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Students and Teachers From Hungary’s Theater and Film University Build an Alternative to Autocracy

Narrative story that reconstructs the astonishing resistance to Victor Orbán's authoritarian power-grab against universities in Hungary: students and faculty at the Academy of Theater and Film in Budapest occupied the school for 71 days...

Narrative story that reconstructs the astonishing resistance to Victor Orbán's authoritarian power-grab against universities in Hungary: students and faculty at the Academy of Theater and Film in Budapest occupied the school for 71 days to protest a privatization scheme that installed right-wing oligarchs as a new board of directors; most of the faculty quit and much of the student body decamped with them -- and now they are creating a model international program. They are speaking to the US from the future. [Forthcoming in Theater Volume 53, Number 2]

László Upor, rector-elect of the University of Theater and Film in Budapest, sat grimly on the stage of the school’s main auditorium along with students, other teachers, and the faculty senate. The text of a statement he wished he wouldn’t have to read lay in his lap, the final version printed out just moments before the event. It was August 31, 2020, and Upor and his colleagues were hosting a press conference to present a public account of their months-long clash with the Hungarian government, which was coming to a head in a matter of hours, barely a week before fall classes were slated to start at the 155-year-old academy. The previous February, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s administration had announced a “model change” for the school—a privatization scheme that would install a new five-person governing board with lifetime appointments. Made up of Orbán cronies, the board would usurp the faculty in running everything from student admissions to budget allocations to the curriculum. In short, they would undo the standards of university autonomy and academic freedom, contravening both the Hungarian and EU constitutions.

The plan hardly came as a surprise to Upor and his colleagues. Their school—popularly known as SZFE (for Színház-és Filmművészeti Egyetem, pronounced “ess-ef-eh”)—had been in the regime’s crosshairs for a good while. The Ministry of Innovation and Technology (the government agency in charge of higher education, among other things) had neglected to authorize Upor’s position as rector—usually a routine rubber stamp—after the faculty had voted for him almost a year earlier. Meanwhile the SZFE had frequently come under attack in government-friendly media, portrayed, in standard culture-war rhetoric, as a swampy breeding ground of degenerate wokeness. More widely—in addition to jerrymandering, packing the courts, eroding checks and balances, and centralizing and delivering most of the news media into the hands of loyal plutocrats—Orbán has made arts and academic institutions primary sites for entrenching his self-proclaimed Christian “illiberal democracy.”

In 2018, he forced the prestigious Central European University, founded by the investor-philanthropist George Soros, long maligned by the right, to leave the country after almost 30 years in Budapest. He disassembled the revered Academy of Sciences and placed government appointees in charge of the research agenda. His regime outlawed gender studies—even at the university level—and installed as head of the country’s leading literary center a former Orbán speechwriter who said he wants to promote more Christian nationalist narratives in Hungarian letters. The regime has been picking off public universities one by one, handing over their funds, real estate, and academic functions to Orbán’s political allies.

For even longer, Orbán has been squeezing the country’s theaters, which play a more vibrant cultural role in Hungary than in the United States. (In a population of fewer than ten million, pre-pandemic, Hungarians were buying more than eight million theater tickets in a year.) One of Orbán’s first acts after sweeping into office in 2010 was to slash funding for Hungary’s independent theaters, and soon after, to replace Róbert Alföldi, the successful artistic director of the National Theater (driven out in a homophobic and antisemitic campaign) with a reactionary appointee, Attila Vidnyánszky. More recently, the regime has given itself veto power over the directors of theaters that receive government funding (which can be generous in Hungary). It seemed like only a matter of time before the boot would drop on SZFE.

What was surprising, when it did, is how the SZFE community fought back: with a sustained and effective movement of cultural resistance—the most serious defiance from any of the universities commandeered by the regime. The young civil rights lawyer—and recent TV student at SZFE, Nóra Aujeszky—has been keeping a tally: On January 1, 2020, there were twenty-one public universities (plus five applied sciences institutes), she tells me, and by January 1, 2022, only five were left. In those two years, the twenty-one others were handed over to private boards aligned with Orbán’s right-wing party, Fidesz.

It’s hard to withstand their dominion. As much as Orbán admires Vladimir Putin (and he managed to exempt Hungary from the European embargo against Russian oil last spring), his authoritarianism is more bureaucratic than blustery. Through legalistic maneuvers and scads of money, his regime swamps rather than aggressively suppresses opposition. So, on the surface, Hungary looks like a functioning democracy: protesters march in public, voters go to the polls, journalists aren’t jailed. Rather, dissenters are overwhelmed. The state and its tycoons buy up institutions like the press, consolidate their power, and simply drown out those who somehow remain independent—which is how Orbán won a landslide re-election to a fourth term last April: media repeatedly trumpeted his false accusation that his opponent would send Hungarian troops into Ukraine. “We have defended Hungary’s sovereignty and freedom,” Orbán crowed as the results came in.

