Post-Covid Theatre in Greece: Recovering (?) From Successive Crises

Lina Rosi*

Abstract

In this paper, I attempt to map the theatrical landscape in Greece and explore the imprint left by Covid 19. The pause imposed by the pandemic allowed for innovative modes of theatrical practice, including experimentation with digital technology as well as alternative methods of communication, and initiated a retrospective study of the aims and potential sources of support for artistic and cultural practice in general. With an eye to these concerns, I consider the responses of key participants, such as theatre practitioners, producers, the Ministry of Culture, the audience, critics, and scholars, as I discuss their efforts to understand and cope with the Covid crisis.  Evaluating the impact of the pandemic crisis, I review two distinct lines of thought.  First, I consider artistic trends that emerged during the post-Covid period; second, I examine deeper implications of the crisis that although they emerged as a side-effect they affected theatrical practice at a much deeper institutional level.

Keywords: theatre and covid 19, post-pandemic Greek theatre, #MeToo, professional precarity of theatre artists, performing arts and state funding

Covid 19 pandemic has clearly left a lasting imprint on the field of cultural practice, particularly in the performing arts. From the early days of the first lockdown, Spring 2020, pandemic-related closures called for innovative modes of theatrical activity involving experimentation with digital technology and the development of alternative methods of communication; most importantly, however, it initiated a process of retrospection of the aims and potential sources of support for artistic and cultural practice in general. The pandemic operated as an imposed disruption, forcing all those involved to pause their usual activity and “make sense” of this new reality by devising alternative ways of understanding and performing art.[1]

This process of retrospection took the form of an ongoing dialogue among theatre practitioners, critics, and scholars. In most countries both the early reactions and measures taken as well as the major artistic directions that followed in the aftermath of this disruption share many common traits.  The main arguments concerning the artistic aspects of theatre practice focus on the ontology of the performing event and on the extent to which digitalisation will alter in the future the liveness defining communication between the performer and the spectator. In another line of research, theatre scholars discuss the institutional structure of theatre, particularly in relation to state funding (Balme 178).  Among other things, the pandemic crisis has clearly exposed the financial precarity performing art professionals experience.

However, as the dialogue is ongoing, any efforts to identify and discuss the extent of this impact on the present can only be provisional. As I focus on the state of Greek theatre in the early post-Covid phase, I examine how all those concerned, i.e., theatre practitioners, producers, the Ministry of Culture, the audience, critics, and scholars, responded to this disruption. More specifically, I attempt to describe the various effects of the crisis on the performing arts and its resulting consequences for Greek theatre during the past three years. As noted above, the measures taken in response to the pandemic were similar in most countries.  However, in Greece, the Covid-crisis has evolved somewhat differently, as it followed the ten-year period of the debt-crisis which had deeply affected all levels of Greek society and fields of cultural production.[2]

In his discussion of theatre practice during and after the global pandemic, Christopher Balme explains the complexity of crisis as a concept which signals a state of reversal and danger yet also implies an immediate reaction that seeks ways to discover new directions and a resolution of reversal. Emphasizing the different temporalities involved, Balme underscores the close association between present conditions imposed by the crisis and future prospects of overcoming such conditions.[3] This kind of prospective thinking runs through many of the arguments proposed in this debate, in which long-term suggestions have been prioritized by many participants. Savas Patsalidis expresses a similar idea, suggesting that the pandemic may be seen as both a curse and a blessing: although the Covid crisis defined a distressing professional setting which aggravated pre-existing problems in the theatre, it might also be seen “as a blessing,” provided that artists both recognize and embrace these “prospects and promises” as creative incentives (2021).

The term explosion has also been used to characterize the dynamics and violence of total reversal. In their application of this metaphor, Signy Lynch and Thea Fitz James deemphasize the catastrophic effects of explosion while foregrounding its resulting incentives for future rebuilding. This notion was initially used in the title of a special issue of the Canadian Theatre Review on the “explosion” of traditional theatre and its  “regathering” in a new interdisciplinary form of performance practice; when the pandemic erupted, the semantic range of explosion was extended to include the material conditions of culture in general.[4] The metaphor of regathering after numerous explosive events can also be applied to conceptualize the status quo of the performing arts in Greece before and after the pandemic, which was seriously challenged especially in terms of its material conditions and professional ethics.

