The course of contemporary Cypriot theatre is inextricably linked—as is the case with all forms of art—with the modern history of the country. The island of Cyprus gained its independence as late as 1960 following an armed struggle which led to the ending of British colonization, only to lose its territorial integrity in 1974 as a result of the Turkish military invasion. The invasion resulted in the division of the island between the “north” (the area under Turkish occupation) and the “south” (the area remaining under the effective control of the Republic of Cyprus), a de facto situation that is still in effect today. On a cultural level and, more specifically, in the realm of theatre, the Turkish invasion on the one hand halted the flourishing which began in the 1960s—that culminated in the establishment of the semi-governmental Cyprus Theatre Organisation (THOC) in 1971, as well as a number of other independent theatres—and, on the other, supplied Cypriot playwrights with subject matter that stemmed from the traumatic experiences of the war.
However, while the new political and social realities ensuing from the Turkish invasion gave new impetus to local dramaturgy, at the same time, the long post-traumatic period resulted in the new production getting trapped in the specific subject matter, delaying its engagement in other, more contemporary topics.
Breaking away from this tendency started becoming more obvious mainly after 2000, with the appearance of a new generation of playwrights, whose work has been characterized by profound signs of experimentation, both in the themes tackled—which became more comprehensive, posed existential, political and social questions, and raised contemporary issues—as well as in the formand language—which became more elliptical and evocative. A few such examples are Kostas Mannouris, Antonis Georgiou, George Trillides, CharalambosYiannou, Melina Papageorgiou and Michalis Papadopoulos, as well as Evridiki Perikleous Papadopoulou and Konstantia Soteriou, who originated from the area of poetry and prose.
With regard to the overall development of theatre, and especially the performing part, a major boost was given by the adoption of a new method of theatre subsidization by THOC, which, operating in the context of the Ministry of Education and Culture, is called to undertake multiple roles: the promotion of the art of theatre, the development of theatre through the subsidizing of independent theatre groups, the support of other kinds of organizations that relate to theatre (for instance, the Cyprus Theatre Museum, which was inaugurated in the town of Limassol in 2012) and the co-operation with the Ministry on policy and development issues.
In this context, in 2002 (until 2014) THOC implemented three annual subsidy plans which distinguished theatre groups according to their organizational structure, providing financial support to them. The adoption of new (specific, objective and methodical) criteria for the subsidized theatre groups, gradually changed the theatrical landscape bringing to the fore a number of new theatre groups with a very different profile, as well as artists with specialized education, overseas influences, innovative ideas and a variety of different approaches. The number of new productions increased sharply, as also did the interest of the audience which gradually began to have higher expectations of the end product.
The next two major breakthroughs in the theatrical life of the country, which brought about an impressive growth in all areas, took place in 2012 and 2015. In 2012, the co-operation between THOC and the Cyprus Centre of the International Theatre Institute resulted in the setting up of a programme (initially named “Play”; later renamed “Play On”) with the goal of pursuing the writing of original plays by local playwrights. The first call for the submission of applications took place in autumn 2012, with 84 participations, while a year later, and following months of processing and improvement of the plays in collaboration with a group of consultants, 14 of them were presented in the form of staged readings by professional directors and actors.
Until the present date, the programme has been providing a major impetus to local dramatists because, through it, they can achieve the staging of their plays, the reason being that the staged readings carried out in the context of the programme offered the possibility to a large number of directors to come into contact with the specific plays. During the last five years, the participation in the programme has been remarkable, while more and more of these plays are being presented by independent theatres as well as new theatre groups.
The second breakthrough came in 2015, when THOC implemented a new subsidy programme under the name of THIMELI. This is a single subsidy plan that relates to all professional theatre organizations and theatre groups. Through THIMELI, THOC retains the lion’s share of the financial support on the island, with an annual amount in the range of 1,180,000 euros.Every application is assessed with criteria that attach particular importance to quality, organization, proposed activities for attracting audience, decentralization, professionalism, etc.
