Dec 11 - Dec 16, 2016
In the airport of Greece, there is a sign that says strangers and visitors might be gods in disguise so they must be treated and honored as such. A message that is bitter sweet in the midst of a nation in crisis, reeling from an influx of refugees, but it was a welcome sentiment for road weary travelers approaching our last stop of the tour.
After our 12 hour layover in Stockholm with slim to none sleep, we were grateful to settle into the beautiful apartment of Evdokimos Tsolakidis, director and founder of Theatre of Changes (Το Θέατρο των Αλλαγών). We rested and then headed over to the school to begin our first day of workshops.
There were almost 30 of us crammed into a studio space with a wide range of ages and experience. Right away it was apparent that this was a people on fire, who had been dealing with a devastating economic crisis since 2010. The last time I taught at Theater of Changes, it was in the middle of the occupation of Syntagma Square and the streets were alive with rage. It still feels that way today but just bubbling under the surface. The students came in hungry and with great expectations. We saw a desire for laughter rise up again and again in the workshop. They crave joy and laughter in the face of hardship.
When we began our discussion, there was a surge of emotion and ideas. Here are some of the things people said:
“we are afraid of dying. it is so deeply rooted in every one of us.”
“There is fear about other people. it becomes a defense. supposing other things that are not true for another person. they make an enemy of the other person. sometimes they gather together and create an enemy even when its not true, maybe they give labels just because its convenient, to convince other people that they're bad, so they can manipulate you.”
“We construct our identity. we construct from narratives in the past. i think there is no association between us and the past. Many people feel like they have to protect this. this superiority.
It’s not a matter of us or them, feeling like we have to prove something. its about our memories. a physical management of memory. we have to reconstruct our identity because our state is weak.”
“Greeks are waiting for someone to make a change, but we need to do something all together to make a change.”
“We have more opportunities to make a change. the first thing is to get in touch with one another all over the world. more or less, we try to do that. As for myself, I was involved in political things, riots, occupations, etc. but now, i think a non violent way would be more effective. They’re always showing the face of Trump. its ridiculous. the right laughter at right moment will turn them to dust. so laugh against authority. thats what I'm trying to do.”
“Thats when i realized i cant do this on my own, that I have to connect with other people that want to help, because as a community I can help more.”
“In 2011, in the peak of the crisis, there was a big amount of suicides. Im a drama therapist. i wanted to make something about this. i started to work with unemployed people. i started research, this drama therapy group became performance group. it is always is about globalization and now water privatization. we had organized the “eye contact” festival in Athens. 2 days ago we made a graffiti message on wall, “if we all fall in real love, the state will collapse.”
"The news doesn’t tell story of privatization of rivers in Albania. we made film about this but more artistic. but just to see it as art. since it didnt seem so political, more people saw it and learned about this struggle. They protected the area after all. Art was the trojan horse for this, to help make the victory.”
“I think this way about art too. my mother got sick and my father was broke. my mother is dying but i see it as gift. art got me through this. I'm a poet so i write poems about this. they aren't obvious. it might be the subway, it might be the parliament building, a public square, to perform these poems. you can see a grandmother saying bravo, art is a very powerful way, like you said to laugh at the system. to keep thinking positively and creatively and to inspire perhaps.
“I'm thinking still about what you said. its as if we have lost touch with our ancestors.
our generation has to find how to connect with our ancestors and with the next generation and how to take and how to give. for me, my aim is how to be this bridge.”
After the workshop we had our own company discussion about privilege, race and allyship. One of the great strengths of our workshops, I believe, is our process of navigating as a small diverse community. We are still figuring out how to do it but we do it openly and honestly, not glossing over our differences but celebrating them.
The next day I scouted the squat where we were set up to lead more workshops. It was run by refugees and houses around 120 people in the ΕΞΑΡΧΕΙΑ - EXARCHIA area of Athens. There was only one person there, Tom, a scrappy young carpenter from Brighton, England who was rolling a cigarette and anxiously awaiting a phone call about a wood delivery. He warned me that things go slowly in Greece. He had been there for a week with the goal to build rooms in the squat and had yet to begin building. There had been a sewage pipe explosion the day before and the smell permeated the space, but besides the smell, the space was open, friendly, had children’s art on the walls, a foosball table in the back with several men playing.
