City Narratives in European Performances of Crisis: The Examples of Athens and Nicosia
This paper discusses the ways in which the physical environment of urban centers in the European South has in the recent years borne witness to the multiple facets of crisis (social-political, financial and cultural) that has defined the second decade of the twenty-first century. In Greece, the epicentre of Europe’s contemporary predicaments, Athens has become the locus of vibrant, diverse theatre activity—both local and international—that seems to respond to crisis from within. In tandem with the new multicultural neighborhoods, there is a conspicuous movement from the center to the periphery of the city: out-of-the way neighborhoods, industrial or run down, have become gentrified, largely due to the migration of local artistic activity. At the same time, the crisis-ridden landscape of unemployment, homelessness, refugee mobility and despair has provided a theatrical background that hosts a variety of cultural activities. The theatre goes out in the streets and the poorer parts of the city to meet the problem, if not to rigorously confront it. Further South, in Cyprus, traditionally associated with a history of political and territorial struggle, the divided capital of Nicosia is delivering its own borders to theatrical activity, palpably illustrating the interconnectedness between conflict and culture. In this respect, functioning both as a physical and as a psychological symbol of separation, the United Nations Buffer Zone area has recently been used as a natural setting for staging perennial utopias of reconciliation through a very contemporary political lens.
Keywords: Theatre, cities, participation, crisis, Athens, Nicosia
In 2019, ten years after the outbreak of the sovereign crisis, which inevitably led to deep recession, with relentless budget cuts, overwhelmingly high taxation and a prolonged period of social instability in Greece,[[i]] Athens is still characterized by the extremities of urban life, by which a significant part of the population is afflicted; namely, criminal activity, involuntary mobility, homelessness and drug addiction, among others.
In a city that has come to be identified as the epicentre of the European crisis—what had started as a fiscal deadlock in the European South, was aggravated by the migration crisis of 2015 and culminated in a shocking loss of faith in a conceivably potent institution that could support its member states—theatre practice has nevertheless flourished, engaging the polis both in literal and metonymic terms. The unprecedented surge of urban creativity is proof of the city’s resistance to the overriding national gloom, the result of unemployment rates that reached as high as 50 percent among the young Greeks and one third of the country’s population living beyond poverty line.
Emergent forms of performance, which blend intermedial, durational, participatory, site-specific and immersive forms with elements of documentary and protest theatre, reveal Greek artists’ desire to awaken the spectators to their transformed cultural habitat. Performance takes to the streets and enters society by putting different neighborhoods right in the middle of conflict and dramatizing its diverse cultural micro-narratives. The city becomes a privileged forum for political expression. After all, the links between city, culture and theatre are strong and run deep into history.
Theatrical development has followed the way cities were conceived, formed and redesigned across the ages. Especially in the West, as Stanton Garner suggested, theatre has always been intricately tied to the city and its forms of culture, following the progression(s) of Western urbanism, from as early back as in the time of the Athenian civic and religious festivals (95). In some ways, creating new experiences for the audience, where the city is an active participant, radicalizes Erika Fischer-Lichte’s dictum that theatrical performance must “reckon with the bodily co-presence of performers and spectators in a given space, whose encounter impels both confrontation and interaction” (qtd. in Landry 9).
The Greek crisis has brought about a conspicuous movement from the centre to the periphery: out-of-the way neighborhoods, industrial or run down, have become gentrified, largely due to the migration of local artistic activity. Abandoned warehouses or stores have been transformed into fully operational small theatres, which attract smaller-scale, smaller-budget theatre works. In tandem with the new multicultural neighborhoods and the restoration or fresh use of existing buildings, the dismal scene of unemployment, violence and despair has functioned as a living backdrop in several artistic initiatives that expand traditional notions of representing the tragic through text alone: the ailing yet resistant metropolis now becomes a witness but also an accomplice to the diverse forms of cultural, social and political upheaval that have historically affected the lives of the Athenian citizens. In a capital whose social and cultural divide is geographically pronounced, contemporary theatre cannot help but reveal the boundaries that divide the rich, the neo-poor and the destitute: the paradox lies in the fact that, while attempting to represent the lives of marginalized communities that live in poverty and fear, this art is primarily addressed to a sophisticated clientele, inhabiting the more affluent parts of town.
