Pál Mácsai has enjoyed a brilliant career as an actor, director, theater manager, and star of the HBO television series Therapy. To figure out what makes him tick, I sat down with Pál Mácsai (always a pleasure) in his office and tried my best not to fawn.
[This interview was conducted in Hungarian, then translated into English, which the subject had an opportunity to read over and correct. Since Mr. Mácsai and I share the same initials, I have adopted the pseudonym “Theatre Daemon” here – Patrick Mullowney.]
Theatre Daemon: You have a wide-ranging career, and I want to cover as many aspects as possible. Let’s start with acting. You are an accomplished actor, are you not?
Pál Mácsai: Yes.
T.D.: Fine. In your early career, you played some of the great Shakespearean heroes. I’m thinking of Romeo, Henry V, Antony from Julius Caesar, and Edgar from King Lear. Did that have an effect on your growth as an actor?
P.M.: Certainly. (long pause) It’s difficult to express how, but Shakespeare is an actor-making author – that’s what we say. There are certain actor-making authors. After all, he was not only a poet and playwright, but also a remarkably clever and polished expert, and every good theatre expert is also involved in training actors. There are certain demands he makes. Good speaking, delivery – that’s a minimum. A strong presence on the stage. Putting aside all puttering with unnecessary things. Thinking and acting in terms of the arc. It’s certain it had an effect on me.
In Henry V, by the way, I wasn’t Henry. I played eight little parts. It was a Fregoli role. [This is a reference to the famous Italian quick-change artist Leopoldo Fregoli. – trans.]
T.D.: According to Wikipedia, you played the lead role.
P.M.: It’s a mistake.
T.D.: Let’s move on. At the Örkény István Színház, which you manage, you have assembled an extraordinary stable of actors. Does your background as an actor help you work with them or bring out the best in them?
P.M.: Very. For me, it really helps. I like to say I chose actors that are better than I am. That was the principle. And it’s true. Maybe I speak better than some or – I don’t know – work faster…but from a certain point of view, everyone’s better. This is a very complex profession. Actors are one way or another. Some are like this or like that, this way or that way. There are all types of actors. The only interesting thing is who has what sort of presence onstage. And for a company, there are certain guidelines for health. It’s a biological process. One must assemble a company biologically. They say a good company is one where you can cast Romeo and Juliet and Chekhov’s The Seagull. The proportion of the sexes and the ages. And I also paid attention to inviting actors that I would willingly perform with – those I wanted to learn from, the ones I looked up to. There is no one in the company who I look down on, or who I would say, “Nyah, what’s that one doing here?” There’s no one like that. And no doubt that is the main strength of the theater.
T.D.: I have lived in Budapest for almost 16 years now, and I have witnessed the evolution of the Madach Kamara, which you took over in 2001, to the Örkény István Színház today. It’s been quite a change. In the past, the venue was known for light entertainment. Now the Örkény is mentioned in the same breath as Katona József Színház, which for a long time was the undisputed best theater in Hungary. Tell me, was it a conscious effort on your part to transform the theatre this way?
P.M.: Absolutely. I didn’t want to copy or beat or compete with the Katona. On the contrary, it’s a very simple matter – first what I believe in and second what I understand. I wanted it to be a repertory company for prose theatre. It’s worthwhile to… Your question was long, my answer will also be long.
T.D.: Go right ahead.
P.M.: There’s an expression here called the public will. That means what the viewers want, or whatever horseshit the viewers want. Now, the first point of departure is a person’s make-up, in order to create a theatre that is suited to him. I don’t look down on musicals at all or entertainment theatres. I love to laugh. I like being carried away by the music, but it’s not my world. It’s always a little flimsy for me.
T.D.: Sorry. I was just laughing trying to imagine you in Cats.
