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.
Critic Gautam Dasgupta has described Squat’s work in Performing Arts Journal as “spectacles, concentrated in their energy, intense in the performers’ commitment to the task at hand, and yet somehow incomplete because of their refusal to render up an overt message….There is no message, Squat seems to be telling us; living (or rather, living aesthetically) is all.” They operate on the belief that, to make sense of the world, the artist’s task in the words of Franz Kafka, who has been called “the guiding spirit of Squat’s art” is “to sit at your window when evening falls and dream it to yourself!”
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 Kassack 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: They left for Paris in 1976 like a ragtag group of wandering minstrels, almost literally a family circus: Stephan Balint, Marinne Kollar, and their daughter Eszter; Peter Halasz, Anna Koos, and their son Galus; Eva Bucmuller and her daughters Borbala and Rebecca (her ex-husband remained in Hungary); Peter Creznyik and Klara Palotai. 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. (Marianne Kollar left the group shortly after arriving in New York.)
Andy Warhol’s Last Love, the company’s first American work, made full use of the storefront theater. Divided into three parts, the piece began with “Aliens on the Second Floor” in which the audience sat watching Stephan Balint and Eva Buchmuller in their living space (now American citizens, they were then indeed aliens living on the second floor) listening to an interplanetary radio dispatch from German terrorist Ulrike Meinhof, who eventually made an appearance (played by Anna Koos wearing a tinfoil-covered dildo strapped to her head like an antenna). The second section consisted of a film of Any Warhol (played by Balint) riding through lower Manhattan on a horse while the soundtrack played a reading of Kafka’s “An Imperial Message.” In the third section, “Interview with the Dead,” Warhol/Balint interviewed a naked, obese witch who performed an incantational ritual. During this last section, a curtain was drawn revealing the storefront window so the audience could view passersby and more important people on the street could witness the curious events taking place inside.
Which was “theater”? Which was “real life”? Who were the performers, and who were the spectators? Squat Theater strives to create moments where such questions are both unavoidable and unanswerable. “They believe that actors have become mere vehicles for ideas and ideologies which remain separated from the lives of both performers and spectators,” wrote critic Theodore Shank. “In an age when there is no engulfing cosmic drama (mythology) inextricably relating people and events, Squat is committed to presenting the resultant abyss.”
The company continued to dramatize the abyss with Mr. Dead and Mrs. Free, which began with a series of filmed vignettes and ended with the unveiling of a twelve-foot papier-mache baby wearing stereo headphones with TV monitors for eyes, from which punk-rock chanteuse Nico sang a lounge arrangement of “New York, New York.” In between, a robot danced, Eva Buchmuller sang a classical rendition of James Brown’s “Sex Machine,” two soldiers screeched up in a jeep to deliver a wounded comrade to the storefront, and Peter Halasz and Sheryl Sutton performed the title song, a hot rap number. “Mr. Dead and Mrs. Free/Fuck fuck fuck beneath the Christmas tree!” For both the performers and the audience, the piece had the immediacy of a page ripped from a diary “This is junk-culture/media/street-life in American in 1981” yet an enigmatic quality as well. The individual elements were recognizable, yet the connections between them remained elusive, located as they were in the flux of the performers’ lives.
Pig, Warhol, and Mr. Dead were revived in 1982 in a retrospective called “The Golden Age of Squat Theater.” After that, things changed. When the company lost its lease on the 23rd Street theater and living quarters, Peter Halasz and and his wife Agnes Santha left Squat to form Love Theater. Anna Koos remained with Squat through Dreamland Burns before leaving the group to pursue filmmaking. From the total collaboration of Pig, Child, Fire!, Squat reorganized itself around Stephan Balint as writer-director and Eva Buchmuller as visual designer with crucial ongoing contributions from Peter Breznyik (now Peter Berg) and Eszter Balint, who starred in Jim Jarmusch’s independent film Stranger than Paradise and became the central performer in Dreamland Burns.
