by Alexandra Papaisidorou*
The National Theatre of Greece has played a leading role in the cultural life of the nation for 90 years. In its long history, it has never closed, not even under the most adverse conditions, with performances continuing during the Occupation and under the Regime of the Colonels.
This year, its mettle was tested yet again, now by a dual crisis. On the one hand, the live arts were hard hit by the pandemic, while on the other, revelations in the context of the Greek Me Too movement thrust the NTG into the eye of the storm.
From the first moment that Covid knocked at the door of the NTG, the organisation, its management, and all its employees showed exemplary adaptability, realising the historic magnitude of the situation. Thanks, perhaps, to our innate Greek obduracy, our long experience in finding creative solutions in the midst of chaos, and thanks also to the ingenuity that is part and parcel of our craft, the National Theatre of Greece was ready from the start of the pandemic with its digitised archive but also with brand new digital material. While under strict lockdown, we planned our next steps, so that we would be able to implement every possible scenario, from zero to “the sky’s the limit”, at a moment’s notice. So it was that the NTG was ready again, in the summer of 2020, to perform three touring productions at various archaeological sites as part of an initiative by the Ministry of Culture, and two productions of ancient drama at the Festival of Epidaurus and in the Greek regions. One performance, to great acclaim, was live-streamed to a global audience from the Ancient Theatre of Epidaurus. With this bold and innovative move, the NTG added an international dimension to its activities.
During the 2020/21 season, at a time when most of the world’s theatres remained closed, the NTG was ready once more, presenting a season of 13 productions without any compromise in terms of their production values, but adhering to all the measures that had been put in place to limit the spread of the coronavirus: distancing when on-stage, wearing face masks during rehearsals, disinfecting the theatre, costumes and props, carrying out weekly tests on all the actors and stage crew, and tracking cases of illness. A clearly defined protocol gave us the freedom to operate as usual – but with one notable absence, of course: our public. With the exception of a few weeks in October, when we had the opportunity to open with reduced capacity and health rules in place in the foyers, our theatres remained closed for the whole winter. Yet we continued to present our productions online, live and direct from our stages, earning a heart-warming response from our remote audience.
All this showed the NTG to be possessed of unique reflexes, which confirm its position as the most trusted theatre in the country. With its historic vitality and vital human resources, the support and understanding of its supervisory body, and sound and realistic management, it succeeded, despite its perennially limited financial resources, in outdoing most of the world’s theatres in the pandemic year of 2020, retaining all its jobs, keeping the microeconomy around it going, providing work to hundreds of theatrical artists, and – most importantly – offering them a creative outlet and unstintingly giving meaning and substance to their dreams. Making this choice meant that life was able to stay as normal as possible for everyone at the NTG, and we refused to yield in the face of the real and existential problems that the pandemic presented for our art.
As if this crisis was not enough, the NTG was dealt another blow when its artistic director resigned after allegations were made against him in the wake of the Me Too movement. The NTG was shaken to its foundations. For weeks on end, it was at the centre of a polarised political – and party-political – controversy. Its employees were targeted, while students from its drama school also entered the debate, young people with frustrated dreams already despairing at the year-long suspension of their live classes. The challenge for the NTG, both internally and externally, was how to manage our communications in a situation which, although not of our making as an organisation, we had to remedy.
It was immediately apparent that the long-standing problems brought to the surface by the Me Too movement and the manifold issues that it gave rise to (such as the treatment of women and minorities in the theatre, the establishment of codes of conduct, and political correctness in artistic discourse, to name but a few), would have to be reflected in the NTG’s policies in respect of its repertoire and its educational activities. We are all working day and night to this end, ensuring that the NTG will be ready, as ever, to face the future.
National Theatre of Greece
*Editor-at-large/ PhD cand., Cultural Diplomacy & international Relations