The View from the Bus: Rethinking Cities through Performance

Photo courtesy of STUDIO Akt

 

          I was invited in early March to attend the dunaPart3 – Hungarian Showcase Arts festival in Budapest celebrating the city’s vibrant performing arts scene.  The festival became an opportunity for the international theater community to show its support for Budapest colleagues who are beleaguered by an increasingly authoritarian government prone to using political, bureaucratic, and financial levers to enforce compliance with their nationalist-oriented agenda. Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán after all, has spoken with admiration about the accomplishments of Russian President Vladimir Putin and recently hosted his Russian colleague despite European Union sanctions. Putin hardly provides a role model for democratic leadership.

            DunaPart3 brought more than three dozen leading theater professionals from the United States alone -- organized by the Center for International Theater Development with support from the Trust for Mutual Understanding—to see nearly three dozen productions by over 25 companies together with multiple panel discussions.  For my part, I viewed nine performances ranging from contemporary dance by youthful companies to highly polished theater productions, and heard three panel discussions about the state of the arts in Hungary.  Overall, I departed impressed with the professionalism and creativity of the Budapest scene, and concerned with the constraining power of the state to subvert the arts to their own purpose.  What is happening in Budapest is important; all the more so as it is happening in a member state of the European Union which needs to stand for freedom of expression in deed as well as refrain.

            I was especially inspired by the work of a new cohort of rising arts professionals in their twenties and thirties who are enlivening the arts at home and, increasingly, abroad.  As a person who thinks about cities, I was particularly taken by the performance of STEREO Akt’s Promenade - Urban Fate Tourism, which made me think about the city in new ways.

            STEREO Akt is the creation of an exciting twentysomething director Martin Boross who has been recognized as a rising talent for some time.  His high school classmates, for example, fondly recall his productions from just a few years ago when he was a teenager.  Well beyond schoolmate fans, his work has won enthusiastic reactions far and wide, with STEREO Akt becoming integrated into various European networks promoting performance in public space.  These ties are critical as few funds are available at home in Hungary to keep the company – which already has half-dozen productions under its belt -- moving ahead.  By co-producing with European partners Boross is able to cover costs at home and take his talented team on the road to more conducive venues across the continent.

            In Promenade - Urban Fate Tourism, the audience gathers in a late-Communist era community center at the edge of historic Budapest that retains the seedy ambiance of an underutilized transportation hub before climbing onto a non-descript city bus.  Once on the bus, the passengers put on sound-blocking earphones and, over the course of the performance, listen to a mixture of soothing music and narration.  The effect converts the communal involvement of being on a bus into a deeply personal experience in which every viewer is caught between the most public of environments – the bus and city streets – and the most internal – the space between the earphones of a headset.

            The bus departs, eventually ending up in a down-on-its-luck pre-World War II planned garden city district that becomes a self-contained city within the city.  Eight actors play out various vignettes around the theme of escape:  a foreign tourist escaping home on a vacation; a mental institution patient running from a doctor; a husband and wife leaving one another; an apartment maintenance worker quitting his job over a dispute with an angry resident.  Over time, the audience begins to scour the vistas from their seats trying to identify the actors.  Simultaneously, the mundane actions of people on the street – neighbors smiling into baby carriages pushed by mothers, a homeless gentleman rifling through garbage for food, beleaguered bus riders waiting too long at their stops for the next bus to come, children on a playground waving at a bus full of people wearing headsets – become performances in and of themselves.

            Some of the interaction is purposeful.  Boross and his team have invited community members to add their own stories to the narrative while volunteers join in the action with the eight company actors. Serendipity adds spontaneity to the performance as the city becomes implanted in the action.

            The notion that the entire world’s a stage is perhaps trite.  The use of urban spaces as platforms for performance has become the subject of enough learned tomes to fill a library.  STEREO Akt achieves a different and unique window onto the interaction of urbanite and Urbis.  The combination of the mundane ride on a bus with the internal realm amplified by the narrative and music on headsets encourages audience members to perceive a city in different ways.  We are all tourists in our own lives, Boross proclaims; and he expands inner knowledge by accentuating that external reality.

            Getting off the bus audience members can greet the performers, who have gathered to meet them.  Everyone sets off in their personal direction perceiving the city in new ways.  Suddenly, a maintenance man working on a gas line becomes a performer; a young couple embracing outside a college entrance becomes actors.  The city is more alive with possibility than just ninety minutes before.  Budapest – and the Hungarian arts scene – becomes full of potent imagination, appearing to be less furrowed by an unfriendly government.  Boross and the dozens of younger performers participating in the dumaPart3 – Hungarian Showcase Arts festival reveal that, despite everything, Budapest remains a hot spot of artistic invention.

For more information about STUDIO Akt, please see their website: http://stereoakt.hu/

Photo courtesy of STUDIO Akt