Little wonder that Orbán is a beacon to the American right. He drew a standing ovation as the headliner at CPAC —the Conservative Political Action Conference put on by the American Conservative Union—in Dallas in August, where he proclaimed, “The globalists can all go to hell. I have come to Texas.” He was featured as the keynote speaker at CPAC’s earlier May gathering, held in Budapest. Donald Trump fawned over him in a video address: “He is a great leader, a great gentleman, and he just had a very big election result. I was very honored to endorse him.” Along with the blatantly antisemitic and racist Hungarian talk-show host, Zsolt Bayer, and the American “pizzagate” conspiracist Jack Posobiec, Orbán shared the CPAC podium with his biggest US cheerleader, Tucker Carlson. “Programs like his,” Orbán enthused, “should be broadcast day and night. Or as you say, 24/7.” A year earlier, Carlson broadcast his show from Budapest.

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At the time, Carlson described Hungary as a “small country with a lot of lessons for the rest of us.” He meant, of course, Orbán’s systematic transfer of democratic institutions into the hands of conservative plutocrats. The crucial lessons for the rest of the rest of us, who already quake at the overweening power of minority Republican control and the party’s unabated Trumpism, can be found in the fortitude and ingenuity of the refuseniks of the SZFE, who resisted their university takeover with a combination of direct action, court challenges, and powerful spectacle. When they had exhausted those democratic means of opposition—and demonstrated to the public how Orbán bulldozed right over them—this scrappy band of artists, a breed not known for prolonged political organizing, invented an autonomous, forward-looking alternative: the Freeszfe Society.

They are speaking to us from the future. Assembled from dozens of interviews between the spring of 2021 and autumn of 2022 and from documents, videos, and social media posts, this is their story.

I      

Where the story precisely begins is hard to fix. “It’s like a Greek tragedy” in that respect, Upor says, noting that one could take it back to Orbán’s embrace of ultra-conservatism with his victory in 2010 or to Hungary’s first waddling steps toward democracy after the fall of the USSR or to its capitulation to Nazis in 1939 or even to the territory-ceding Trianon treaty of 1920, much mythologized by the wound-scratching right. But for what would amount to the action of the Greek tragedy—and it must be said that the story of Freeszfe is no tragedy, but more an “overcoming the monster” tale—it starts with the announcement in the winter of 2020 that Orbán was coming after SZFE. Students and faculty spent months seeking to negotiate with the Minister of Innovation and Technology, László Palkovics, exploring their legal options, and organizing. The faculty senate hosted weekly meetings and invited students and all SZFE personnel; they issued a regular newsletter and kept up an active social media stream, publishing their correspondence with the government for everyone to see. Kata Csató, a puppetry professor, got to work activating SZFE as a chapter of Hungary’s higher education union. Students, meanwhile, arranged forums for themselves—sometimes bringing sociologists or political scientists as presenters—to help them understand what was going on and to plan their response. They also traveled to other parts of Hungary to meet with students from other threatened schools. “We were waking up,” says Aujeszky. Through their own social media accounts, the students made “#FreeSZFE” a trending hashtag.

By summer 2020, it was clear enough that Palkovics wasn’t going to take any student or faculty concerns about academic freedom or self-governance into account in the government’s swift imposition of the new model, even as he went through the motions of seeking input. Students organized public protests to request negotiations with the ministry and though Palkovics finally sat down with them, he rejected outright the demand that the faculty continue to choose its own rector and, too, that faculty have any input into the members of a supervising board the new model created. The SZFE community had sent the ministry suggestions for what kinds of competencies such a board would need, and recommended some excellent candidates—not so much because they expected the government to heed their advice, but to assert, as Upor puts it, that “this is how democracy should work and you, government guys, are playing a dirty anti-democratic game.” Then, in early July, Parliament passed the bill authorizing the model change, and by the end of that month, unilaterally announced the members of the new board. The SZFE community learned their names in the press—among them, two oil magnates. The board chair would be none other than Attila Vidnyánszky, who had spent the preceding months belittling the SZFE in the Fidesz-aligned press, deriding students as “Lenin boys and girls” naively carrying out orders from extremist professors. The school, he insisted, needed to be more nationalistic and Christian.  

As the deadline for the September 1 takeover loomed, the faculty senate sent Palkovics their proposal for updated bylaws that might make the model change workable, and the minister invited them in for what they thought would be a discussion. Instead, Palkovics handed over the ministry’s own nonnegotiable bylaws, which stripped the senate of all powers. “There was no way we would keep even a small grain of our autonomy,” Upor says. Faculty leaders wrote to Vidnyánszky one last time in hopes of hammering out a viable SZFE future together and asked him to respond by the morning of August 31, the eve of the new semester and the imposition of the new bylaws.