P.M.: I performed in musicals. In Valahol Európában [Somewhere in Europe, musical adaptation of the 1948 film] or Isten pénze [Hungarian musical version of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol]. I sing, I even have an album. But the second thing to consider right off the bat is the building and the city. This building, for instance, is good for two things. It’s an intimate little building which was designed as a cinema and accidentally became a theater. But it was always a theater. It never operated as a cinema. It’s good for two things. The first is light comedies with a limited cast, which it did very well for decades. The second – because of its small-size, the proximity, the intimacy – is prose drama. Now, that’s my profile. It was completely clear that that’s what I wanted to do. For my first proposal, that was for a civic theater – that means that Budapest was the boss, the city of Budapest was the general manager, so my employer was the mayor. And in my proposal, I wrote that my goal was a prose drama theatre where we can sometimes performs musicals as well, but with a company, as a repertory theatre, so the profile was not exclusively for the performance of comedies. And we succeeded in creating it. I think it’s the best opportunity for a theatre – for my kind of theatre. There are many types of theatre. So it was completely conscious. And of course, I didn’t do it alone, but with many others. Very important here are the directors that I invited and the actors that I invited. The members – first of all, László Bagossy – and the guests – for example, Tamás Ascher, János Mohácsi and many more great artists. [Bagossy, Ascher, and Mohácsi are all directors. – trans.] A very important role is played by Ildikó Gáspár, the dramaturge, who has worked for years here as a dramaturge, now as a director.
T.D.: Let’s talk about the repertoire. Is there a formula: how many classic plays, how many contemporary, how many Hungarian, how many foreign, here and there a Chekhov or a Shakespeare?
P.M.: Just the same as for a healthy company, there are certain guidelines for a season, too. Again there are some basic data. How many premieres? The city expects two, we normally have five, and that’s solid. It’s not because we’re workaholics, but because that’s the artistic necessity. In addition, we also have a studio now, so it’s rather seven. Next year, the number will be six. (pause) So we… once we decided upon being a prose drama theater, we do away with half the world’s literature right there. We don’t deal with commercial plays and musical pieces. (makes a slashing and disposing sound effect) That leaves half. And that’s still one million plays. And then there are compass points for us. We love both north and south. There must be a contemporary piece. We really love if it’s by a contemporary Hungarian writer, but it’s not obligatory. It doesn’t have to be a Hungarian writer. If it’s not good enough what we find or what comes to us, then it won’t be Hungarian, but there’s always some modern play or quasi-modern work on the program. We want to have comedy and tragedy. We want to have some quasi-classical work. That’s already four or five main directions. So if we know these are the directions we’re heading in, let’s say every season we need a comedy. All right, a comedy, but what kind of comedy? A contemporary one, or an old one, and who will direct it? Which director is considering a comedy that is topical, that speaks to the present – for example, The Inspector General at the Vígszínház – and it has some bearing on society. But that’s not necessary, either. These are the very important aspects. So there are four cardinal directions, and the director is very important. Every bit as important is what the company wants. That’s key. For us, it’s very important. What is it that will allow the actors to develop new skills and try out different personalities? So let’s say Imre Csuja shouldn’t always play some old bumpkin, but from time to time a cultured person. Let’s take this aging figure from the countryside and try to find the gentleman within him. Or we find in a young pretty girl the ugly or the wicked. Or in some cold-seeming person, we find the lyricism, and so on. So the actors are always discovering new sides of themselves, and that is what makes it truly exciting for them, and that way they can really develop.
T.D.: And do you speak with the actors to see what their ideas are?
P.M.: Yes, sometimes yes. Their ideas usually don’t determine the season, because the actors generally come up with projects where they can play the leading role.
P.M.: You understand. We usually don’t hear, “Look, you’ve got to put on Hamlet, because I’d be such a great gravedigger in that:” But the actors are not dissatisfied, and I believe everyone has found a place. And that’s no accident. It’s in the interest of the theatre that the best actor should play the leading role – the one who is constitutionally and artistically the best suited for it. And it’s in the interest of the actors, too.
T.D.: There also seems to be an emphasis on the importance of the spoken word, like your radio play Csoda and Kósza for children, or the wildly successful evenings of poetry recital, Mother’s Hen, Parts 1 and 2. Is this a tradition that you wish to keep alive?
P.M.: Well, it’s a question of make-up. If you turn around, you’ll see my father’s map of Budapest on the wall. My father drew it in 1961, when I was born. Anyway, at the time, he wasn’t young. He was 40 years old.
T.D.: (mouths silently) Like me.
