by Alexandra Papaisidorou*
The end of April marks three years since I came on board as artistic director of the Athens & Epidaurus Festival; it also marks the official end of my term. I took over, being convinced that an institution of this magnitude could and should contribute in its own, creative way in times of crisis such as those we are living through.
These three years have turned out to be a fascinating but also wild ride. Despite the adverse conditions in the Greek public sector and the bureaucratic
hurdles plaguing the Festival, I am pleased to say that our basic goals have been met and have begun to visibly bear fruit, being gradually well-received by audiences, critics and journalists – to a large extent thanks to the perseverance of yours truly and my team of collaborators who have held by back from the very beginning. Let me go through the accomplishments of the past three years:
First, I should mention Epidaurus Lyceum, the educational institution we designed and brought to realization in collaboration with the Theatre Studies Department of the University of the Peloponnese in Nafplio, through which students graduating the programme are now certified with ECTS credits. Following its two first active years, this international summer school of ancient drama, run by the Festival’s co-curator for educational programmes, Georgina Kakoudaki, has firmly established itself on the map of ancient drama research at an international level: with eminent and erudite artists and scholars being invited from around the world to teach there, with plurality and intercultural education as its main pursuits, and also with its special
relationship with the area of Epidaurus, a location blessed with the energy of young people visiting from all over the world, the Lyceum has many benefits to its name.
However, the Lyceum is but one, perhaps the most dynamic, facet of the Festival’s educational policy. Young people and young audiences have been
among our top priorities and with that in mind each year we have been holding a number of theatre, dance and music educational events helping audiences connect with the Festival programme, both throughout the active Festival season but also on a long-term basis. Back in October, in our Epidaurus programme press conference, I spoke in length about the connection between artistic production and education, the hallmark of the Festival’s identity. Let me remind you that especially in the case of Epidaurus we have launched a number of educational projects in addition to the Lyceum:
Educating Audiences in Ancient Drama; Dialogues; Educating international audiences, and, last but not least, the Epidaurus for Children creative workshop, running for the fourth consecutive year parallel to the performances at the Ancient Theatre of Epidaurus. In Athens, in addition to the post-performance talks with international directors, we have successfully launched a number of platforms, giving food for thought, encouraging younger artists and bolstering collectivity in art: the annual Symposium held in collaboration with the Hellenic Association of Theatre and Performing Arts Critics, this year focusing on contemporary theatre criticism and its relationship with the new theatre market; Young Greek Classics, held in collaboration with the Athens Conservatoire, which this year will pay tribute to cello, presenting young Greek musicians distinguished in this instrument; the workshops organized by Yo-Yo Ma and Ricardo Mutti, and the multifaceted dance platform known as A Day Full of Dancing, to name a few.
Our second major innovation was the launch of the Opening to the City, a section with site-specific performances taking place in Athens and Piraeus
with the support of Athens Culture Net and the Piraeus Municipal Theatre respectively. Ever since it was launched in 2017, the Opening has aimed to
expand the Festival’s scope beyond conventional venues, promoting art as a vehicle for a more effective connection with the city and encouraging a more active presence of the various collectives in Athens and Piraeus. I am confident that our efforts have borne fruit. One can see that in the many Opening events which audiences seek out and actively engage in – not only due to the fact these performances have free admission but, mostly, because they approach the public space through a uniquely artistic perspective: through theatre narratives, through literary lens, ultimately through rearranging and re-imagining a well-known or less well-known story.
Our third accomplishment: Already in the debut appearance of the incumbent artistic direction, we were stressing the significance of supporting Greek and younger theatre and dance artists, and we have succeeded in our goal, at the same time highlighting cutting-edge dance and theatre work from around the world, with particular emphasis to artists from more unfamiliar cultures and rapidly rising artists, whom we have introduced to the Greek audiences.
The dynamics between the international and the Greek programme are understandably different: as far as the international programme is concerned,
as a rule we choose already finished productions, whereas when it comes to the Greek programme we are interested in making new productions from scratch, commissioning new work and having artists submit their proposals. Regardless, we are interested in maintaining the balance between finished works and works in-progress. Let me just state the following to reiterate the significance that the Greek programme holds for us: even though the practice of open calls is generally avoided by the most prestigious international festivals, we continue to issue a call for submissions to Greek artists every year, and the finalized programme on each given year draws on the pool of submitted proposals. This process of selection entails a very in-depth and thorough assessment of all submissions, in order to be able to single out the most promising, groundbreaking and festival-friendly proposals, based on their boldness and relevance of themes. We have already proved that highlighting young Greek artists, emerging tendencies, and projects has been a priority of ours, along with the inclusion of already established artists and large-scale productions suited for Festivals.