To put it in numbers, in 2015, out of 79 applications, 57 productions were finally subsidized, in 2016, out of a total of 116, subsidies went to 45, and in 2017, out of 85 applications, financial support was granted to 55 of them. If we take into account the size of the island (total population is around 840,000) the number of applications is impressive. Of course, the fact that, gradually, the increase in the number of successful applications claiming a subsidy has been exceeding the increase in the amount available has meant that the amount received by each production has, on average, dropped.
The provision of financial support even to small, newly-established groups, without permanent home, has dramatically changed the theatrical landscape, bringing to the fore a new generation of people of the theatre, many of whom had been active in the field even before THIMELI, but with no steady presence. New directors, among whom a good number of women (examples of which are: Leandros Taliotis, Paris Erotokritou, Marios Mettis, Evripides Dikeos, Maria Mannaridou Karsera, Magdalena Zira, Athena Kassiou, Marios Kakoullis, Andreas Araouzos, Kostas Silvestros, Emilios Charalambides, Alexia Papalazarou, Maria Kyriakou and Athena Xenidou), supported by new stage designers, costume designers, light designers and musicians, who, to a large extent, carry experiences from other countries, venture to set up small independent theatre groups, and, through a tendency for experimentation, which becomes obvious even from the very selection of their theatrical spaces (mainly warehouses, factory facilities in industrial areas, bars, abandoned buildings, bookshops, museums, private houses, amusement parks), seek new means of expression, both through the theatrical form (performance, happenings, and site specific, devised and improvised theatre) and through their repertoire, contributing to theatrical pluralism and decentralization on the island.
Probably the most important contribution of these new groups is that they create opportunities for the new Cypriot playwrights to present their plays. The most widespread shift of the groups’ production towards local dramaturgy climaxed during the period 2016-17, when many of the plays presented a number of common trends: the return to “tradition” and the historical past of the country, either through the selection of the subject matter, or through the (conscious) opting for the use of the Cypriot dialect rather than the official (“Common”) Greek language. In other words, there was a tendency for re-examining and reassessing a series of political and social issues relating to Cypriot society through the eyes of a new generation of playwrights.
With regard to the subject matter, two trends were observed. The first one related to an attempt, on behalf of the playwrights, to return to the past, by dissociating themselves from the events, in a sober approach and, if possible, objectivity, and referring to real events and people, as well as sensitive historical moments (the struggle for independence of 1955-59, the inter-communal violence of 1963-64, the Turkish invasion of 1974). The plays that fall into this category are Nitsa by George Trillides, directed by Paris Erotokritou (Fresh Target Theatre Ensemble), and Tzemaligie and Ayşe Goes on Vacation, both written by Constantia Sotiriou and directed by Maria Mannaridou Karsera (Solo for Three, 2016).
The second trend related to a desire for returning to “roots,” a shift towards ethnography through the original testimonies of ordinary people, as well as a tendency for introspection and a nostalgic idealization of the country’s past and traditions. Under this category there come the plays Andronikos or The Painter, written by Evridiki Perikleous Papadopoulou and directed by Maria Mannaridou Karsera (Solo for Three); Womens’ Narrations, written by Niki Marangou and directed by Emilios Charalambides (Prima Lux); and A Photo Album Full of Stories, written by Antonis Georgiou and directed by Marios Kakoullis (Fresh Target Theatre). It is worth pointing out that, with the exception of Nitsa, all the above use the Cypriot dialect, broaching, in this way, one of the burning issues of society: whether it is appropriate for the local dialect to be used in the theatre.
Studying the reviews written for the above-mentioned performances, we note that not only have they been favorable to the efforts of those groups to raise awareness of the value of local dramaturgy, but also, with a view to welcoming and encouraging this shift, they have also bypassed any writing or stage-related mistakes, considering them negligible, especially after taking into account the vast strides that have been made in the field of playwriting during recent years, as well as the limited opportunities offered to it for staging its works. As far as the use of the Cypriot dialect is concerned, not only is this not considered to be disturbing, but it also seems to be gradually gaining in “seriousness,” of which it has been deprived, for a number of years, due to its identification with the comic and frivolous element, through satire.
