There’s something very intimidating about performing an Ancient Greek play in Athens. If anyone, these people would be the greatest critics, the ones who would know that you’d gone too far with “creative liberties,” or whether your version of these ancient stories does justice to the originals. Perhaps it was a positive thing, then, that we ended up with an audience of 25 on performance day in a theater meant to seat 500. At the time, for sure, it was disappointing…but one could hardly be surprised since Greece was in default for a third time. Unlike previous iterations, this time the government was pushing back and the European Banks were pushing even harder. Days before we arrived there had been a rush on the banks, and many of them had shuttered their doors by the time we arrived. Some ATMs remained open, but a withdrawal limit of 60€ per day had been established. As a largely cash economy, this meant that many Greeks had just enough money to get by each day, let alone pay for a theater ticket. Tickets to our performance had been hugely discounted, but that only succeeded in drawing fewer than ten audience members. Still, we agreed, the show must go on and besides we had been preparing for months. Much to our delight, at about 5 minutes after we were scheduled to begin, 20 audience members walked in to see the play. We didn’t know this at the time, but many of them were refugees who we’d meet the following afternoon. Arguably more desperate than even the average Greek person during this recession, THEY were the ones coming to watch us. Perhaps they had nothing to lose and couldn’t find work anyway, so they had the time. After all, the unemployment rate in Greece sits at about 26% and without papers finding work is all but impossible for them. Then again, maybe the arts are a bright spot in an otherwise bleak situation and they came precisely BECAUSE it’s difficult.
As a veteran of the United States Marine Corps and in my second year working with Aquila Theatre Company on this play, I’ve found the themes about war and its costs contained in Sophocles’ writing relevant even today, and the process of teasing these apart and adapting them to a modern perspective has been a surprisingly cathartic experience. Although the focus is the storytelling and the medium is stylized and artistic, the process is therapeutic. In my mind, the telling of stories is the most human of all activities. They captivate us from childhood, often told to us by our parents before sleeping. Before printed books, the oral tradition was instrumental in passing along culture, knowledge and social mores. Politicians still aim to unify action with crafted speeches, revolutionaries stir us to action by voicing challenges to the established order, and visionaries inspire us with their stories of what could be. For the ordinary person, sharing experience with others is what shapes us; we are social animals. Whether reciting mundane facts, laughing over a joke, or sharing experiences from combat, the act of telling others makes it relevant. Without this sharing, it only exists in the vacuum of a single mind, for better or worse.
Personally, I have learned a lot from the play “A Female Philoctetes.” I have also felt abandoned by the very institution I was essentially sacrificing my freedoms to serve dutifully. I too had felt “detested by my fellow man,” and I too had struggled with the cost of being courageous when it meant betraying your own integrity. Every time, through the process of creation during rehearsals, within each performance, and in the post-play discussions with our audience, I learn more about myself and process my experiences. Our time in Athens was no exception.
The beautiful thing about storytelling through art is that it is subjective. Each performer and audience member interprets the piece uniquely, informed by their individual experience. In Greece, I took a whole new look at the play. Rather than ancient Troy or modern-day Baghdad, Athens was the battleground. The event that precipitated the “war” wasn’t the kidnapping of Helen or the assassination of the Austro-Hungarian monarch, nor was it the attack on the World Trade Center. It was more subtle, an undermining of European sovereignty through financial restrictions and sanctions. This is a war that also promises to go on for at least a generation, and it too will color the lens through which Greeks and those who call Greece their home will experience life. I continued to cleverly apply the story: the European ‘Technocrati’ may as well be the gods of Mt. Olympus, their actions and arguments irrelevant and inaccessible to the common citizen. In this way, The work of Sophocles took on new meaning and relevance.
Our performance was well received, and for each of us there was a sense of great accomplishment. All of the stress from weeks of rehearsals, the pressure of performing it for a Greek audience and the anxiety of being in Athens during a financial crisis were momentarily lifted. We celebrated that evening with food and drink, sharing our thoughts and perspectives. We were glowing. Still, the most meaningful part of our trip was yet to come.
The next afternoon, we returned to the theater and were greeted by Elena and Yolanda. Each runs a program through which refugees share their experiences and build community through the Arts. Sitting in a large circle on the stage, we introduced ourselves in turn and talked about how we came to be involved in the arts and what it means to us. Their stories were intense. Growing up in places like Afghanistan, Iran, Bangladesh, Ukraine, and Pakistan, most of them had fled repression or war and many of them had left families behind. Several had also suffered from substance abuse or had somehow ended up in jail. Isolated, stuck in a foreign country, without legal recognition and little opportunity, it was not surprising that anyone would resort to escapism. But at some point each of them had felt lost, and theater was their way back. It was humbling to hear their stories, and we all felt so honored that they were sharing their lives with us. Because there wasn’t a common language, our discussion was facilitated through an interpreter and this process took some time.
Once we had all told our stories, we did some improv warm-up exercises and it was fascinating to see both the similarities and the differences in expression from different cultures. We then broke up into groups of 3-4, and were asked to find a photo from one of the myriad local newspapers or magazines and to create a story based on the photo. Uh oh….the pressure was on. In my group was one of the Greek directors who knew some English and an Afghani refugees who spoke limited Greek. With only 15 minutes to prepare, we somehow managed to find a photo, create an improv skit, and rehearse it. Once our time was up, each of the groups took turns performing for everyone.
I’m not one to wax poetic, but what happened in that theater was magical. There was comedy, there was drama, some of the skits had no dialogue at all, while others were in Farsi. In one group a character spoke Greek while the other responded in English, but it didn’t matter because everyone understood perfectly. It turns out that we did have a common language after all: the arts …and what we were able to create was beautiful. It moved beyond language, culture and politics. Pulled from every corner of the globe, we shared the most human of endeavors, that of storytelling, and for at least a short while we were a community, a family.
Cover Photo: By Michael Castelblanco, “A Female Philoctetes” rehearsal at the Michael Cacoyannis Foundation, Pictured: Front: Michael Castelblanco, Middle: (Left) Ivica Marc, (Right) Michael Ring, Back: James Stress)
Photo 1: Julia Crockett (left) and Seth Malkin (right) with workshop participant.
Photo 2: By Michael Castelblanco, Greek Flag
Photo 3: By Michael Castelblanco, Caryatids
Photo 4: By Michael Castelblanco, Ancient Theatre
Photo 5: Cast of Aquila Theatre with workshop participants.
Michael Castelblanco is a Veteran of the United States Marine Corps, serving eight years of active duty and two years in the reserves, attaining the rank of Staff Sergeant (SSgt). He is a linguist, fluent in four languages, conversant in an additional nine languages, trained and certified as an all-sources analyst and reporter and rifleman coach. Michael has performed as the Chorus Leader in Aquila’s production of “A Female Philoctetes” in 2014-15 and has been seen as Georg is a production of Spring Awakening, and in three supporting roles in Deployed, a new Off-Broadway musical. Michael has a background in music, playing eight instruments.