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The new Experimental Stage

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A discussion with the three new artistic directors of the Experimental Stage of the National Theatre of Greece, Giorgos Koutlis (for the theatrical season 2022/2023), Katerina Giannopoulou (2023/2024), and Eleni Efthymiou (2024/2025).

 

Prodromos Tsinikoris: Let me begin by saying that I was very happy when Yiannis Moschos, the new artistic director of the National Theatre of Greece, and the first to emerge after a competition and an evaluation by an independent committee, informed me that he wants to re-establish the Experimental Stage. And that I was even more pleased when he ended up choosing you as artistic directors. Today, preparing for the discussion, my thoughts went back to May 2015, when Stathis Livathinos suggested to Anestis Azas and me the corresponding position and our reaction, which ranged between excitement and realisation of the great responsibility towards the artists of our generation. Where did this proposal find you and how did you react?

Giorgos Koutlis: For me, it found me in a relatively chaotic period, with a lot of running from rehearsal to class and from there to some appointments. With all these going on, I was obviously delighted, but mostly I was shocked. So, I asked for a few days to process it and surely during these days thoughts like ‘Is this kind of hasty?’ or ‘How are you going to make it with all the things you have to do?’ went through my mind. However, knowing many cases abroad where such positions are taken up by people with similar experience to mine, that is, minimal, and often younger than me, and at the same time feeling that I have a huge desire and strength to get involved in all these, the positive answer seemed like the only answer. You know, we’re all complaining about how things work, so when someone tells you ‘ok, why don’t you try it?’, how can you say no? So, with these thoughts and in the hope that I can actually help some new artists and open up an artistic dialogue in this space, which I personally really need, I said yes.

Eleni Efthymiou: I was scared, I had a very intense momentary shock and I felt the insecurity of ‘Who am I, what have I done and what do I have to offer’. At the same time though, I felt great joy. Additionally, hearing about Giorgos and Katerina who are both young, I was even more pleased that the man who is currently in the artistic direction of the National Theatre thought so unconventionally. Even if I have taken some steps in the field of theatre, I do not consider myself as one of the insiders, at least not as the Greek theatrical reality defines things. Personally, I feel like an outsider. Even if this year I had the opportunity to direct on the Main Stage of the National Theatre, I feel that I am constantly in a phase where I search for and redefine myself. And I was glad because the Experimental Stage is a place where you renegotiate things, set conditions and circumstances for people to try, take risks, and create beyond the conventional theatrical norms. So, I felt very honoured and I immediately said yes, even though according to my life plan I had to think about it a little more.

Prodromos: We never learn! (Laughter.)

Eleni: Fortunately, he suggested I take the third year, so I have time to adjust.

Katerina Giannopoulou: For me, it strangely found me at the very right time. I had just returned from a research trip abroad, in which I had the opportunity to discuss with many people of my generation. And because we’re discussing exactly what we’ve been through as a generation and what opportunities we’ve been given and how others are treating us, it’s been a pleasant surprise for me. And I immediately said yes, just like Eleni, spontaneously, because the Experimental Stage was like a home to me. A crime scene and I thought it would be a good opportunity for the three of us to return and negotiate what we do with this material and with the young people that we feel and are very close to like you and Anestis were.

Prodromos: Let’s mention at this point that all three of you were chosen by us to direct on the Experimental Stage1 – https://www.n-t.gr/el/events/theridiculousdarkness – https://www.n-t.gr/el/events/Paizontas_to_thyma – https://www.n-t.gr/el/events/kai_tora_o_kosmos.

Yiorgos: For me, that was also the first professional work of my life.

Prodromos: The proposal you sent us from Moscow was so good. You could become a case study: ‘How to have your proposal selected by a theatre without having directed professionally before’. (Laughter.) Since you haven’t worked together beforehand as Anestis and I did, what is it like to suddenly work with two other people, with whom you don’t, at first sight, share the same artistic concerns?

Giorgos: Yannis Moschos came up with the idea for a different person to be responsible every year and we concluded, after talking with him, that we want our discussion to start now. We thought it would be nice to have constant communication and briefing, with the intention that if someone builds something, the other one goes further or responds. To have fermentation and development between us, not a space where every new person who comes in throws it all away and starts all over again from scratch. In our business, I respect people who may have a completely different code from mine, as long as they work. (Laughter.)

Katerina: The first brainstorming we did was very interesting. Somebody says an idea, another person adds something, the third comments on how it sounds and the whole thing goes on and evolves. I believe that despite the independence that everyone has in their artistic vision for each year, the fact that we decided to start together, in a way, is helpful and revealing.

