After the financial crisis in Greece, how is its theatre scene surviving? Continuing our Culture after Brexit series, Lyn Gardner visits Athens and meets some of its most active makers and directors
“Culture has always been crisis in Greece”
Clean City explores the lives of cleaning staff across generations of immigrants in Athens, and asks hard questions of its audience. Photo: Christina Georgiadou
The ballroom may be in ruins but the three couples in Blitz Theatre Group’s Late Night can’t stop dancing. A TV flickers at the edge of the dance floor, the dancers must be nimble to avoid the rubble, and the news coming in from Novi Sad to London and from Berlin to Paris is catastrophic. Zurich has fallen; Warsaw is ablaze, other cities are razed. Yet still the dancers keep dancing and performing bad conjuring tricks and even worse cartwheels, as if only by performing will they keep the truth at bay. They are not waving but clowning.
I saw Late Night at LIFT (London International Festival of Theatre) back in 2016. Its dreamy sense of a Europe weighed down by history and teetering on the brink of collapse has haunted me since, not least because I saw it just days before the vote in which the people of the UK narrowly voted to leave the EU.
Two years on, festivals and venues still can’t get enough of this contemporary theatre piece made by Blitz, a collective of Greek theatremakers, and produced by Onassis Stegi. Perhaps, significantly, because it doesn’t just reflect Greece’s own financial crisis. It speaks as part of a much wider conversation about how Europe sees itself and how it is changing in the face of the rise of populism, the ongoing refugee crisis and terrorist attacks.
"It was a show created very instinctively, reflecting how we felt," explains one of its creators, Angeliki Papoulia, on the phone to me from Portugal where the show is being performed. The show’s success has helped the company make new work, including The Institute of Global Loneliness which has also toured in Europe. But Papoulia doesn’t think things are getting any easier for Greek theatremakers.
"We have always been alone, even before the crisis. Culture has always been in crisis in Greece, particularly if you want to make contemporary theatre, because there is so much emphasis on the past. You never think as a Greek artist that anyone will help you. You know that you will have to do everything yourself and that makes you strong and resilient, but it is also exhausting."
"We have always been alone, even before the crisis"
"The crisis connected us to each other," says Argyro Chioti of the Vasistas Theatre Group. The company, originally founded in 2005 in France as a collaboration between artists from several countries, is now based in Athens. "The crisis presented a difficulty but also a freedom. When the problem of how you will survive is the same for everyone and salaries have gone down in every job, then why not make theatre?"
But like Papoulia, Chioti says it is hard to survive. She is wry about the way the outside world views contemporary Greek theatre and how the programmers of international festivals shift their gaze as fashions change. Blitz’s extensive touring is the exception rather than the rule when it comes to Greek theatre.
"For a short time, the crisis gave us the opportunity to show work abroad. Before the crisis nobody was interested in what was happening in Athens and the theatre we were making. Suddenly we were hot in the marketplace and we started to travel," says Chioti. "It was vital because international touring paid us, and it made us connect with other artists in other countries. But the programmers and the festivals have moved on. We are no longer quite so interesting. It is work from Syrian artists that they want now."
That rings horribly true, and Ash Bulayev, Director of Artistic Research at Onassis Culture, has no time for the "romanticising by international programmers about the benefit of the crisis on the performance and artistic ecosystem in Greece. It is quite simple, it is very hard to sustain making performance over any period of time if there is no funding and no support. There is widespread artist fatigue."
But it hasn’t stopped the Greeks making theatre. The sense that there is nothing left to lose, so why not make theatre, is strong. Athens last year saw over 1,600 performances from many different companies and groups. On the surface, theatre in Athens looks buoyant. This is despite the fact that between 2012 and 2017 there was no subsidy for anyone except the National Theatre of Greece – which supports five stages on €6m a year, half of what it previously received.
"The programmers and the festivals have moved on. We are no longer quite so interesting"
Late Night, a Blitz Theatre Group production presented at the Barbican as part of LIFT 2016. Blitz has toured Europe extensively, but is concerned that Greek theatremakers are often isolated and without support. Photo: Vassilis Makris
But if the London fringe is often seen as built on the self-exploitation of young artists, then Athens’s theatre scene only survives because people make theatre on box office splits without being paid and because their artistic endeavour is supported by other jobs.
Tsinikoris was born in Wuppertal in Germany, the child of Greek immigrants and returned to Greece to study in 1999. He says that audiences want the escape that theatre can offer from their daily lives. But he thinks this creates a tension. On one hand, you want to stage a show that allows the artists and venue to sell enough tickets to at least cover the costs and hopefully make some money. On the other hand, you want to make work which holds a mirror up to society.
Tsinikoris and Azas's Clean City is a piece of documentary theatre inspired by the work of Rimini Protokoll and produced by Onassis Stegi. It asks hard questions of its audience about the immigrants – mostly female and from Bulgaria, Albania, Moldova and the Philippines – who do Athens’s dirtiest jobs. It wasn’t initially easy to get it programmed. People would prefer to forget their worries by seeing comedy which has boomed in recent years.
