Theatre of Life

Which is “theater”? Which is “real life”? Who are the performers, and who are the spectators? Squat Theater strives to create moments where such questions are both unavoidable and unanswerable.

Don Shewey

Weeks went by. Not a single scene has been written, it was only the backbone of the play that was there, a rough outline. There were no dialogues, we hadn’t come up with a single action or move on stage. Apart from Halász no one had a costume.
One morning I arrived to the Squat Theatre for rehearsal. At the door I saw a big poster announcing the preview of the play The Chinese for that afternoon. Péter Halász arrived an hour before the start. He put on his Mandarine’s robe with golden embroidery. By then I had dyed my hair black and put on a Neo- Oriental jacket I borrowed from Nikki Nichol’s, David Bowie’s former maid. I was playing the Malaysian pimp in the play, the murderer of The Chinese, seducer of his wife and daughter. I put on white makeup and black lipstick.

We were standing at the front with Halász, behind us wer his wife, Ágnes and their daughter, Cora.  The musical director, Tim Right put on Bartók’s Miraculous Mandarine. Péter Halász pulled the curtain of the puppet theatre apart. The house was full of journalists. TV-cameras and the correspondents of the biggest papers of the world. I didn’t know what I was supposed to do. “Let’s fight” - Halász whispered to me in Hungarian. We were only speaking English to each other in those days to feel at home in New York. We started hitting each other. Péter’s wife and daughter thought that we were really fighting and they tried to stop us. Then folllowing Halász’s order  I tickled his wife with a pheasant feather, while he hid his daughter under his decorative robe. Then he let the curtain fall and announced that this was a work-in-progress presentation of the play. The audience clapped. Tim Wright turned Bartók’s music up. We took our bows. The audience clapped.
The opening got positive reviews and won the Critics’ Award for the Best Play in Italy that year. By then I wasn’t working with the company.

László Najmányi

SQUAT THEATER AND THE ART OF LIVING

For Squat Theater, what separates theater and life is not a chasm but a continuum. Somewhere between living their art and performing their lives, the lines begin to blur.

In the ten years since they settled in New York City, this band of Hungarian émigrés has collectively created five theater pieces. Pig, Child, Fire! (1977), Andy Warhol’s Last Love (1978), and Mr. Dead and Mrs. Free (1981) were performed in the company’s own storefront theater on 23rd Street and on tour throughout Europe. Dreamland Burns appeared at the kitchen in 1986, and L Train to Eldorado had its world premiere in the 1987 Next Wave Festival. From the very beginning what has distinguished the Squat company from other theaters is its dialectical exploration of public space and private space, theater and film, found texts and original music, fiction and autobiography, fantasy and reality.

Like many of its peers in the contemporary experimental theater, such as the Wooster Group, Mabou Mines, and Ping Chong’s Fiji Company, Squat does not present conventional narrative plays with characters and dialogue. Instead, their theater pieces consist of sometimes abruptly disjunctive sequences of events, images, texts and music that ask to be experienced visually and emotionally rather than logically or intellectually. The work is often extremely personal, though not confessional; because the performers clearly contribute to the performance their own experience – “the guts and blood of our own life,” as one member puts it – there is an almost documentary realism to the acting style. Yet out of seemingly mundane behavior, the most fantastic images can erupt: a man in flames, a sexual transformation, a puppet that comes to life. The subject matter is never so simple and specific that it can be summarized in a sentence. Rather, the nature of Squat’s work is philosophical. Examining the smallest, most practical questions about how to live, it also encounters the largest metaphysical questions about life.l

Squat Theater’s work is inextricable from the unique personal history of its members, who first began working together as a nameless collective in Budapest in 1969. Their identity was solidified in 1972 when government authorities withdrew the group’s license to perform after a single performance of a play entitled The Skanzen Killers at the Kassak Culture House was deemed “obscene” and “apt to be misinterpreted from a political point of view.” The following year, when members of the group attended the Open Theater Festival in Wroclaw, Poland, and gave a spontaneous, anarchic performance, their passports were confiscated by the Hungarian government. Officially censored, the group went underground and over a period of four years created more than a dozen pieces to be shown in unofficial performance spaces, usually the fifth floor apartment of Peter Halasz and Anna Koos. These ranged from scripted original works (Seven Clown Stories, 1972) to unplanned happenings (Seven Days in a Sand Mine, 1972) to elaborate paratheatrical spectacles such as King Kong (1973), which took three days to perform.

Unlike underground “living-room theaters” elsewhere in Eastern Europe – such as Czech playwright Pavel Kohout’s in Prague – this was not a political theater created primarily to foster veiled criticism of a repressive regime; its concerns were more interpersonal, psychosexual, and philosophical. “Working on the edges of society, Squat from the outset made a beeline for the taboo, the absurd, the mysterious – utilizing imagery that could be mined on the frontiers of the psyche,” Kathleen Hulser wrote in American Theater. “In Squat’s oeuvre, dreams unfold not on a wistful terrain of imaginary fulfillment but rather in a kingdom of mutilations, perversions, and strange transformations.” Yet in such circumstances, the personal is inevitably political. Their final production in Budapest was an adaptation of The Three Sisters in which Chekhov’s title characters were played by three men – a comic distancing, yet the lines about the sisters’ leaving home and going to Moscow were full of meaning and poignance to those who knew the performers would soon be leaving home for good. 

They left for Paris in 1976 like a ragtag group of wandering minstrels, almost literally a family circus: Peter Halasz, Anna Koos, their daughter Galus, and their friend Peter Breznyik; Stephan Balint, Marianne Kollar, and their daughter Eszter; Eva Buchmuller and her daughters Borbala and Rebecca (her ex-husband remained in Hungary). But by the time they arrived in New York – after the ecstatic reception of their work in England, France, Holland, and at the New Theater Festival in Baltimore – they were Squat Theater, named for their ability to create a theater and a home from unoccupied space. Pig, Child, Fire!, Squat’s first expatriate piece, was a compendium of domestic scenes, confrontational street-theater, surrealistic images, and readings from Dostoevsky and Artaud, some of which had previously been used in Budapest performances. Because they first performed Pig, Child, Fire! in Rotterdam in an empty store with living space upstairs, they sought a similar arrangement in New York and found it at 256 West 23rd Street.

Don Shewey