The name “Krétakör” meant a theatre company for decades, in the past few years, however, the Krétakör Foundation has shifted the focus of its activity to standing for crucial social issues and to support the work of other civil organisations. Why is it unwise to help in silence, and why does the government denounce any criticism voiced by non-governmental organisations (NGOs) as provocation? How long do dialogues make sense, and which is the point when there is nothing left but silence? These were the central questions of our conversation with Dóra Papp, the managing director of the Foundation and Árpád Schilling, the founder of Krétakör.

– Although many people still associate theatre with the name “Krétakör”, the Krétakör Foundation, currently managed by Dóra Papp, has been working as a workshop concentrating on social issues since 2008. What does this change precisely involve, and why did you judge it necessary?

Árpád Schilling: Our work still consists of cultural activities, just not in the artistic but rather in the social sense of the word.

As a theatre company we have reached the top, but the essence of Krétakör is innovation, constant development and renewal. These days, the challenge we set ourselves is no longer the highest possible aesthetic quality but social utility.

Dóra Papp: In course of the past period Krétakör has accumulated an enormous amount of knowledge regarding crisis management, guerrilla campaigns and communication, and now we can use all that expertise to promote the work of organizations that are doing their own job properly but may not have enough energy left to communicate their results to the media and the society. At the moment our focus is to stand up for several major causes and to assist in accomplishing them. An example for that was what the campaign last September under the title See the Man (Lásd meg az embert) expressed. It suggested that the recent wave of migration opens up a series of further questions. Questions like what we see in a refugee, how much we are able to take solidarity with others or to engage in a dialogue with someone holding different views – which are all cultural questions as well.

– Would you pick a few examples from the Krétakör projects in plan for the near future?

Dóra Papp: We wish to thematise the subject of activism in Hungary again. Besides we will also address certain issues of habitation and education. We support political and expert organizations specialised in certain fields just like others who offer direct help. The point in each case is to reach a wider audience. Since last October we have been inviting people with an almost monthly regularity to the series called Krétakör Big Screen (Krétakör Nagyvászon), where we watch films addressing crucial social issues and also organise discussions related to their subjects. Finally, the 4th year in Krétakör Free School will continue educating young people primarily in order to improve their democratic skills.

– Why do you consider an issued based mode of operation and the support for the work of other organizations or informal networks so important?

Árpád Schilling: An issue based mode of operation means that we recognise the connections between various social issues. If we really want to find a solution for a problem, we also need to perceive its complexity: its sensitive aspects and the interests and values involved in it. Our aim is not to build the Foundation’s brand with the aid of these projects. We rather identify and enhance synergies by assisting and developing networks. For Krétakör, professional and human solidarity is one of the top priorities, in addition to innovation. There are plenty of civil organizations that do an excellent job, but after completing their work day by day, they simply have no energy left to contact other groups active in similar fields, with whom they could exchange experiences, or to communicate their results to the public. Now Krétakör can help them in this respect.

It is a significant challenge in Hungary that not only the final recipients of help need support but also those who would be ready to assist them, but they need help themselves first to get into an appropriate position where they can do their job. Because of that situation, it can be a motivating example if a well-known foundation like Krétakör says that it matters to us if we can help the work of other NGOs and make them visible.

– It is a central point in the government’s communication against civil society that organizations like Krétakör aim not so much to help as to provoke.

Árpád Schilling: Thinking of organizations dealing with social issues, most people associate Saint Francis. This concept is based on someone altruistically offering help to individuals marginalised by the majority of society for various reasons, who happily go on and bear their suffering merely because they have been given a drink and a bit of food. Gentle charity has its own functions but we are interested in solving problems. We see it clearly that many social issues could be resolved or at least relieved by appropriate political or professional attitudes. For example, as long as we are reluctant to understand what reproduces the phenomenon of homelessness, we will not be able to do anything to cease it. We do not wish to deal with the symptoms, we want to make problems visible within their own contexts.

We are working on encouraging more and more people to realise how mistaken the former approach is. A civil organisation does not simply have the task to help all the homeless people or all the refugees in silence, just like a fairy godmother, but to generate changes in the system with the aid of the experiences accumulated during its work. Most of the Hungarian citizens have been raised in a way that makes them judge any voice critical of the system as rebellious, even when it is based on experiences and professional reasoning.

Dóra Papp: To make change, it is absolutely necessary to be critical of the system. This is the reason why civil organizations are targeted by the government: because they point out problems and call for change. If we as an NGO painted dilapidated benches anew surreptitiously in the dark of the night, we could make fifty people very glad when the following day they take their seats on them. It would be a nice gesture but that way we could never achieve a change on the level of the system, for the next day another five benches would be damaged and at night we should start the work all over again. On the other hand, if I as an activist repaint the dilapidated benches and at the same time call public attention to the fact that this should have been done by the local government, then next time the local government may spend taxpayers’ money on doing its job in service of the public.