Both the centre, where mainstream art continues to reign, but also the suburbs, off the beaten track, are reconceptualized and revisited to release latent urban imaginaries and cultural counter-geographies. The more adventurous seem to concur that exciting theatre takes place away from the proscenium and the black box which can render the spectators passive absorbers of spectacle, without motivating them to any form of social or political action. This kind of non-theatrical theatre is highly influenced also by what has been characterized as a “sense of place,” an experience of spatiality which is “determined by personal experiences, social interactions, and identities” (Adams et al. 68). In cities, such sense of place is where history and the present, culture and daily life come together. It shifts according to a variety of factors, including changed political and economic circumstances, immigration waves, gentrification and urban planning. Undoubtedly, the city can be viewed as a space “where everything means more than one thing.” It can be “an objective thought and a subjective experience, a charged and symbolic thing, as well as a real, material, lived, reality” (Gallagher and Neelands 152). Its endless interpretative possibilities are precisely what can turn it into such an attractive stage, where political debate can be instigated.
Theatricalizing Urban Crises
Many performances in Athens, a city of remarkable diversity as well as contradictions, have reformulated the historical significance of some of its most representative sites, such as Syntagma, Omonia and Monastiraki Squares, as well as the Port of Piraeus. To that cause, the annual Fast Forward Festival organized by the Onassis Cultural Centre has been instrumental. Indeed, most of the productions referred to in this paper were part of that festival.
In 2014, Dutch artist Dries Verhoeven created No-Man’s-Land, a political intervention in the form of a peripatetic performance in the centre of Athens, which brought together twenty audience members and twenty immigrants/political refugees residing in the city. This unique “tour” allowed the “watchers” to listen, by means of an iPod to the story of the one refugee they had been assigned to as a guide. The walk started in Monastiraki Square, in front of one of the busiest metro stations in town, and one of the most telling examples of Athens’ multi-lingual, multi-cultural life, at the foot of the Acropolis Hill. The audience members were soon paired off with a refugee guide, whose story they followed in their headphones, thus establishing a personal relationship to each other that developed gradually against the rhythms of such a hectic area. In the end of the walk, all the participants came back together in one group. Ironically, the spectators-citizens of Athens were shown around their own city by people who had been forced to leave their countries, making the Greek capital their new home.
After No Man’s Land, Verhoeven revisited the crisis scene of Athens, staging an immersive visit to a “haunted house” he had set up on Syntagma (Constitution) Square, traditionally the locus of the multiple forms of protest in Greece since 2009. Verhoeven’s performance installation Phobiarama uses the structure of a ghost train onto which a small number of passengers embark in pairs, to travel through different termini of personal and collective fears. Several instances of world terrorism, collapse of political certainty, rise of populist voices, extreme national introversion were either projected on the various screens of the dark maze or were embodied by threatening human or animal figures that emerged suddenly from the different alcoves of the pop-up space.
Again, Verhoeven’s choice was highly ironic: Syntagma Square, which houses Greece’s parliament, is known to be the centre par excellence of Greece,a bustling meeting place, and, given the recent protests, also a site of democratic expression. However, as the artist seems to suggest, underneath that lurks the unknown terror that seeps through our precarious identities. Syntagma, a quasi-protected area of affluence, where the life of the entire country is decided, is just as vulnerable to harsh reality breaking in at any moment: riots, street violence and even suicide have made their presence felt among Athenian citizens and the thousands of tourists that visit the Greek capital each year. The choice of site is therefore a potent ideological statement that “the centre cannot hold.”
