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Is Athens ready for take-off?

“Can Athens become Europe’s new arts capital?” wonders the BBC in a recent article on the documenta14 in Athens. A “poor yet sexy city”, according to the correspondent who reported on the creative enthusiasm currently prevailing in the city.

This is only one of the several articles pointing out that despite the deep economic crisis the artistic production in Greece has increased. Especially with respect to theatre, everyone seems to take part in it, either as a creator or as member of the audience. The numbers are revealing; there have been more than 800 premieres since the beginning of the season in October. Besides, during 2016 there were 1,490 performances in the 308 officially registered theatres.

© Irina Klyuev

But before we rush into referring to a reinvention of Athens, we ought to consider the conditions on which such a theatrical plethora appears. Because above all rises the issue of survival, as Irene Mountraki, dramaturg and head of international relations at the National Theatre of Greece, accurately commented in her article published a year ago under the title “Can Greece, home of drama, survive a state of emergency?”

It seems like a tragic irony. Yet the theatrical explosion has occurred with zero state support. Grants have been frozen since 2012 and it was not until March when the new Minister of Culture, Lydia Koniordou, one of the most prominent Greek actresses, announced their reinstatement in the forthcoming theatrical season.

In most cases actors work without contracts; they are not paid for the rehearsals (unless they work for State Theatres or some serious private companies), and often there is no prearranged payment for them besides the commission from the box-office. It is not rare at all for young actors to accept to perform for free, in the hopes of better working conditions in the future. Quite often there is a contribution box instead of tickets, and the money collected is split every night among the participants. Hardship does not discourage the Greek actors with a sweeping 95% unemployment rate, and they often have to do two or three (non-)theatre related jobs in order to make ends meet. There is a lot of flexibility—as long as they can find a way to make theatre.

All Athens is a stage

Due to the freezing of grants, many theatres have been closed. Where there used to be theatre Amore, a point of reference in the most productive theatrical life of the 90s, now stands a supermarket. Not to mention historical Amphi-theatro in Plaka, which is now a souvenir shop.

The need for expression though is huge and the Greek artist becomes a resourceful Ulysses coming up with inventive solutions. Thus, beside the properly equipped regular theatres, appear several other venues which either serve the needs of the performance or serve as a last resort. Over the past years we have watched performances in all kinds of warehouses and former industrial buildings; in bars and traditional coffee shops; in museums, galleries, even old byzantine churches; theatre in bedsits and apartments; in old patios of the city; in the public slaughterhouses; in old wagons and even in moving vehicles. We have even watched a performance in the bathrooms of the Bios multi-purpose venue.

It is significant that many stages on the theatrical map of the city have been named after the function the buildings originally served: Vyrsodepseio (tannery), Synergyo (garage), Fournos (bakery), to mention but a few.

Another current trend are the walking performances, which invite the audience to become familiar with unknown aspects of the city. So you could say that “all Athens is a stage”, paraphrasing Shakespeare’s famous quote.

There is something very attractive in all this; however, there are problems too. How many of these places are appropriate for the specific use? A few years ago the Municipality of Athens attempted to check whether safety protocols are followed, enforcing an antiquated law which could hardly be applied nowadays. The attempt came to nothing.

Festivals within and outside

It is also due to the state’s indifference that the 16 municipality regional theatres cannot function properly and gradually vegetate. This is why when we refer to the contemporary Greek theatrical production, we mainly focus on Athens.

In Thesaloniki there is even more limited potential, since apart from the National Theatre of Northern Greece there are 20 more stages which mainly put on productions from Athens.

The various festivals, which are radically increasing all over Greece, are quite in the same condition. They mainly take place during the summer months, they all share the same programme with a few alterations. One of the most brilliant exceptions is the Philippi Festival in Kavala and Thasos, which selects a specific topic every year and orders new plays based on it.