Our work makes sense only if we can demonstrate best practices and call attention to mistakes on a system level. In today’s Hungary decision makers want to see people who are unable to think or act independently, in other words, who are dependant on the current leaders of the system everywhere, from the field of education to social care for homeless people. Political power’s interest always lies in passive citizens unable to access information, for it is much easier to keep them under control. Therefore those in power will not provide others with the means of breaking free but will keep them within the closed system. For instance homeless people are provided for only as long as they live at the shelter. However, the moment they would like to start an independent life, they do not get any support from the state.

Another example could be the case of Roma youth who can leave school at the age of sixteen and join the public work program, which is just a way of reproducing poverty in ab ovo disadvantaged small villages. These young people should be motivated to make independent decisions and take responsibility for their own fate. That would be the task of the state but now it needs to be performed by civil activists.

– Recently the political environment permanently forces civil organizations to take a stand against something. How much harm do you think this process does?

Árpád Schilling: A lot. It would be far more effective and joyful to communicate positive ideas reaffirming each other. But as responsible people we cannot leave the government’s explicit lies unanswered. Thus we are constantly compelled to work in opposition. We need to clear away the garbage produced by the government and, simultaneously, to do the actual, useful work. This means a double amount of labour, which is neither efficient enough nor pleasant at all. We must embody the icon of the self-conscious, independent citizen and we must build a society which we think to be liveable and meaningful with an unceasing faith. The current policy of the Hungarian government supports only servilism, which has a tradition of many centuries; that is why it is so difficult to get rid of it.

Dóra Papp: I think it is important to add that in case of Krétakör, for example in the Free School, we try to associate a positive image of the future with learning democracy. Also at the time of the referendum we did not talk about what people should vote for or against. Instead, we declared that we would prefer a humane Hungary. Politics is about the number of ballots, whereas the work of civil organizations is about people. In an ideal environment we would not need to voice what we fight against, we would rather speak about the causes we stand for together.

– Where do you think the limits are to convincing each other and entering dialogues in the present political environment highly permeated by emotions?

Árpád Schilling: I often get comments on my own facebook page asking me why I do not leave this country if I feel like shit here.

Being an activist involves for me that I reflect on every human utterance, and I am interested in the opinions of those who do not agree with me. Sometimes I try to convince them, other times they persuade me to be more critical of my own views. And I never ban anyone from my page unless they call me a rat to be extinguished.

– The near past as well as the future plans of Krétakör suggest a direction of activism in support of major causes in the society. What does it mean for you to be activists in today’s Hungary?

Dóra Papp:  I think everybody is an activist, just some people are not aware of it yet. At some point in their lives anyone might find themselves in a situation that is so personal and pressing that it makes one feel they must stand up for a cause. The feeling of being involved is really a requirement for activism. It means that once you have been treated unjustly you do not let it happen again to others. For me this is the point in educating society for social awareness, democratic thinking, and standing up for important social issues. In my personal life it was a case related to habitation crisis when I first experienced that standing up for others might produce tangible results. It happened in 2012, when the local government in Zugló demolished, without authorization, the hut of homeless people, and my photos taken at the site were among the decisive evidences in course of the trial at court.

Árpád Schilling:  The communication represented by Viktor Orbán since 2002 renders constructive dialogue impossible. If it makes me a traitor to my homeland in the eyes of several million people that I disagree with the policy of the Fidesz, then I will need to think twice before I open my mouth. There was the case of the parish priest in Körmend, who invited in some refugees, which is an excellent example demonstrating how someone doing his job conscientiously and practising his faith becomes an enemy of the regime. I think that it must be considered a sin that social causes have been turned into political issues to such an extent and on such a level. Orbán and his companions are generating a space of communication in which benevolence looks suspicious. Moreover, as many people have felt the negative effects of being stigmatised, most of our society choose to keep silent. We do not know how many people live in such suffocating isolation but we know that Hungarian people have dire memories of being mute accomplices. This is why we always speak about the necessity to change cultural attitudes. We simply need to face our own national character, which is, unfortunately, not a pleasant experience.

– The most radical methods to silence civil organizations critical of the current power might be the means applied in Putin’s Russia. How do you see that: how long does it make sense to fight against the government like a Don Quixote?

Dóra Papp: I would prefer to turn this question upside down. We are permanently learning and teaching. This is not something that has been like that only for eight years. Civil organizations have existed in this country for almost thirty years. Undoubtedly, the democratic system upon which the “imported” knowledge of these organizations was built, has not stabilised and no longer exists in Hungary. But just as we learnt the process of learning democracy from some Western countries, our experiences accumulated in the past few years about increasing populism and the transformation of democracy into autocracy can now serve as a useful basis for transferring knowledge back to them.

Árpád Schilling: It is a schizophrenic state of mind. If I think of my children, I would like to rescue them. On the other hand, I feel that the current state of affairs rather infuriates me and strengthens my sense of responsibility and my desire to fight. Obviously, the present hostile environment hinders the operation of the Foundation in many respects. It has happened that certain institutions did not dare to cooperate with us because of the political assaults against Krétakör. At the same time, this situation also motivates us in some sense. The real test for genuine civil courage is an unfavourable environment. It would be a shame to give it up.

Interview: Veronika Szandtner 

Photography:  Zsófia Börcsök