P.M.: I know. He wasn’t old, either. And by that time he had largely relaxed into what was his artistic make-up. Up till then, he painted in all different styles. You know, he was a realistic painter. Maybe you don’t know, but all the same.
T.D.: I’ve seen a couple of his pictures, but I don’t know his profile.
P.M.: I’ll just show you…
(He produces an art book from the shelf, and we spend a few minutes looking at reproductions of his father’s paintings.)
P.M.: So he was 40 years old when he said, “I don’t give a shit about public opinion. I’m going to paint according to my own mood and make-up.” And that’s what the text-centeredness is all about. It is a question of make-up. It’s something I would like to move beyond, but I can’t, because… Let me tell you an anecdote, all right?
P.M.: I was once in Paris. A long time ago. But do you know who Michel Gyarmathy was? You don’t. Doesn’t matter. He was a Hungarian man, a Hungarian Jew, I think, who somehow wound up in Paris, and he was the leader of the Folies Bergère. Do you know the Folies Bergère?
T.D.: I’ve been there.
P.M.: A night spot. And he was famous for allowing every Hungarian tourist into the Folies Bergère for free. All you had to do was find him somewhere on the Boulevard St. Michel in some café and go up to him. “I’m a Hungarian tourist…” “Fine, say no more. You’re in.” It was unbelievable what I saw there. Projections, smoke. There was a rotating stage, and upstage there appeared on this rotating platform a quadriga. Do you know what a quadriga is?
P.M.: It’s just like a triga or a biga. The quadriga is a Roman war chariot pulled by four horses. And it rolled towards the audience, head on, to the point where it nearly tumbled into the audience, but then the stage began to spin, so the horses kept going in place, sparks flying from their hooves. The most beautiful breasts I’ve seen in my life – thirty girls – it was gorgeous, artistic – I tell you, it was magical. I’ve never been so bored in my entire life. During the break, I escaped. As far as I know, I fell asleep, and they’d even brought me a free cocktail. The next night I was in the Bouffes du Nord [run at the time by Peter Brook – trans.], where they performed Shakespeare’s Tempest in a circle of sand. We sat all around it and watched as people stood in the sand and spoke. The experience left such a lump in my throat, I went out into the night, the Parisian night, talking to myself. I just gazed at the Seine, smoking a cigarette, I was so worked up. That was a production! I have never understood, never, what a projector is doing in a theater. To project pictures. I’ve never understood it. I’m always suspicious and bored when I see a projector. Other directors have built a life’s work upon it. Because their make-up is different. So the text-centeredness is what I believe in. If you see Tell That One, Stevie! [Mácsai’s one-man-show based on the writings of István Örkény – trans.] ... You saw that, right?
P.M.: I sit in a fucking chair and just run off at the mouth. I don’t even stand. Two times in the course of an hour. That’s what I understand. That’s what interests me. It’s my make-up.
T.D.: Good. Thanks for the story! I also want to talk about your direction. You have directed a number of remarkable shows. One that sticks out for me is your production of Jarry’s King Ubu [Übü király]. For me the show was practically a summary of avant-garde techniques. It was modern without being experimental, the arrival of a new modern-classic approach. Did I interpret this well, or was your vision completely different?
P.M.: Well, it’s strange you should mention Ubu, because it wasn’t around for long. I believe it deserved a longer run, and worse productions of mine have managed to run much longer.
