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Prologue to the Rituals

The Greek Performing Arts in the face of economic downturn

This article was commissioned by the  Korean Arts Management Services and originally published in Korean  for theApro.kr – a database website for the global exchange of performing arts, a project supported by the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism of Republic of Korea.

“We are Greeks. Our laws, our literature, our religion, our arts, have their roots in Greece.” (P.B. Shelley, Preface to Hellas [1882], qtd. in Cartledge, 191)[i]


The Ancient Theatre of Epidaurus. Courtesy of the Hellenic Festival. Photo: Evi Fylaktou


In preparation for my trip to Greece, I had to urge to grab a book by Paul Cartledge entitled “The Greeks: A Portrait of Self and Others” to help set my mind for the visit to the land of mythological gods and goddesses, ancient history, philosophy and theatre. Cartledge succinctly points out the interplay of truth, fiction and history within the Greek society.   He notes that ‘the truth about Greek self-perception and identifications’ necessitate initial confrontation with the recurring variations on the paradox between history and fiction, or even ‘between history and myth- an opposition which itself has history’. [ii]

With this premise, it is not the least surprising to come across people who are named after the great philosophers like Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, dramatists Euripides, Aristophanes and Aeschylus, and even deities and characters like Aphrodite, Ariadne, Antigone, Ariadne, Despina, Electra, Myrto, Orpheus, Andronicus, Leonidas, and so on.  One can easily get entangled or lost in oblivion with the combination of meanings behind facts and fiction.  And if you are a visitor like me, attempting to revisit ones spec of knowledge in theatre history, European drama aligned with Greek mythology, processing such information is likewise intertwined with what Cartledge has classified as ‘history vs. myth; myth in history and myth vs. history.’  But what better way is there to learn about another culture, other than being one with them?  So instead of focusing on analysis over countless facts and myths, I decided to observe and follow the Greeks around me from the ancient theatres of Herodeon[iii] and Epidaurus[iv]; from the National Greek Theatre [v]to alternative art spaces of Kinitiras Studios [vi] and Griffon Dance Company Studio[vii], not to mention the performing arts gatherings on the islands called “Panagiri[viii].”

A journey to Greece whether for cultural orientation, consumption or tourism guarantees one a full experience.  Whilst in the process of to grabbing bits and pieces about the Greek performing arts, the combination of warm weather, historical landmarks, amazing landscape and beaches, cuisine, flowing theatrical experiences, not to mention the Greek hospitality and pride of their cultural tradition, seemed to have spontaneously embraced me.  It’s as if the whole process of being a theatrical onlooker comes with a sophisticated package stuffed with Greek lifestyle.


Euripides’ “Orestes”, Direction: Yannis Houvardas, A production of the National Theatre of Greece. Photo: Panos Kokkinias


At the height of the economic crisis, I found myself hitch-hiking on the week of the fuel strike to and fro Athens-Epidaurus to get to the ancient theatre.  The plan was to catch the premiere of the National Theatre of Greece production of Euripides’ “Orestes.”[ix] Note that to watch this Greek tragedy directed by Yannis Houvardas[x], there is a whole logistical procedure to be arranged, a tradition to be followed apart from the usual buying and watching the performance.  Since I went for the “help me get there” option and by the sheer fact that I was a returnee following an earlier trip for an interview with the Artistic Director of the National Theatre, Houvardas and to witness my first Greek comedy  “Lysistrata” in the amphitheatre, I was very lucky to be swarmed with a rather lucrative invitation.  This included getting acquainted with significant Greek theatre artists and professionals, pre and post-performance.

The performance at Epidaurus is another story altogether.  Imagine the serenity of sitting on this 4th Century BC open-air monument, observing the flock of Greek audiences coming in by the thousands.  This archaeological site that has served as the home to Greek tragedies and comedies for thousands of years still remains prevalent in the contemporary Greek culture. As a spectator, it felt like a journey through real-life theatre history, which gives a different and powerful sensation.  It exceptional acoustics enjoins the communication between the actors and 12,000 audiences alike.

