Exploring Female Stereotypes: An Interview with Queendom’s Director Veronika Szabó, and its Performers

Borsos Luca, Julia Jakubowska, Kemény Rozália, Lakos Fanni, Lori Baldwin, Makra Viktória, Sarah Günther, Queendom (2017). Concept and direction by Veronika Szabó. Artus Studio, Budapest.
Photo: Laszlo Halasz, courtesy of Veronika Szabó

By Kim Doan Quoc

Queendom is a performance piece about woman archetypes. For about one hour and a half, the director Veronika Szabó and the performers drive the audience in a hilarious exploration of female stereotypes. From pageant beauty to motherhood, passing by the artist’s muse and the slut, Szabó and her team of performers make a lot of fun of women issues and it feels good to watch them doing it.

I talked with the crew when Lori Baldwin, fully performing her male character during the Drag King scene of the performance, wrote her phone number on my arm on stage. The team is built from talented and charismatic performers Borsos Luca, Julia Jakubowska, Kemény Rozália, Lakos Fanni, Lori Baldwin, Makra Viktória, Sarah Günther.

Veronika Szabó is a young Hungarian actor and director living in Budapest. I met her, Lori Baldwin, Luca Borsos and Sarah Günter in December after their first show in Artus Studio in Budapest. The show was full for 3 presentations.

Kim Doan Quoc: Can you introduce yourselves briefly? What do you do when you’re not performing Queendom and how performance art came to you?

Luca Borsos: I’m from Budapest. I studied performing arts in Madrid for 3 years and then came back to Hungary. Now I study in university to be a drama instructor. Nobody really knows what it means, but it’s something in between art management, theatre with children and drama pedagogy.

Lori Baldwin: I was put in theatre as a kid by my parents. In university, I found a lot of interest in the performance studies department. This other way of creating, which was based without a set script or the hierarchy between director and performers fascinated me. I ended up in Budapest four years ago from North Carolina, in the U.S. I have been working with my collaborator Luiza Moraes, who is a Brazilian contemporary dancer, on different performance projects. From there, a lot of different things came, there is Queendom, I also organize art and performance related events in Budapest, some other creation residency in Berlin.

Sarah Gunter: I grew up in a small city theater, in Bautzen in East Germany where my parents worked. The theatre was my everyday life. I was always around during the rehearsals and played a lot of children roles. I was always playing in three different theatre groups at school. I studied theatre sciences, in between performance and visual arts in Gießen. I had a guest semester in Budapest. There I started the project of the Air Factory in 2008, it was a big collaborative project. This is how I met Vera for the first time. Then I came back to Gießen to graduate with my diploma. During the diploma we founded a performance collective called Mobile Albania. We wanted to escape the institutions where you make theater for other theater artists and scientists. We went in the street to reach out to other people and make art with them, as site specific performances. Budapest was really inspiring so I came back after my diploma and worked in between the two countries. Here I found a community where you create free processes to work as a group. It traces a lot of questions about what is art and what is art in society, what is freedom through art? This how I came to Queendom.

Veronika Szabó: I also did theatre the whole time when I was a kid, but first I studied sociology after school. At that time, I felt that I need to understand the world. During university, I was interested in gender and queer studies. I wanted to write my thesis about the cultural history of masturbation when I realized I’d rather do things with people rather than only researching their thoughts. I also realized I miss playing. This is how I came back to theater in a more serious way. First I did a lot of community and participatory theatre projects, and then I started to perform again. I moved to London to study contemporary theatre making and performing. I also studied clowning there. When I moved back to Budapest after four years, I already had the idea of this show with a group of women. Joining a female ecofeminist punk band, Maria Inkoo also helped me to know what I was interested in. Since I moved back home, I’m swapping between performing, directing and community theater projects.

Borsos Luca, Julia Jakubowska, Kemény Rozália, Lakos Fanni, Lori Baldwin, Makra Viktória, and Sarah Günther, Queendom (2017). Concept and direction by Veronika Szabó. Artus Studio, Budapest.
Photo: Laszlo Halasz, courtesy of Veronika Szabó

Kim: How was the performance group formed?

Vera: The original idea was to have a group of eight very different women with different views of femininity to work together. I decided to make a casting, but I was a bit terrified. It was the first time I organized one and I usually don’t like these situations. I went to a lot of castings in London and I really hated them. I asked myself how to make it nice so I made it as a workshop with the few ideas that I had already in mind. I selected the group out of the fifteen people who came based on what they could bring to the show as individuals.

Lori: The workshop was really nice to experience. I felt really good going out of it, even I went in a bit skeptical at first. Did I feel myself enough of a woman to participate to a project that is only for women? But then we made the Drag King exercise and I felt way more comfortable.

