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Scenes from the city

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Jan and Aleida Assman, working on the subject of collective memory, identify three types of memory: the ‘individual’ or autobiographical, the ‘social’, which has to do with what groups remember, exchanging memories and making a choice of those they wish to keep (the coupling of the first two constitutes the ‘communicative memory’, which is non-institutional and based on communication between groups and individuals) and the ‘cultural’, which is mainly institutional and has to do with monuments, museums, libraries, archives etc.1Jan Assmann, ‘Communicative and Cultural Memory’, in Cultural Memory Studies: An International and Interdisciplinary Handbook, ed. by Astrid Erll and Ansgar Nünning (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2008), pp. 109–18.

Σκέφτομαι πως η περιπλάνηση στην πόλη μπορεί να ειδωθεί ως μια περιδιάβαση αυτών ακριβώς των επιπέδων μνήμης. Πώς όμως μπορούμε να αναζητήσουμε τις μνήμες της πόλης αν όχι μέσα από τις αμέτρητες ιστορίες που μας αφηγείται; Νομίζω πως αφενός πρέπει να απομακρυνθούμε από την ιδέα μιας ενιαίας αφήγησης, μιας Ιστορίας, και αφετέρου να μην αρκεστούμε σε αυτό που μας δίνεται σε μια σκηνή της πόλης, αλλά να επιτρέψουμε να μας διαπεράσει, συναισθηματικά και κριτικά, η δυναμική σχέση ανάμεσα σε αυτό που βλέπουμε, ή δεν βλέπουμε, και στη ρυθμιστική αρχή που καθορίζει την ορατότητά του2A similar observation is made by Emmanuel Siety in his approach to the cinematic shot..

Thinking about the involvement of the theatrical process and the theatrical media in this web of relationships, as well as about a more general relationship between a play and what we call collective memory and history, I met with the theatre theorist and director Tassos Angelopoulos, and the actor Christos Tsavlidis, who carried out last October the action ‘3,2 km – STROLLING AROUND OCCUPIED ATHENS’, together with the Papalangi theatrical group3The audience follows a guide wearing headphones (connected to an mp3 player), and thus cuts off in terms of hearing from the sounds of the bustling city, turning its attention to music and testimonies of the Occupation. Along the way the audience meets ‘ghosts’ of that time, known and unknown protagonists, who tell a part of their story, while it also participates with small actions (from the action’s statement).

Christos: The idea started from the puzzle Tasos wanted to construct, he wanted fragments. Then, there was the walking part, i.e. how can you integrate dramatic interest in a stroll and take it beyond the level of a tour. We collected the material along the way.

Tasos: We kept finding and adding material. There was no structure in the sense of a story which starts at one point and ends at another.

Christos: It was not something linear…

Tasos: There was one text about this corner of the city, another about the other… These two corners may have no connection, yet we had to find a way to connect them, within one route. There is no other way to face it, each one of us brought the information they had read about. We hadn’t read the same things and yet we had to create, tell stories on the same things so that our memories might come together, as it were.

Christos: When we found ourselves dealing with the aspect of dramaturgy, what we realized was that, in the end, we had fragments and not a specific story because the route itself is like that. Let’s say that as we walk we just bring to life some voices.

Tasos: One of our goals was to make people think that history is not just about monuments, that everything we go through may potentially be monuments, e.g. an apartment where a Jewish child was hidden.

The discussion leads to visibility. I ask them what is ultimately visible out of what they are trying to narrate, what is visible within the city, and what was visible to them.

Tasos: Nothing, perhaps; not even the official monument.

Christos: We realized this as we finally discovered such monuments during the research.

Tasos: A central point is that we cross Merlin Street and we look at the Hondos Center Shop. Nobody looks at the Gestapo monument, but if you magnify it… Eventually everything may be hidden from your eyes, we may not know what is left of what happened here, what is left of history, memory, of people who passed. Maybe, in the end, somebody has to narrate something for it to remain.

Perhaps the narrative itself has the potential to turn traces into stories, to become a regulatory principle of visibility, bringing the invisible from the periphery to the centre. I think that maybe the trace is still what offers better opportunities in storytelling. 

However, what can the incident, with its unpredictable and unplanned status, offer to such a narrative? Ms. Lola Angel, a Holocaust survivor, took part in the action.

Christos: She walked with us for almost 45 minutes! That’s when the monument changes, it becomes human, and this is revealed to you at that moment, it is not a product of research. She brought, for example, an unpublished testimony by her aunt. She intervened, interrupted the organized walk to read us something that, in the end, had much more to offer.