With no reply, the senate gathered backstage before their press conference at SZFE’s Órdy Theater, a blocky mid-twentieth-century building that served as the center of the theater department—and soon became the headquarters of the resistance. While the audience filed in—members of the SZFE community and, as Upor puts it, “an army of reporters”—the faculty senators met backstage and went over their plan. “Are we really doing this?” they asked each other. Upor cried as he rehearsed their statement. He and his colleagues, it announced, were compelled to take “a sadly drastic” action: they would be stepping down from their leadership positions; the senate was disbanding itself. They’d hang on for one more month to take care of the myriad administrative tasks needed to launch students into the semester, and they wouldn’t abandon them as teachers. But come the first of October, Vidnyánszky and the board would have to figure out how to run the place on their own.

Still, a twinge of uncertainty poked at Upor as he sat on stage listening to the dramatically orchestrated sequence of speakers, who took turns telling of their frustrations of the preceding months. He had been teaching at SZFE for almost forty years and couldn’t bear to think there wasn’t a way to save it. About eighty minutes into the program, a staff member crept onto the stage to give Upor a printout of an email just in from Vidnyánszky. “The bylaws stay as they are,” it said. Bleary-eyed behind his frameless glasses and in need of a shave and a lot of sleep, Upor stood and delivered the resignation in a quiet, even cadence. The audience responded with a standing ovation.

That evening, the somber mood of the auditorium was swept away by an almost carnival spirit in the street—equal parts the reflexive, terrified laughter of freefall and the giddy rush of knowing one has made a righteous, irreversible move. The faculty leaders had lit a match and, after months of smoldering, the students were on fire. They had organized a street party in front of the Ódry, both a protest of the model change and celebration of their teachers. They planned a countdown to midnight when the SZFE would become another Orbán outpost. In getups pulled from the costume shop, they cavorted as rock bands played, and in-between tunes, some testified. The directing major Bálint Antal, for one, told the crowd that come morning, he’d be attending a different university from the one he’d applied to four years earlier, but that they couldn’t let the new board define them. “They can have the walls and buildings,” he said, “but the university is its people, and we can’t be taken over.”

Out of nowhere, it started to pour—a deluge befitting King Lear or The Tempest, says directing student Dániel Máté Sándor—and everyone scrambled into the auditorium. Some dozen students, who had organized the forums and actions all summer, huddled in a hallway: Was this the moment to ask whether their classmates were ready to escalate their tactics? A rock band made up of acting students—assembled for a theater project Sándor was developing—took to the stage and struck up some alt-rock covers, the countdown clock projected on a scrim behind them. As midnight approached, the crowd hollered out the seconds. “Tíz, kilenc, nyolc, hét, hat!” In a classic frontman gesture, the lead singer grabbed the standing mic and yanked it toward his face—Öt, négy, három, kettő … ”—but instead of belting the next Control Group number when the countdown arrived at “egy!”—one—he posed some questions: “Do we take over the university?” The crowd screamed its assent. “Are we going to stay here?” Even louder cheers, soon followed by lusty boos when he added, “Do we accept the new leaders?”

In their many summer meetings, students had floated the possibility of preventing the new board from entering the building and they’d posted about it in their wider student Facebook group, but until that moment, no one was sure they’d do it. Petra Al-Farman, a quietly intense dramaturgy student, was thrilled—and frightened. “If you say you’re going to do this, you have to see it through,” she thought, even as she shouted along at the concert, “and we weren’t really prepared.” They got prepared, fast. Along with Antal and other classmates, Al-Farman stayed at the theater through the night, hashing out next steps until they fell asleep. Antal was jostled awake a few hours later by a friend: “Bálint, Bálint, the press is here!” Word of the occupation was out, but the building didn’t look like it was occupied, so he and friends went running through the dorm upstairs to awaken and mobilize their colleagues; those living in apartments who’d gone home overnight to change clothes, returned with sleeping bags, yoga mats, provisions. Quickly, they made banners and flags declaring “#FreeSZFE,” “We Stand for the Freedom of our University,” “We Won’t Be Silenced” and hung them out the windows of the six-story building.

Students assembled in the theater for the first of what would become daily hours-long, democratic, decision-making forums and issued their demands: The new board must resign and the ministry restart negotiations on the basis of the university’s lawfully guaranteed autonomy. Until those conditions were met, they declared, the students would maintain the blockade. About one hundred of them moved into the Ódry building, and soon some shifted to a couple of other SZFE spaces. The group’s press office set up in the film department’s building, where screenwriting student Panni Szurdi slept on its small couch; dramaturg Al-Farman preferred the gym beneath the Ódry theater for the mats on the floor. “We just jumped into it,” says Antal, driven by the feeling that “anything can happen and the strong belief we were doing the right thing.”

The occupation lasted seventy-one days.

