The Perspectives of a Creative Producer Today

An interview with Sylvia Huszár – creative producer from Budapest, Hungary, Europe

Published by Ivanka Apostolova Baskar 

Sylvia Huszár is a Hungarian independent theatre producer with an international background, a theatre theorist and translator. She has been working with contemporary theatres for more than 20 years. She aims to promote Hungarian contemporary theatres that have strong, new visions and aesthetics. Besides project-management and publishing, she also consults for theatre festivals at home and abroad. She was the curator and lead coordinator of the Hungarian exhibitions at the Prague Quadrennial Exhibition of Performance Design and Space (1995-2015). She worked at the University of Film and Theatre Arts in Budapest as the head of the PR and Foreign Affairs Department (2007-2011). Between 2009 and 2013, she worked for Maladype Theatre as the manager of foreign affairs and the producer of co-production projects. Since 2018, she has collaborated with the company as well as working as Zoltán Balázs’ Creative Producer.

Ivanka Apostolova Baskar: Sylvia, what does it mean to be a creative producer in a theatre today? What are the role’s challenges and obligations? How do you manage the production, company and budget? What does it mean to be a successful creative producer? 

Sylvia Huszár: Creative producing may seem enigmatic to many people. The term “creative producer” is well-known in film, however it is gaining more and more ground in the world of theatre. It can be heard more and more these days. “Theatre producer” and “production manager” are both terms that can be close to finance and managing the budget, the crew, ticket sales, and so on but I am not doing that. I work with the producer and the director only. I work with the director from the moment the idea for the performance is born. I put the production into context, give advice to the director about trends and ideas. I do research, fundraising, publicity, find sponsors and distribution partners, make note of festivals, and trouble shoot – I “put out fires”. I participate at meetings, and travel to festivals in order to maintain contacts. 

I have learned everything I know about producing and managing projects through practice. I learned about raising money, which is a big part of production. I learned about putting deals together, negotiating finance terms and also finding talent. I learned these things over many years; it did not come right away. It also took time to understand how important distribution and marketing are to producing. I enjoy every bit of it! 

I think the creative side of producing is most interesting. I love my profession and I think I’m good at it.  Sometimes my friends ask, “why do you spend all your time working?” Actually, I am not that wildly busy. I just love it and when I’m doing it well, I feel happy. I graduated as a theatre expert but I learned a lot about theatre through practice, while realizing my projects. I had been collaborating for more than 10 years with well-known theatre festivals like Divadelná Nitra in Slovakia, and Divadlo Pilsen in the Czech Republic. Several Hungarian directors started their international career at those festivals. After that, I started to work at Maladype Theatre and with Zoltán Balázs, the Artistic Director of the company. With him and his collaborators, we built Maladype Theatre’s new brand, which is still in place now. 

IAB: What does it mean to be a successful creative producer in theatre today? 

SH: I have no particular theory about that, I just do my work. But I am certain that, 1. our work is not continuous because it is linked to theatre’s seasons. 2., here in Central-Eastern Europe, we constantly have to conjure up the necessary funding, venues and international programming for our activities. And 3., one has to be really creative to do that job. 

IAB: From your perspective, what is happening in contemporary Hungarian theatre and performing arts? What are the crucial characteristics of Hungarian theatre today? What are your predictions for its future? 

SH: Theatre is a multicolored palette. Everybody can find her/his/their favorite color. That is also the case with Hungarian theatre. It has various colors, and it fights to preserve that diversity everyday. Its unique flavor is due to the fact that besides the state-run repertoire theatres, there are many independent theatre companies working at the same artistic level as those financed by the state, but their performances are unsubsidized or only partly subsidized by the government. However, we have to bear in mind that more than 125 billion Hungarian Forints were spent in support of the performing arts in Hungary this year. Compared to the 10 million inhabitants and the GDP of the country, it is very high sum, and one that is unique in Europe. Out of that money, five billion HUF were distributed among independent theatres.  

IAB: Who are the most relevant contemporary Hungarian theatre directors working at home and outside of Hungary? What makes them internationally recognized – today there are so many festivals, so many productions, and the internet allows for the demystification of methods? 

