Greek Theatre in the Years of Depression (2009-2012)

Blitz,  Guns, Guns, Guns
At the time the economic slump began (2009), Greek theatre was experiencing the most explosive period of its history. Approximately 120 theatre venues all over the city of Athens, and particularly in heavily populated squalid locales, accommodated about 450 new productions. Close to 200 professional companies applied that year for state funding. The Actors’ Equity had reached a record high membership of 2500.

That very same year Onasis Foundation inaugurated its impressive cultural center in Athens (The House of Arts and Letters [Stegi Grammaton ke Technon) with a clear mission to promote the modern cultural expression, to support new Greek artists and to cultivate international collaborations. Its repertory policy gave theatergoers the chance to see, during the winter months, some of the biggest names from the theatre and dance circuit (tg STAN, Cheek by Jowl, R. Lepage, Kentridge, Jon von Jove, DV8 among many others). At the same time, Athens’ Summer Festival continued increasing its fans with its extrovert policy which included, among others names like K. Warlikovski, O. Korsunovas, Thomas. Ostremeier, Peter Stein, Jan Fabre, Peter Hall, Peter Brook, Elizabeth LeCompt, Guy Cassiers, Lupa, Rimini Protokoll, Forced Entertainment and Lee Breuer.
It was quite obvious that the more affluent the society grew (or thought it grew) the more theatre it consumed. There were surely interesting, inviting and promising ideas and shows, besides those accommodated by the big local theatre institutions, particularly by young artists who knew that, to survive in an already crowded and competitive theatre market, they had to come forward with fresh and more daring ideas. Thus, site-specific, devised, ad verbatim, physical, eco and docudrama works, and low-budget productions provided an alternative theatre market which attracted mostly young theatergoers. Also, dramaturges, fresh from the Theatre Departments, gradually found their way into these circles for the first time, enriching the groups’ research potential.
Yet the greatest part of theatre entertainment was still employed to reassure and comfort, to offer instant gratification rather than provoke or surprise. It was obvious that consumption has worked its way down from the “eyes, ears and emotions to the digestive organs of the [average]  theatregoer” (Fuchs 1996: 131). The mesmerizing cloud of happiness, did not really help people see the real situation that was rapidly developing. Like all fairytales, though, so this one had to end sometime, somehow. Hardly had the 2009-10 season ended and the economic slump began taking its toll, drastically changing the geography as well as the function, the aesthetic, and above all the mentality and the morale of local theatre and the policy of state funding.[1] Within months, full-time and overall seasonal positions were slashed. Production in materials and support services were cut and shorter employment contracts introduced.  Even companies which for many years managed to maintain impressive standards had ran out of steam and suspended their activities.
Approaching the 2010-11 season, and with the crisis deepening, the options began getting less and less for everybody. Especially in the mainstream theatre market, one could talk of only one option: the theatre which cannot break even at the box office closes. One after another playhouse, big and small, announced a series of preemptive measures to save off a financial crisis. Most of them offered special prices for the unemployed, the students and those hit the hardest by the economic situation; others restaged earlier productions (mainly monologues) which required less money or no money at all.
 In many instances, spectators were asked to give what they wanted or could afford. In some other occasions spectators, instead of cash (normally something between 10-20 euros), handed over at the ticket booth, food that would later on be donated to poorhouses or children’s  charity organizations, an idea initiated in 2011 by the The National Theatre of Northern Greece (NTNG), with Enda Walsh’s Chatroom. As Sotiris Hatzakis, the artistic director of the NTNG put it, "We are creating a solidarity network […] that works in terms of direct democracy. And we intend to keep it going next year too, since all signs show that the crisis is set to endure." 

