When someone speaks about US and Hungarian theatrical relationships, you cannot miss his name. Philip Arnoult, head of the Center for International Theatre Development (CITD) says that he spent his whole life in different spaces waiting for something to happen. And it was worth doing it.
Tamás Jászay: I always wanted to ask you: why and how did you get close to theatre? How did your theatrical socialization look like?
Philip Arnoult: That got me going way back… I was born in Memphis, Tennessee in 1941, so in fifteen months I’m going to be 80 years old. I stumbled into the theatre by being held in after school. I was going to a very strict catholic brothers’ college, where you were punished if you didn’t memorize a poem, which might not be the best way to love poetry. So I was there with a friend of mine, memorizing a poem. And suddenly I saw a very rare sight in my all-boys school: girls were walking in a doorway and disappearing. I peaked in and there were nine girls and some guys I knew, auditioning for a play.
TJ: And you walked in and became an actor.
PA: I walked in and got a tiny role in a play, I had maybe two words in it. There were rehearsals after school, sometimes even during the night. After a week it happened that I got a larger role and I was hooked. I spent the next three years being in every play I could find as an actor.
TJ: But was there a chance that you could make a living out of it?
PA: Look, I graduated from high school on a Sunday in 1959, and on Monday I went to work as an actor, my salary was thirty dollars a week. It was a very respected professional theatre in Memphis, the Front Street Theatre. I checked out: today this money equals 267 dollars a week. I started working there in June, then ended up playing some really nice roles. I played the husband in Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap, I played in Part 1 of Henry IV, I played inCarousel and in many other plays. I was supposed to go to college in Alabama, but I had a contract with this theatre and they wanted me to keep going. That’s how it happened that I was a professional actor as I started college. I ended up at a local university in Memphis, got my undergraduate degree there. I can say that I was a very successful actor there, I played big roles, working there altogether for two years. At Front Street, I had a very fiery director, George Touliatos, who always picked out a weak actor, whom he crucified in every performance. As a strong performer, I was never that actor. Then at the university, I met with another director, Brad White, who was the exact opposite of George. A wonderfully graceful theatre professor, trained at Yale, who became my mentor for four years: a really sophisticated, brilliant man, a real actors’ director, who strongly formed my personality.
TJ: And after you got your degree, you decided to make your own theatre.
PA: I started to run a small black box theatre, Market Theatre, then I got a fellowship in Washington DC at the Catholic University. And there I found directors and mentors, who reinforced that sense of really caring about the actor. My understanding of the work of Jerzy Grotowski and Joseph Chaikin reinforced this focus on the performer. So when I first visited Hungary 35 years later, I found a strong actor’s theatre.
TJ: But why Hungary?
PA: When I was going to see performances in Hungary, they were not events so much as ongoing conversations. A conversation that the audience was having with Chekhov and with some of the biggest names of the 1980s like Péter Huszti. He became a very good friend of mine and he is still. I knew that Peter had played Adam in Tragedy of Man in his youth. And then played Lucifer in his middle years. So I wanted to see him play God in a not-so-successful production at Madách some years ago. Peter made a creaky entrance in a throne in a basket from the top balcony to the stage. I went back to his dressing room and we decided to have a meal at the actor’s buffet. We left through the stage entrance, and still waiting outside for Peter was an elderly couple. Peter spent 6 or 7 gracious minutes with them before he drove me to my hotel. He told me that they had seen him as Adam when they were first married. Later, saw him as Lucifer, when their children were leaving the house for college…and then, that night, watching him play God. They wanted to thank him.
TJ: Did the US theatre that time have any relationships from abroad? What could be seen from the international scene in the US?
PA: In 1971 I started the Theatre Project in Baltimore, then leading the theatre for two decades. I got a little grant from Theatre Communications Group (TCG) and I got the chance to visit some places in the States. In Iowa, I found a very special company called Iowa Theatre Lab. After my readings, it seemed very close to Jerzy Grotowski’s ideas: intimate, physical theatre with all the landmarks of the Polish director. Ric Zank was the director and I was completely blown away by their performances. The Iowa Theatre Lab was known by the US International Theatre Institute, and through them came my long-time relationship with ITI and Martha Coigney, my long-time friend and mentor. So I began to travel and see the international work I brought to the Theatre Project. At the time when I started my theatre, the thoughts of Richard Schechner, Herbert Blau, and Peter Brook inspired me. Richard Mennen, a writer, and friend from my time in graduate school managed to invite Grotowski to the States and I got thirty tickets to Apocalypsis cum figuris, when they played it in Philadelphia in 1973. I was trying to develop a network along the East coast, sharing work, so I went there to see it with thirty friends of mine. And I met with Grotowski there. A year later money dried up in Iowa City, so I invited Iowa Theatre Lab to Baltimore for a residency, where they finally spent two years. Grotowski also came to Baltimore, spent two days with me, saw the Iowa Theatre Lab and we talked. He decided to be a partner of a project that never happened—his Pillar of Fire project.
TJ: What was he working on at that time?
PA: He was going to host the University of Research of Theatre of Nations in Wrocław in 1975, which was a parallel event of The Festival of the Theatre of Nations, taking place in Warsaw. Grotowski invited all the big names from the whole world… I took a group to Wrocław from Tennessee, the Playgroup, and director Leo Shapiro of Shaliko Company and a few of his group. We saw together the work of Grotowski, Eugenio Barba, Peter Brook, and many others. In 1976 I did a Bicentennial Festival together with Herbert Blau, we brought twenty-six pieces to Baltimore, five from New York, twenty-five from the rest of America and five from abroad, including Péter Halász and Squat Theatre from Hungary. The non-New York companies were the result of research for a paper I wrote later, where I asked two dozen companies all across the US. I was struck by their mission: “We decided to be here because of the love of the land because our friends and family are here.”
