The interesting thing about me is that I’m not interesting at all,” smiled Krisztina Peremartoni as she handed out a card reading, “Hey Actor! Shouldn’t you be acting?” for her Open Acting classes, held in a studio in Oakland.
How she finds herself living in Berkeley after a quarter century on the stages of Budapest and around Europe as female principal for the Hungarian National Theatre is, however, very interesting, indeed.
After growing up in Vestrem, near Hungary’s Lake Balaton, Peremartoni was accepted at 18 to the Theatre Conservatory. After no particular acting experience (“In Hungary, we’re big in reciting poems, not performing plays in school”), she found herself on stage every night after her second year at the Conservatory. “One of the big theaters takes you—big theater, not a studio theater—and you play six shows a weekend. By the time I was 20, I already had 500 performances to my credit.”
Her training was heavily influenced by Russian theater. “Because they were occupying us, their theater culture had a big influence.” Like the Moscow Art Theatre, to which Peremartoni would later have a scholarship, the classes “were very professional; just the number of different classes in movement: acrobatics, jazz dance, ballet, modern dance, stage movement, horse riding, shooting—that’s just a few! It’s unbelievable how rich our education as actors was. And there was only one school, no private ones. If you weren’t accepted, you’d never be an actor.”
After four years’ training, she was hired by the prestigious Vig Theatre. “It was a big thing, very hard to get in.” Her first role was a kind of success of scandal: “We performed [polish playwright] Gombrowicz’s Operette, and I played the lead role—completely naked. That was unheard of at that time. It was unavoidable, as I represented Freedom, and had to be naked the whole time. The Communist Party didn’t like it, and sent a delegation to check out whether I was really naked or not, so we had to fake it, put leaves on my breasts, things like that ... It was a big scandal. I was the first Communist naked actress! It was really hard on me.”
Commenting on the social role of theater in those years, Peremartoni said, “Theater always in a hidden way went against the Party. It was always political. When we were ready to do a performance, the Party would send a few people to watch, and say, You cannot say this, say that ... They’d censor the whole play! Our duty was to find a way to deliver the message to the audience and trick the Party so they couldn’t see it. That was our political mission in society—and why, when Communism was over, we didn’t know what to do. There was nobody to go against. Everything became pointless, meaningless, aimless ... A big crisis: we didn’t know who the enemy was, anymore.”
But theater culture was “a lifestyle ... every theater has a club, where they’d cook for you—and the tabs would run forever! We’d stay together, late nights after a performance, talking about the show, how to do better ...”
After five years with the Vig, Peremartoni was hired by the National Theatre. The repertory was “32 different plays on the program in one month—that’s a lot! With one big theater and two studio theaters ...” The National played “the classical authors, always, older and modern—Moliere, Schiller, Brecht ... of course Shakespeare, Chekhov, Dostoyevsky, Tennessee Williams, Eugene O’Neill, Arthur Miller ... not much in experimental theater touched the National. Influenced by Jerzy Grotowski and Tadeucz Kantor, some small theaters did experimental plays, and I performed in a few—but I don’t think what I did was very good.”
Peremartoni performed in film and TV movies—“every year, at least four lead roles”—but never liked film work. “It’s kind of abstract, not natural. It’s no fun, and you have no idea, no control, over the outcome. I’d think I had a good director, then see later the movie was bad—and the opposite. There is no such thing as film acting, just acting! I tell my students that theater is king.”
Asked why she retired after 25 years at the top of her profession, Peremartoni said, “It was a very intense, full-time job, both at home and touring the big cities of Europe. I always had big dramatic roles, and didn’t want to carry the burden of tragedy anymore. I killed everybody I possibly could, and everybody killed me! I killed my children and they killed me. I had so many husbands, I couldn’t handle one more—and I cheated on everybody. I died of every imaginable sickness; in my last play, I had AIDS—then I moved to San Francisco! Now I just want to have a glass of wine in Berkeley and talk.”
Peremartoni moved to the Bay Area in 2000 “because I fell in love with an American man.” After a year, she “somehow ended up” cast in a Traveling Jewish Theatre production, and was offered every role she auditioned for—but “I wasn’t thinking in English; to act in a language not your own is extremely difficult. If I was 18 when I came, maybe ... But I heard myself speaking lines from Chekhov in English, hearing from the outside, and it killed it.”
In 2001 she started teaching in San Francisco, classes she now holds in Oakland in Jeffrey Bihr’s studio on Miles Street. Though trained in Stanislavskian style, she is put off by American “Method” acting and its teaching styles. “It’s not acting, it’s psychotherapy. I never heard of a method before; you either act or not—and learn through acting.”
Commenting that American acting students are too academic, she said, “I get them directly into the emotion. They’re too much in their head, and acting’s from the instincts, from the gut. I want to get them out of their head—I can’t fuck [with] them there!”
She went on: “Theater is going into the core emotion. An emphatic relationship. It’s about listening, about hearing the other person. Not about standing in your own bubble, not connecting.”
Peremartoni strives to keep long-term students. “You can only really grow in a group situation with the same people and constant feedback.” She’s interested in teaching “what kind of roles a person can attract. I first was cast as an ingenue; I wanted to change, and had to learn how to make people cast me for the opposite role ... Theater’s about conflict; there’s always the opposite.”
After living five years in Berkeley, she says, “I think it’s the best place on the planet to live, for a free spirit, who likes freedom and acceptance.”
Krisztina Peremartoni can be reached through her website, www.openacting.com, or at (415) 793-7783.