Throughout the period of the pandemic, from 12 March 2020, when theatres first closed, to October 2021, when they resumed normal operation with legally mandated measures in place, most sectors of the theatre and performing arts faced numerous difficulties. Some of these were due to specific safety measures required, while others originated from unresolved issues of the past. These include the problems related to state funding and the precarious financial conditions of most theatre professionals, particularly actors, the professional hierarchy in place and the resulting unequal power relations, and the uncharted field of arts education, all of which further contributed to the overall condition of instability.

In Greece, the early reaction to the pandemic by artists, critics, and spectators followed a pattern similar to that reported in most other countries. During the first lockdown, spectators, “enclosed” in their homes, welcomed the first digital broadcasts of recent or older productions. The short break during Summer 2020 allowed them to return to the physical stage, wearing masks and keeping a distance. The Athens Festival presented a “fragment” of its initial programme, limited to music and theatre performances, exclusively in open-air spaces (Panagiotopoulou 2020).  With the goal of supporting the arts, the Ministry of Culture initiated the government programme “All of Greece One Culture,” featuring theatre, dance, musical performances and visual art exhibitions at archaeological sites throughout Greece. The idea has been to connect contemporary artistic practice with ancient or historical sites and monuments. The program “All of Greece One Culture” was repeated during the following years and attracted many participants from the theatre and performing arts.

Traces of Antigone by Christina Ouzounidis. Directed by Elli Papakonstantinou, ODC Ensemble. Physical version, premiere Romaeuropa Festival, October 2020. Greek premiere, Theatro tou Neou Kosmou, May 2022. Cast: Nalyssa Green, Serafita Grigoriadou Gemma Hansson Carbone, Valia Papachristou, Katerina Papachristou Sophia Manoli, Charikleia Petraki, Elli Papakonstantinou. Photo: Piero Tauro

When theatres closed again in October 2020, many productions were ready to premiere; consequently, several producers opted for live streaming, particularly state theatres such as the National Theatre. During this second lockdown period, some directors experimented more systematically with digital technology and alternative ways of staging performance events, resulting in original work such as Elli Papakonstantinou’s Traces of Antigone (2020) and Hotel Anti-Oedipus (2021), and Simos Kakalas production of a 19th-century text, Military Life in Greece (2021). Moreover, special emphasis was given to the reworking of radio theatre and the use of podcasts: for example, the Athens Epidaurus Festival commissioned a series of podcasts based on crime novels written by modern Greek novelists and staged by theatre directors, while Theatro Technis broadcast a series of radio plays (Ioannidis 2021, 108, 112-13).

During summer 2021, despite Covid measures, open-air theatres hosted numerous performances and most festivals were able to present their respective programmes. The Athens Epidaurus Festival and Katerina Evangelatos[5] introduced a new project called Contemporary Ancients where new plays based on Ancient Greek tragic myths were commissioned; these plays were staged on the Little Theatre of Ancient Epidaurus.[6] The festival programme continued through September, when most foreign productions were presented in Piraios 260, the Ancient Theatre of Epidaurus and the Odeon of Herodes Atticus (Panagiotopoulou 2021); the 2021 programme of the 56th Dimitria Festival in Thessaloniki was equally prolific.[7]

From October 2021 onward, theatres officially reopened, with a number of compulsory safety measures in place. Despite the fact that many performances, either repetitions or new productions, were planned and premiered, cancellations and cast replacements were very frequent because of confirmed Covid 19 cases. Due to the heavy financial burden inherited from the lockdown periods, many producers were forced to repeat older performances or make catchy repertory choices. While larger theatrical organisations were able to deal with these problems, smaller groups and venues faced serious difficulties (Karaoglou 2022).[8]

Achileus (Greece Suppliant) based on the 1804 play by Athanasios Christopoulos. Directed by Yiannis Skourletis, bijoux de kant. The production was part of the programme “All of Greece One Culture” (2021). Cast: Thanasis Dimou, Thanasis Dovris, Kostas Koutsolelos, Thanasis Vlavianos, Vasilis Ziakas, Flomaria Papadaki. Photo:Courtesy of bijoux de kant and Yiannis Skourletis

By summer 2022, after a two-year break, the theatre regained its creative force as live performance. Spectators enthusiastically returned to theatres which featured a variable repertory and a diversity of performing styles, and many young artists were able to present their work. At the same time, a new period of retrospection was underway, enabling artists, critics and scholars to propose new frameworks for evaluating theatre in the post-Covid era.  With regard to this context, I will now explore two distinct but equally important aspects of contemporary Greek theatre, namely, the artistic trends in the post-Covid period, and the crisis which emerged as a side effect of the pandemic, and seriously affected theatrical practice at an institutional level.