II

As theater- and filmmakers accustomed to dividing labor to produce work as a team, students instantly formed groups (or beefed up some that had been functioning since the summer) to handle communications, street protests, legal strategies, social media, banner-making, COVID protocols, and more—even as the semester began, and classes went forward. One student acquired some do-not-cross police tape—red and white in Hungary—and stretched it across the building entrance. That tape, along with “#FreeSZFE” and the image of a hand raised in protest—or to represent a student claiming a turn to speak in their forums—produced a powerful visual identity for the movement, soon adopted by the students’ many supporters in liberal Budapest, often vilified by the right with the usual tropes that depict urban centers as Sodom and Gomorrah, and the hinterlands as the “authentic” nation. Café and shop owners decked their storefronts with police tape; dog owners tied a length around their pets’ collars. Untold numbers posted selfies with a hand pressed toward the camera lens, “Freeszfe” penned onto their palms. Locals dropped by the Ódry to donate mattresses, pizzas, home-baked goodies, and so many groceries that the students passed many of them along to foodbanks.

International arts luminaries—the likes of Peter Brook, Caryl Churchill, Ian McKellen, Helen Mirren, Ariane Mnouchkine, Nico Muhly, Eddie Redmayne, Salman Rushdie, Wole Soyinka, Robert Wilson—signed letters of support and posted encouragement on social media. Cate Blanchett sported a Freeszfe t-shirt under a fancy blazer at the Venice Film Festival. Yellow pandemic facemasks, printed with the hand and Freeszfe logo, became the it-accessory of the season, selling out at demonstrations for a donation of any size, and popping up all over Europe.

Every day the students put on a brief press conference in front of the festooned building, featuring different speakers each time. There were no leaders in this horizontal movement, but a clear message for every morning session was hashed out in the full forum the night before. Reporters from the independent media dropped by daily to check on developments. If the team worried that they risked repeating themselves, they nudged the action committee to plan a performance or protest to “build a narrative around,” as Panni Szurdi puts it. Each press conference ended with the students’ adaptation of a well-known Hungarian folk tune about a clandestine romance, whose lyrics they changed to proclaim that their “secret university”—one involving trysts with other schools—would, like the lovers in the original song, soon shine forth. Students sang it at all their events, and it quickly caught on. Actors in independent theaters sang it at the curtain calls of their shows as a gesture of allyship.

All the while the protesters kept up their studies, learning about Kleist or klieg lights part of the day and debating and preparing their actions the rest, all in a new way: “Today, in agreement with our professors, we are stepping out of the traditional educational framework to found a republic at our occupied university,” they said in a statement released in the press conference the morning fall classes began. For their part, the faculty—thanks to Csató’s work with the union—declared a strike on October 1. They refused to cooperate with the new administration but kept working with their students in their “learning republic,” where, together, they broke down disciplinary boundaries, brought political theory into aesthetic discussions, and made artwork responsive to and expressive of their defense of the school, all “in the name of democracy and creativity with the tools of democracy and creativity.”

While hitting the goals of the standard syllabus, for instance, film students documented the movement, refining their camera, narrative, and editing techniques as they made movies about the occupation, often quickly supplying polished short daily pieces for the press team to post on social media. They worked as a team on a full-length documentary, amassing more than 1000 hours of footage. One segment powerfully chronicles how students planned, in a nerve-fraying all-night meeting, to block the entry of the SZFE’s newly appointed chancellor the next morning. The chancellor, Gábor Szarka, a former army colonel who blustered into the story like a miles gloriosus of ancient Roman comedy, had tried to tiptoe into the building through a back parking lot doorway one day, but was rebuffed by students; now, about 10 days later, he was coming back with a full media entourage, to insist on marching into his office. In Frederick Wiseman style, the student filmmakers follow the events without commentary or explanation, from the wee-hours debates in the auditorium to Szarka’s arrival and stand-off at the door. The camera closes in on Szarka as he reads a prepared statement that reveals his cluelessness about the students’ collective authority: “The person who sent you here will be responsible for this,” he threatens. The camera stays on his face with its twitchy jowls, as we hear a student delivering the response: the new leadership must resign, and autonomy be restored. Szarka didn’t try again; he set up an office in a different building.

Students had role-played passive resistance the night before in case cops would try to drag them from the blockade; after all, police in riot gear had skirmished with demonstrators when thousands took to the streets to protest the crackdown against CEU in 2017. But the authorities didn’t send in any muscle that day, or ever. That had to be a measure, Szurdi ventures, of the favorable image the students had managed to project nationally. Unlike CEU, which had been painted as a foreign entity, the #FreeSZFE movement, Szurdi explains, “let Hungary see us for what we are: students who wanted to learn and were frustrated by unfair changes, smiling and singing” and not “whining like rebellious teenagers” as right-wing media would have it. What’s more, the students didn’t align themselves with any political faction nor invite any party representatives to speak at their events. While they framed their struggle within the wider attack on democratic safeguards—and the scapegoating of LGBTQ and Roma people—they showed themselves as independent thinkers, committed to their studies, serious about their rights, and unwilling to surrender the optimism, ardor, and downright joy befitting their youth. This wasn’t tactical “respectability politics,” but a vivid demonstration of how to advance a cause democratically, and without the vitriol, cynicism, and aggressiveness of the regime: a compelling alternative to authoritarian power in style as well as substance.

