Kinga Mezei ‘s production of Quicksand was one of SEEstage’s favourite shows of 2022. The actress and director talks to Andrej Čanji about the influence of poetry and visual art in her work and the challenges of being an independent artist.
Andrej Čanji: Quicksand is based on the motifs of the poetry of Otto Tolnai and the art of Pal Petrik, both artists from Vojvodina. How do they fit into your theatrical universe?
Kinga Mezei: I have loved the poetry of Tolnai since my youth. For a long time, I have been preparing to make a performance of his works.
Tolnai is one of the most prolific and versatile creators of Hungarian literature in Vojvodina, always seeking and emphasising the connection between Serbian and Hungarian culture. His literary work is unthinkable without the visual artists and writers of both the Serbian and minority communities who are constantly present in his works. He speaks very precisely about life in Vojvodina. His motifs, such as fragments of the landscape of Vojvodina, personalities, peculiarities and everyday objects and events, are very close to all of us. Through such elements, Tolnai discovers something essential and unique, but also something distorted and grotesque, which becomes symbols and metaphors in his poetic world.
In his essays, Tolnai deals a lot with visual artists, among others he writes about Pal Petrik, whose artistic work also influenced me a lot. Petrik had several creative periods, for us the enformel era was the most inspiring, in which Petrik worked with vulnerable materials such as sand, glass, paper. In his paintings these textures symbolise human fragility and vulnerability. Sand as a material that is constantly leaking also symbolises the passage of time. In “Quicksand” Petrik’s informal paintings enter into a dialogue with Tolnai’s particular, strange objects, and this interaction sets off an endless chain of associations.
Both are very complex and multi-layered creators. For me, it has always been a great challenge to explore such complex artistic worlds and, based on this, to formulate my own stage world together with my colleagues.
Andrej Čanji: What challenges did you face in harmonising all these elements?
Kinga Mezei: The performance is (almost) non-verbal. The road from text to other forms of expression is long, it requires precise work, serious preparation and a different way of thinking than the one we are used to in the “theatre of words”. It is hard to break away from the poems that originally inspired us. Preparing such a performance requires a solid concept, both in terms of content and dramaturgy, and precise visual planning from which we can start. It is necessary to sketch the characters and the relations between them as accurately as possible, and to have an exact plan of the scene.
While working with the actors, there was a phase of free association in which everyone participates as a creator. For me, this is the most important and beautiful phase of the work. Thoughts that fit the concept and are authentic can change the original plans during the process. It is very difficult to make such a performance under the conditions of a repertory theatre. The possibility of experimentation, the release of creative energies is very important in this kind of creative process, as well as time, space and mental freedom.
The scenes go through many stages before they are – let us say – finished. Actually, we never finished in the true sense of the word. There are thirteen characters in the performance, played by the four actors. The structural editing of the scenes was a challenge. We have made sure that the arrangement of themes and motifs is logical, but in such a way that the sequence of scenes works on a technical level, and this work requires a lot of time and patience.
In theatre there is always a certain spontaneity and randomness; this is especially true for Quicksand. The artistic “works” that emerge on stage are always different and I personally like (and look for) this kind of unpredictability in theatre.
Andrej Čanji: Under what influences did you develop your artistic vision?
Kinga Mezei: Since my youth I have been exploring the relationships between different artistic fields, their connection, their synthesis. In most of my plays I experiment and try to use visual art (stage design), poetry (textuality), movement and music in equal measure.
I grew up in such an environment where I was surrounded by different art forms. My mother, Erzsébet Mezei, is an artist, so I had clay, wool, paper and paints in my hands from a very young age. My brother Szilárd is a composer, and I also sang from an early age (mainly Hungarian folk songs). Later I became interested in the art of movement and gestures, and I was also very interested in poetry and literature.
I was looking for a space where I could deal with all these artistic fields at the same time, and so in my school days – with my amateur group – I started to experiment with a kind of theatre in which all these artistic fields were equally present and important – of course, we were still working intuitively at that time.
In “our theatres” something was missing for me (in most cases) – perhaps above all poetry – in all its forms and qualities. Not only is poetic language missing, but the poetry of music, scenes and movements is also suppressed. It is not that the various arts have disappeared altogether, but a unity, a balance of elements, a common language or a poetry that can be formed from them is rarely born. Today we find it very difficult to return to that organic synergy that was a very natural part of theatre in ancient times, that is, we rarely succeed in creating a unity between all the artistic elements of theatre. Theatre has become too text-based, too language-centred and too intellectual.
Western thinking has accustomed us to grasp and decipher everything intellectually. Of course, it is necessary to think in terms of systems of relationships, but in addition to the human rationality, there are also feelings, instincts, emotions and desires. And art is able to stir up all this in a person.