Critics have observed that theatres, upon reopening, followed a direction similar to that of the pre-Covid period. Although several groups experienced serious financial strain, particularly young actors and directors, the number of total productions has steadily increased during the 2022-23 season, nonetheless, without reaching the pre-Covid total.[9] Many performances are staged for a limited time period, while financial insecurity forces many theatre artists, including actors, directors, and theatre groups, to take on too many projects, and thus limiting their possibility for working and rehearsing thoroughly on each project.[10] Theatre venues typically host several productions, and the week is divided into three and sometimes four zones.  Although many devoted theatregoers, including young spectators (Karaoglou 2023), attend these performances, most shows are not paced appropriately on stage, due to time limitations.  Because of scheduling problems, the most successful productions are usually repeated during the next season (Karaoglou 2023).

Critics have also reported that repertory choices followed a pattern similar to that of the pre-Covid period. Classic or modern dramaturgy, in innovative or conventional productions, often attracts large audiences, especially when well-known directors and actors are involved.  This is especially true for mainstream stages and theatres, such as the National Theatre and the State Theatre of Northern Greece (Karaoglou 2023, Ioannidis 2022). The staging of comedies and an emphasis on the comic, in general, are also prominent since they are a reaction to the two-year confinement imposed by the pandemic. The 400-year anniversary of the birth of Molière has also motivated the return to comedy. Among the most popular performances are Dario Fo’s The Accidental Death of an Anarchist, directed by Giannis Kakleas, which first premiered in October 2021 and returned the following season, and Gogol’s The Gamblers, also premiered in October 2021 and directed by Giorgos Koutlis, a sold-out production (Karaoglou 2022).

Alistair McDowall, Pomona. Directed by Sigurdur F3 and Thomas Moschopoulos, Theatro Porta, October 2022. Cast: Stephania Zora, Simos Kakalas, Eirini Makri, Anna Mascha, Alkis Bakogiannis, Giorgos Papapavlou, Fotis Stratigos.Photo: Partoklos Skafidas

Contemporary plays are also well represented in the repertory, and more daring choices have proved successful, such as Alistair McDowall’s Pomona (October 2022) directed by Thomas Moschopoulos and Sergio Bianco’s Thebes Land (October 2022), directed by Vangelis Theodoropoulos.  Greek playwrights are a strong presence in the contemporary repertory, introducing plays with a diversity of dramaturgical styles and themes. These plays, distinguished by the presence of monologues, address a range of contemporary social issues, often related to gender in the context of the #MeToo movement (Karaoglou 2022 and 2023, Ioannidis 2022).  

Another dominant trend is the return to history (Ioannidis 2022), related to commemorating the bicentennial of the Greek Revolution in 2021 and the Asia Minor Catastrophe in 2022. This focus on history has been well received by theatre artists, especially because of the wealth of available material, such as plays, texts, narratives, and images.

Intertextuality and intermediality have long defined the mise en scène dramaturgy in the Greek theatre. During the post-Covid period, numerous adaptations of literary texts have generated a creative performance aesthetic, yet the adaptation of films has aroused even greater interest, as observed by most critics (Karaoglou (2023); for example, Giannis Economides’ Matchbox-The Musical, staged in October 2022 at the Onassis Stegi, has been an extremely successful case of the kind. The dominant role of music is among the most fascinating traits of the performance aesthetics in recent Greek theatre productions; this can be seen when directors choose the genre of musical, use live music on stage, and most interestingly, experiment with the vocal and the choral element making them a predominant trait of diction.