Addressing the public, after all, is part and parcel of what performing artists do. “We always have to think about how we can communicate our story,” says Antal, as if noting something as ordinary as breathing—and the movement found ways not just to present their struggle, but to involve fellow citizens in it. In addition to the students who staffed the building’s doors and admitted only those who were currently enrolled or employed there (and checked temperatures and mask compliance), the group also posted more symbolic sentries on the deep overhang above the entrance to the Ódry theater and scheduled leading members of the cultural and civic community to stand guard with them in half-hour shifts. Locals came by regularly just to see who had joined the defense—and, as Upor points out, to imbibe a heady dose of hope.

Civilians could participate in the group’s first major demonstration after beginning the occupation, as part of a chain stretching from the Ódry to the Parliament about four miles away; the route went along the Danube and passed by other privatized universities, whose own students joined in. From hand to hand, some five thousand human links (with thousands more walking alongside them) conveyed the faculty senate’s charter emphasizing “the separation of universities from political and economic power,” rolled up and tied with a ribbon of police tape.

To honor the faculty leadership when their month of post-resignation service was up—“that September was the longest five years of my life,” Upor notes dryly—the students staged a tribute on the Ódry balcony, inviting them to stand guard with torches as hundreds of students on the street below applauded, then stayed still, in silent salute, for thirty minutes. One torch ignited a small fire that remained on the balcony for a few days, and from it, five students lit new torches and set out running in different directions with copies of the university charter, passing them in Olympic relay style to colleagues from universities in five cities beyond Budapest; they covered a total of nearly seven hundred miles. When the students prepared a legal complaint contesting violations of academic freedom and autonomy stipulated in the Hungarian constitution, a woman dressed as Justice, in a white gown and a blindfold of police tape, delivered it in a ceremonious procession to the Constitutional Court.

Beyond the usual histrionics of protests, the major demonstrations of #FreeSZFE were dramaturgically shaped, taking participants through a carefully built narrative arc. Their grandest production was a mass event on October 23, the anniversary of the start to Hungary’s 1956 revolution against Soviet rule, which had, itself, been kicked off by university students. The demo, sixty-five years later, says Sándor, who directed it, “was something of a remake.” Sándor, who gives off a friendly tortured-artist vibe even via Zoom as he sucks skinny cigarettes and pulls at his watch cap, chuckles over the monumental form of the event: it’s the style favored by Vidnyánszky, he notes. While Vidnyánszky presents jingoistic historical dramas at the National Theater, the October 23 demo turned pageantry to dissenting ends, placing the SZFE students in the same trajectory as their freedom-defending great-grandparents, and interpellating all the participants into an alternative idea of patriotism. It was performative in the original sense of the term: the protesters enacted their vision by calling for “Free university! Free Hungary!” while marching through the streets, some thirty thousand strong.

Sándor planned for the crowd to walk the last five hundred yards of the route in silence, so they would come to the endpoint, a stage with a huge screen, in unified solemnity. As they arrived, symphonic music enveloped them: An orchestra—forty students from the Liszt Ferenc Music Academy livestreamed onto the screen from inside a nearby classroom—struck up the stately string opening of Beethoven’s “Egmont Overture,” the unofficial anthem of the 1956 revolution, broadcast repeatedly on radios in that period. It is known by Hungarians, says Al-Farman, as “the soundtrack of the fight for freedom.” The crowd stood in a rapt hush through the eight-minute piece, and with the accelerating notes of the blaring brass finale, burst into passionate applause.

Throughout the occupation, students kept their daily forums going, determining collectively not only how to respond to each logistical challenge the new administration put up, but also how to keep fighting for the underlying principles. With some bluster, Szarka cut off the internet in the Ódry building at one point, and several times, sought to declare the semester canceled because, he asserted, students weren’t doing their schoolwork. With six hours’ notice one day, he ordered the building evacuated, including the fifty or so students who lived in the upstairs dorms. While students stood their ground in every room, supporters massed in the streets outside the building; no one was evicted. In a court challenge, they at least won a stay, with the judge reasoning that there would be no way for students to get the class-time back should they prevail when the case would eventually be decided. So Orbán’s regime decreed that students have no standing to bring such legal complaints, and the new SZFE leadership declared the school closed, again. And again, tied up the students in time-consuming legal battles (which they fought with the help of pro bono attorneys.) Though the students eventually won a convoluted fight to have their fall credits counted, the court has yet to deliver a ruling on the closing of the semester.

