LIFE AND ART OVERLAP FOR SQUAT THEATER
by Kevin Kelly, Boston Globe . Boston, Mass.
Sep 6, 1985. pg. 53
Three men dressed as women drink tea spiked with vodka while yearning to visit Moscow, their lines of dialogue fed to them by a loud and visible prompter and echoed blankly, by rote, without expression. The play is Chekhov's "Three Sisters."
A 250-pound naked woman, said to be a professional witch, performs a harum- scarum ritual in a storefront window that serves as a see-through stage in a small New York theater on West 23d Street. The play is "Andy Warhol's Last Love."
A behemoth baby (papier-mache, 12 by 3 feet), grinning like a swollen moon, ears clamped with a monstrous seat of stereo speakers, eyes set with video screens looks down on a naked woman doing yoga during a scattering of war scenes. The play is "Mr. Dead and Mrs. Free."
These are but three of the startling, oddly humorous (and controversial) images created by the Hungarian emigre troupe Squat Theater which will present the American premiere of "Dreamland Burns" Sept. 13 at Longwood Theater, Massachusetts College of Art, 364 Brookline Ave. Written by Stephan Balint, described as a collaborative film/theater piece, "Dreamland Burns," which has been in the works for two years, has received funding from the National Endowment and some $49,000 under the New Works Grant of the Mass. Council on the Arts and Humanities. There has been additional financial help from Squat supporters and the Reader's Digest Law Fund ($1,000), as well as friendly assistance from Peter Sellars, director of the National Theater at the Kennedy Center. The play, which runs 90 minutes, 30 of which are a movie, is scheduled to be performed nightly at 8 (except Monday) through Sept. 21. Two years ago Squat Theater had been mentioned as a possible booking when Sellars was in charge of the BSC.
Squat Theater came into existence in Budapest in 1969, a freeform avant- garde idea developed by three theaters students - Peter Halasz, Peter Berg and Anna Koos - who were disaffected with conventional dramatic forms and eager for esthetic revolution. Halasz, Berg and Koos are still closely associated with the group which now has "a core of seven or eight" participants. During an interview this week Stephan Balint and Peter Berg explained how the company came by its name. At first it operated under various names, then became known as Apartment Theater. It changed to Squat Theater in 1977 at the suggestion of a friend living in Switzerland who observed that the group usually sought out undiscovered theatrical spaces and occupied them on something like squatter's rights. The basic idea, according to Stephan Balint, was "of going to a new theater, a new territory, a new country and settling in; squatters coming to America which is what we have done."
"Skanzen Killers," their first play, earned the wrath of Hungarian censors, who found the production both obscene and politically dangerous, and forced its closing. Blocked from public performance, the group began working for privately invited audiences in the apartments of Peter Halasz and Anna Koos, meanwhile labeling itself Apartment Theater. After appearing at a theater festival in Poland in 1973 without the approval of the Hungarian government, the group's troubles multiplied. Passports were revoked, pressures brought to bear. But in 1976 the company's nucleus was allowed to emigrate. A year later Squat Theater set up shop on West 23rd Street in New York, where it attracted the attention of critics, audiences and one politician in particular, Mayor Koch. Among Squat's numerous awards are two Obies, the Off- Broadway equivalent of the Tony.
Asked about the theater's antecedents and its philosophy Stephan Balint struggles, in heavily accented English, to explain what makes Squat different from other experimental theaters. He refers to its "originality," then tries to invade the term, give it resonance. In a sense the group's approach is Brechtian, then again, in Balint's phrase, "is no." Squat is not like Grotowski because the attempt is not "to redo - rebuild? - myths, not to try to find the real meaning of ancient theater; we went in quite the opposite direction." There is a reference to Artaud and his Theater of Cruelty. Beckett is mentioned. There is kinship with the early work of Robert Wilson, particularly "Deafman/Glance."
Then Balint breaks it down.
"Theater for us is more than one art form. More than single thing. Our idea is the idea that when you do theater you do art, literature, history, movies, politics. Everything. Then it is life. Becomes like life. Is life! It is mixture of fiction - fantastic elements? - and the real." He explains the storefront window staging of "Andy Warhol's Last Love" which simultaneously allowed the audience in the theater to see a street reality taking place beyond the window and passers-by on the street to peer into the store thus, inadvertently, participating in the play and becoming an adjunct to the rehearsed reality of the performance. The audience would thus become part of the street observer's perception of the play while, at the same time, the street observer became part of the audience's perception of "Andy Warhol's Last Love." Eyes watching eyes. Art mirroring life, life interrupting art.
Balint, who has been with the group since 1970, says, "In the beginning we really had little to do with the other kinds of theater that were around us. Had more to do with the thinking of the present linked with other arts forms. I can best describe Squat as theater- theater. We don't just try invent a story and a play. We don't begin by saying 'This is that we call theater, let's do a show.' Instead, we begin by asking, 'How does theater look? What does it mean? How relate to life?' In that sense the context is . . . well, political, cultural, social. We always try to connect to the present." For analogy he offers the controversial staging of "Three Sisters." Murmuring behind Squat's radically edited and interpreted version was the company "dreaming not of Moscow but dreaming of moving on, going forward." Balint adds, "We love Chekhov."
Peter Berg, who recently finished playing the lead in Zsolt Kezdi- Kovacs' film "Hiders," which is to be shown at the end of the New York Film Festival, explained how Squat actors contribute to specific plays, in some cases their own personalities. Berg began with the group as an actor and co- creator. At this point Balint interrupts Berg to single out certain actors for specific contributions to Squat's work. He says some of his own writing has been "inspired" by specific actors. He mentions Berg. He mentions Eszter Balint in the film "Stranger Than Paradise." (She's also had a cameo in "Miami Vice.") Eszter Balint, Stephan's daughter, is Alexandra, the central figure in "Dreamland Burns." In the film section of the play Alexandra, who is having trouble with her parents, her boyfriend and a proposed move from suburb to city, falls asleep. She awakens in the play where, perhaps not unlike Woody Allen's "The Purple Rose of Cairo," characters from the film reappear.
"Dreamland Burns" is the first piece Squat has specifically designed for a proscenium theater. During the engagement Balint and his actors will refine and "possibly expand" the piece. It is scheduled for the World Theater Festival in Frankfurt and, later, four major American cities. Squat, by the way, has moved out of its West 23d Street storefront theater where it attracted the irate attention of a Manhattanite who flagged Mayor Koch. The story is that Koch had received a complaint about the 250- pound witch cooking naked in the storefront window during "Andy Warhol's Last Love." Koch ordered an investigation and received a memorandum "solemnly explain(ing) it all": It was an avant-garde group; the members were Jewish refugees who had fled Communist Hungary; the woman was, indeed, naked, but not cooking; the production had received support from the New York State Council on the Arts; had played to 90% capacity and received "good reviews except from John Simon." The joke in all this is that Koch read the report at an awards ceremony saluting, among others, Kitty Carlisle Hart, who heads the Council. Hart apparently was either embarrassed or chagrined, possibly both, but deftly sidelined her attitude by calling Koch a stand-up comic. By the time Koch read the Squat Theater memo the troupe was on tour in Brussels, and the naked witch of the West was now up to 350 pounds, which the mayor reported. All of which is clearly emblematic of Squat's guiding purpose: the improbable bend of life in art and vice versa.