Andrew Hefler is a very diverse figure in the Hungarian art scene. He is the lead singer of Kéknyúl, a Hungarian jazz band, moreover, he is the founder of Grund Theatre, an improvisational theatre, where he offers workshops for those who would like to improve their improvisation skills. I met Andrew to talk about his projects and the Hungarian art scene.
Why Hungary? How did you end up here?
It was recommended to me by some guy I knew in Italy. I was staying with them in Verona, and I was planning on going to Prague and St. Petersburg, and they said: “Don’t skip Hungary”. And I said “Really?” I mean I didn’t even mean that “Really like how would that possibly be”. I just thought of all the places one would recommend in the world why that. And he said “No, really, it’s a lovely place, and it’s like a city full of secrets, go there”. And so I did.
Why did you stay?
It snowed. I’m a Los Angelino, so we don’t really see snow very often. It snowed one time on Christmas Day in 1989, which was the first time it snowed in Los Angeles since the 50s. I think it snowed in Los Angeles two times in the 20th century. And when I mean snow I mean it snows for like 6 minutes and disappears instantaneously. So for me snow in the city was kind of exciting and romantic.
Did you suffer from culture shock?
I don’t know, it’s hard to say. I’m not sure, but probably not that much. The culture shock that I suffered was the lack of cosmopolitanism.
You are the founder of Grund Theatre (Hungarian improvisational theatre – ed.). Where did the idea of an improvisational theatre come from?
From my fifth grade teacher. He didn’t have the idea of Grund Theatre, but it was why I did improvisation at all. And then eventually I worked with Merlin Theatre for years and years doing improvisation, teaching improvisation and in 2008 somebody asked me to do an improvisational workshop at Kapolcs, and so I did a summer camp. I did a 4-day workshop there and a lot of people came, so after that I started doing this workshop at Gödör, which has later become Akvárium, and I did it every week for now 6, almost 7 years. And then I decided to start my own theatre company.
Was it difficult to teach improvisation to Hungarians?
I think it’s all the same, to be honest. When you’re teaching improvisation you’re just trying to find out what are that particular place’s particular frequent problems. So inhibition or fear of standing in front of a group, which is something shared around the world, or fear of your own ideas, fear of being seen as stupid is fairly high in Hungarians, because their teachers insist that they are stupid until they prove by regurgitating information they were told to memorise that they’re not. I think, for example, for me the challenge of teaching Hungarians, which is ridiculous to even say, because it’s more like training, you don’t teach improvisation, everybody knows how to do it, you train skills to build on to make improvisation more useful or more constructive. Hungarians are extremely horse-whipped by school, but most cultures, even the U.S. horse-whip their students, meaning that they punish them for failure or mistakes, which is asinine, because you should be embracing failure, excited to recognise it and thinking constantly how to change it. School generally tells you that failure is pathetic, that it’s a sign of stupidity and weakness, and if you don’t know the answer shut up. Hungarians have schools that are really good at that. I think that the big thing to get over culturally here is that the teachers are wrong. But it’s hard to convince people of that.
You were also the trainer of Beugró (improvisational comedy TV programme – ed.), where you worked with professional actors. What can you teach them? How is improvisation different?