As a result of these changes, the group’s recent work looks quite different from its earlier pieces. For one thing, Dreamland Burns was Squat’s first piece created for a proscenium theater. Not that it was conventional, by any means. The first half was a film about a day in the life of a young immigrant, played by Ms. Balint. At the end of the day, when she laid down her head to go to sleep, the film appeared to burn up, and the play continued with the appearance on stage of the actors in the film: some of them live and some represented by life-sized sculptures onto which were projected talking heads. The film was seamlessly realistic, while the play was not. Chairs and a chandelier fell from the ceiling, a two-dimensional taxicab popped up, gangsters appeared and killed one of the sculpture-characters by sawing him in half, and a shrine to the Virgin Mary descended for a final tableau.
The new work, L Train to Eldorado, shares some of the same themes and devices as Dreamland Burns. A post-coital conversation between a man and a woman (represented by super-8 films projected on bas-relief masks) becomes a break-up. The rejected man seeks consolation from a neighborhood butcher and from his mother yet winds up alone in an abandoned lot on the Lower East Side, praying to God for help. A crew of devils is filming him, and the director stops the actor and asks him to perform his agonized prayer more believably. When the director is satisfied, the crew retires, a movie screen descends, and the film is shown of the story so far. The film continues with scenes of two girls leaving a movie theater and the praying man turning into a tree. After the film is over, one of the girls appears onstage and has a strangely romantic conversation with the tree-man.
Certain elements have come and gone in Squat’s work. The use of fire, once a company trademark, has steadily diminished while the amount of spoken text has increased, to some extent simply because the performers’ command of the English language has improved. A constant throughout, however, is the use of film an element which reflects many of Squat Theater’s deepest preoccupations, not the least of which is a relish for paradox and contradiction. In a recent conversation, Stephan Balint and Eva Buchmuller readily produced half a dozen reasons for their attraction to incorporating film in theater. Although Balint noted that “every time we do a new piece, we always have the tendency to put people to sleep and then wake them up again,” he pointed out that they have never used film the same way twice.
“In Andy Warhol’s Last Love, we used film to play with the differences between what was happening onscreen, onstage, on the street to refresh perceptions,” he said, whereas in Mr. Dead and Mrs. Free, the content of the film was unimportant. “It was a theater gag,” Buchmuller said. “We wanted to have the feeling of sitting in the dark and have theater jump out at you.” The technique of projecting film onto dummies (inspired by a display at the New York center for the Mormon Church across from Lincoln Center) also has different meanings with every use. Speaking of its use in Dreamland Burns, Balint said, “We always like to animate objects. It’s the Frankenstein effect very theatrical.” Meanwhile, in L Train to Eldorado, the faces are twice as big as the actors’ real heads “I think of it like a medium shot in a movie,” said Buchmuller. “In Greek theater, the actors walked on high heels and wore huge masks to become larger than life. Today we can use film to achieve the same effect.”
Observing the high quality and prominent placement of the film footage in works such as Dreamland Burns, one begins to suspect that Squat would gladly go into making movies if they had the resources, an impression they do not deny. “Movies are what theater once was and could be again movies are important,” said Balint. “They create the mythology of the present.”
“Especially here in America, where movie characters are heroes,” added Buchmuller.
“Theater is a special thing,” Balint said, “but movies are so tightly connected to the culture-at-large. They speak to the largest number of people. We also want to find a common language important enough to communicate with everyone.”
Neither film nor theater alone, however, can achieve the simple yet mysterious effect of the devils in L Train to Eldorado. We usually think of devils as imaginary beings in horror movies and fairy tales, not creatures you’re likely to encounter face-to-face. But Squat Theater reverses the situation: the devils are visible onstage as a crew of filmmakers, and when the film rolls they are nowhere to be seen. Yet the film itself is proof of their powerful presence. This unsettling interplay of film and theater captures what may be the essence of Squat’s work the paradoxical reality of fantasy the effect on our lives, for instance, of invisible forces such as evil and love. Their theater uses concrete images to present a poetic vision of the world born from sitting at the window when evening falls and dreaming it to themselves.
On the Next Wave, October 1987