Sarah: I personally didn’t feel it as a casting at all. I enjoyed the time we had there together and learned some new exercises. I didn’t feel like I applied to something.

Kim: Can you talk about the creative process you went through for this performance?

Vera: We started in April, it was really important for me to work free from the pressure of time. At first, we were just playing free and exploring things together and created a nice community. We had also ritual exercises so each member had to prepare a ritual for the group and we tried them all. We gained a lot of inspiration and strength as a group through these processes. We started the drag quite early, we took time to define each character for everybody in the group, to find these characters inside of ourselves. We worked a lot on how to enter the space, we made interviews of the drag characters, which was pretty fun to do. We also worked a lot on female stereotypes and to share how we all feel about them.

We also went to the countryside together, to Lake Balaton. We wanted to have this situation where we pretend to be the only ones left on earth and do whatever we want. We found our rehearsal space in a beautiful wineyard on the hills. It was all nature and this was the first time we got fully naked in front of each other’s and put together the painting scene.

Lori: It started when we started to sketch each other. We had this exercise to draw each other and that’s how we built the painting scene with all those classic modelling postures. We worked a lot about archetypes. We really chose each scene in function of the archetypes we felt the more sensitive to make them our own.

Luca: We gave time to everything. These months felt really good. I think everybody tried all the archetypes. We could think and decide which one was fitting the best to what we wanted. At first we didn’t specify who’s going to do what, we did everything together and for each other. We were always learning and searching from each other’s work for new things, that was very nice.

Lori: It was only in the last month that we really started to build a structure for the show. Maybe Vera had something in mind?

Vera: I had a structure in mind, and I also knew what the vibe of the show was going to be like. I thought about some scenes, but I wanted to see what the group would bring up in the few last weeks. We did a lot of massages also. It was a ritual as well that one person got a massage by all the other persons of the group, which took one hour every time! That hour was very rich, and important to feel safe and important to each other. 

Lori Baldwin, Borsos Luca, and Julia Jakubowska, Queendom (2017). Concept and direction by Veronika Szabó. Artus Studio, Budapest.
Photo: Laszlo Halasz, courtesy of Veronika Szabó

Kim: Vera, did you use a lot of community building tools to build the group? 

Vera: I think it was a new chapter for me. In a lot of my community projects I have worked always very collaboratively with the other creators. It was always based on the collective ideas and everything was thought together. This time I had a more precise idea about what I wanted to try, which was open of course, like a starting point. It is actually the first time I’m in the classical director role.. I can’t deny my community and collaborative devising approach, to me playing, having fun and trying new things together in a group without judgements are always important

Kim: Queendom is definitely a feel-good piece in my opinion, I didn’t stop laughing. How can humor come out to be the most accurate way to approach women issues for you?

Luca: We had fun; we laughed so much all along the process. We felt really safe together, we knew we couldn’t screw it up, so we took it far, knowing each other. We had some breakdowns of course but we always embraced our and each other states. Confidence allowed us to be funny I think.

Vera: For me humour is really important, for the most important things in my life. Since I did the clown course I was always amazed by how you don’t have to talk seriously about something to take it seriously. Sometimes you can reflect on serious things better with humour. Especially in this topic, I see some people going in with blood, fighting for opinions sometimes very similar but not being able to take distance from it. That’s why humour is wonderful for me, as a dialog opener.

Lori: Humour in this performance also appears because the situations we’re talking about are actually ridiculous. When you take them to their natural extreme, they’re absurd. A lot of the work we did on the archetypes and the drag is to push them to their full extreme. The absurdity of these extremes reflects on the absurdity of the reality. It’s funny because we live in a gender-constructed reality which is itself ridiculous on the basis. Somehow we found a way to unpack it. I’m really proud that we built a performance with a pretty sharp look on the situation with a lot of humour. Maybe it wasn’t so funny all the way for a member of the audience who is less open to these questions but there was always a moment when you find to laugh.

Kim: The choice of the archetypes was pretty sharp. How did you select them? 

Vera: Those we selected were the ones we hold the best and are provocative. We picked the ones we found the most recognizable.

Lori: I think also they were the ones that have the most stereotypical representation in the contemporary society. The beauty pageant queen, the mother, the lover, there is so much to put around these. There is a lot of information in the collective subconscious about these female roles. Versus the mystic or the virgin, which we worked with but it would have been a different piece in the end.

Sarah: The virgin was a bit there in the beauty queen.

Vera: As a personal point of view, they are the most upsetting ones for me also. I’m happier to be a mystic than a beauty pageant. I think it’s a lot more of pressure for people to take the queen role when the mystic is more fluid. The Beauty pageant queen is too much related to a specific idea of what are beautiful women. Mystic is more beyond gender. 