This changed the way the public assumes this walk because it was suddenly enlightened with something real; this lady had brought something real, she is real. We carried on the walk with this additional experience. This is very important in a narrative, as even people who were not so focused on what we did, this is what won them over. Of course, this was a positive aspect because when you are on the road other things may happen that will negatively interrupt your path, a security guard, for example, something that happened, but this was also interesting in my opinion, how the environment participates or intervenes. However, as Tasos created and secured the action, whatever the external stimulus, there was always an axis where we could move.

Tasos: It would be interesting to be able to integrate all this, but we cannot, then it ceases to be theatre.

Christos: It stops being theatre but it does not stop being an experience. The boundaries are not completely distinct.

We discuss whether these are two memories or two worlds, one theatrical and one real, Christos says that, eventually, both (Mrs. Lola and the actors) are imprints of that time.

Tasos: What I would ideally like would be to have a story in every corner, a testimony, someone who has found something to keep from that time, small or not… We had the headphones with the audio not only to silence the external fuss but also for all this shuffle to be heard, i.e. to pass by and hear an echo.

Christos: Keeping a visual view of what is happening today. That was our component part.

Tasos: If you cannot activate memory or history with what you see, you will activate it with another sense.

I think that the purely theatrical narrative, distinguishing it from a general term of performance, can function as a crack in the time of the city and its regulatory flows. Through the stories that it binds us to hear at that moment, it can make us take another look at the regulatory relationship of past and present starting from the present and the here and now of the theatrical event.

Tasos: It is like floating over slop, something that is happening every day, and someone grabs you and tells you ‘in your face’. However, the stories we had did not say anything unconventional, let’s say, about the Occupation. Apart from the idea we have of a sequence of violence, pestilence, etc., I think that, as Chandrinos says, life did not stop, but in its most part kept going, as it does in every great crisis.

In this direction, I think it is very interesting to look into the lyrics of the rebetiko songs of the Occupation, which, in fact, confirm the above. 

Tasos: We would characterize a few of the points we had as unknown concerning the collective memory. We are gradually wondering about the daily life of history. In the science of history, we have already passed from the central narration to micro-stories that converge and that we set aside and hid before.

How is theatre added to this?

Tasos: If you don’t do this in theatre, you won’t do it anywhere else, if it is not revived in theatre…

We talk about performances that represent History through the dominant national narrative.

Tasos: I am not negative, even about this, if you know it and you recognize it as such, it doesn’t bother me. If you also recognize it as an alternative narrative. History is already a narrative, it is not a fact. You compose the data into a narrative. It is not physics or mathematics. I am not sure even if mathematics is like that… So, theatre is a test tube, we can tell one thousand five hundred stories, and it would be nice to hear these different stories on the same subject. And all to be true, to be valid, being, of course, based on some data’.

Why did you take this path? Why did you tell this story?

To make a stop in the city.

Is there something projective in the purpose? Something that demands something from the future?

Tasos: If I were imagining something, projective as you say, it would be a city in which we wander and which tells us stories or we tell stories in it. Not in the specific historical context, the same could be done with another historical period as well.

Christos: You don’t really expect this projective from theatre, but you try forms that always contain a danger, you do not even know if this whole thing will work or not.

Tasos: Content finds you, and fills you. The issue in theatre is the ‘bottle’. The ‘bottle’ here was to slow down the rhythm of the city for a while, to listen to it.

Time at this moment seems to be in a state of a constantly renewing present, where yesterday already seems like a distant past, the dimensions of the past, present, and future disappear. We forget, we do not experience, we do not dream. Perhaps practising to stop in the city hides an effort to reconstruct time and memory.

Tasos: Here is the question, how do we become walkers, flaneurs as Benjamin used to say. And I think here comes theatre. Your other option would be to do it in your room, to freeze, to pull the brakes, to read a book to think. Here comes theatre almost to force you to look through the present-past and see what you want to do further’.

History and stories, collective memory, national narratives, and narratives of social and political groups or individuals, all on a surface of appearances and distortions called the city, Athens in this case. Perhaps what theatre bears when it comes to inhabiting the scenes of this surface is its fundamental principle, the here and now, which becomes the regulatory principle that determines the visibility of what lies around these scenes. In other words, it is a memory that is an open system, where starting from the present, the past is activated every time. 

I think that in the end what opposes oblivion, is not even the memory, but what the Papalangi group notes about the ‘Strolling Around Occupied Athens’: through theatre and art it aims at reclaiming the public space of the city and at re-composing Athens as an overall stage-monument.

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