The playwrights seem to be conquering their liberation through Cypriot dialect, which allows them to “speak” naturally and spontaneously. Likewise, Cypriot actors are called to express themselves on stage, in their natural, spoken language. Moreover, the audience—very diverse in terms of age (the young contributors seem to attract the young audience, while the themes chosen, as well as the shift towards the historical past, attract the older audience)— embraces these efforts with dedication and strong enthusiasm, as has been proven by the fact that all productions have been obliged to prolong their performance runs, or repeat them, due to high demand.
All these independent groups, together with the private theatres that have a permanent home (Theatre One, Dionisos, Satiriko, Anemona, SkalaLarnaca, ETHAL, MITOS), as well as THOC, make up today’s theatrical landscape in Cyprus. The dominant position is not associated with the national theatre (THOC) anymore, which, however, seems to be in continuous pursuit of change and improvement. Having acquired its permanent home in the centre of the capital, which hosts two separate stages (Main Stage and New Stage), since 2012, it has also been using an additional, more “alternative” space, the former warehouses of the Organization, which, starting in 2017, has become part of a new, ambitious programme, in the context of which a great number of new directors, actors, stage designers, musicians, choreographers, light designers, costume designers and visual artists have been given the opportunity to present contemporary works.
The Warehouse repertoire was temporally divided into two quarters: the first, under the name “Dubitanda” (October-December 2017), was entrusted to director Stefanos Droussiotis, and the second, entitled “The Guests’ Living Room” (February-May 2018), was assigned to director Panayiotis Larkou. Moreover, THOC changed the employment regime of its collaborators, abolishing the annual contracts and adopting contracts directly related to the duration of a specific production. Although this change has been unfair to a number of older actors who worked almost all their lives with THOC, it favored other actors, younger ones.
The intense activity of all bodies, theatre organizations and groups, during the period September 2016 to December 2017, resulted in about 105 professional performances for adults, out of which 8 were THOC productions, 40 of them were delivered by theatre companies with a permanent home, and all the rest, that is, about half of them, belonged to small independent groups, most of which have no permanent home. It is worth noting that, out of a total of 105 theatrical productions, only 22 of them were associated with theatres from towns other than Nicosia (for instance, Limassol, Larnaca and Paphos), although many of the capital’s performances often travel to the other towns. From the above numbers are excluded all performances that took part in festivals (such as the Ancient Drama Festival, which is organized every summer by the Cyprus Centre of the International Theatre Institute, and the “Cypria” International Cultural Festival),as well as the numerous performances coming from Greece that are being hosted every year in Cyprus.
According to a review of the current theatrical season so far, it is estimated that the final, total number of productions will far exceed that of last year. Of course, the level of the overall result is not uniform across performances and, indeed, often they are not up to expectations. However, there is progress and improvement, and a number of factors contribute to this: professionalism, training experiences from abroad, collaboration and joining of forces.
Undoubtedly, there are numerous problems in the field of theatre and the majority of people in this field struggle for survival on a daily basis. Needs also continue to be numerous: the need for a more specific and coherent policy by the national theatre, the need for the setting-up of a university-level state acting school, the need for increase in salaries as well as subsidies, the need for spreading Cypriot theatre to overseas audiences. However, there is a wind of change blowing. Cypriot society changes and modernizes, and with it, so do the interests and concerns of the world of theatre which seems to be striving—oat great personal cost and sacrifice—to leave its mark, break with the past in a creative way, challenge older beliefs, redefine its role and establish its contemporary identity.
*Maria Hamali studied Modern and Byzantine Greek Literature, and obtained a Master’s Degree, followed by a PhD, in Theatre Studies from the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens. Since 2003, she has been working in secondary education in Cyprus, teaching Modern and Ancient Greek, as well as Theatre History. For the last two years she has also been a regular contributor to one of the major newspapers in Cyprus as a theatre critic.