Greeks take pride in owning the Greek classics. If not, how else can you explain the presence of 7,000 audiences at an untimely moment where it is a challenge even to find gasoline to make the engine start?  On my scenic drive to Athens via a Peugeout sports car, owned by the civil engineer-lawyer couple, I met the morning after, both shared their excitement over Houvardas’ interpretation of “Orestes” and explained to me the essential nuances of the text.  These are yuppies in their mid-20s and I cannot help not but be impressed how mesmerised they were with Euripides.   As the he young man drove, he recanted “As little kids, my two brothers and I used wrestle and fight at the back of the car on the way to the ancient theatre.  My father used to remind us that 2,000 years ago, people were walking to Epidaurus whilst we are comfortably being driven there.” Whether they walked, took the car, rowed to the theatre, the Greeks seem to be exceptional and loyal patrons when it comes to art appreciation. The big question now is how can this be sustained in the face of economic crisis?

Reality Bites


With nearly half of the 12 Million Greeks living and working in Athens, the performing arts scene has been extremely active in producing an array of works with up to 400 performances recorded each a year taking place in the over 100 theatres in the Greek capital alone.  For fiscal year 2009-2010, the Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Tourism[xi] allocated a total of 2.5 Million Euro to support the independent performing arts scene.  Out of this sum 2.1 Million was awarded to 67 theatre companies with a grant ranging between 17,000 -112,500 Euro; and 468,000 Euro to 23 dance productions between 8,000-28,000 Euro. [xii]These figures are indicative of what range of possibilities are available to independent theatre and dance artists alike.

The numbers provide the rationale for the editorial of Yota Konstantatou and Irene Moundraki in the Greece Annual Report on Culture 2009-2010, [xiii]where they expressed that “Theatre has further expanded its range of activity puzzling creators and audiences alike, as- despite the quantitative proliferation of performances which at times approaches, or even surpasses, the limits of excess – a sense of deflation rules, which is not irrelevant to the degree of seriousness of the financial recession that contradicts any hope for the establishment of a rational, stable cultural policy.  Dance attempted to stabilize its gait through broadening the scope of its research and focusing on its collaboration with other arts.” Nonetheless, opportunities continue to arise for significant theatre troupes like Attis[xiv], I Nea Skini/the New Stage[xv], Fasma, Amhi-theater, Chora Epi Kolono, Apo Mochanis and Theatro Neou Kosmou.[xvi]

The dance scene, on the other hand, continues to grapple with given the funding realities.   Young Greek cultural entrepreneur of Full House Promotion[xvii], Christina Polychronidou says that “ against all odds independent dance companies managed to stage performances and draw attention using the modern society, social and political conditions and interpersonal relationships as inspiration. “ She explains, “Both the new and distinguished artists face similar situatiinal approved grant instalment from the government.” Amidst the many limitations, many young choreographers persist in innovating their works and even setting up their own spaces.  “The likes of Ioanna Portolou/Griffon Dance Company, Konstantinos Rigos, Antigone Gyra/Kinistiras Studios, Zoe Dimitriou, and Rootless Root are among the prolific dance makers that continue to find success,” according to Polychroniadou[xviii].

It is worth noting that in the structure of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, the performing arts reflect a mere fraction of its many activities.  Under its belt, the ministry has categorised three general areas of their work as follows: 1) major projects, in reference to a number of large-scale archaeological maintenance; [xix]2) cultural heritage[xx]; and 3) modern culture, [xxi]which includes literature, theatre, dance, music, visual arts, arts management and digital culture.  For 2010, a budget of 1.036 Billion[xxii] has been earmarked to cover all range of activities and state-run cultural institutions.

The State Theatre of Northern Greece[xxiii] and the National Theatre of Greece are the two state-funded organisations with the 14 municipal and regional theatres in Kavala, Serres, Volos, Crete, Beroia, Corfu, Larissa, Kalamata, Roumeli, Agrinion, Komotini, Ioannina, Patras, and North Aegean.[xxiv] There are also those classified as supervised organisations such as Greek National Opera[xxv], Athens State Orchestra[xxvi], Thessaloniki State Orchestra[xxvii], State Orchestra of Hellenic Music [xxviii]and Orchestra of the Colours[xxix], with a number of dance and dramatic schools as well as music conservatories.