Given that this a ‘Hellenic/Greek’ Festival, we are not merely interested in supporting contemporary Greek theatre, dance and music, but also connecting the ancient and contemporary traditions of our country, realizing this is a prerequisite for renewing and redefining our aesthetic identity as a nation. With that in mind, it is of paramount importance to us to adopt an approach connecting contemporary theatre research with ancient drama (and this year ancient mythology, as well). This approach has essentially transformed the Little Theatre of Ancient Epidaurus into a hotbed of younger Greek artists with alternative takes on ancient drama. Let me add as a reminder that the 2019 programme of the Ancient Theatre of Epidaurus and the Little Theatre of Epidaurus, as well as the Epidaurus Lyceum, were announced in October and can also be found in today’s press kit.
Equally important to us was our tribute last year to the major postwar dramatist Loula Anagnostaki, which included Rooms of Memory, an experiential installation - simulation of the artist’s world, curated by Dimitra Kondylaki, co-curator for contemporary Greek theatre and editor of all official
Therefore, supporting contemporary Greek theatre has been extremely important to us, as we had stressed from the first, though from a qualitative rather than a quantitative point of view. By that I mean, as one can tell by having a look at the 2019 Greek theatre programme, that we are interested in the content of the plays rather than their nationality.
My fourth point: Our original mission statement included bolstering the Festival’s openness, adopting a more extroverted stance, and achieving coproductions with international institutions. Incidentally, all Greek productions, including those held at Peiraios 260, now come with English surtitles for our international visitors (in the past, only Epidaurus performances used to have English surtitles), and there are Greek surtitles in all Greek productions for the hearing impaired and for the comfort of all theatre-goers in general. To cut a long story short, not only did we support Greek theatre, but we also boosted the Festival’s international character, taking a risk and going ahead and participating in international co-productions with major artists, such as Romeo Castellucci and Krzysztof Warlikowski in theatre, and Marlene Monteiro Freitas, Hofesh Shechter and Euripides Laskaridis in dance. Thanks to the participation in international co-productions, the Festival has emerged as a major European force of cultural production.
Furthermore, our collaborations with networks such as the [DNA] and institutions such as the newly launched international artist and curator residency programme Onassis AiR of the Onassis Foundation, actively support Greek artists through structures and collaborations which go much further than the simple presentation of a finished work, accentuating the very process of art making, and encouraging collaborations and exchanges at an international level.
This international orientation applies to Epidaurus, as well. As previously announced, this year we have invited Comedie-Francaise to make its
Epidaurus debut with Electra / Orestes, directed by the internationally acclaimed, avant-garde director Ivo Van Hove, a collaboration which has been years in the making. Robert Wilson will also be making his Epidaurus debut with Oedipus. Our third Epidaurus highlight this year is Prometheus Bound, a co-production of Athens & Epidaurus Festival with the Municipal and Regional Theatre of Patras, featuring the celebrated Greek-British actress Kathryn Hunter in the title role. Let me give you a foretaste of the 2020 artistic programme: a Warlikowski production in Epidaurus has already been
Pursuing co-productions, both with international institutions, as well as with Municipal and Regional Theatres and private businesses in Greece has proved to be a practice that pays off, both in terms of budget and also in how these performances are promoted and catch on with audiences.
Maintaining a balance between Greek and international productions is also an integral aspect of our Odeon of Herodes Atticus programme, curated for the Festival by Costa Pilavachi. This year we have invited internationally acclaimed orchestras, such as the Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg along with its famous soloist Yuja Wang; the Wiener Symphoniker under the baton of conductor and soloist Leonidas Kavakos; the Luigi Cherubini Youth Orchestra of the Ravenna Festival; conducted by Riccardo Muti, and lastly the China National Symphony Orchestra. Major soloists such as Yo-Yo Ma performing Bach’s 6 suites for cello, along with the Athens State Orchestra joining forces with Maxim Vengerov under the baton of Stefanos Tsialis, Handel’s Alcina by the musicians of Armonia Atenea - Friends of Music Orchestra and George Petrou featuring the great soprano Myrto Papathanasiou, and the ERT National Symphony Orchestra performing Nikos Skalkottas’ The Sea on the occasion of the Skalkottas Year will also be featured. The Greek National Opera will also be included in this year’s Festival programme with two new productions: Norma, conducted by Georgios Balatsinos and directed by Carlus Padrissa and La Fura dels Baus, and La Traviata, conducted by Loukas Karytinos and directed by Konstantinos Rigos.
Internationally acclaimed, contemporary music artists, such as Jethro Tull, Dead Can Dance, Loreena McKennitt and Tindersticks will also take over the Odeon by storm, along with major Greek composers and singers, including Eleni Karaindrou, Yannis Markopoulos, Maria Farantouri and George
Dalaras. A standout of this year’s Odeon programme is a dance performance by one of the leading dancers and choreographers in the world, Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker and her world-famous Rosas group. De Keersmaeker will be making her Odeon debut with her own take on Bach’s 6 cello suites.