T.D.: Interesting, because if we can only talk about one play, that’s the one I chose, so…
P.M.: That play also featured acting students. And I have a sense of humor – or I love humor, especially the grotesque. And King Ubu is not just grotesque, but nonsense and absurd at once. All three. It frees up a person’s imagination, and it was a very good feeling that there was a complete class of academy students in it, a complete class of acting students from the university. So it became a great… orgy of bodies and youth, energy and playfulness. It simply cannot be compared to, let’s say, Tóték [The Tót Family, also directed by Mácsai at the Örkény], where the four actors perform in a very puritan, Apollonian manner… It’s in Nietzsche. He says there are two types of art: Apollonian and Dionysian. Here we have examples of Apollonian theatre and Dionysian theatre, but they’re quite the same. Both are staged in an empty space, both are playful, both deal with a lot, and what is typical of them is that they allow the performance into the spectator’s imagination. That’s my obsession, and it has never disappointed me. That the production doesn’t take place onstage, but in the viewer’s head. The movie runs inside their heads; the production happens inside them. We just stir up their inner workings. That’s what I consider… for me, that’s the theatre. The more that is entrusted to the spectators’ fantasy, the better. And sometimes it’s the text that does it – to my mind, because that’s what I understand – but sometimes it’s in the movement or in the music. Say there’s a production where the dome of the Paris Opera House appears onstage, under a starry sky, and it looks exactly like the Parisian opera house’s dome. For me, that’s just as good as going over to the window, taking out my money, and tossing it all out the window. Why? The dome of the Parisian opera house is there in Paris. I understand that resemblance is an artistic effect. To resemble, to imitate. But it doesn’t interest me. What interests me is if a person says, “Let’s imagine the dome of the Paris Opera House. Green, round, and above it the starry sky.” And my mind (makes an exploding sound) starts working. That’s why I get mad, for instance – and really, I get mad, and it hurts me – for example, at Disney films. Because if I read a fairy tale about the glass mountain to a class of schoolchildren – and I say, “the glass mountain” – there and then, forty different kinds of glass mountains are created. Each child’s mind contains a different glass mountain. One is green, one is blue, one has a peak, another one’s rounded, the fourth is small, the fifth is big, the sixth is sharp and dangerous, while the seventh is made of crystal. Disney goes and makes a stunningly beautiful glass mountain, and from then on, there is just one glass mountain. And once a child sees that glass mountain in the movie, it is the only glass mountain for them. For me, it’s not interesting. I consider it dangerous, manufactured, and harmful. The storybook version, though, I consider useful, artistic, and proper.
T.D.: If we may go back a little, I think the mysterious thing about Ubu – and the instructive part of what I saw in the theatre – was there were certain tricks, if I may use that word…
P.M.: Yes, you may.
T.D.: You know, when I worked in New York in Off-Off-Broadway theatre, and I saw certain tricks that, yes, they were the fashion in the 60s, when it was very bold. It was an experiment then. But now here we are in the Örkény, and you say, “People, this is modern theatre. It’s now part of our toolkit.”
P.M.: Absolutely. That’s right. Moreover, Ubu is not a real play. It was a schoolboy’s joke that parodies elements of cultural history, archetypes. So we included plenty of art history allusions in it and parodies of style from video games to the operetta, from melodrama to small caricatures of the “realistic” acting style. There was a great variety in it.
T.D.: We could talk at least an hour more about that, but let’s move on. Already one may speak of an Örkény style, a signature way of bringing plays to the stage. Oftentimes, the set is stripped-down. Emphasis is on the text. The interpretation avoids sentimentalism or over-dramatization. Is it a danger for a theatre to become associated too closely with one type of method or approach?
P.M.: Well, yes. (pause) It’s a very, very important question. They usually say that a company has seven years. “The magic seven.” And after that, it splits apart. Maybe that’s so. But we’ve been together fourteen years now. We have to work very hard for our acting style not to become boring. And I work on that. All the directors – Bagossy, Ascher, Mohácsi, Polgár Csaba, Ildikó Gáspár, and myself – are very different in style. And I invite more and more young artists – for the time being, just in the studio. Well, you’ll soon see The Bell Jar, which has a completely different approach. I hope it will appeal to you. For the most part, it’s movement theatre.
T. D.: Let’s speak a bit about Csaba Polgár’s directing work.
P.M.: Sure. From many aspects, he is the future.
T.D.: Well, visually, he’s wilder.
P.M.: Of course, of course. It’s German-inspired theatre. But personal, too.
T.D.: As I mentioned, I want to touch on as many topics as possible. Örkény Theatre initiated the IRAM program, the aim of which, it seems, is to involve younger generations in the theatre. Why is this an important part of your work?
P.M.: Well, because – look here – we have to nurture our future viewers. That’s obvious. That’s the case. And it’s very correct that way. I also consider it of primary importance, because I remember being the most talented in middle school.