A Common View

In a dialogue with one of Greece’s leading theatre director, Houvardas, it appears that the grassroots group are not alone in their perceived structural dilemma. The British educated theatre maker says,  “For the National Theatre, we have about 12-13 million although we receive only a sum of 8 million to run the six venues with 250 personnel, 100 actors (on contracts). We try to keep the production costs as low as possible. In 2009, we had 18-19 productions and 11 for 2010-2011[xxx].”


Yannis Houvardas, Artistic Director, National Theatre of Greece. Photo: Evie Pilaktoy


He continues, “Since we never had great financial support prior to the current situation, we are used to a certain way of working.”  Following the economic downturn, “We had to cut 20-25% of the budget. We have less staff. From 6 stages, we now have 3. With this, we try compensate by creating or using spaces that are not usually meant for performances as alternative stages i.e. place for reception.”

Founded in 1930 by the Minister of Education, George Papandreou, the Greek National Theatre has for many years it operated as a public entity. 
In 1994, the National Theatre became a non-profit organisation with a mandate of promoting culture and preserving Greek cultural identity. Since 2007, Houvardas has been leading the artistic and executive management of the National Theatre committed to the following aims: study and research of ancient drama, and its staging and dissemination in Greece and abroad; staging, promotion and development of Greek and especially modern Greek playwriting; staging and interpretation of classic works; study and investigation of new theatrical forms and experimental modes of expression; productions for children and young people; theatrical training through the creation of a Drama School; promotion of international theatrical exchanges and co-operation, especially in Europe and countries with large Greek populations; and the support and encouragement for people working in the theatre in Greece.
 Alongside fulfilling these objectives,  it maintains and operates the different theatre venues in different addresses.

According to Houvardas, “There is no pressure to deliver certain things but they (government) are watching closely. Apart from that there is a board that I report to. However, it is in my power to shape the goals.”  He further comments “ I wish there is a pressure since this would be equivalent to interest. “ Hailing from an innovative and independent theatre scene prior to his appointment at the National Theatre, Houvardas admits, “For the programming, we have to be careful with what we choose. Here you know what kind of audience you are addressing.  Journalists give guidelines. So it is important – not necessary to please but not to displease.”

Common View, for instance, a fresh initiative of Houvardas, is a series of events involving other artistic disciplines and forms such as visual arts, film, meetings as well as audience discussions in relation to the repertory, was not considered prior to his term.  The director of over 30 Euripides says, “I brought openness to the National Theatre which paved ways for young theatre makers, directors, writers and opportunities for younger people.”


Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, Direction: Yannis Kakleas , A production of the National Theatre of Greece. Photo: Mixalis Kloukinas


Houvardas, who founded Notos Theatre Company (1991-2007) that pursued new work and international collaborations, shares, “It is essential to seek opportunities outside Greece. Next season, I will start directing abroad as I also need to find the balance between artistic and financial gains.” The man dedicated to running the theatre administration during the day and rehearses at night unassumingly says, “It is very difficult for me to say what is distinct of the Greek performing arts. What I can probably say is that we are more traditional that the average European theatre. It is difficult to break away from the usual ways of staging a play. In my work, I try to find a balance between tradition and experimental. Although a lot of people think that I am a post modern director, I think I lean more towards modernity.”

As Greece stands with a long tradition and pedigree in terms of creation and appreciation, by which may better be referred to these days as production and consumption with particular consideration to the depths of the current economic reality. One can marvel how the intertwining perspectives about the past into the present can actually serve the situation particularly the Greek performing arts, which is a huge part of the Greek cultural tradition?  Perhaps only the oracle can reveal the answer.   Houvardas attests, “The effect of the economic crisis remains to be seen. “

Christina Polychroniadou contributed to this article.

About the Writer:

Vanini Belarmino is a Berlin-based producer and curator specialising in interdisciplinary exchange and cross-border collaborations. She is the Founder and Managing Director of Belarmino&Partners, an international project management and promotions consultancy for arts and culture  < http://www.belarminopartners.com.

NOTES:

[i]  Quoted from The Greeks Portraits of Self and Others by Paul Cartledge, 1993, New York, United States: Oxford University Press, p. 191.

