After completing my studies in Boston University Communications School in Film in 2003 I came back to Greece. I started working in theatre in 2005 as an assistant director for Michael Cacoyannis (Zorba the Greek, Stella etc.) and Stathis Livathinos (National Theatre Artistic Director). I decided to direct my own performances a few years later. I founded the creative space and theatre called SYNERGY-O in the area of Athens called ‘Metaxourgeio’ in 2007. This area is known for its strong multiculturalism, an area that is the home of the Middle Eastern community. Working there every day really inspired me to meet the people and explore their culture through my work in theatre. The need I had was to get to know the people that just came to our country, to see where and why they came here, how they live, and the difficulties they face. As you may know, Greece isn’t a country prepared to accept and give opportunities for a new life to such a large amount of refugee and immigrant population. This means very bad living conditions for refugees, racism, and jail very often because of lack of papers and in general poverty and dead end situations that often lead to drugs and illegal actions.
In 2010 in collaboration with the NGO Amaka (Daphne Kalafati and Margarita Papadopoulou), we decided to give a chance to refugees and immigrants interested in ‘art’ to be part of a community and we established the creative workshop of theatre, photography, video and visual arts open to all that population. We based our program on art and drama therapy methods in order to help our students open up, express them selves freely and communicate through their bodies, language and visual arts. We have to keep in mind that in the past years there has been a huge wave of refugees coming to our country from Syria, Afghanistan and other countries due to war. It is very important to support them in their first contact with their new life and make them feel part of a community. Art can offer help in that direction, and at this point in Greece where the crisis has hit hard, volunteer programs like ours are more and more vital and necessary. It is our goal to prove the need and necessity of art as a means to integrate and build small communities and families that are non-existent to these people. Expanding these workshops to other areas of the city and, next, to the whole country is a long-term goal that we want to succeed. Unfortunately, the country doesn’t have the mechanisms to develop such programs at the moment since priorities are more focused on primary needs.
Going back to the history of the workshop and how it all started. In the first year of our workshop, I realized that 99% of our students (who are all men by the way – unfortunately women never come to the workshop) had no idea what theatre was. They had never been in contact with it as spectators either. Every theatre game we did, every exercise, was a first time experience and it was impressive to see how quickly they caught up on everything. However, it wasn’t easy to persuade everyone to open up and use their body to express them selves. Very stiff bodies, closed, scared hearts…It took some time and hard work from both sides and by the end of the year they managed not only to release themselves to the procedure, but also present their first performance called “Station Athens” a performance about their journey to Greece. I have to say that each year 15-20 students came to the workshop and some stayed for many years. Others either left the country, worked in a different city or decided to leave the workshop.
For the past years, members of the team who are refugees from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh, have created their own «Station» at Synergy-O and have made a more stable group, the Station Athens Group consisting of 6 people: Aidim, Reza, Lefteri, Hassan, Reza and Chalil. Their difference with other participants of the workshop is that they had the chance to develop through the span of 2-4 years. They started their exposure to all forms of art but chose to focus on theatre. After working, learning, experimenting and improvising in theatre more and more, I felt that the group was ready for a next step into a more professional level. I applied to the Athens Festival -the most important theatre festival of Greece-with a project of the group, a performance called “We are the Persians!” A documentary theatre performance with real shocking stories from the odysseys of refugees from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh spliced between excerpts from the Persians of Aeschylus.
We were accepted as a group to perform at the Festival. It is the first time that a group consisting of refugee amateur actors comes to stage, opening the way to this new wave of documentary theatre on to a professional environment. This really made all the participants proud and gave them power to believe in their work that they have been doing for so long. The audience received this work with great warmth and they were very moved by the whole experience. It is so different to have a stereotypical idea of what a refugee is and then meeting him face to face on stage. You see that at the end of the day there aren’t so many things that separate you from him. Greeks are becoming economic immigrants as well at the moment. They face a different war, maybe not with guns but with not being able to live in their country because of the on going economic crisis.
This journey was not easy. During our workshops I had to face each person separately and understand his personal battle. The balance between the members of the group is also an important factor once they are from different backgrounds and speak different languages. You develop a mother to child relationship in a way, keeping always a distance that allows you to work creatively and in depth. I had to be patient and not intrude into their personal territories. For example, when we build a performance out of testimonies and personal stories, we need to get material on the table to work with. This material needs time to arise. Improvisations through themes is a first step: what is your dream at the moment? Who would you like to give you advice right now? If you were a soldier what is your story? What is your worse battle in life? They face these questions by performing small group or solo pieces they create and later on I make some questions I feel are right for the moment. It took me 3 years to ask about their family situation, a question that a journalist may ask right away…
This year ended with an extremely interesting experience, a joined workshop with the Aquila Theatre Group. In the beginning I was thinking of how to present to my group our upcoming workshop with American professional actors and veterans of war, a war that was, for some, in their own country – Afghanistan. As you understand I didn’t know how they thought of the “Americans” after all. I felt they had a curiosity, they saw them as different, exotic I would say. And so it proved to be. The reaction of all the members of our group was so positive. They wanted to be part of the workshop and when we all met the result was astounding. They were all like children that wanted to know each other. Language was not their way of communication, but using bodies and images was the way to do it. The result was a bonding warm up session followed by improvisations-small performance pieces based on images from Greek newspapers.
The two groups cooperated perfectly with openness and curiosity really reaching in a great result, giving us the chance to see the prospect of a future collaboration. We are thankful that we managed to reach that level of work and find such great partners to prove that to us.
Yolanda Markopoulou is a director and producer in both theater and film. She has directed a number of plays including Tejas Verdes, Dead Travelers, La Tierra, 1911, and the short films Pyramids of Athens and It’s Ok my friend with funding from the Greek Film Center, which have played in many festivals around the world. She was an Associate Producer on Asia Argento’s The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things (Cannes Film Festival, Director’s Forthnight) and a Producer on Spyros Stathopoulos’ Meteora (Berlinale 2012, Official Selection). In 2007 she founded Polyplanity Productions and Synergyo Theatre, an alternative performing arts space in the center of Athens. She has produced Stathis Livathinos’ Iliad (Athens Festival, Stadsschouwburg Amsterdam) and line produced Danton’s Death by Livathinos, Macbeth by Moschopoulos & The Good Person of Szechwan by Evangelatos at the Onassis Cultural Center. She has assistant directed Michael Cacoyannis and Stathis Livathinos and worked with such groups as Rimini Protokoll. She graduated from Boston University College of Communications/Film Production.