In the immediate term, the matter became moot on November 11, when Hungary proclaimed a nation-wide COVID lockdown, and classes—and late-night forums—had to move on-line. No one wants to say that the health mandate provided a respectable out for an occupation that had no logical end; packing up with her comrades, says Szurdi, then age twenty-three, was the most miserable day of her, admittedly lucky, life. It was clear enough by that point that the students were not going to reverse the government’s expropriation of the SZFE and while they’d soon have a Christmas break, the question of what to do about the next semester now hung over them like a swelling cloud. Still, the activism had changed the students’ lives—and their art. “For the first time in my life and in my country, I felt powerful,” says Antal, “even when they were making laws against us and trying to assassinate our characters in the media. I could feel they were struggling. Society was united behind us and they couldn’t spin the story to their side.” As for his art, early in the occupation, Antal decided to change his thesis directing project from an adaptation of a Garcia Marquez novella to Ibsen’s 1882 social comedy, An Enemy of the People. “It is a horrible feeling when you are working in a rehearsal room and something more important is happening outside the walls,” Antal says, tugging at his goatee. “I wanted to work on material that was about the things I was thinking about as a citizen.”

As they rolled up their tents and blankets and stuffed toothbrushes and t-shirts into their knapsacks, the students issued a promise: “We are not giving up the blockade, we are taking it with us… And the blockade will last until the political repression ends.”

Then they headed down an astounding alternative path to victory, one their teachers had been quietly blazing throughout the fall.

III

All semester long, Kata Csató, the puppeteer, was on the phone almost daily with Christoph Lepschya Dramaturgy professor at Mozarteum University in Salzburg, and nearly as frequently with Elisabeth Schweeger, then the director of the Academy of Performing Arts Baden-Württemberg in Ludwigsburg, Germany (ADK). They were acquainted through an exchange platform called Europe: Union of Theater Schools and Academies (E-UTSA), which fosters visits between theater students from different European campuses. SZFE’s E-UTSA colleagues followed the seizure of their school with alarm and immediately signed onto statements of support. But that hardly felt adequate. Though the assault on academic freedom was extreme in Hungary, the threat pervades Europe, Lepschy notes, whether from far-right “authoritarian processes” or from mainstream “neoliberal developments,” and, he’s quick to add, “You understand this very, very well in America.” Institutions, he continues, citing Timothy Snyder’s recommendations in On Tyranny, have to be protected.

For months, Lepschy, Schweeger and other E-UTSA colleagues met with Csató and SZFE faculty in Budapest, Vienna, and endlessly in cyberspace to figure out how they could do so. Invoking the EU’s Lisbon Convention on the Recognition of Qualifications concerning Higher Education in the European Region—which requires that EU universities accept the academic accomplishments of students from other EU schools if they measure up to their own standards—they came up with a radical plan. Once it was fully hatched, and the Hungarian faculty knew it could protect the SZFE student protesters, they gave it wings.

At the start of 2021, Csató, Upor, and their colleagues announced the birth of the Freeszfe Society, a framework for sustaining—and advancing—the independence, creativity, and democratic process at the heart of their pedagogy for decades. A board of six—four faculty (with Csató as president) and two students—would see to its mundane functions while a democratic membership would develop programs and policies in the style of the occupation’s forums.

A few weeks later, in a stunning blow to the Orbanist leadership at the old SZFE, a majority of the full-time faculty— some thirty of the roughly fifty full-time professors—informed the authorities that they were not showing up for the new semester: They quit. And then 150 of about 250 students walked out, too.

The Freeszfe’s first crucial program was ready to embrace them. Called Emergency Exit—EmEx for short—it enabled those students to continue their studies and complete their degrees with one of five European partners. The defiantly creative core of the project is that the Budapest students keep working with their local classmates and professors but amass credits, take their exams, and celebrate their graduations at parallel programs in Austria, Germany, Poland or Switzerland. EmEx could have dispersed students to study abroad at their partner schools, but, says Upor, the sense of community was one of the strongest aspects of SZFE, and they wanted to stick together, especially after the upheaval they’d been through.

Students and faculty alike experienced a collective adrenaline crash in the spring of 2021, compounding their share of universal COVID-dread. But they carried on with the many legalistic and administrative tasks required to make Freeszfe happen—the sorts of unflashy sitting-at-a-computer activities that don’t draw the attention the blockaders could attract for their high-production protests. A flurry of problem-solving—how to plug students in SZFE’s combined, five-year BA-plus-MA format, into the partner schools that work differently; what languages exams and theses should be in; how to fund student travel for graduation ceremonies—went on quietly. “We held classes today. Not exactly a news story,” notes Upor.