Tom knew nothing about this supposed Living Theatre workshop. He suggested we come back later tonight and speak to Jim Morris. hmmm…
Back at the Theater of Changes, we set up in a larger room and laid down mats to add some warmth. This was the day of creation. After warm-up, a few improvisation and devising exercises, we offered four themes, inspired by the previous day’s discussion, for the participants to create pieces from: Fear of the Other, Awakening to action, “if we all fall in real love, the state will collapse,” and construction of identity/ connecting to past. The participants had mixed feelings about taking the finished pieces out into the street. Some expressed fear and discomfort. Some had experience with street theater and encouraged us to take risks. We broke into groups and let them decide amongst themselves where they would present their individual pieces.
As everyone set to creating, I remembered reading about the cost of heating oil in Greece has become so prohibitively expensive that people are resorting to cutting down trees to warm themselves in chilly winter nights. Even the ancient olive tree that Plato used to sit under was chopped down. Here is a people with their tremendous history raised above them up on high in the center of town, lording over them. And how do they redefine themselves while impoverished with some of the grandest accomplishments of the history of the world behind them? I believe the people in our workshop are on the path to finding the way.
It turned out that all the groups wanted to perform in the metro station at Omonoia Square so we ventured into the brisk night with excitement and wonder and ducked under ground.
Each piece fluidly moved into the next. Group one began, despite nerves about security eyeing us. The guards came over and once we explained it was theater, they smiled, relaxed and watched the shows. A man stood in the center and shouted that he had the power, there was a battle with the people trying to rise up against him, continually being thrown to the ground. Eventually they approached with love and he submitted and honored them. They ended strong, together, exclaiming that they had the power.
Emboldened by this success, we now passed the ticket machines to perform closer to the metro entrance. The next group began in neutral and then an enforcer began a rhythm to oppress them and mold each person into a contorted image. Then she began to dictate things they had to say over and over again. Slowly they began to find their own agency and morph the words they were saying to their own phrases of self-empowerment. Audience gathered around in a giant semi-circle, listening, engaged and then applauded heartily at the end.
The third group in diamond formation began with a loud CLAP. Side 1 of the diamond moved slowly from a squatted level into the middle with a quiet menace softly stating, "Fear of the unknown". Opposing Side 4 responded, moving backwards, fearfully staring at Side 1. Sides 2 and 3 softly hum, magnifying the unknown menace. Suddenly Side 1 sprung up with fists raised, claiming her own god given rights despite others' fears. As soon as this strength was found, Side 2 steals Side 1's power with a deafening scream and a gesture signifying murder by man-made weapon. The lifeless body of Side 1 begins to fall, Side 3 catches her, Side 4 moves towards them. They all huddle to one side of the diamond in mourning, confusion, healing. Side 2, now all alone, realizing her mistake, starts singing with difficulty in her breath, "There is no fear of the unknown", each inhale she takes sharp and painful. Soon all four sides are looking at each other singing together. Then Side 2 faints, displaying the circular destruction of the shape of a community from fear. All sides have been lowered to rock bottom from misunderstanding and violence. The three sides rise up. Now the shape formed is a "T". "There is no fear of the unknown". They step in to help their fallen peer rise back up to maximum height, back in to her fullness. She rejoins the singing, then leads the line of all sides signing louder and louder out to the audience. Each ending of the line emphasized with a rhythmic stomp that reverberates dramatically within the beautiful acoustics of the train station. Walking, singing and stomping in a line, taking each other’s hands to help move forward, singing “There is no fear of the unknown” they reach their free hand to the audience and invite any and everyone to join them in their fearless new world. Touchingly , members of the audience excitedly join this new world and this melodic mantra.
The final group began with invisible theater. One young woman lay on the ground as if she had fainted. Another approached and asked if anyone else could help. A couple walked by but the man did not want to assist. They struggled until the woman began to scream Wake UP! first to the despondent girl and then to the whole crowd. They began a slow procession of breath, movement and connection while reaching out to passers-by. They created a line and called for people to join them. Members of our workshops joined and then people watching, smiling and unsure, took a risk, despite their embarrassment and rushed up to join us as well. We all cheered as felt more and more barriers break down. Everyone was glowing with their success and bravery. We got away with so much and know there are so many more risks to take, boundaries to cross.
We circled up and completed our time together with a vibrating chord that echoed throughout the tunnels underneath the city of Athens. Afterwards the five of us made our way to the squat for our first day's workshop with the newcomers of Greece...