[ii] Noted primarily by Cartledge in Chapters 1 & 2 of The Greeks Portraits   Self and Others.

[iii] Herodeon Theatre< http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Odeon_of_Herodes_Atticus

[iv] Epidaurus Theatre< http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epidaurus

[v] National Theatre of Greece< http://www.n-t.gr/en/nation

[vi] Kinitiras Studios< http://www.kinitiras.com/

[vii] Griffon Dance Company http://fullhousepromotion.gr/site/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=50&Itemid=60&lang=en

[viii] Panagiri is a Greek celebration and/or festivity featuring live music and entertainment where the community can part-take in eating, drinking and dancing in the plaza.

[ix] Orestes< http://www.n-t.gr/en/events/orestis/

[x] Yannis Houvardas< http://www.n-t.gr/en/nationaltheatre/artisticdirector/

[xi] Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Tourism< http://www.yppo.gr/0/eindex.jsp

[xii] Information accessed from the website of the Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Tourism website on 30 August 2010.

[xiii] Greece Annual Report on Culture 2009-2010, Yota Konstantou and Irene Moundraki, Athens, Greece: Filotheamon.

[xiv] Attis theatre company < http://en.alexandrinsky.ru/articles/festival/participantsoffestiv/attistheater

[xv] I Nea Skini/the New Stage< http://www.neaskini.gr/lefterisVoyatzis.htm

[xvi] http://www.theatroneoukosmou.gr/

[xvii] Full House Promotion < http://www.fullhousepromotion.gr

[xviii] Interview with Christina Polychroniadou, Cultural Manager, Full House Promotion, Athens, Greece, 21 July 2010.

[xix] Major projects< http://www.yppo.gr/4/e40index.jsp

[xx] Cultural Heritage< http://www.yppo.gr/5/e50index.jsp

[xxi] Modern Culture< http://www.yppo.gr/6/e60index.jsp

[xxii] As noted in the State Budget 2010, Executive Summary Program Budgeting prepared by the Hellenic Ministry of Finance, Code 21, p. 23.  Accessed on 28 August 2010

[xxiii] The State Theatre of Northern Greece< http://www.ntng.gr/

[xxiv] Municipal and Regional Theatres in Greece

[xxv] Greek National Opera < http://www.nationalopera.gr/index.php

[xxvi] Athens State Orchestra< http://www.koa.gr/?i=koa.en.athensstateorchestra

[xxvii] Thessaloniki State Orchestra< www.tsso.gr/

[xxviii] State Orchestra of Hellenic Music< www.hellenicmusic.org/

[xxix] Orchestra of the Colours< www.orchestraofcolours.gr/

[xxx] Interview with Yannis Houvardas, Artistic Director of the National Theatre of Greece in Epidaurus, Greece, 16 July 2010.

Additional Tips

Economic and Logistical Considerations If you live or are staying in Athens, you ought to consider that the travel distance to Epidaurus is about 125 kilometres, which implies driving for about two and half hours depending on the traffic.  Second, this would account spending 25-30 Euro for the gas/toll fee; between 15-50 Euro on the ticket; and roughly 7-9 hours of your day to complete the full agenda of getting there, watching the show and heading straight back home.   There are other options available depending on how you wish to part-take in the ritual.  In case you don’t have a car, there is a direct bus that could take you back and forth to the former spiritual healing place. If you really want to break the bank, you can also opt for the cruise ship that includes dinner and the theatre ticket for the sum of 125 Euro.

Pre and post performance activities: The pre – involves going for a swim at a nearby beach; heading to the hotel to dress-up before the performance; and then driving to Epidaurus for the performance.  The post-performance activities would then include dinner at a taverna called “Leonidas” – where most of the performers, famous actors and theatre makers gather, followed by a journey to the “Kapaki” discothèque until sunrise.  Incidentally, if you decide to engage in these activities too, you’d need to top-up to the accounting for the 70-80 Euro hotel room, 25-30 Euro- dinner, plus the cost of drinks. So what I am saying is that if you wish to follow the Greek tradition of going to the ancient theatre, economy plays an important role as much as the theatrical experience.

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