Professional actors have the worst time improvising. They didn’t learn how to improvise. That’s like saying that a violinist in the Budapest Chamber Orchestra could sit in and improvise with a wedding band from Romania. He probably can’t. He might be able to, if he learned how to, but the challenges of doing that well would be difficult for him. It’s still playing music and playing music on his or her instrument, but in a completely different context. Improvisation is a skill I think that should be done by actors. Improvisation for the theatre is what I deal with, what I train and what I work in, and I think there is a lot of pressure on professional actors. In the U.S. most actors who are paid to act did not go to school to do this, whereas in Hungary it’s the exact opposite. And so a lot of the pressure on these actors here is that they should know how to do everything, but they don’t. They don’t necessarily know how to fight with swords, they don’t necessarily know how to ride horses, they don’t necessarily know how to breathe properly, but for example if you take rigorous actor training in England or in the U.S. you have to do all of these things. Traditionally, the acting school was a three-year programme, it wasn’t university, it never was and it never should have been. It’s a vocational school and it should be training you to breathe, enunciate, speak loudly, ride horses, use swords, and learn how to memorise or read texts. Whereas here it’s a very intellectual process, and you see it in the acting. Many times what it creates, because it’s an intellectual or theoretical training, is a certain pressure on the actors to try to be smart. While whenever your cleverness and stupidity are concepts, they’re results of social behaviour. If somebody looks or acts stupid, it doesn’t mean they are; it just means that they’ve learned or they have resulted in acting or looking that way. For actors, because their job is to look or act a certain way, acting clever or acting stupid comes actually easy. Improvisation reveals that this is not true very quickly. This is why most trained actors suffer with improvisation. They don’t know how to do it, because they haven’t learned the skills to do it. It’s a very skill-based thing. If you don’t technically try to build your skills in improvisation, you will often have a lot of difficulty. And why it’s so maddening, is because everyone constantly improvises. You’re doing it now, I’m doing it now, and so when you’re asked to do it as a collective, creative performance, it can be very frustrating or very humbling that it doesn’t work very well.
Then you must be a very good trainer, because the actors in Beugró seem to improvise effortlessly.
Well, they’re lovely and playful people, and when you have good-natured, playful people, it’s easier to make progress. If you have fearful, frustrated, stressed, less generous people, then it’s a harder job.
Have you met this kind of people in the workshops? What can you do with them?
Of course. You meet this kind of people everywhere, and you have to turn them on. You treat them like they’re wonderful and brilliant. You treat them like they’re humorous, you treat them like their ideas are exciting and inspiring to you. You show people that you’re surprised by their genuine generosity. Everybody wants to be accepted, so you just accept them, and then instantly, you get better versions of people. If you don’t for some reason get a better version of somebody, which can happen, it just means that they’re frustrated or jaded or unaccustomed to being treated well, so you shouldn’t stop treating them well, you should continue to treat them well, so that they get more used to it
Was there ever a language difficulty, because your mother tongue is English?
I think there’s a language difficulty when you all speak the same language. Language is what f***s humans up. We’re brilliant without language. Language is where we start to misunderstand. Language is about misunderstanding. It’s trying to be more specific, more precise, it’s trying to label things and make it shareable and presentable, and in an instance it really does that well and in many instances it really doesn’t do that well.
You do lots of unconventional shows and performances, such as Food Film Fighters (an event where slam poets and improvisational actors reflect on a particular film, which is a secret to the audience and during intermission food is served, which is connected to the film – ed.), with Grund Theatre. Would you talk about them?
I believe that in 2016 there is an audience that is looking for stories to be told to them in different ways. So when you make a show like Food Film Fighters (FFF), the concept behind that is that people get something taught to them, or get something shared with them, or get some experience that stimulates them in different ways. I just take the concept interaction and an interactive show – which word I have a very weird feeling about, I’ve never actually believed it, because people say that “Oh an interactive show, I love that” and then you see that they don’t. I started to realise, like if you look at trivia nights or you look at these nights when there’s interaction, actually when the audience thinks interactive is when they’re just stimulated to work. They don’t have to perform, they don’t have to speak, they don’t have to stand up, they don’t have to entertain, they don’t have to achieve necessarily anything in front of others, but they’re activated. Meaning that they think about something, they ponder it, try work the puzzle out, and have something to talk to their friend next to them about. The real basis of the concept behind FFF is to say “Let’s give the audience all collectively something to work on in their minds”. They’re watching the entire show through a particular question or through a particular lens, and it changes the experience and it makes them feel that it’s interactive, or it is interactive in a way that they like. That’s why this is unconventional, which in reality I think is totally conventional, but it seems unconventional in a sense that there may not be a lot of shows like it right now.
At first FFF was a very underground event, but now it’s sold out in two days. What do you think is the reason of this popularity?