SH: The most important Hungarian artists at home and abroad are those who introduce original methods and ideas. If a director does not differ from any other colleagues, he is not interesting to foreign audiences. Some middle-aged theatre makers – Árpád Schilling, Kornél Mundruczó, Zoltán Balázs, Viktor Bodó – stage performances that continuously introduce new artistic approaches that reflect the changing world surrounding us. They always try to use new, aesthetically challenging theatrical forms with strong new visions and new  aesthetics. They excel at mixing different genres such as theatre, dance and music, in a  unique way. That’s why attention, at home as well as abroad, is given to that generation. Their performances have produced remarkable results, manifesting as new approaches to the subject and new artistic attitudes. Some of them, along with their companies, have already earned international reputations and followers among the younger generation. These followers have energy and strength to raise substantial questions, and bring up important dilemmas. 

The world around us changed a lot since those young artists were born. Theatre has also changed with it. Today’s artists have to pay particular attention to young audiences, who are addicted to their gadgets. I would like to stress that the theatre of young people is, in many respects, different from that of the previous generations since the whole word is different from just ten years ago. More and more young artists think they are not just directors, actors or dramaturges, they consider themselves people of theatre. Three of those young artists are Tamás Ördög, Martin Boross, and Kristóf Kelemen. All three of them are trying to move into territories not yet occupied by others. They do what they think adequately expresses their worldview. They convey their ideas to small audiences and they do not want to touch on politics. Some of them have already gained international reputations. 

Sylvia Huszár. Photo by Réka Vajda

IAB: Who are the most inspiring contemporary Hungarian playwrights? What makes them relevant, and what are the ideas, topics, themes they are writing about? Do they have trouble being staged in theatre today? 

SH: The development of the Hungarian playwright – like that of the theatre – went through several phases. To review all of them would take a lot of time and space. There are a lot of excellent Hungarian playwrights. Many of them – György Spíró, Péter Karpáti, Ákos Németh, Zoltán Egrdessy – are well-known abroad as well. The last 25 years have been a success story for them. As for the emerging, new generation, they have become more and more fashionable lately, since the contemporary drama has become more and more popular in Hungary.  Since the fall of the Iron Curtain, hundreds of dramas have been written in Hungary. The other side of the coin is that not many of them have been shown on the stage. The repertory theatres in Hungary often stage alternative reinterpretations of classical plays and they demand newly-written, contemporary plays less often.

When preparing my material for the ConFront Drama project held at the National Theatre Anton Panov in Strumica, in September 2019, I tried to give a general picture of the contemporary Hungarian drama so that new Hungarian texts would become known to  Macedonian theatres. I aimed particularly at the attention of producers and publishers. The gist of my lecture was to present the best and most interesting Hungarian dramas from the past 25 years, and bring those plays into the spotlight. The alternative theatre is also an alternative vis-à-vis the text-centered theatre. Over recent years, several texts were written during the creation process, and then shown as theatre performances. 

The contemporary drama is very demanding. It is deeply connected to contemporary life. Each text has to be tested and approved on the stage. Without that feedback and confirmation, no play can be acknowledged as successful, and later considered a classic. Consequently, the contemporary drama is linked not to literature, but to the theatre.  

I think it is also important to talk about the task of the contemporary theatre, about its responsibility to the audience and society. Many artistic directors are not always keen on finding new inspiration, new authors or dramas. They often trust the routine more, the already approved success. Sometimes they just cannot or do not want to find and read new dramas. The new talent – there are not too many of them – telling strong stories about present-day Hungarian conflicts, and developments in society over the past two-to-three decades, are sometimes missing from the stage.  Still, here are some dramatists from recent seasons who are artists directing their own work: Béla Pintér, Péter Kárpáti, Kristóf Kelemen, and Andrea Pass. Significant to the development of playwrights are different grants and funding bodies, like the Open Forum and the Örkény Grant. For those, anybody with a finished play, or even just a draft, a concept or idea, can apply. The play readings organized in festivals programs and debates are also important.

IAB: What would you say about the Hungarian theatre audience? Do Hungarian theatres have a problem with a lack of audiences? Does your theatre community develop programs and projects focused on audience development, and what is your opinion about it? 

SH: In today’s Hungary, seven million people go to the theatre every year. It is a very good number for a country with fewer than 10 million people. 