 From the Chatroom, by the National  Theatre of Northern Greece

As part of this “art for people’s sake” policy, the NTNG  has inaugurated a project in which actors take one of its smaller productions to hospitals, prisons, centers of disabled people and old homes, giving these people the chance to see theatre. Also the NTNG established “The Balkan Theatre Scene,”in order to reinforce the cultural ties among neighboring countries. Under the auspices of this project three national theatres (Albany, Serbia, Bulgaria) presented Electra, Bacchae and Don Juan, respectively.
This is not to say that a big state theatre like this, which lives on state money, had turned radical all of a sudden. What I am arguing here is that radical social changes trigger equally inventive ways to inspire the audiences, engage the communities and also discuss burning national issues that directly affect their life. In other words, by choosing to appeal directly to the audience, the NTNG targeted at a more “active culture,” an active relation to theatre, that is “a rehearsal for active citizenship” (for more on this point see Rebellato 2009: 54-5). That strategy was further reinforced by a repertory of plays which touched upon issues which have to do with the component parts of the nation and its national character,[2] international plays which draw inspiration from Greek myths[3] and plays concentrating on the ills that befall local society, like illegal immigration.[4]
The National Theatre (Athens), in particular, proved more hospitable to younger artists, by providing them space (Group Hostel) to stage their work. Also, it managed to engage the most important Greek directors (Evaggelatos, Marmarinos, Kakleas, Mastorakis, Papavasiliou, Mavrikios, Voyiatzis, Avdeliotis, among the older generation, and among the young, Kitsopoulou, Kakalas, Kalavrianos, Leondaris) as well as  internationally renowned directors (i.e. Bob Wilson, Barbara Weber the artistic director of Neumarkt Theatre in Zurich, Olivier Py the artistic director of Odeon, the Norwagian Erich Schtube, the Lithuanian Cezaris Grauzinis, the Serbian Nikita Milivoyevitz, among others).
Justifying his selections, the artistic director of the National (Athens) said in his Press Conference that at a difficult moment like this, the National opens the chapter “Greece” with a triple query: to examine 

how we see ourselves, how the others see us, and what is the meaning of Greece today? We would like to look again into our country’s essences and dynamics as they register on local culture. We want to draw on the wide spectrum of Greece’s history, its drama, and general spiritual tradition. We want to criss-cross centuries of creativity, of ideas, and of conflicts, looking for a convincing answer to the question ‘What is homeland?’ Our goal is a panorama of the nation’s evolution, of the nation’s language, […] Now, more than ever, we have to see what’s been left from the ancient world, the Byzantine world, the post independence war, and how all these converse with our contemporary culture.

Theatergoers responded to this call with unexpected enthusiasm. Over a period of three years, the average attendance reached an unprecedented 98%. For 2010-11 the National grossed at the box office 2.074.000 euro, that is a 6% increase compared to 2009-2010 season --bearing in mind, at the same time, that there has been a 10% decrease of ticket prices.

 Scene from the production of Kambanellis' Our Grand Circus by the National Theatre of Northern Greece

The National Theatre of Northern Greece, on the other hand, already in serious financial trouble with a debt burden exceeding three million euro in 2010,  can also boast of full houses with shows more commercial and less polished, compared to the National, like the summer production of Aristophanes’Knights which  started its national tour from the Festival of Epidavros, attracting big crowds in each and every city it played. Other productions as well proved to be quite successful at the box office, with Our Grand Circus by Iakovos Kambanellis, at the top of the list. The artistic director of the NTNG, justifying his popular repertory choices said that 

the country needs exemplary models and high moral standards. It needs a strong morale and belief in its own present and future. Love for the country, self-sacrifice, heroism, social camaraderie and unselfish struggle are virtues that belong to all of us and claiming them we keep our country’s history alive and we offer our children a better future. (Agelioforos 18/11/2012).

While for years the presence of both national theatres was barely felt in the midst of dozens of other venues and options, in the last three years they have come back in an attempt to re-associate themselves with the more pressing concerns of national life. With their repertory, they somehow look as if they have a mission not only to represent the nation but also be a vital tool of nation re-building. What is not clear in all this, however, is whether their choices can conceive the nation as a whole, can conceive its diversity. 