Because it’s popular culture. You can even see that in the films we chose. Early on we chose much more fringe films; that was one of the ideas behind the whole thing. Then we started to realise that the audience didn’t necessarily see all these films. So, we didn’t understand our audience exactly. Even though our audience is lovely and bright and represents a really fun and very elegant side of Budapest, they didn’t necessarily see all those movies we chose. And so we started to pick films that have a better chance to be seen by the majority of our viewers. We are trying to understand our viewers and the viewers are trying to understand the show. When the viewers feel that the show is for them and trying to take them into consideration, and the viewer feels liked by us, it becomes more popular.
At FFF you work with slam poets. What do you think of the Hungarian slam scene?
I think it’s burgeoning, and I think there’s really lot of great voices, and I love that it’s happening, and it’s a fantastic outlet for literature. I mean the book is dying, and it’s might resurrect itself in some form or another. People are still reading, they still have interest in it, and the voice still wants to be heard with literary construction of words or opinion, so it’s looking for outlets. Slam poetry is one of those outlets. It’s for young people, who have a voice. So I love it, I think it’s well-organised, I like the way they spread out around the country, I appreciate that they try to spread out around the world.
So, do you think it is literature?
There’s no question. I think debating that is absurd. It’s like debating whether humans are animals. It’s obvious that it is.
Actually slammers often say that slam poetry is not literature, but rather performance and theatre.
They’re doing that to be euphemistic. They’re doing that to protect themselves from criticism. Which is sensible, they should do that. Anything to take pressure off them. If it relieves them from pressure to say it’s not literature, then they should say that. If they honestly believe it’s not literature and they honestly believe it’s something else, they should say that. But, is it literature? Maybe we need to reclassify what literature is. Because literature, as I understand, is the written word that is either fictitious or based on some sort of factual thing, that is either in prose or in poetry. I think RZA from Wu-Tang Clan is poetry. Rap is poetry, it’s just some of it is very bad and some of it is absolutely spell-bounding and transcendent. If we’re euphemising things to protect them from being bludgeoned by critics, who have bad intentions or bad nature, then I say we protect them. If we’re euphemising them because we’re trying to keep ourselves from being responsible for something, then we should think about why we’re doing that. It’s like saying that gospel music isn’t serious and it’s not really music like Schubert is music. Or Dohnányi is music, but Lady Gaga is not music. Well, Lady Gaga has a very complex and intense, well-crafted music with great lyrics and great performance. It’s the same thing with slam poetry. Some if it sucks, but it should; why would it all be good? There are a lot of classical composers that we don’t remember, because they wrote music that was no memorable.
You’re also the singer of the band Kéknyúl. How did that happen? How did you meet Premecz Mátyás (Hammond organ, keyboard – ed.)?
We were working in the same band and then we got fired. Matyi had this band already when he asked me to come and work in it. We sat down and started writing songs together.
So you are the songwriter.
Matyi and I, but now the band writes a lot of songs together. Csókás Zsolt (guitar – ed.) and Jász Andris (saxophone – ed.), a lot of people collectively contribute to the songs. The principle songwriters are Matyi and myself, I write the lyrics and the melodies, but other people in the band make pretty significant contribution to the songs.
When you write the lyrics do you use your personal experiences?
Absolutely. I wanted to be true. It’s got to be true. They’re portraits of people. I mix people’s stories together, I mix experiences. Every line has to be true. And if it isn’t then I usually get rid of it.
On the previous album you worked together with Papp Szabi (lead singer of Supernem – ed.), are there any other Hungarian bands or singers that you would like to collaborate with?
Jónás Vera. She worked a lot on this record that we put out. She’s mind-blowing, a lovely musician, a good song-writer and a great lady. Also Sena and Élő Marci from Irie Maffia, I love their work. Kiss Tibi from Quimby and I are also friends and he’s my kind of song writing consultant and I’m his song writing consultant, so secretly what we do is that we meet and we talk about what we’re writing.
With Kéknyúl you perform in small clubs as well as mainstream festivals. Does the preparation for a festival to create a connection to the audience take more effort?