Our theatrical life is determined by the market, publicity and media. What helps us to promote theatre nowadays are phrases like “facebook event”, ”twitter”, “instagram” and “promotion”,  we use them as much as we would use words like “playbill”, “stage design” or “rehearsal”. The audience is the main protagonist of the artistic market, it buys what is in fashion, but many of them are committed to theatre of high standards. The most important goal of theatre marketing is to attract as many audience members as possible. 

It is clear, however, that the real question is, what captures the interest of audiences in Hungary these days? Entertaining performances or popular actors, experiments or novelties, true stories or fiction, classical or contemporary plays? Does the audience want to discover something new, or do they just want to be entertained?  Anyway, audiences exist and it seems theatregoers find what they want to see. Performances of musical theatre are usually of high standard, artistic theatre is more daring, and the National Theatre is committed to fulfilling its artistic obligations.  Under all circumstances, theatres are supposed to attract and educate their audiences at the same time.

IAB: How can you classify the role and the place of the Hungarian theatre today, within the national cultural policy, European cultural policy and climate, and internationally?  

SH: The European culture in general, and the European theatrical culture in particular, have such deep roots in our common historical pasts that, notwithstanding politics and nationality, they have common interpretations of the world. The first actors were all in Europe, sitting on the same cart as Thespis, so now in Europe we laugh at the same jokes and are shocked by the same tragedies. In everyday life everywhere, we can find threads that link us all and form  the fundamentals of European culture. That common European culture, based on our common Hebrew-Christian heritage, makes it possible for us to see ourselves as an independent entity in the world. An integrated European world can be based only on our common cultural roots, as is the case with our politics. That makes us European. The structures of the European Union should be based on that common heritage and the common identity derived from it. In my view, that is the most important part of the issue. Those directors and theatres that interpret our world are really interesting for us, Europe and  Hungary, what with their particular approaches and methods. It is not a problem if someone disagrees with one approach or another. The most important thing is to be able to adequately express relevant aspects, ideas and viewpoints of a Europe of many nations. 

IAB: You are also house producer for Maladype Theatre in Budapest, where the leading director is Zoltán Balázs. Can you tell us more about his approach for choosing plays, developing aesthetics, style and approaches, his artistic tactics, how you collaborate with him, and how you deal with the director’s ego versus your strategy and visions as producer? 

SH: From 2008, I was the collaborator responsible for foreign relations at Maladype Theatre. We traveled worldwide. I left the theatre some years ago, but continued to work as Creative Producer for the company as well as for Zoltán Balázs. In fact, three of us form the management team of the theatre. Yet, 24 hours a day sometimes seems to not be enough time for us. 

Zoltán Balázs is a regular guest at festivals and theatres around the globe – not just with his own company but as a stage director, too. He has directed in France and the United States, and we created performances together in Slovenia, Slovakia and Romania. Through his performances, he aims to give the audience a theatrical experience which is complex, appeals to the emotions and senses, and elevates the scenery, movement and music to the same level as the language. His many-sided and complex artistic work that experiments with a new. theatrical language is the reason why he is sought after so much at home and abroad. 

We work very closely together. Our friendship is based in our joint commitment to the cause of true theatrical values. Our theatre is not involved in politics, so we do not create socio-political performances that are so fashionable these days. In each play, we try to find those elements that concerns the everyday life of the man in the street. With professional diligence, we select plays to be shown and interpret them with theatrical devices that are out of the ordinary. Playfulness, acting and reacting are essential parts of Zoltán’s theatre. His  method is structured around the physical and mental conditions of its actors, and the  education of the audience. These methods have been welcomed and well-understood not only in Europe but in the US, India, Iran and Vietnam as well. 

You asked me at the beginning how I manage the financial aspects of my work. As Zoltán has his own artistic methods, I have also developed – thanks to my collaborating with him – my own methods of working effectively with the company. For finding financial resources, we have a well-structured, strategic plan and a guideline we consistently follow. We make the necessary steps accordingly. What I am convinced of is that we are so committed to our theatre that nobody can stop us in fulfilling our tasks and duties. That is why I chose to work with Maladype Theatre.

IAB: Dear Sylvia, thank you very much!   

 (Skopje-Budapest, 2019/2020) 

This interview was conducted and published by Ivanka Apostolova Baskar.

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.