Cultural actions of a different sort, which seem to underline the city’s gradual disintegration, have been organized around Omonia, another socially and ideologically stigmatized square of Athens. Omonia is indeed counterpart to Syntagma Square; once a strolling ground for the middle classes, it now functions as a powerful geographical and emotional border between the vibrant business, political and administrative centre and those regions of the city where the “other half” lives. A place for the homeless, the poor, drug dealers and users, Omonia and its circumference are also the provisional abode of the refugee populations newly arriving to Athens via Piraeus. In more recent years, it has been quite fittingly adopted by Greek and international artists as a cultural monument to the country’s decay and the foster home of crisis. In 2017, German visual artist Gregor Schneider’s Invisible City effectively covered the entire Omonia Square, “so it disappears from the watchful eye of satellites.”
Schneider’s camouflaging one of Athens’ most emblematic squares, bridging the visible and the invisible, the private with the public, produced a nearly hallucinatory effect to all Athenians: the daily hordes of busy passers-by on their way to work, the starved outcasts, heroin addicts and street peddlers, the illegal immigrants on the lookout for a temporary home and employment, in one way or another became active spectators, left with a number of unarticulated what-ifs that related to the city’s as well as their own utopias of a better future.
Omonia has also been used as a performance site for more global forms of crisis. In one of the semi-derelict hotels around the square, Classical Acropol Hotel, twelve international artists hosted a series of stylistically diverse installations. Under the title Don’t Follow the Wind, those works were built upon the concept of exclusion zones, bearing visual and audio references to both Greece and Japan, and drawing on the nuclear catastrophe of Fukushima in March 2011. For that project, the abandoned Acropol thus served as a disturbing reminder of better times in the past, a testament to the horrors of a no longer sustainable present.
In the southern part of the city, the port of Piraeus, an iconic site of mobility and transition has served as an ideal, if unsettling, “theatrical scene,” where the drama of up-rooting can be re-enacted. Piraeus, Greece’s biggest port, has borne the brunt of the unprecedented highs of immigration waves in the country, peaking in 2015. Images of refugees stranded in the port in limbo have undoubtedly affected artistic creation on an international level. In 2017, in the Stone Warehouse at the Port, South African director and visual artist Brett Bailey created a vivid tableau entitled “Sanctuary,” inspired by the mythical Minotaur’s labyrinth. It was intended to depict the perilous journey of migrants and refugees, as well as represent “the European Union in crisis.”
Also of special interest to the refugee crisis, the invited Piraeus/Heterotopia (2017), by Japanese theatre-maker Akira Takayama, had the audiences, “equipped with smartphones, specially designed apps and maps . . . embark on the re-discovery of Piraeus and its long migration and refugee history” (“FFF4. Piraeus Heterotopia”). Heterotopia seemed indeed a perfect frame for delivering the mixture of harsh realities with the cultural assumptions and imaginaries of what could be perceived to be a liminal site. As Takayama explained,
When researching the Heterotopia in Athens, I realized I wanted to set it in a port town. The port of Piraeus was once connected to Athens by walls and had a key relationship to the city; it also served as a gate to Europe. I would say these selections come about from thinking about European geography. (92)
Several peripatetic projects, commissioned by the Onassis Cultural Centre Fast Forward Festival, emerged from the desire to push theatrical activity beyond the well-frequented city limits. In 2015, X Apartments, a so-called “Urban Happening,” curated by Matthias Lillienthal, invited fifteen international artists from different fields to rethink and design different environments for different spaces in the poorer parts of Athens—those that tourists never reach. Instigated in 2002, the project has been staged in different cities around the world. According to the festival, the production focuses on “unseen aspects of Athens and on the complex phenomenon of shared city space, essaying an alternative anthropogeographical approach to our urban landscape” (“FFF2. X-Apartments”). The element of authenticity is here of key importance. Participation is meant to acquaint us with the narratives that can be hidden underneath unexplored places of the city. The private lives behind doors were “invaded” by the presence of visitors, who were surprised by the secrets contained within those semi-derelict buildings, streets and warehouses of the less frequented parts of town.
