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Sailing theater troupe brings Homer to refugees on Lesbos

Andrea Kasiske / ad
June 20, 2016

Is theater what people in desperate situations need? An EU-funded theater group is traveling around Greece on a sailboat - and has been well received among refugees on the island of Lesbos.

Participants in the Meeting the Odyssey theater project, Copyright: DW/A.Kasiske
Image: DW/A. Kasiske

"We are involved with politics at a high level," says Matilda von Weissenberg with a chuckle. Her job isn't anything like that of UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, who recently visited a refugee camp on Lesbos, but she's convinced that it's just as important.

The Finnish tour manager succeeded at the last minute in getting approval for her theater troupe to visit the Kara Tepe refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos. After arriving at the port, it took several days for the troup from the European theater ship "Hoppet" to set up its performances.

Von Weissenberg says that things weren't any easier in Italy last year, but that the troupe's current through Greece was even more chaotic as far as logistics and organization were concerned.

For the past two summers, the theater project "Meeting the Odyssey" with actors from a total of eight countries has been touring Europe by ship, giving workshops and presenting various plays inspired by Homer's "Odyssee."

The shifting tides of European politics

Italian director Michele Losi, one of the initiators of the European Union-sponsored theater endeavor, explains that early on the issues at hand were the economic crisis and the gap between North and South in Europe.

But now that Europe is facing a fresh set of challenges - with newly erected frontiers and rising nationalisms, accompanied by the threat of European disintegration - the project has became more political, he adds. It soon became clear to the theater team that in Greece they wanted to incorporate refugees into their work.

Meeting the Odyssey theater sailboat Hoppet, Copyright:
The EU theater ship "Hoppet" is currently touring the MediterraneanImage: E. Li

How will the audience respond?

The 10 actors at the Kara Tepe refugee camp feel a bit insecure. But while they are still waiting for instructions from the camp management, they make first contact with some of the children who are fascinated by the actors' flutes. One of the boys, who had just bullied around another boy in the camp a moment before, is drawn to Ernie Li's camera. The documentary filmmaker, who is accompanying the project, snaps some great shots.

Participants in the Meeting the Odyssey theater project, Copyright: DW/A.Kasiske
Music is a big part of theater in the Kara Tepe refugee camp on LesbosImage: DW/A.Kasiske

"Our project has now arrived in reality," says Ernie Li. At first, it had all seemed like a "utopian cultural festival" to her. She came all the way from China, paying for the trip herself, in order to document the theater voyage. Last year in Italy and France, the group performed in a blue-collar district, where the audience had never had anything to do with theater before, and the group also gave workshops.

At that time, she wondered whether these people didn't have greater needs than theater. But the reactions were predominantly positive. One girl, the daughter of a fisherman, was so enthusiastic about the theater group that she helped distribute free tickets for the show.

Now, Ernie Li is curious about the response of the refugees on Lesbos. Finnish actress Maria Ahlrath is a bit nervous. She is worried that the kids might run onto the stage, and that the whole thing would end in chaos. And she wonders whether anyone will turn up at all.

Refugees continue with theater

Despite the performers' concerns, half of the camp residents show up in the evening, largely thanks to the young photographer Ernie Li who spread the word.

Their play, "Memories of Life," is all about growing old, remembering and losing memories. The atmosphere is somewhat uneasy, with children running around among the audience and even onto the stage, but fortunately there is a lot of music in the play. The audience seems to appreciate the music and applauds frequently.

Meeting the Odyssey performance on Lesbos, Copyright: C. Djeddah Losi
Nearly half the residence of the Kara Tepe camp turned out for the showImage: Meeting the Odyssey

"In our country, there was no room for plays, dreams and theater, and the same goes for the camps," recounts Mohamed in perfect English. The young man in his early 20s is from Syria. He is taking part in one of the workshops offered by the Italian directors Gian Carlo and Lino Losi. The five-day course consists of theater exercises, improvisation, and group exercises, all taking place on the open stage of the Castle of Mytilini.

In the workshop, a stick is turned into an instrument for pantomime, for example, for telling stories and singing songs. Some of the boys find the whole thing embarrassing at first, but they all came back, along with some girls from Eritrea. The group calls itself Dragonteam.

By now, quite a few of the refugees seem to have taken a liking to theater, and they've even vowed to continue rehearsing after the theater ship leaves Lesbos on Tuesday (21.06.2016).

Meeting the Odyssey theater workshops in the Castle of Mytilini, Copyright: DW/A.Kasiske
Theater workshops take place in the Castle of MytiliniImage: DW/A. Kasiske

Theater dreams against borders

"We cannot save the world with our theater," says tour manager Matilda von Weissenberg. "But perhaps we can give something back to these people who have lost all hope - like dreams or a goal."

One of the young refugees wants to become an actor. Now he's even better equipped to reach his goal. The theater ship "Hoppet" will conclude tour in the port of Ikaria at the end of July.

Despite all the challenges, the project was worth the effort, says Ernie Li, adding that it has also helped her make new friends from all over Europe.

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