TJ: How did you get in touch with the Squat?
PA: Through György Lengyel and the International Theatre Institute (ITI). ITI was already an incredibly important association in ’76 and it stayed critically important for two more decades beyond. The greatest thing about ITI was that when the leaders talked about theatre, they rarely talked about plays or productions, but always about people: the human relationships held together with the Institute. I think it was in East Berlin in 1983, when during an ITI Congress, Martha Coigney, Peter Goldfarb and I went to Budapest for the first time, invited by György Lengyel.
Philip Arnoult at the Pécs Theatre Festival in 2011.
TJ: And afterward the Hungarian connection became stronger and stronger.
PA: I’m not sure when I made my next visit, but I know that we brought Győri Balett to the Theatre of Nations in Baltimore in 1986. There was a Hungarian presence there. In the late 80s with the help of György Lengyel and a lady from the theatre of Szeged, we did some exchanges. And through the years I met with many Hungarians… When András Nagy took on the Hungarian ITI, we worked together on many projects. Also, László Upor and I go back a long way. And I first worked with Andrea Tompa in the Nagy-years at ITI. In Edinburgh, I saw a wonderful production of Kati Lábán, Kafka’s America. In the early 90s, I met with László Marton, and with my wife, we saw the first main rehearsal of Össztánc (Dance in Time) and I just loved that. Later, I helped him recreate it in Knoxville, Tennessee at the Clarence Brown Theatre. There was a time when I was more focused on working with the University of Theatre and Film Arts and a lot of exchanges took place at that time. I saw the works of early Krétakör, like Baal by Árpád Schilling. I worked with Árpád and his partner, Máté Gáspár to get the word out. At some festivals they showed up with this piece, I brought people to hear that major new voice. I had seen the works of Tamás Fodor at Stúdió K before the changes. In 1997 Fodor and Lábán did an independent theatre festival in Budapest. I helped them with some money, brought to Budapest Double Edge, Independent Eye and other, altogether ten people. That time other strong new voices could be heard: I met withÉva Magyar and Csaba Horváth at the beginning of his career. So I started to focus on Hungary: I saw directors that were more on the side of the future than in the past.
TJ: And things started to work: some contracts were made.
PA: Róbert Alföldi went to make The Merchant of Venice in Portland (2004). János Szász made Mother Courage and her Children (2001) and The Streetcar Named Desire (2001), and Enikő Eszenyi directed A man’s a man (2004) at Arena Stage. These were really big splashes. János returned to Boston’s American Repertory Theatre at Harvard to direct their training program for almost a decade and direct at least a half-dozen major productions there. The next phase started when Barbara Lanciers went to Budapest with Fulbright in 2007/2008 to investigate the US-Hungarian relationships between the theatre cultures. I had also been following Béla Pintér’s work, and we were able to help him get to the Lincoln Center Festival and a tour two years ago of Our Secrets. He just finished directing his opera, The Champion, here in Baltimore. I did a major three-country project with Gábor Goda. Tibor Orlai always surprises me with his eclectic choices.
TJ: And in the last decade you still have full attention on what is happening in Hungary.
PA: With the help of Barbara, who worked with me at CITD when she was a graduate student, we make a very good team, she is a wonderful ally. My partnerships with dunaPart, with Színház, and with the Academy are also important. You and me, we know each other for like ten years, but my relationships with Robi, Andrea, Kati, Péter, György, Csaba, László, Árpád, Máté, Béla, Gábor, Tiborand Enikő are still active, these friendships last. Be prepared: what holds us together are long term relationships that need to be refreshed. I told you I’m going to be eighty soon, that’s a lot of miles… I’m going to stay with Hungary and hope to come back. And still looking for young people to join me.
TJ: I have the feeling you never chose between young and independent groups and the traditional theatre.
PA: Robi Alföldi was my friend when he was working at Bárka, and when he became the director of the National Theatre, everything was the same. Loyalty is everything to me: loyalty to people, to artists, not to organizations or productions. To answer your question, I am much more related to high risk, to theatre that dares to fail. And I am very interested in, and working with, the generation of Martin Boross, Tamás Ördög, Andrea Pass, Bence Bíró, Kristóf Kelemen, Veronika Szabó, Ádám Fekete… and I’m always looking for new work. An institutional theatre is like an oil tanker, it takes a long time to turn it to new directions. Once I said in an interview that my taste is catholic with a small c, which means universal, all-embracing. The center of all is the presence and the magic of the actor in the room. I’m a really lucky guy, I made my life in theatre since I was eighteen years old and I never compromised. What drove me was the love for this whole. And working with people that I respect and love. I spent my life in spaces waiting for something to happen. In my MA thesis, which I wrote about David Merrick and the role of the contemporary producer, in my concluding chapter, I talked about the future and quoted Schechner, Brook, Blau, and Grotowski. And I ended up working with all of them. What else can I ask for?
This article was originally posted at revizoronline.com/english on March 10, 2020, and has been reposted with permission. To read the original article, click here.
This post was written by the author in their personal capacity.The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.