from the College, one or two mature Roma ladies—drafted in as amateurs—, children and a seven-member gypsy orchestra. The showing itself was very interesting. 70 per cent of the audience was comprised of Hungarian gypsies, the play was about the musical gypsies and it was set in their milieu, Mátyás Square number 12, where the great musical families continued to live even after the war, who subsequently went on to be hugely successful all over the world, bringing Hungary and the Roma fame and renown.
These individuals grew up there and the milieu they were brought up in was the subject of the play. It dealt with how people of different nations and identities were able to live together, how they became separated, how they lived out their lives and to what extent they were servants or to what extent they were masters. They played in exquisitely elegant surroundings such as where we are sitting at the moment and yet they often lived in appalling circumstances.
As I said, the audience was about 70 per cent Roma and 30 per cent from the trade. What I felt pleased about was the curiosity shown by representatives of the trade. Another interesting facet was that many of the players were Roma themselves, but they entered fully into the spirit of the parts they played. Even if they could not identify fully with the environment depicted in the piece, they grew to love it because it was riddled with contradictions: with slaps being dealt out one minute and hugs the next, its tempestuous, temperamental nature, its seething hatred, its wearing its heart on its sleeve, genuinely loving, hurtful and yet bestowing gifts.
It really did have a major impact on the actors playing the parts. Afterwards they kept on quoting from the script. Some of the excerpts became their favourite expressions. I would be very curious to discover how this would operate in a different kind of environment.
Central Europe Review: Do you think that people appreciate the work you do or are they blinded by the fact that you are Romani and see the gypsy first?
ONy: That is a difficult question to answer, although I reckon I am given recognition within the profession. I am recognised as having a degree, I am recognised as being a member of the Kaposvár Theatre and I am also given recognition for all the work I have done up to now. At the same time, people don't know me. Very often the decision-makers are not theatregoers. That is a very topical issue for me right now, because I am involved in a joint project with Géza Csemer and we are collaborating very closely on it. It is of the utmost importance, though it is not first and foremost linked to the setting up of a Roma theatre, although that is essential as well. I feel that my task is to create productions, as that is the area in which I feel I can make the most valuable contribution.
When I say productions, I envisage productions expressly intended for the theatre. Afterwards it doesn't really matter where the pieces are performed, but I feel that Roma acting and theatre is my calling: to my mind this is far more important than any amount of status, title or any kind of public office. This is what is most important to me. I am trying to make a contribution by talent scouting young children and we have been looking for gifted youngsters for about a year and a half already. We were searching for the best method of tracking down this talent. To avoid segregation, we have also included non-Roma children from underprivileged backgrounds in our search.
We have actually managed to bring together a small ensemble, which the Piccolo Theatre has taken under its wing. We have set up the Caravan Arts Foundation [Karaván Művészeti Alapítvány] together with acting colleagues, writers and artists. The Foundation's primary aim is to teach the children the tricks of the acting trade, including elocution lessons, speech therapy, music, dance, co-ordination of movement, voice projection and stylistic projection, but also other subjects of value to the acting profession, such as musical creativity. We also give tuition in fundamentals such as history of art, analysis of drama or—and this is also very important—in English-language knowledge, though we teach in other foreign languages as well, including German.
Alongside all this, we would like to give supplementary teaching in, for example, radio dramas. I have just been on a visit to the radio and spoken to a lady who is an editor-in-chief, and who agreed to teach the subject over three terms. The children will work in a recording studio and at the end we will also produce a radio play, which someone will write specifically for us. There are authors amongst the children, but we know playwrights as well. We will probably be able to put on a course in film for them in the future in co-operation with the University of Dramatic Arts.
At the end of the course, we will be able to give them some guidance about their future career choice, telling them whether they would be most suited to working as announcers or presenters, whether they should consider moving on into the sphere of organising cultural events if they are not cut out to be actors. It will all become clear by then. It seems very likely that we will be able to look forward to having a lot of sponsors. I have endeavoured to ensure that this project is entirely impartial: we have not turned to any political party, political institution or any other organisation strongly influenced by politics. We are trying to apply for funding from PHARE and other programmes and I do feel we are in with a chance because the opportunity is visible.
These children are putting on a performance with the young director of the Kecskemét Theatre, Zoli Lendvai, who is going to work with me. Experienced young people with the relevant ambition and willingness will pitch in. We are also going to enjoy the collaboration of older colleagues, who also possess a huge wealth of experience and who do not look upon the undertaking as a money-making venture, but whose hearts dictate to them that they simply must take part. We have seen a team of such individuals crystallise. I know each and every one of them personally from earlier on. The relationship between us gradually became established anyway, because we think on the same wavelength.
Knowing that this opportunity lies ahead is a fantastic feeling. We can imagine what it will be like when these children sit end-of-term exams in the acting craft, in delivering a speech and in dance and that we will be inviting a whole host of interested individuals. The exams will be held in the Piccolo Theatre and then, in the following term, the children will occasionally be able to rehearse during acting lessons on a real stage with real stage lighting.
The environment and the opportunity are wonderful for them. During the second term, they will be performing a small