 The National Theatre of Northern Greece

It is quite obvious that a crisis of the kind Greece experiences unsettles any idea of national homogeneity for it brings to light deep differences in terms of status, race, profession etc. So one could ask: Whom do these repertory choices represent? Whose stories do they tell? (for more on this matter see Kruger 1992). Do they provide spaces for debate? Do they bring forward multiple perspectives? Are they hospitable to otherness? Do they embrace the messy, the dangerous? Do they generate “emancipatory interruptions” (Gilroy 2004: 75)? Do they reconsider certain things that we have taken for granted, to generate new meanings and new ideas which are directly related to who we are and where we are going?
Without undervaluing what the national theatres did and still do, my feeling is that younger artists have proven to be, thus far, more daring (if not better) chroniclers of the depression. After the initial market shock that caused panic and disorientation, we witness an increase of theatre productions, of new venues and new theatre groups. It is quite amazing that in the heart of the depression Athens hosts more than 350 new productions (2012-13), many of them playing to full houses. 

 Scene from the production of City-State by the Kanigunta ensemble
As things stand now, especially among non-profit companies, it is impossible to categorize, let alone adequately present them in a single paper, for they do not form a coherent entity. Some are more politically oriented (ODC, Kanigunta, Blitz, Sforaris), others are more aesthetically oriented (Bijoux de Kant, Semio Miden, Choros etc). Nor do they all guarantee high quality. What unites them and somehow makes their en bloc study possible is their concern over the reality that the depression has created. They seem to understand that an economically and culturally threatened society requires radical rethinking. The old methods and the old mentalities won’t help. They all see that in a country broken down by misery and despair, theatre has to look forward with a utopian eye to the “world of tomorrow,” in an attempt to capture the diversity of the nation as it shifts and changes through the impact of illegal immigration, recession, global antagonism, impoverishment, disappearing state funding, collapse of the welfare system etc  
In the last three years local theatre takes advantage of the civic awakening and engagement to ignite people’s passion for theatre and social matters. We now get more works which give voice to the dynamics of conflict and the dysfunctional dimensions of the nation and Europe as well; works which project, or try to project, the concerns of the present world using a vernacular, straightforward, vivid and fresh.
For the recent generation of Greek artists the ultimate goal is to keep theatre central to communal interaction, not as a lifestyle commodity but as a necessary thing. A difficult task, no doubt.

Fuchs, Elinor. The Death of Character: Perspectives on Theatre After Modernism. Indianapolis: Indiana UP, 1996.
Gilroy, Paul. After Empire: Melancholia or Convivial Culture. Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2004.
Krugers, Loren. Theatre and Cultural Legitimation in England, France and America. Illinois: The U of Chicago P, 1992.
Rebellato, Dan. Theatre & Globalization. London: Palgrave/MacMillan, 2009.

A slightly shorter version of this paper was originally published in:  The World of Theatre. Ed. Ramendu Majumdar and Mofidul Hoque. Bangladesh: International Theatre Institute, 2014. 11-115.

[1] In the last five years state support amounted to no more than three and a half million euro for theatre, not enough but psychologically important for it provided a kind of security blanket for artists, especially from alternative theatre. The number of applicants for state support varied from 170 to 200 every year. Less than forty percent were usually the lucky ones. Big repertory companies got up to 250.000 euro, mid-size companies between 50 to 100.000 and small companies no more than 30.000 euro.
[2] Tou Koutrouli o Gamos by A. Rizos Ragavis, O Vasilikos by Anonios Mateisis, and Golfo by S. Peresiades, are among the plays chosen for production by the National Theatre (Athens).

[3] Pericles and Troilus and Cressida by Shakespeare and Amphitryon by Moliere, all by the National Theatre (Athens).
[4] See Aorati Olga (Invisible Olga) by Yiannis Tsiros and Austras or Agriada by Lena Kitsopoulou, both part of the “Emergency Entrance,” a two-year European theatre projet which involves the Greek National Theatre, Teatro Garibaldi di Palermo, Habima (Israel), and the National Theatre of Checz Republic, sponsored by EU Culture Programme 2007-13, in cooperation with the Union of the Theatres of Europe.


ΣΑΒΒΑΣ ΠΑΤΣΑΛΙΔΗΣ / Savas Patsalidis

ΣΑΒΒΑΣ ΠΑΤΣΑΛΙΔΗΣ / Savas Patsalidis

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