That’s why I believe that good theatre not only touches the intellect, but also has to work with other means, not only with words and language. Countless things lie much deeper within us that can only be called up if we surrender to some acoustic and visual impressions and experiences and do not unconditionally strive to fit everything into the system of causality.
Andrej Čanji: Quicksand was part of the 71st Festival of Professional Theatres of Vojvodina along with two other productions performed by Hungarian ensembles: Vitezovi lake male by András Urbán and Three Sisters by Zoltán Puskás. All three can be said to be authorial projects, while the plays that were performed in Serbian had a classical dramatic form. Would you agree there are difference between what we could provisionally call the “Serbian” and “Hungarian” schools of thought?
Kinga Mezei: I would not generalise or categorise in this way. The fact is that there are differences, and this is normal because we are inspired by different theatre traditions, sources, values and knowledge, different types of theatre are before us as examples. That’s why there are differences, e.g. in playing style, formal characteristics, methods, etc. (e.g. the Serbian style of play seems to me to be more extroverted, more impulsive, more gestural, more temperamental than the Hungarian). In both, however, there are experimental, alternative and other contemporary theatrical endeavours, as well as classical dramatic forms. Considering the size of Vojvodina, and compared to the fact that we are actually talking about 4-5 theatres, experimental, contemporary theatre performances are really more emphasized than classical plays.
Maybe the fact that we are a minority, as well as the fact that we have fewer opportunities and that our theatres are not in a good condition financially and structurally, makes us more inventive, more open (outspoken) and sometimes more impulsive. I think we are blurring the boundaries between genres more freely and courageously, and sometimes exciting things come out of it.
Andrej Čanji: You have also worked in Budapest. Are there any striking differences between the theatres in Serbia and in Hungary? What can they learn from each other?
Kinga Mezei: Regardless of which country we are talking about, it would be worth considering if we could talk exclusively about the profession without politics, negative selection and so on. Maybe then it would be possible to evaluate and analyse where and in which direction the theatre profession is going. But today (and for a long time now) theatres are not primarily run along these professional lines. So I would say that there is nothing more to learn from either. Rather, some things should be rethought and a reasonable consensus found in the name of art.
But I will still try to answer your question: for example, there is a difference in the schools and in the teaching methods. In Hungary, the emphasis is more on the vocational subjects, on learning the basic practical rules of the profession, and there is also more emphasis on the theoretical subjects, like theatre history and so on. I think in Serbian schools there is more emphasis on creative subjects. These differences in emphasis are also reflected in the theatre programmes. But there is also a difference between the theatres in Hungary and the theatres of the Hungarian minorities Vojvodina, Slovakia, Transcarpathia, Transylvania and so on. The Hungarian minorities are fundamentally influenced by multiculturalism: . Here in Vojvodina, we are under the influence of the Hungarian lira and folk traditions and at the same time under the influence of Balkan energy, and the theatres in Transylvania are under the influence of the unique and strong Romanian theatre. The interplay of these influences leads to very specific formulations.
Andrej Čanji: You worked as a member of ta theatre for a long time. What is different now that you are a freelance artist? What are the advantages and disadvantages?
Kinga MezeiI: It is difficult to be an independent artist in Serbia. In our country, this “system” does not work well. The biggest disadvantage of being a freelance artist is that there is no financial security, and if you are not a member of a theatre, your job opportunities are also uncertain. When you create productions on your own, without background or help, you face many obstacles and are at the mercy of many circumstances. It is difficult to find opportunities to work freely and without restrictions. You have to invest enormous energy and a lot of work to create good conditions.
When I decided to work as an independent artist and leave institutional theatre a few years ago, I was aware of what I was doing. I knew it would not be easy, but in doing so I gained a kind of theatrical authorial freedom, and that’s the biggest advantage of working as an independent artist. You can do what really interests you, which becomes very important after a certain age. When you are young, you are happy about every opportunity, you concentrate on the tasks you get, you try to realise yourself in it, to do your best. But the years go by, and after a while we start to pay attention to what we spend our time and creative energy on. Over time, the things that should be done accumulate and you realise which tasks really make sense. You suddenly realise what you should stand for, where you should invest your energy. I, for example, would never have done a DLA if I had remained a member of the theatre troupe, I simply would not have had the time and energy for it. And I would not be able to realise such performances as a kind of total theatre, such as. Nighttime, or Quicksand. As hard as it is to go this way, I do not regret this decision.
Main image: Srđan Doroški,
Further reading: The Festival of Professional Theatres of Vojvodina – the best theatre in Serbia?
Further reading: SEEstage’s favourite theatre shows of 2022