It can. With a festival audience the connection is very physical. The parameters of what’s going on physically has a big say in this. For example, at Volt Fesztivál we played on a good sized stage, but the space right in front of the stage was just huge and about 30 metres from the stage was shade. So you had literally 400 people standing 30 metres from the stage in the shade. So making a real connection to them is a challenge and a different thing, because they don’t want to come close to the stage and they have a good reason, so you’re trying to take the circumstances and to make it still enjoyable by being humorous and personable. And there’s also fighting this temptation to just race through the show and get it over with, because you have less than ideal circumstances, it can’t be dragged on forever and a part of you is saying: “Let’s just move through the songs”. That’s not a good feeling; you don’t want to do that. So the way you have to work against that, any time you are in a presentation circumstance, that is a large group focusing on one thing, you’re trying to constantly give purpose. Whether it’s theatre, or improvised theatre, or music, or a presentation trying to demonstrate what the new, most exciting technology is, as a presenter, you constantly trying to contribute clarity on what the purpose of being there is. When the audience doesn’t feel that, then they want to leave, rightfully so. What’s getting to an audience in a festival circumstance or in any circumstance is constantly revealing to them that the purpose of being there is quite obvious, and then somehow defining what that is: dancing, seeing each other, having a night when you just turn it off the loud, white noise in your head and allow the music to take that space. Some people go to concerts to be seen in their new clothes, some people go to concerts to find love, and some people go to concerts to relax after a long week’s work, it doesn’t matter. What matters is to try to find one common purpose that all those people can feel.
You are also a regular guest at Random Trip (regular improvisational concerts featuring different musicians on every occasion – ed.), which is kind of like the fusion of music and improvisation.
I love it. I love the company that does it. Random Trip is about good-natured people that you’re working with. This is why I like it. I love Jávor (Delov Jávor, drummer – ed.), I think he’s great. I really respect what he does. I love Q-Cee, I think he’s outstanding and one of the best musicians in the country. He’s out of this world. He’s working with two turntables, a library of music, and he’s constantly improvising as a DJ on stage with a band, which oftentimes has members on the stage who are not very experienced improvisers. And he’s gluing songs and emotions and ambiance together on the fly with a very wide variety of skills. It’s a really tricky job, so I have immense respect for these guys.
Which one do you prefer: theatre or music?
I don’t know. To me, music is the perfect art. You can’t escape it. The theatre, on the other hand, can be extremely untrue. It can be full of pointless lies. It can be very false. When music is full of lies, you immediately hear it. In the second that something untrue or something out of place in music happens and it’s not accepted by the rest of the band, the song immediately becomes untrue. In theatre we’re willing to put up with so much crap. So I think music in some way is a little bit more consequential. As a performer, I don’t care. I spend almost equal time doing both. My persona as a musician is not exactly the same persona as an actor.
If you had the chance to start over everything, would you still come to Hungary or would you try to have a career in America?
I don’t know, improvisation is exploding in America. It is doing wonders to the media industry, it’s changed the way we conceive everything. Most people might not know this in Hungary, but improvisation has changed television, screenwriting and stylistic acting. It improved the quality of just about everything mediawise. It is the primary method of training communication skills in the corporate world; moreover, most business schools in the US and in England are using improvisation to train business communication. So it’s got the world in a headlock. The reason is that it unlocks things that school traditionally locked up and made into superstition. So for that reason it would probably wise for me to go to practice and sell my wares in the United States, because more people would buy. But, with that being said, it needs to be here. This is a country that needs improvisation. This is a country that has tons of unused potential. This is a country that has wonderful history, traditions and stories to be told and I think a lot of times they don’t work to its advantage, because it’s a very superstitious place. Improvisation is about dissolving superstitions. When I say superstition I mean “you need talent to do that”. This is not true. Talent is great, but that is just the starting point. You must put it on the road to progress, you must put it through the process, and talent is a process. I think that’s why it’s good for me to be here, so I can talk about that and I can do exercises to change that in myself and in other people.
What was the last song you were listening to before you came here?
The last song I was listening to before I came here today was Videogames by Lana Del Rey.