All of the abovementioned points serve our common, all-encompassing goal: to establish the Festival’s scope and prestige both in Greece and abroad, making it at once a national and an international, contemporary, versatile institution, but also a socially conscious one, open to all types of audiences, whose main concern is to produce culture and artistic collaborations instead of merely hosting them. We envisage the Festival as a breath of life, a form of entertainment, meditation and joint collaboration for everybody. This has been our master plan: we are as proud for having achieved this social expansion and for fostering the Festival’s international orientation as we are proud of its distinctly modern artistic sensibility. Of course, this does not entail that we are resting on our laurels. Far from it: we still have a long way to go. With society being what it is right now, seething with unrest, and numerous issues threatening social stability and order, we wish even more so today to emphasize the Festival’s social dimension, focusing on an aspect that is crucial to harmonious co-existence: respect and tolerance of others, regardless of ethnic background, gender, and sexual orientation. Therefore, this year’s Festival pays tribute to ‘diversity’ and ‘difference,’ what one could call the most obvious of rights, that is, the right of people to be whoever they want to be and identify themselves as they please. This consideration is also reflected in the Festival’s official visual identity for 2019: the figure of a hermaphrodite, open to multiple interpretations.
Both at a Greek and at an international level, there are numerous problems that we simply cannot overlook: a growing fear against whatever and whoever is perceived as different; a shift towards so-called traditional values, nurturing practices of exclusion; a backlash towards any values perceived as ‘progressive’; a rise in fascism. We are concerned with these problems and with how exactly to address them. How to get people who are not necessarily what one would call ‘avid Festival theatre-goers’ more involved? How to bring together diverse types of audiences? How to promote art and
entertainment that are at once responsive to current social needs and first-class works of a high artistic standard?
A few months ago, Zak Kostopoulos, an HIV-positive gay activist and drag performer and actor was brutally murdered in Athens. Shortly afterwards, a
young woman was brutally raped and murdered in Rhodes. Two years ago, a young man, a student in Ioannina, committed suicide after being routinely bullied by his fellow students for being ‘different.’ Another case in point: recently, high school students in Kalamaria occupied their school for a rather
unexpected cause, with the full support of their parents. They were not protesting an educational reform or trying to right a wrong: rather, they were championing the removal of one of their classmates from school, deeming him as ‘problematic.’ In other words, they were supporting their own version of that most ‘obvious’ of rights while actually violating another person’s right in being different. These students’ stance projects an idea of society desperately clinging to a homogeneous image of itself, with fear providing its social glue, its cohesive force. It goes without saying that art has an important role to play here.
Our 2019 programme delves into this issue more intricately than ever before, exploring diversity and alterity in almost all of the various forms they can
assume – the word does not imply focusing only on gender issues, but also on all sorts of minorities and marginalized groups and cultures.
The Greek plays scheduled to be presented at Peiraios 260, from Giorgos Papageorgiou’s Giannoula Koulourou to Strange Doors, an unpublished text of the late Manos Eleftherious entrusted to Nena Menti and directed by Manos Karatzogiannis to Himmelweg by the contemporary Spanish playwright Juan Mayorga, directed by Elena Karakouli, and Eleni Efthymiou’s Horse in Love, anatomize the cases of individuals or entire groups on the fringes of society, reflecting on their cruel treatment by society as a whole. The cruelty and social injustice prevalent in provincial towns against anyone perceived as different (Giannoula and Strange Doors), an entire nation of people being exterminated (the Jew population at the Prague concentration camp in Mayorga’s play), or a group of individuals claiming what, for many people, is far from obvious, their right to love and be loved, that is, their right to live, all represent different facets of our meditation on the issue of difference and the consequences arising from not being able to accept what is different.
We also wish to emphasize that our criteria for the Greek programme is artists themselves, above all other considerations. It was about time we presented a work by the provocative Dimitris Dimitriadis: the stage premiere of Chrysippus, directed by Thanos Samaras, will accentuate difference in a reverse manner, through a figure of homme fatale, personifying absolute beauty. This is the case of a hero destroying those around him rather than the other way around. The same goes for the production of Richard III by the Little Things Orchestra and Christos Theodoridis, first included in our programme back in 2016 with another bloody Elizabethan drama. Again, here, the community is destroyed by the demonic version of the Other, an incarnation of absolute evil. In other words, we are focusing on ‘otherness’ and difference, not to engage in polemics, but to approach the issue from
As a closing remark I would like to thank all those who have contributed to the realization of this year’s programme. It’s a long list. Allow me only to take a moment to thank the Festival employees, the contract staff comprising the vast majority of the Athens Festival staff who have been working without receiving any pay for the last couple of months, after their contracts expired, in service of the artistic programme. I didn’t ask them to do it; they did it by themselves. Without them, we wouldn’t be having this press conference today. I thank them from the bottom of my heart.
Let me add that the little gifts contained in the press kit were made from recycled paper from old Festival programmes and were created as part of the
Shedia Art social environmental project.
Artistic creation receives feedback, and derives inspiration and life from its own reserves of strength.