Eleni: All three of us belong to the same generation and probably because of the era and economic crisis we have learned to be part of a group, to work together, and to create team conditions, even if each one of us bears a completely different world. The goal is to help each other to the extent necessary. So, every conversation with Katerina and Giorgos is a real fermentation and not a competition.

Giorgos: The fact that two other people of the same generation can tell you ‘What you’re saying is stupid’ or ‘Good idea’ is a polestar. When they agree on something you suggest, you feel stronger, otherwise, it makes you think of something you might not have considered. So, personally, I feel safer.

Eleni: We were grown up in a society where each artistic director comes to dissolve the work of the previous one. In Greece, this is an established practice and that’s horrible. The three of us had the opportunity to work with people abroad and see how this pattern does not apply everywhere. Abroad, I have seen an artistic director work for six months with her concessionaire to deliver the organisation. I consider it a very great advantage that we have been talking with you for so long, Prodromos, and I wish that we will converse accordingly with the person who will come after us.

Giorgos: It’s important to pass on the baton and let things evolve. To create a tradition, a dialogue, and not a mess. My goal is to continue the Experimental Stage. I am not starting from zero point. Some things have already been done and we continue from there.

Katerina: The Experimental Stage is not just any stage. It has a very specific identity. This stage was missing these past years and it’s a great gift that we can collaboratively go through its story and evolve it.

Prodromos: I appreciated it when Yiannis told me that he did not want to change the name to ‘Research’, ‘Alternative’ or ‘Antique-themed Stage’ etc. He recognized that the Experimental Stage was both missing from the theatrical landscape of Athens and as a trademark of the National Theatre. The Experimental Stage was founded 25 years ago, in 1997 with Nikos Perelis as the first artistic director until 2001. He was followed by Stathis Livathinos from 2001 to 2007 and Anestis Azas and me from 2015 to 2019. You are the fourth in line to become in charge of its programme, with Katerina being the first woman, and I find it commendable that you expressed from the beginning the desire: ‘let’s come together, Prodromos, and discuss some things before we begin’.

Giorgos: Since there is an institution that has worked well and has offered things, why not develop it? It is ridiculous that anyone who takes up a position wants to change things in order to enshrine them in their name so that they can make history. Organisations, let alone public ones, ought to have continuity, they are not the property of anyone. There is, therefore, a question between substance and vanity.

Prodromos: Although the needs that gave birth to the Experimental Stage may have always seemed to be the same, what always changed was the theatrical landscape of Athens. With Anestis, we coincided with the period when the Ministry of Culture had stopped subsidising private theatres. For years it was like ‘do what you can with what you have’. Right now, in a post-covid Athens, which is rediscovering its theatrical stride, what do you think is the role that an Experimental Theatre Stage can play and what gap is it expected to fill in a market that returns to the levels of 1000+ performances per year?

Giorgos: Even though this stage reopens, it’s so lonely that it’s sad. There should be more subsidised sites so that young people can dabble in and experiment with theatre, without putting their throats to the knife for commercial results. Culture cannot be treated as a product alone. The quality of a country is shown by the culture it produces and could potentially export. What is happening with the Experimental Theatre Stage is just an exception that should be multiplied, because from these stages will be born any prospect for culture in the future.

Eleni: There is a substantial need to have other places like the Experimental Theatre Stage. Within the constant imperative of producing a result, the culture of research, residency, real, and essentially experimental has been lost. Since we are young people, I hope we will encourage other young people to dare, with the hope only, but not the agony, to have a successful result. And to bring in an audience that will want to see people really taking risks and not young people who are already ‘shaped’. There shouldn’t be the idea that the Experimental Stage is one step behind the big stage and ‘I have to show something to go there afterward’.

Katerina: I think that the Experimental Stage is vital for the Athenian theatrical landscape. Especially now. For young creators, it’s much harder than when we started. So, a stage that aims to include them and let them really experiment, is necessary. I come from the field of science, where the experiment is a test tube. I put in different materials and hope to have a great reaction or not, then I’ll try again, I’ll change the materials and I’ll make something new. And in my opinion, that’s the best thing that can come out of an Experimental Theatre Stage. For everyone to have the space to discover things about themselves but also about their artistic identity and to combine things that they did not know could be combined. Private stages in Athens are too harsh. They have nothing to do with the private stages of central Europe. It seems crazy to me that we’re discussing whether or not the Experimental Theatre Stage should exist and whether the artistic director should decide on its existence. The Experimental Theatre Stage, I agree with you Prodromos, is intertwined with the National Theatre, and every state organisation must have such a stage.  