Borsos Luca, Julia Jakubowska, Kemény Rozália, Lakos Fanni, Lori Baldwin, Makra Viktória, and Sarah Günther, Queendom (2017). Concept and direction by Veronika Szabó. Artus Studio, Budapest.
Photo: Laszlo Halasz, courtesy of Veronika Szabó

Kim: Hungary is known to be quite of a conservative country. What does it mean to you to be feminist artists/activists in this particular context?

Vera: It’s not easy to be a feminist artist or person in this country. People are afraid of this word. Most of the people I know in theater, especially directors are mostly men. Now it’s changing a bit, there are a couple a female directors coming. Even people who think and work about feminist issues in theory have sometimes really sexist behaviours. It’s something you can notice on the street in everyday but also structure wise. We are in a process of changing though. I also feel that within the Hungarian feminist communities sometimes it is hard to open a free dialogue instead of attacking even each other.

Sarah: I don’t identify myself as a feminist. I’m not a -ist anyway. In our practice, we just try to create another space where things are working in balance. I wouldn’t say this context is proper to Hungary moreover, I don’t think things are better in West Germany for example. I’m not a person who likes to sit down and talk about values with people. I work with an old alcoholic guy. Sometimes he accepts that the females are the bosses, something changes maybe during the process of working together. It builds up another practice, it’s a potential for the future that we are trying on and on. We’re not preachers, we play with our boundaries and everybody then feels more free. It creates a space for freedom. I don’t think we have to compare Hungary with other countries. I also agree with Vera when she says the left wing feminists often miss the open dialogue, in West Germany as well.

Luca: I don’t know, after living in Spain, when I came back to Hungary I felt not so many things changed. The theater system is still centered on the director who is most of the time a male. With the theater community I was in touch with in Madrid, in the squats, the anarchist community involved a lot of different people with a lot of different issues in activism. When I came back I was craving to find such a group of people but didn’t manage to. I didn’t really apply to castings, as I knew it wouldn’t fit to what I expected as a theater group. It was actually a contact from Madrid who put me in touch with Lori who is American and Luiza, who is Brazilian, who organize “Slunt”, a performance event related to feminist and queer issues in Budapest. This is where I found the community who talks about these issues but they are all foreigner!

Lori: To me it was really exciting to find Vera’s project. I got involved in collective processes before as long as few month of research in more horizontal way of creating and I really missed that. Working as a duo with Luiza is great but I wanted to be part of a bigger group. I was also very happy to find access to a Hungarian production. I’m not really an actress or a dancer so there was not really a place for me to do what I wanted to, except with Luiza. It’s interesting that the collectivity comes up in the feminist question. To me they go very hand in hand. I do identify as a queer feminist, and I think collective organizing is part of that. To work with a deconstructed hierarchy was really interesting. Of course we agreed that Vera is the director and she came with a proposal, but I really felt respected as a collaborator and a co-creator, our input was really valuable. It really matched with how I want to participate to the world so it was really important to me. Towards being a feminist in Hungary, I really think it’s hard to be a queer person and a feminist anywhere. It’s just a different type of hard, but it would be difficult anywhere. It’s also valuable to want to make works to open the dialogue. This piece did that for the audience but also among us. We all come from different backgrounds thinking differently about life, gender and these roles. We disagreed and still disagree on some things and it’s all ok. Someone from the Gender Studies department in CEU University actually told me we “managed to do in one hour what (they’re) trying to do in two years writing a dissertation “. This is our work!

Vera: Sometimes I feel in creation that I’m trying to be too smart. I have my opinions about things in the world and somehow I’m challenging that during my creative practice.  I love Queendom because we managed to reach some instinct related way to say things about gender. I had some feedback from people who said they felt the piece with their body and I’m really happy that we reached another level than the intellectual one. When going to theater, I often find really nice shows but sometimes I really regret that a lot of pieces stay on the intellectual level and not bringing me a new perspective.

Sarah: It’s not interesting at all to involve too much institution.

Lori: Maybe part of it is because there is not so much text, it doesn’t get too heavy. There is some abstraction but we work with a lot recognizable images.

Sarah: It’s when the form is not just transcendental you can transmit something but it gets another quality that is just immanent in there. For me the painting scene, it happened with the strong static aesthetic quality somehow. There are different layers to read.

Queendom will be on stage again in Budapest on the 16th and 17th of February at MU Színház and on the 10th of March in Prague at Venuše ve Švehlovce.

Kim Doan Quoc is a French-born photographer, performer and video artist working between Budapest and New York. Her body of work consist in the contemplation of people regardless of their gender as sacred beings of our everyday spaces. Kim is an active VJ and has exhibited her work internationally in Bruxelles, Budapest, New York City and recently Paris.