Nevertheless, when we discuss performing art festivals in Greece, we automatically think about one of the most ancient ones in Europe, the Greek festival, known as Athens & Epidaurus Festival, which during the period 2005–2015 and under the leadership of Yorgos Loukos, clearly succeeded in renewing the scene; there was both an opening to non-Greek productions and a boost to important local voices. This task seems to have been successfully undertaken by the current artistic director of the festival, Vangelis Theodoropoulos, who last year initiated a series of fruitful conversations over the kind of festival we would like to have.

A question that had already been answered over the previous years by innovative choices, such as Beckett’s “Happy Days” with Fiona Shaw in the Ancient Theatre of Epidaurus, which usually hosts Ancient drama performances. Several conservative voices considered this choice to be incompatible with this ancient theatre. It was a big success, though. And so was the presence of Pina Bausch, Thomas Ostermaier, Kevin Spacy and even the Noh Theatre from Japan.

Innovation and conservatism: two opposite forces

Indeed not only a few times have the conservative voices in Greece frustrated creative enthusiasm. Last year, Stathis Livathinos, the current artistic director of the National Theatre who keeps active international contacts such as with the Vakhtangov, had to cancel the performance of the Nash Equilibrium both due to political and social reactions, as the play included excerpts from a terrorist’s book. In the case of the Corpus Christi performance in Chytirio, the performance was reproached for religious reasons. While in the famous case of Jan Fabre’s startling resignation from the leadership of the Athens Festival, it was the artists themselves who objected to a Belgium oriented programme.

The Greek Theatre seems to be fighting two opposite forces. All these cases are very significant yet they coexist in the general context of renewal that had been prevailing in the past few years, since Yorgos Loukos’s decade of running the festival coincided with Yannis Houvardas’s leadership of the National Theatre (2007-2013). Houvardas was also a director who showed great interest in international productions, with its high being the Odyssey directed by Bob Wilson, in a co-production with the Piccolo Teatro.

Moreover, in 2010 a new powerful player joined the field and advanced became a catalyst for the whole Greek theatre scene. The Onassis Cultural Centre (Stegi) invites famous artists to Greece, while at the same time it finances Greek theatre tours abroad.

Over the past few years, this private organisation has been the only one to make an important effort to promote the contemporary Greek civilization abroad, especially in the field of performing arts, which normally ought to be carried out by the state. As a result, the work of the experimental Blitz company or the very young Dimitris Karantzas, has travelled and participated in important festivals and theatres of the world.

Exclusively based on his own powers, Thodoros Terzopoulos, the only truly international Greek director, has worked hard during the past thirty years to finally become internationally acclaimed, and has increased the fame of both his method and his theatre, Attis.

In search of a cultural policy

As mentioned earlier, the lack of cultural policy is tangible not only with respect to the promotion of the Greek artistic product abroad, but also with respect to national policy as such, as in the case of the grants. However we can also see it elsewhere; in the field of education.

there is not even a stage directing school in Greece. Nevertheless, there are 26 recognised drama schools (two of which are national) offering a four-year programme; 24 in Athens, four in Thessaloniki and one in Patras. Every year dozens of young actors graduate from these schools and enter this open job market, trying to find an outlet for their creativity.

This uncontrollable desire to create is definitely quite impressive, but it also entails some major risks. The improvisational and spontaneous way in which things usually happen often lowers the standards; only few out of the 1,500 performances of the season stand out. Very often poorly prepared performances are presented as avant-garde works, or bad imitations of foreign performances lead to disappointing results. It rarely reaches the poetic depth anymore that could be found in performances by artists, such as Lefteris Vogiatzis, one of the most influential directors of the modern Greek theatre world, who died four years ago.

In conclusion, the prevailing creative enthusiasm provides the ideal conditions for something very fresh and interesting to emerge. , in the context of the financial crisis, the wind blows fair for the Greek theatre. Yet, the take-off cannot succeed if the plain is not on the runway and doesn’t get support from a control tower—in other words, theatre cannot thrive in the absence of national cultural policy.


Published on 15 June 2017 (Article originally written in Greek)