But under the circumstances, that effort is as staggering as 100 students holding down their school for seventy-one days. The Freeszfe teachers, who were now giving seminars on translation or the history of Hungarian theater or opera analysis or acting technique, as well as advising end-of-term projects, were no longer earning a salary, or even a minimum wage. They were working for free, while the Society was scraping up some funds for space and equipment rentals from a Patreon account, some grants, and fees for a few continuing education courses—five of them, with a total of fifty-one students enrolled. The classes meet in rooms offered by a local cultural center and—sweet irony—in the vacated building belonging to the Central European University, which also offered dormitory places to about sixty EmEx students.

The old SZFE tried to thwart the new venture. First, they attempted to sue Freeszfe over name infringement—and were laughed out of even an Orbán-regime court. Then they sent cease-and-desist letters to the European partner universities, which calmly replied by citing the program’s accordance with European law. They shut down the Ódry theater, not only the nerve center of the occupation, but also a long-standing venue for young theater-makers. (Students staged a funeral for it.) A Hungarian representative to the European Parliament—a Fidesz member—complained of unfairness when that body announced it would be awarding its estimable annual Citizens Prize to Emergency Exit. Then, even as the Orbán-regime poured money into the old SZFE—doubling its budget—in September 2021, another seventy-one students decamped for Freeszfe.

October 2021 saw the first heady graduation ceremonies for EmEx students, those who had been in their final year at SZFE during the occupation. With some travel funding from the Goethe-Institut, nearly fifty students took a weeklong bus trip to Germany and Austria—eight to receive diplomas in Dramaturgy in Ludwigsburg and ten in Acting in Salzburg, the rest to cheer them on. Traveling with them on the eight-hour drive, Csató was astonished by their muted intensity as they reflected on the tumultuous year they’d been through—“too much for young people,” she says. It was emotional for faculty, too. Directing professor László Bagossy, had to repeatedly rehearse his speech about how the European partners used exactly what SZFE had lost—their autonomy—to make EmEx happen, not so much because he would be delivering it in German, but because he needed to “practice not to weep on stage.” In her opening address, Elisabeth Schweeger described the solidarity of ADK and the other partners: the “only legitimate use of privilege is to use that power to work for equality.” A graduating student spoke for his cohort, explaining that the eight of them had written their speech collectively, exquisite corpse style. A better name for a diploma, he said, would be ‘synergy,’ “from the Greek word syn—together—and ergon – work,” because it better describes the experience of the students and professors and now, too, ADK. German students celebrated their Hungarian counterparts with song.

For his part, Upor, less than 14 months after he had dolefully announced the SZFE leadership’s resignation in Budapest, stood on-stage at ADK in a dark blazer with a Freeszfe button on his lapel, and delivered a speech of jubilant incredulity. The Dramaturgy graduates, he gushed, wrote brilliant analytical theses that showed “we have not forgotten that we have the possibility to transform society through art.” Not in a crude, didactic way, but with open-ended inquiry and aesthetic invention.

IV

That was evident this past May, when Freeszfe presented “Art is Free,” an ambitious six-day festival that featured screenings of work by and discussions with independent filmmakers, and roundtable discussions and expert lectures on themes like labor unions, gender-based violence, and the invasion of Ukraine. Most important, it showcased the work of EmEx pupils. The fourteen films by student filmmakers, cinematographers, and television producers ranged from the story of a drag queen to a dystopian fantasy of a world without snow. Theater productions included adaptations of Prometheus Bound, Orwell’s 1984, and S. An-ski’s The Dybbuk—and a pared-down, participatory version of Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle, a play that considers the nature of responsibility and asks whether things (and children) should remain under the charge of those who best care for them. Petra Al-Farman presented a plaintive documentary piece, Torokolat (Estuary) in collaboration with an eight-person improvisational choir called Soharóza; based on interviews with parents and would-be parents, it explored the whiplash of emotions of wanting to have children while also not wanting to participate in the state’s aggressive insistence that Hungarians reproduce and that women take up their “natural” role. Al-Farman staged Torkolat in an old bathhouse, where the singing – shifting among pleasant harmonies, modal monophonics akin to Gregorian chant, and guttural grunts and high-pitched howls—echoed with haunting overtones.

One day of the May festival was dedicated to an open house about Freeszfe’s upcoming continuing education programs. While the Society can’t offer degrees because Freeszfe remains unaccredited—as they are likely to forever, since being recognized as an up-to-snuff graduate school would make them eligible for state funding—Freeszfe is offering the most innovative courses in the field anywhere in Hungary, and likely far beyond. Csató, for instance, teaches a class in using objects for abstract thinking; the entire May festival was curated and produced by the current Freeszfe class in arts management and communications.

 In addition to seeing Freeszfe continue such classes, members—as they expressed in a May assembly of more than 200 people—also want the Society to continue supporting film and theater productions by EmEx students and alums and, eventually, to serve as a wider incubator for young artists. That’s needed, they say, especially as the Ódry was closed and independent spaces are overstretched and underfunded—and as Freeszfe students worry that they might be black-balled in more mainstream sectors of their industry.