"We don't have an audience who understand theatre as a place of public discourse, they see it just as a place to be entertained," suggests Azas.
"It is very hard to sustain making performance if there is no funding and no support"
The Institute of Loneliness by Blitz Theatre Group. Photo: Marilena Stafylidou
There is perhaps an irony that while international programmers may want to see Greek theatre which reflects the Greek situation, Greek audiences want to see shows that make them feel better about their lives. When I go to see Timon of Athens, staged by the current director of the National Theatre, Stathios Livathinos, it wears its metaphors very lightly indeed, cloaked behind high production values and some exceptionally fine acting. The audience is hugely enthusiastic.
But Tsinikoris argues that theatre has a role to play and must try to remain relevant: "We cannot see theatre and society as separate, they are entwined. The question we need to ask ourselves is: how do we tell stories on the stage in this era? I think we have to be bolder and braver and tell other stories, the stories of those whose stories are not often told. And find new ways to tell the story of ourselves."
But that can be tricky when the culture is so overshadowed by the past. If the UK’s contemporary theatre scene is haunted by the ghost of Shakespeare, then Greek theatre must live in the shadow of 2,000 years of performance history and the great plays of Sophocles, Euripides and Aeschylus. That’s a rich heritage but it can be a burden as much as a blessing.
"People have an old-fashioned idea of what Greek culture is: it’s the past, antiquities, sea and sand," says Gabriella Triantafyllis of the Niarchos Cultural Centre. "That is how we have been selling ourselves for years, i.e. our culture is archaeological sites. But in reality, we have a large and very vibrant contemporary cultural scene."
Triantafyllis is just one of many I spoke to who pointed to a lack of arts education as being a significant problem in a culture which produces remarkable actors but doesn’t train directors or dramaturgs. Critical discourse, particularly of new work, is limited.
Azas agrees: "We produce many performers but not enough writers and theatremakers."
"People have an old-fashioned idea of what Greek culture is: it's the past, antiquities, sea and sand"
Is our knowledge of Greek culture woefully out of date? Perceptions of Greek theatre are haunted by its classical past. The Theatre of Dionysus (pictured) is considered the oldest theatre in the world. Photo: Robert Anders
There is a lack of structures in place – including funding, availability of cheap space and mentoring support. But the country also lacks a cultural strategy partly because, as Ash Bulayev puts it, “arts ministers are changed like socks.” There have been four since 2015.
Bulayev also points to the way that Greek artists can be culturally isolated. He says that they often don’t know who their peers are on the international performance scene and seldom get the chance to engage with them as peers.
"French, Flemish or British artists and performance makers know how the ecosystem works and feel part of it. They meet and converse with their peers at festivals all over the world. They might be at different stages in their careers, but they meet and converse as equals. But often Greek artists lack that practical knowledge so they don’t feel like they are peers but feel stupid, poor and ignored," says Bulayev. His upcoming educational programme at the Onassis Cultural Centre is trying to shift that so that Greek artists can be empowered by engaging with their international peers.
"Masterclasses are all very well," suggests Bulayev. However, he says, the development of a strong performance culture comes when artists get the chance to learn from their peers not in a classroom situation but because "they meet in the kitchen at a festival and get talking."
"I'm optimistic about the future for Greece but at this particular moment it is hard to be optimistic for Greece's artists"
Triantafyllis agrees. "Greek artists often feel like the poor relation. If something comes here from abroad, we feel it must be better than what we are producing. It’s why that peer-to-peer dialogue on equal terms is so crucial. It helps move the culture on."
Vassilis Charalambidis finds it hard to be upbeat. He is Artistic Director of Bios, an Athens hub for performance and cross-arts, which is very much part of the city’s attempt to regenerate in the wake of the financial crisis.
"Generally, I am optimistic about the future for Greece but at this particular moment it is hard to be optimistic for Greece’s artists. It is a dark period. They are under huge pressure and it’s hard to see that changing in the immediate future."
This feature is part of Culture after Brexit – a conversation, curated by the British Council, about the future of the cultural relationship between the UK and the European Union after Britain exits the EU.
Find out more:
> Learn more from Vassilis Charamlambidis about rebuilding creative Athens after the financial crisis
> Watch a performance of Blitz's Late Night
> Read up on the contemporary theatre scene in Greece
Follow the Culture after Brexit series:
> Holland Festival: What does theatre have to say about democracy?
> Ruth Mackenzie: "There's an awful lot of British theatre I couldn't programme"
> Lyn Gardner: Making a new future at the Holland Festival
> Outdoor arts: "We need to keep the traffic between the UK and Europe"
> Artsadmin: Two insider views on how Brexit will affect UK arts
> Tim Etchells: "When we first went to Europe we found another world"
> Playwrights: What draws British playwrights to Europe?
> Circus: The future of circus is social