P.M.: When I was in middle school, as a teenager, that’s when I was the most talented. All people are their most talented then. They are open to everything, receptive to everything, and make excellent audience members. And I remember that when… It’s possible to cite theories about why it’s important, but those are commonplaces. What’s important is the personal basis... You’re interested in some personal motivation, correct? … I remember in was sitting in secondary school, I was interested in theatre, and [László] Gálffi visited us. [László Gálffi is now a member of the Örkény Company. – trans.] He’s just under 10 years older than me, and at that time, he was a recognized actor, and he spoke to us about plays. And I was very happy that he’d come, and it was promised that Tamás Major [the most influential actor and theatre-maker in the Kádár Era – trans.] would also visit us, but he didn’t – because he didn’t have time, or he got sick. And I was very offended that he didn’t come. That…that was the basis. And I’m proud of it, because our IRAM program is very good. We already have eight people working in it. And from the summer camp to the permanent groups that run during the year, they have cleverly thought through these programs for children. I don’t know if you’ve been to any IRAM program before, because sometimes we hold them for adults, too. Come by some time, it’s worthwhile to see…
T.D.: I haven’t seen it, I only know about it.
P.M.: There will soon be a Night of the Theaters. There’s one every autumn. And now the theme will be drama pedagogy. And we’ll have several encounters with adults. You don’t have to join in and take part, but it’s worth seeing. They’re very professional. Those who take part – the children, and that’s the point – learn that the theatre is about them. Even the old plays are about them.
T.D.: Good. I’ll just check on the… (while looking at the recorder for the 500th time) I’m a little paranoid. No, it looks like we’re fine.
P.M.: I’m also the paranoid type. (We laugh.)
T.D.: I must talk about your highly-acclaimed role on the HBO series Therapy, where you play the therapist who holds the entire show together. Wasn’t it draining on your energy to shoot that series, especially when you appear in almost every scene and have so much dialogue to learn?
P.M.: Listen, there’s an old Hungarian saying. If you become a whore, don’t be surprised by all the fucking.
P.M.: You don’t have to print that. You can tone it down.
T.D.: This is for adults.
P.M.: A person can only be over the moon to receive such a role. It’s a very, very great fortune. Such a role only comes along once in a lifetime, or maybe in ten lifetimes. So when something that suits my make-up so well, and also my age… Okay, the television market is ninety percent moronic. Everywhere in the world. TV is a stupid medium. Just ten percent of it is worthwhile, and this is the best of that. So you understand why it is so fortunate a role for someone with my intellectual make-up. Amazing luck! So I’m very grateful, and I gladly spent my energy on it. Gladly. It’s beautiful work. Imagine for yourself some kind of work where there’s no compromise. Only that it’s tiring. The best partners, directors, excellent scripts – and the script is terribly clever. You know, it’s been a worldwide hit. It’s know-how.
P.M.: The show is licensed. It was an American series with the title Treatment. You didn’t know?
T.D.: (sighs) No.
P.M.: It’s not a Hungarian series. It was in America, just the same. Israel, America, France, Norway, Poland, Romania, Italy – they filmed it in many places. Everywhere a little different. Now, here, they really adapted it – and we’re lucky that HBO allowed that – so the third season, compared to the original Treatment, is practically an independent show. So this is a very well-matured shooting script. And the whole thing is beautifully thought-out, very inspired. (brief pause) So tiring, yes, it was very tiring, but very beautiful work.
T.D.: Has the thought of finding a worthy successor crossed your mind?
P.M.: Yes, it has.
T.D.: And is it important to you to find someone who will continue your work and your mission at the Örkény?
P.M.: Well, as far as the essence of the mission, yes. It should remain a prose theatre for drama with a company of actors. Yes, I consider that important. Um… Still, if it should remain just the way it is now, I would expressly oppose that. We must move forward. After all, everyone is just a chapter – in theatre history or in art history. So am I – in fact, I already belong somewhat to past. And it’s a very important thing for a person to pass it on in time. To pass it on well. Yes, I do have some notion of how it should proceed. But I still don’t think it’s time for me to end my work at the Örkény. The real question is how I can divide my duties to have more time to focus on art instead of managing.
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