Spirtokouto – The Musical (Matchbox, The Musical) based on the film by Yiannis Economides. Libretto by Yiannis Economides, Doris Avgerinopoulos, direction and lyrics Yiannis Niarros, music Yiannis Niarros, Alexandros Livitsanos, production Onassis Stegi 2022-2023. Cast: Yannis Anastasakis, Agoritsa Economou, Marios Sarantidis, Giorgos Katsis, Apostolos Psychramis, Nancy Sideri, Dafni David, Eleni Boukli, Vassilis Dimakopoulos, Danai Moutsopoulou, Theodosia Savvaki. Photo: Andreas Simopoulos

Finally, during this post-covid period, experimental theatre is staged by younger artists at various locations and festivals, most of whom experiment with performance techniques of documentary and devised theatre.

Although post-Covid productions mostly follow the artistic trends already in circulation before the pandemic, the field of theatre has been impacted by deeper challenges which revealed unresolved problems in its professional, institutional and educational domains. These issues attracted immediate public interest as they were publicised in the social media, resulting in making performing artists a more visible group.  From the early days of the first lockdown to the very recent occupations of theatres by drama school students, numerous structural deficiencies have become evident.  The first most pressing and most widely publicized problem was the financial vulnerability of all performing arts professionals.  The Support Art Workers movement has used social media effectively to raise public awareness and initiate an open discussion, and various activities have been organised by artistic collectivities.

Music concert in support of the Drama School students’ occupation of the National Theatre, Tsiller building, Athens, 2023. Photo: Spyros Chatziaggelakis

Actors in particular face extreme financial insecurity as a group, and the precarious circumstances of their profession have finally become known to the general public. In 2019, Savas Patsalidis conducted a comparative survey of salaries for actors in various countries, documenting that Greek actors were not only underpaid but also seriously disadvantaged by the weaknesses in the largely unorganised professional field of theatre (2019).  These same conditions were also reported by the president of the Union of Greek Actors, who identified a number of factors that lead to these precarious conditions.  For example, a large number of actors work without degrees from drama schools, as there are no prerequisites for professional licensing, while an overabundance of theatre groups has glutted the field, leading to an inflation of productions, low salaries and unfavourable labour contracts (Bibilas 2020).   Solidarity movements among artists finally resulted in rendering visible their demands; as a result, the government opened a special Registry for Artists which allowed the subscribed members to get the Covid allowance of 534 euros (Bibilas 2021).

By the end of 2020, however, another major social movement, the Greek #MeToo, originally initiated by athlete Sophia Bekatoros, had impacted Greek theatre, revealing issues related to the prevailing professional ethics and a hidden code of practice. For several months, on an almost daily basis, reports of sexual abuse and harassment were frequently publicized in news sources, leading to the arrest of renowned directors and actors. It was clear that pandemic conditions had enhanced processes of introspection and led to “a sudden explosion of revelations and traumatic narratives” (Ioannidis 2021: 104).[11] The Union of Actors supported the movement and offered its members the necessary assistance to pursue their cases. 

The most highly publicized case involved the Artistic Director of the National Theatre, who had been appointed by the Minister of Culture the previous year. The investigations of his case, and the extended discussion which followed, revealed an offstage view of the theatre and the entire entertainment industry which had been carefully concealed for years, an elaborate network of unequal power relations which normalized sexual harassment, authoritarian attitudes and arbitrary criteria of recruitment. Such a professional climate was especially disadvantageous to the most vulnerable members of the theatre community, particularly younger actresses and actors. The revelations initiated a public debate which examined the entire structure of the profession and the routes by which artists acquire positions of authority.

After the position of Artistic Director of the National Theatre was vacated, as the Ministry delayed the process of appointing his successor, a group of theatre artists initiated a public debate on the future of state theatres. This group, who called themselves Imaginary National Theatre, organised several open discussions on crucial issues, such as the role and priorities of a national theatre in a post-national era, its ideological and artistic perspectives on cultural production and on performance practice in particular, the appropriate professional qualifications for the position of  Artistic Director and a clear description of the selection process, the prerequisites for effective management of state organisations, the appointment of the responsible body for selecting the members of the artistic committee, a clarification of the role of the Ministry of Culture, and a reconsideration of the necessary state intervention in the field of arts and culture.[12]

It is therefore clear, as Fragkou aptly argues that “the eruption of #MeToo […] homed in the urgence of addressing the issues of gender-based violence as well as physical and mental vulnerability. It facilitated the debunking of myths surrounding theatre and hegemonic (patriarchal) practices that remained unquestioned” (2022).