Eleni: Since Katerina referred to Athens, I want to say that it is sad anyway that Athens is considered to be a centre and everything that happens outside of Athens does not count, no matter how important it is, so it is important that at least this stage of Athens will not exclusively be for Athenian artists. And it would be important to put the maximum of our effort into bringing to the forefront and giving space to people that we did not know. From the provinces or from abroad, but really to give voice at least to this one, the only one, the small stage of Athens to show us new faces.

Giorgos: The Experimental Stage I think should be a point of reference in the artistic events of the country. It must test new forms, which means for somebody to be able to see things there that cannot be seen anywhere else.

Prodromos: Talking about the nice things you are planning, I would like to ask you if there is something you fear or wish to abstain from.

Giorgos: The public sector is the first thing I’m afraid of. (Laughter.) Of course, public artistic bodies allow you to be calm, unlike producers who press you about the commercial result. However, they are systems with mechanisms that we have never even imagined existed and neither of us has been trained to manage. So, apart from the nice ideas and visions, you crash into a reality that… I’m afraid of cynicism. I am afraid that in the end I will be disappointed, I will become cynical and I will say: ‘nothing makes sense, I will only deal with myself’.

Eleni: I am afraid of compromising on issues that we may also disagree on politically. What happened e.g. with the Nash Equilibrium [1] was the absolute conflict of the organisation and what you believed as people in charge, but at the same time, you had to keep a low profile regarding your personal beliefs, even though the event took place outside the theatre and the performance happened on the last day.

Giorgos: I’m still not sure if it would have been better for you to resign.

Prodromos: If we had resigned, who would have read your proposal? (Laughter.) Or Katerina’s? Or Eleni’s?

Eleni: So, I’m afraid of the mistakes we’re going to make and the way people will blame us. When you are in a responsible position, nobody will ever think about the difficulties you encounter, they will only think about the mistakes you make. No one likes to hear nasty comments about themselves and in Greece, we like gossiping and criticising. However, I have an utterly utopian notion in my head that with respect and effort things are going to work. They may not work as much as we’d like, but I think anything can happen. I shouldn’t say a lot because they will probably backfire… But I would like to be optimistic that things will improve. And I’d like people to feel the same way when they’re in this space.

Katerina: I think it has more to do with what people expect to see on this particular stage, the expectations that will exist, both from the audience and from the people who will trust us and vice versa. However, I believe in collective work and every time I start something I focus on the positive aspects and begin with momentum and enthusiasm.

Prodromos: How would you analyse the contemporary theatrical landscape of Athens? Do you agree that we have entered a conservative era, aesthetically and ideologically, and in which there is little desire for research, experimentation, and risk on the part of producers, contributors, and, as a result, the audience?

Katerina: I think that theatre reflects its era and our era is a very conservative one. We are slowly going back to a more and more conservative mentality and perhaps this fact has influenced both the perception of art by the audience, but also the way we make art and choose our themes. I see performances and films of older decades and they are so avant-garde, so imaginative, that they make me feel that I live in a deeply conservative era. In my opinion, theatre must leave the past to the past, we, as artists, must be bold.

Giorgos: I think we always say ‘Oh, it used to be better’, but I don’t think artists’ concerns are less. Nor the need for trying new things, research, and experimentation. There is a lot of desire for work and passion among the artists themselves. The problem is if the state supports it, because if we expect private producers to support research, then I think we are looking at the wrong source.

Eleni: I’m going to say something that I heard and liked. The human organism has two ambiguous forces: one is conservatism and the other is progress. Sometimes we sink into conservatism and forget about progress and sometimes we go towards risk and progress and conservatism complains. One is the instinct to be safe and the other is the instinct to discover. I think society too has ambivalent powers. The more conservative things are, the more reactive things may be born. COVID numbed us. We all fell into a kind of depression. Professionally, I felt that I was less bold, I felt like I didn’t know where I was standing. Our society both with the war and with the return of extreme right-wing ideologies is moving towards horrible paths and everything leads towards one direction: ‘secure yourself and your home’, and that’s why I think that artists should be ablaze. They should feel the need to go against respectability, to express their opposition.

Giorgos: Apart from the artists’ need to do theatre, we have to ask ourselves: ‘Why does society need it?’. Why would someone give so much money when Netflix is available at fourteen euro a month for four people? I think that by investigating the special characteristics of the live show we should reinvent our place in society…

Prodromos: Good luck. (Laughter.)

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