As daunting as these projects are for a day-to-day team of six people with a meager budget, no campus, and seat-of-the-pants infrastructure, Freeszfe is pursuing an even bolder vision. In the onslaught of the 2020-2021 schoolyear, Bagossy recalls, the faculty leaders had one essential goal: “protecting our graduating students. It was a short-term plan.” But as they forged productive collaborations and made space for expanding and reinventing curriculum, even as the April election squeezed more oxygen out of their atmosphere, they came to realize—with astonishing optimism and enterprise—that “we have to think about the future. The long-term future.”

In another year or so, all the EmEx students will have earned their degrees, but that won’t be the end of Freeszfe’s alliance with their European partners. They are now laboring to create a non-national academy—a film and theater graduate school that would belong to no single EU country but involve many. Cohorts of international students would move as a group to study together in various places—a quarter of a semester at the great puppetry department in Bialystok, say, then the sound design program in Copenhagen, or the translation course in Budapest. The EmEx faculty are awaiting word on whether they’ll receive a two-year planning grant from the Erasmus foundation for this shrewd concept—two years during which they’d discuss not just the labyrinthine logistics it would require, but also topics like “nonviolent communication in art production” and “art and activism.” “We have to face it,” says Csató, whose typically low-key register rachets up in volume and speed as she emphasizes the point. “Europe, and especially Central Europe, have had the same systems and methodologies for so long. In some ways they are helpful, in others too closed. We are the ones who can open them. And this is why we will win.” She pauses, folds her black-nail-polished hands, and gazes up, as if into the future. “I’m really curious to see how far we can go.”

Some encouraging hints emerged from a four-week project in Salzburg in July that involved about twenty-five students from Freeszfe and Mozarteum and opened new vistas for participants. (It was cut short by a week when half the group came down with COVID; they hope to re-convene in February.) Bálint Antal, for one, was pushed to think with more complexity about the appeal of populist leaders—and how to represent them on stage—as he worked with peers from Germany, Austria, and Ukraine on a text about authoritarian plutocracy by Elfriede Jelinek, the postdramatic, Nobel Prize-winning Austrian playwright. The half-dozen Ukrainian artists were recent additions to the project, having come from embattled Kharkiv and Kyiv to continue their studies at the Mozarteum, thanks to the framework the Freeszfe’s Emergency Exit program had established. “We were escaping from a culture war,” says Antal with equal measures of pride and amazement, “and now, the system created as we were fighting for ourselves could be used for others facing an actual war.”

Meanwhile, Orbán’s assault on Hungary’s independent theaters escalated again. Just as Antal was arriving in Salzburg, several theaters announced drastic measures as funding was choked off: The Atrium Theater, for instance (artistic home of Róbert Alföldi), was closing because promised state subsidies for 2022 had not arrived and what critic Tamás Jászay calls “the flagship of Hungarian independent theaters,” Béla Pintér and Company, jacked up ticket prices and moved to a larger venue in a desperate attempt to try to make up for shortfall. The government announced a freeze in cultural funding (among other ministries). For Antal, the Jelinek text seemed ever more apt.

The play, Am Königsweg (On the Royal Road), associatively depicts the rise of a coarse, self-promoting grifter. Referring to the Bible, Sophocles, Shakespeare, Grand Guignol, the Twitterverse, and then some, it’s arrayed on the page mostly as a beguiling stream of verbiage, so it serves well as “a point of departure,” says Lepschy, one of the workshop teachers. Participants brought additional material to incorporate. Antal created a scene based on the Hungarian legend of the coronation of Matthias Corvinus, the folk hero on the country’s 1000-forint note, to explore state media and election campaigns that produce, he says, “so much noise you can’t know what is true and what is not.” The Ukrainian actors in his scene challenged one of its premises: Why, they wanted to know, was the public falling for the false promises of a despotic leader and cheering him on instead of fighting back? Could Antal generalize based on the Hungarian majority’s embrace of Orbán in a way that made sense for them?

And what about for us?

An unsettling allegory of the crisis of democracy as hypercapitalism spawns right-wing populism, the play has—at least in German—a punning subtitle: “The Burgher King.” Jelinek has made no secret of who inspired this image of a fast-food-guzzling, narcissistic, gold-grubbing autocrat, though he is never named in the play: Donald Trump.

[Alisa Solomon is a professor at the Columbia Journalism School, where she directs the arts and culture concentration master’s program. Her books include Re-Dressing the Canon: Essays on Theater and Gender (1997) and Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof (2013). As dramaturg, she most recently has been working with Anna Deavere Smith on her Pipeline Project and on the play Love All.]

Thanks to the author for sending this article to Portside.