Another such excursion to the city “entrails” was commissioned by the Fast Forward 2017 to Zoe Demetriou, a conceptual artistic and choreographer from Greece. In Peregrinus, a site-specific performance, Athenian audiences travelled around the city in a van, destined to arrive to the performance venue. While on the road, the spectators listen to recordings of “real experiences of peregrination and pilgrimage, of heightened senses and a longing for familiarity” (“Perergrinus”). Upon arrival, they are made witness to an art installation resembling a labyrinth, in which they are invited to become “both spectator and pilgrim” (“Perergrinus”).
While the list of such theatrical engagements with site in Athens seems ever expanding, special mention should be made to the important role of city-site in the theatre scene of Cyprus, a country torn by a long history of political and territorial struggle. Recently, the divided capital of Nicosia has been delivering its own borders to theatrical activity, palpably illustrating the interconnectedness between conflict and culture.
Functioning both as a physical and as a psychological symbol of separation, the United Nations Buffer Zone area has been used as a powerful setting for staging perennial utopias of reconciliation through a very contemporary political lens. In the years following the economic crisis of 2013, a number of performances in Cyprus have engaged with site in an attempt to provide reenactments of historical and political events of significance. Those were often complex encounters or collisions between the historical and the contemporary, the imagined and the lived experience. There were in fact several site-specific projects addressing Cyprus’ days of economic turmoil following the austerity measures imposed by the Memorandum that had been signed between the government and the European creditors. For example, Paravan Proactions’ production of Nicolai Gogol’s The Coat (2013) took place in an historic posh coffeehouse in Leoforos Makariou, one of Nicosia’s most central avenues and former centre of commercial activity, sadly fallen into disuse due to the financial crisis. Vaults Impromptu, also by Paravan Proactions (2015), was staged in the basement of one of the many branches of the Bank of Cyprus, which had been shut down due to the recession.
However, the crisis in Cyprus has always been that of division and geopolitical conflict. A powerful symbol of this division, the Buffer Zone, also known as “The Green Line,” was first created in Nicosia in 1963, because of the tensions recorded in the Greek and Cypriot communities. Following the ceasefire in 1974, it has expanded throughout the island, dividing the southern from the northern part, its guarding having been assigned to the UN. Significantly, two productions that were recently presented on this actual “border” between the southern and the northern part of Nicosia were amply applauded for daring to voice subtly but firmly a largely shared desire for peace and rapprochement.
More specifically, Shift (2014), a Rooftop Theatre Group’s site-specific production, the result of a collaboration between Greek and Turkish Cypriot theatre-makers, directed by the Turkish Cypriot artist Gülgün Kayim, took part in the Buffer Zone area of Ledra Palas in Nicosia. The performance, run in English, was based on narratives, sounds and images associated with information on the context and the construction of the Buffer Zone in 1963, excerpts from the play Picnic in the Battlefield (1961) by Spanish absurdist writer Fernando Arrabal, field recordings from the area and its environs, interviews with the former home owners and research on the history of the neighboring buildings. While inspired by the Spanish Civil War, the production aptly used the actual geographical border of the capital of Cyprus to visually put out a highly political commentary. Its significance lies in bringing the two communities together, especially during a time dominated by repeatedly failed rounds of negotiations for the reunification of the two sides (Greek and Turkish) in the island. Here, geography functions both as a physical and a psychological symbol.