When unrestricted theatrical performances were resumed in September 2022, general conditions appeared to have returned to their pre-Covid state. However, the backstage picture revealed by the #MeToo movement had undoubtedly left its mark. In December 2022 the government issued a presidential decree which relegated drama school diplomas to the level of high school diploma (apolitirion), provoking the eruption of a new crisis. The particular decree represents the culmination of a long-standing conflict over the status of artistic education in general.  The decree formally referred to the employment rights and contracts of artists, and devaluated the status of art school diplomas, revealing a series of deeper problems in the institutional organisation of art education in general, beginning with downgrading art education in all its levels and including the refusal of the government to consider art schools as a separate but equivalent part of higher education.[13]

Students in art schools throughout Greece reacted immediately, initiating a long period of organised protests up to March 2023, when the Prime Minister announced the date for national elections. Drama school students had been occupying both stages of the National Theatre, the eminent Tsiller building and Rex. Their protest was supported by a large number of students from the drama and music departments, artists, musicians, and dancers. Organising a series of creative events, they gained both visibility and the means to express their views and demands.[4] The motto of their movement, “To you who are listening to us” is a modified version of the title of a play by one of the most important Greek playwrights, Loula Anagnostaki, accompanied by a sketch of her portrait.

S’esas pou mas akoute (“To you who are listening to us”) motto of the Drama school students’ movement, a modified version of Loula Anagnostaki’s play To You Who are Listening to Me, accompanied by a sketch of her portrait.  Photo: Courtesy of the Union of National Theatre Drama students

The plot of To You Who are Listening to Me unfolds in an old house in Berlin. Anagnostaki describes, from her own perspective, the social and political landscape following the explosion provoked by the Fall of the Berlin Wall.  With this image in mind, I return, therefore, to the notion of explosion as conceptualized by Lynch and Fitz James to describe the state of theatre after the pandemic, emphasizing its rebuilding potential and not its destructive force.  Everyone involved in the theatre, namely artists, spectators, critics, and scholars, should explore, as professionals in the field, the multiple explosions affecting arts and culture in Greece, not for the purpose of measuring the extent of the catastrophe, but rather in order to discover the potential for rebuilding in the future.


Endnotes

[1] The metaphor of pause is very appropriate, as Alvarez, Davis-Fisch and Freeman argue, because it indicates a moment of “uncertainty and uncanniness that seem to stop time” and forces all participants to look for new meanings, in the same way a pause operates in the course of a performance (2021, 5).

[2] Hager provides an accurate account of the changes the debt crisis caused to state subsidies and in general to the funding system of theatre production in Greece (2017, 246-250).

[3] Balme chooses the Chinese word for “crisis” because, in his opinion, the two separate characters forming this word, “danger” and “opportunity,” clearly reveal both aspects of the notion as something that “signals impending danger while at the same time pointing out avenues to productively use such risks to overcome the crisis”, and insists on associating the notion with “a new way of conceptualising futurity” (179).

[4] Lynch and Fitz James consider another explosive event that took place during the same period (May 2020), namely the murder of George Floyd, which forced performance artists to rethink the political aspects of theatre (2021, 5).

[5] Evangelatos was appointed Artistic Director in 2019 and the 2021 artistic programme was the first under her direction to be fully presented.

[6] These plays were also published in collaboration with Nefeli Editions. 

[7] For an accurate description of the different crises that erupted in the field of Greek Theatre during the first year of the pandemic, see  Sella (2021). A very useful source which explores theatrical activity in terms of numbers and production titles during the last three years, is the detailed timeline compiled by Rania Papadopoulou and Despina Errikou in the issues of Epilogos (2020, 2021, 2022), a yearly edition for the arts and culture.

[8] Bozoni also underscores the difficulties, especially during the winter months, when most theatres were forced to close for a long period because of the breakout of the Omicron variant (2022).

[9] Ioannidis notes that most theatre groups continued to work from the point at which they had worked before the pandemic (2022, 86).

[10] As Patsalidis aptly maintains, commenting on the 1500 productions in the pre-Covid period, many end up in a type of ready-made show, with “little ideas, restricted range and just serving the satisfaction of a fleeting consumption.” (2021)

[11] See also the interview of Marianna Kalmpari, artistic director of the Theatro Texnis (Konstantopoulou 2022).

