The economic crisis continues to hit Greece hard, especially in the cultural sector. But theater producers in Athens are returning to "old" values in order to create new, experimental theater.
The cuts have hit hard in Greece, where there is little money left for the cultural sector. Instead of resigning themselves to doom and gloom, more and more artists are joining creative forces. Artistic collectives are booming first and foremost in the field of theater.
Greece has been in crisis since as long as he can remember, mused Nicos Flessas, a 70-year-old dramatic advisor and actor at the Blitz Theater Collective in Athens. Give up? Emigrate like so many others before him? No, not right now. That is also the attitude shared by the founding members of Blitz: Christos Passalis, Aggeliki Papoulia and Giorgos Valais. The three have been working together since 2004 with a permanent workforce of theater professionals such as Flessas.
A theater group led by a collective administration with equal powers was something of a small revolution eight years ago in Athens. But who is the director? That is a question they used to hear all the time.
In the meantime, things have changed. The crisis has brought together people from all walks of life, even in the culture industry. There is a new feeling of solidarity, a concept previously unfamiliar to the Greek mentality, said Blitz Collective member Christos Passalis. His generation, those between 30 and 40 years old, have for a long time failed to be taken seriously. A form of "Gerontocracy" has dominated the arts sectors for decades. One could not imagine becoming a director without having a white beard to match, said Christos.
While that my have changed and the younger generation is finding find recognition, the production requirements in theater have been disproportionately tightened. The government recently announced that it would be making nearly 3 million euros available to the so-called free scene. But no one knows whether the money will ever materialize.
Theater on a shoestring
The Blitz Collective last received a subsidy in 2009. Since then, they have continued without grants. Financing comes from the box office and other jobs like film shoots. For their new production of "Don Quixote" the collective has been experimenting in a former office space owned by a friend of the group who allows them to use it for free.
The piece is a monologue, a kind of scenic road movie which the collective would ideally like to stage within a large department store. Unusual settings are nothing new for the producers at Blitz. They seek proximity to their audience and have in the past staged productions in private rooms, museums and even streets - more of often than not in the border zone between theater and reality.
The latest production entitled "Galaxy" was staged in the Benaki Museum in Athens. It was a scenic improvisational piece about the prominent and the unknown dead, about things which
no longer exist. Every actor decides for themselves who or what they would like to reference, from Janis Joplin, Sophocles and Pina Bausch to atomic bombs and a light bulb banned by the EU.
It was a cosmos of collective cultural memories and - most importantly - done on a budget. Six actors and one cue card - theater people need no more than that. The collective is currently developing a German version of Galaxy at the Schaubühne in Berlin. The contact to the director of the Schaubühne, Thomas Ostermeier, was established after a chance meeting at a demonstration in Athens last year.
The crisis, in particular the deterioration of German-Greek relations, has afforded the Blitz Collective special attention in Germany. They recently presented their work in Berlin as part of a "crisis festival" event. Around 300 people attended the show in order to gain a perspective on the situation of theater producers in Greece and to challenge the rampant prejudices which exist in both countries. A paradoxical situation, since the members of Blitz Collective do not consider themselves to be representative of the Greek cultural scene. They are averse to every form of the increasingly nationalistic thinking and feeling in the country.
At the same time, they are fully aware of the fact that the crisis has provided them with more tours across Europe than ever before. For a long time people in Greece felt isolated in relation to the current streams of cultural scenes in other countries, Christos lamented. Europe was outside of Greece. Even now, young people talk about going to Europe when traveling to France or Germany.
'Porsches, blonds and heroin'
The theater producers at Blitz Collective naturally wish for cultural investment similar to that in other EU states, not least in Germany. But they do not expect that to happen any time soon. For many years they have staged pieces dealing with political relations, corruption and turning a blind eye, long before it became fashionable to do so, said Christos and Giorgos.
Suddenly, politicians are lining up to criticize these things as if they never knew they were happening. Their anger towards the political classes, as well as the 1990s lifestyle of "Porsches, blond women and heroin" is palpable. To join the current canon of protests would be too tacky for them. They are only interested in the concrete improvement of their production standards.
In that, they are not alone. Over the course of the last few years, a new movement in theater has emerged: in November the group Kinisi-Mavili occupied the empty Embros Theater to highlight the fact that experimental theater, that which generates little income, had no home in Athens. The group was forced to stage their productions in spaces rented from private owners. That led to financial pressure which limited the exploration of new aesthetic forms.
The Mavili theater activists managed to fill exactly this gap with their occupation of Embros Theater. The response to their 12-day End Festival in 2011 was overwhelming. Theater groups, performances, dances pieces, discussions and rallies where staged relying solely on visitor donations. The Blitz Collective, now a part of the Mavili network, also participated with a public trial-run of their version of "Don Quixote."
Whether or not Embros can be expanded into a permanent theater production site remains to be seen. The theater is currently in state ownership and like many other buildings is to be sold to reduce the economic deficit. The ministry of culture knows we desperately need a place like Embros and we are not going to leave of our own accord, said Anestis, a director and one of the eight activists from Mavili.
It may sound cynical, but the crisis has given fresh impetus to the cultural scene in Athens, thanks to the rediscovery of new, "old" values like solidarity, practical cooperation and the fundamental critique of culture. These are values which the Blitz Collective have always adhered to since their formation and which feed in to a broader movement in society.
Author: Andrea Kasiske / hw
Editor: Kate Bowen