Magdalena Zira’s staging of Euripides’ Iphigenia at Aulis on the Green Line (2017) was based on a similar rationale: Ledra Palace Hotel and the abandoned neoclassical buildings of occupied Nicosia became the background for the action, which happened in the car park across. The use of such controversial locale served as a constant reminder of the cynical mechanics of power. The director viewed the Buffer Zone as another kind of Aulis, a liminal spot where time and space have stopped, where waiting seems endless, where memory is reconceptualized ad infinitum. In Zira’s words:
According to the myth, in Aulis, where the Greek soldiers are assembled right before the Trojan War, and where the entire fleet is trapped due to adverse weather conditions, there is an endless wait that leads to a loss of rational thinking. It is a liminal, a non-space or a space determined by the desires, memories and obsessions with a vague past or an undefined future. Time has stopped in Aulis, and so has logic. This is why the line of cease-fire, which splits Nicosia into two, appears ideal. Not because of a direct correspondence with the expedition to Troy, but because in this particular spot of our city, just like in Aulis, time has stopped, and the issue of memory becomes central: it is the memory that is constructed and also inherited, memory that blends with myth. (Interview at Dialogos, my translation)
In this no-man’s land, memory blends with myth, as Euripides’ war play is set against a powerfully affective boundary, living testimony of the two communities’ failure to (re)connect.
Making theatre in the public sphere is concerned with revealing and authenticating our position as urban citizens both locally and globally, and seems more than ever intended as a communal act of resistance. Following on the European centre’s steps, performance in the crisis and conflict-fraught capitals of Athens and Nicosia is defined by a desire to forge new aesthetics of expression, which aim to dramatize the lives of the socially marginalized communities, exploring neighborhoods of the city where experiences of loss and crisis are freely aired.
It may be argued that the future of the theatre exists in the cracks, in the corners, in the stiches. Not only does performance thrive in hybridity, it also stipulates that form echoes content, that the content can be endlessly produced in its interaction with the form. In times and places of extreme crisis, theatre suffocates within normative paradigms of dramaticity, struggling to escape fixed architectural borders, so that it can capture the restlessness of twenty-first-century globalized, traumatized, a-cultural-ized, fear-ridden experience. The wealth of formal discourses, most of which featuring vigorous intermedial experiments, suggests that we have moved beyond the site-specific as a stylistic—more or less standard—strategy of placing texts in authentic contexts, to a performative model that borrows elements from the environment—and, more specifically, from urban loci—to comment on the new, fluctuating identities of the crisis cities. The trend points towards a new poetics of urban theatre, where such identities can be validated artistically. More than ever before, to create, to speak and to involve become political acts, translated into an urgent desire to invite audiences to participate, even if indirectly, in the public sphere. By his/her sheer presence, the city-spectator can now claim a share of awareness, presence and active being, the first steps that can potentially produce agents of social and political change.
[[i]] The Greek debt crisis concerns the amount of money that Greece owed the European Union between 2008 and 2018. As the deficit was spiralling, the Greek state was unable to repay its debts. The viability of the Eurozone was threatened, and a bailout followed suit. More than 320 billion euros have been loaned to Greece, in return for severe austerity measures, which forced the country into deep recession.
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*Avra Sidiropoulou is Assistant Professor at the M.A. in Theatre Studies Programme at the Open University of Cyprus and artistic director of Athens-based Persona Theatre Company. She is the author of two monographs: Directions for Directing: Theatre and Method, published by Routledge (2018), and Authoring Performance: The Director in Contemporary Theatre, published by Palgrave Macmillan (2011). She has also contributed articles and chapters to several international peer-reviewed journals and edited volumes. Avra has directed, conducted practical workshops and delivered invited lectures in different parts of the globe. She was a Visiting Researcher at MIT and at the Martin E. Segal Centre (City University of New York), as well as at the Institute of Theatre Studies (Freie University in Berlin), the Centre for Global Shakespeare (Queen Mary University in London) and the Universities of Surrey, Leeds and Tokyo (in the last case, as a Japan Foundation Fellow). As a director, she has staged performances (both independently and with Athens-based Persona Theatre Company) internationally: most recently, A Doll’s House,in a free adaptation in Technochoros Ethal, Cyprus; the multimedia production Phaedra I,in London; and Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, in Limassol and Nicosia (2019). She is currently engaged in an OUC-funded research project entitled Mapping “Crisis Theatre on the Contemporary European Stage: Theatrical Representations of the Refugee/Immigration Problem; Global Terrorism and World Financial Crisis.”
Copyright © 2019 Avra Sidiropoulou
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