[12] https://www.facebook.com/fantastikoethnikotheatro/ 

[13] Tsatsoulis (2023) provides an accurate account of the major facts related to the December decree.

[14] For a brief report on the events see “Greek Theatre Protests: ‘We have nothing to lose’” (2023).

Bibliography

Alvarez, Natalie, Heather Davis-Fisch, and Barry Freeman. “Editorial: (pause) A Pandemic Time Capsule.” Canadian Theatre Review, vol. 188, 2021, pp. 5-8.

Balme, Christopher. “Covid, Crisis and Prognosis: Prospecting the Future of Theatre.” Modernes Theater, vol. 32, no. 2, 2021, pp. 178-91.

Bibilas, Spiros. “Theatrical Chaos and Covid.” Epilogos 2020, pp. 95-8.

——-. “The Year that Marked our Theatre.” Epilogos 2021, pp. 125-28.

Bozoni, Argiro. “The Return to Theatres After a Harsh Winter.” Lifo, 5/3/2022. Accessed 24 May 2023.

Fragkou, Marissia. “‘No One Will Ever be Alone Again’: Performances of Precarity and Solidarity Amid the Greek #MeToo.” Didaskalia. Gazeta Teatralna, vol. 167, 2022, doi: 10.34762/gzzg-jd55.

“Greek Theatre Protests: ‘We have nothing to lose‘,” 2023. Accessed 24 May 2023.

Hager, Philip. “Trajectories of Transition: Economies and Geographies of Theatre in Contemporary Athens.” Journal of Greek Media and Culture, vol. 3, no. 2, 2017, pp. 145-60.

Ioannidis, Grigoris. “…Taking Serious Matters Lightly? [«…εν ου παικτοίς;»].” Epilogos 2021, pp. 102-20.

——-. “‘After the Storm’. An Account of the Winter Theatre Season.” Epilogos 2022, pp. 84-110.

Karaoglou, Tonia. “Theatrical Season 2021-22: an Account.” Athinorama, 6/4/2022. Accessed 24 May 2023.

——-. “What do We Keep From the 2022-23 Theatre Season?Athinorama, 13/5/2023. Accessed 24 May 2023.

Konstantopoulou, Maria. “Marianna Kalmpari: The Pandemic Provided the Space and the Occasion for Me-too Which Erupted Like a Storm,” 2002. Accessed 24 May 2023.

Lynch, Signy, and Thea Fitz-James. “Introduction: Theatre After the Explosion.” Canadian Theatre Review, vol. 186, 2021, pp. 5-7.

Panagiotopoulou, Maria. “Athens Epidaurus Festival 2020.” Epilogos 2020, pp. 105-16.

——-. “Saving at the Last Minute the Athens Epidaurus Festival.” Epilogos 2021, pp. 139-54.

Papadopoulou, Rania, and Despina Errikou. “Timeline of Theatre Productions, October 2019 – September 2020.” Epilogos 2020, pp. 443-560.

——–. “Timeline of Theatre Productions, October 2020 – September 2021.” Epilogos 2021, pp. 451-525.

——-. “Timeline of Theatre Productions, October 2021 – September 2022.” Epilogos 2022, pp. 439-560.

Patsalidis, Savas. “Theatre Artists’ Salaries and Other Matters,” 2019. Accessed 24 May 2023.

——–. “‘The Day After’: From Tragedy to Comedy,” 2021. Accessed 24 May 2023.

Sella, Olga. “World Theatre Day, One Year Without Theatre.” Athens Voice, 27 March 2021. Accessed 24 May 2023.

Tsatsoulis, Dimitris.  “To You, Who Are Not Listening: Culture is Calling.” Imerodromos, 10 February 2023. Accessed 24 May 2023. 


*Lina Rosi is an Associate Professor at the Department of Theatre Studies, University of Patras. Her research and teaching interests focus on the history and theory of 20th and 21st-century European theatre, and the different theoretical paradigms that inform the study and analysis of theatre, drama and film. Her publications include studies of contemporary French, Francophone and Greek theatre.

Copyright © 2023 Lina Rosi
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