All images by Ctibor Bachratý
STEREO AKT, Budapest, HUNGARY
Direction: Martin Boross
Dramaturge: Ambrus Ivanyos
Leader of the game, expert: Réka Szenográdi
Music: István Rimóczi
Set and costumes: Zita Schnábel
Graphic design: Luca Szabados
Game developers: Ágnes Tar, László Bass, Bálint Csató, Márton Gosztonyi, Róbert Jakus
Consultant: László Bass
Production assistansts: Tímea Török, Dóra Tési
Production manager: Dóra Trifonov
Performers: Gyula Balog, Mária Kőszegi, Zola Szabó
What I Saw
STEREO AKT is a progressive Hungarian theatre collective whose motto “Be present!” is evident in their interest in social justice and audience participation. Addressless – vagabond role game, directed by Artistic Director Martin Boross explores homelessness in Hungary.
Upon entering the community center Párovské Háje Culture House, located just outside of Nitra, the audience chooses seats on risers in three sections surrounding the playing space. These sections become the teams who will decide the fates of three characters who have become homeless in Budapest, represented by performers Gyula Balog, Mária Kőszegi, and Zola Szabó.
The piece featured participants who have actual experience with homelessness – actor Balog was a former homeless person and is now an activist, and social worker Réka Szenográdi functioned as the game's master of ceremonies, providing context and information about the plight of the Hungarian homeless population. The teams decided where the three slept (on the street, in a shelter, or in a hostel) and how they should earn money – by begging or working. These choices were complicated by having to keep them mentally and physically well. Studies show that homeless people without health will stay homeless. Challenges to staying healthy include lack of food, money, rest, and the day to day trauma and danger of living on the street.
The company also presented situations that were based on actual challenges homeless people face, culminating in a decision for the teams on what choice the person they were responsible for should make. No scenario provided an easy, obvious option, and each involved some sort of sacrifice to their health, dignity, or safety. When our group’s person, portrayed by Balog, was faced with fighting for the newspapers he sells which were stolen from him by another homeless person, or walking away and losing money, we chose the former – with the caveat that he threaten to call the police but not engage in a physical altercation. What transpired was him threatening to call the police and then be assaulted, resulting in the loss of several years of his life. The instance was incredibly humbling for us, revealing our naivete and privilege as people with housing security, who trust in institutions and systems that protect us but not the vulnerable. Though the goal was to end the game with the most money saved, the person who “won” was the least healthy.
At the end of the performance we were given a list of recommendations on how to help, collected from homeless folks themselves. Much of these requests were small, simple acts, emphasizing personal connection over policy driven activism. Ultimately, these small acts of giving a few dollars, or leaving food or clothing, can have a powerful, cumulative effect. Though it may not get them off the streets, it can give them the physical, mental, and spiritual nourishment they need to make it through another day, or hour.
Addressless is not the first collaborative theatre project for STEREO AKT, whose work tends to be documentary style and addresses marginalized populations (other issues they have explored include migration and poverty). The piece is inspired by a card game that social workers and activists use. After playing the game and finding it bizarrely entertaining, as well as meeting Balog, STEREO AKT committed to the project.
The company began by conducting copious research – interviewing the homeless population, reading their literature, newspapers, and visiting shelters and food vans. After one and a half months of research they began working on a structure and improvising situations based on situations presented in the cards of the game.
A certain amount of strategy on the performers’ part is key to the success of the game. Within the groups deciding their fates, the actors will try to make the team as unsure as possible, presenting two to three arguments, similar to a game show. However, most of the time the audience proves much more adept at questioning and debating among themselves. The company has crafted several alternative endings, though they have tried to design it in such a way that the young man has a better chance of “winning,” which is the most true to life scenario. Balog, as the oldest performer, has the worst chance.
Audience members have expressed frustration that even though they made “good” choices, they still lost. A general phenomenon is that people with money and several degrees are frustrated that they couldn’t “beat the system.” The company encourages them to turn this knowledge and frustration into activism, which is why they give the list of how to help. Some audiences have not been able to see the complexity – and their own complicity – in the issue either. Homelessness is not just a social issue – it’s housing policies, employment, and property ownership. As illustrated in the scenes, or outright explained by Szenográdi, anyone who has the power to employ someone or rent a home can impact a homeless person’s life.
STEREO AKT performs the piece in high schools as well, where they find that students don’t have the ingrained prejudices that adults bring to the experience. In fact their target audience was not born before or during the fall of communism. According to Boross, Hungarians feel nostalgia for a patronizing system and miss that sense of control. They have had enough of twenty-three years of freedom which comes with responsibility, as evident when they vote for a system that will take away their rights. Victim blaming and shaming the poor also works to get votes – which is a tactic that is not unique to Hungarian politicians.
To Boross, shelter is a temporary solution to homelessness– in Hungary, more people freeze in their apartments than on the street. In Hungary it is actually illegal to live on the streets, meaning, to be poor. They invited all parliamentary representatives to the show and only received one response. She could not attend however because she was giving birth.
In other European countries the rise of nationalism has also fed and complicated homelessness – differentiating “our” homeless as opposed to refugees, which, as International Curator Ján Šimko pointed out is the situation of the Roma people in Slovakia. According to Boross, in Hungary, homelessness is more tied to poverty than any one ethnic group.
Addressless is a detailed portrait of homelessness in Budapest, though of course homelessness is a problem that is both universal and specific the world over and soon a United States audience will be able to experience the game as well. CITD introduced Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre Artistic Director Daniella Topol to the project when she visited Budapest in 2017. STEREO AKT is now partnering with Rattlestick and the Working Theatre to present a version of the piece about New York City’s homeless population.
About the Artist
Martin Boross (1988)
studied dramaturgy at the University of Theatre and Film Arts in Budapest (2007 – 2013). He is artistic director of the theatre STEREO AKT. As a director and performer, he earned the prestigious Junior Prima Award in 2016. He has directed about a dozen of theatre productions that experiment with unconventional forms of audience engagement.
STEREO AKT are one of the foremost progressive contemporary theatre collectives, who, under the guidance of Martin Borross, create stage productions that draw on innovative perspectives, genre overlaps and new technologies on stage or at specific sites. Their performances emphasize audience interaction – participation of spectators from the real world with the imaginative powers of artists, often in the form of interventions in the public space. STEREO AKT often collaborate on international projects in Hungary, the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark, Spain, Poland and the USA. Some of their collaborations include: CHB – Collegium Hungaricum, Berlin, Germany (Escape Room Europe, 2017), Albuquerque, New Mexico, USA (Promenade: Albuquerque, 2018), Jurányi House (Garden of the Protected Men), Trafó House of Contemporary Art (Renewal Painting, 2019).