A conversation with Aktina Stathaki

  •  Author: Karanatsis Christos
  •  Published on: 07/09/2014

The Mediterranean Sea. Around its waters, some of the most historically important civilizations of the world have developed.

It’s 2014 and this geographical area makes international news headlines for the socioeconomic developments and changes that are currently taking place in almost all of the countries surrounding the waters of the renowned sea.

During the past four years just across the Atlantic Ocean, a Greek woman’s idea to create a platform which would introduce contemporary Mediterranean culture to the people of New York and the U.S., has become a promising and creatively evolving reality.

I decide to repeat myself one more time, and use the zero-cost technology that got its name from the combination of the words "sky" and "peer" (better known as Skype) to talk to Aktina Stathaki, the artistic director of the Between the Seas Festival.

I wonder what motivated her as an actor and theatre researcher to create an arts festival with such a specific character.

Aktina, who has a distinct kindness in her tone of voice, explains: "The Between the Seas festival was created for many reasons, both personal and artistic. As a Greek who lived in Canada and the U.S. I felt that fellow artists who originate from the Mediterranean and particularly those from South Europe, didn’t have an organized platform of creative expression. As things currently function here in the U.S., you will either be a member of a visible minority and there will be specific outlets and platforms of expression for you or if you are a white non-American you are most likely to face some difficulties in finding your own artistic space and community.

So I wanted to create a platform where people who felt that they come from a different culture, a different artistic tradition let’s say, would have the opportunity to meet one another, exchange ideas and express themselves. The second reason was that I felt that we, artists from the Mediterranean, do not have a good knowledge of what is currently happening, culture-wise, at our neighboring countries. For example, perhaps due to negligence, in Greece, we have lots of information regarding what is happening in central Europe’s theatre scene, but until recently we didn’t have the same amount of information regarding the theatre scene for our neighboring countries.

The third reason was that I personally see the Mediterranean as an area with an important tradition and history of cultural exchange, an area which can potentially play an integral role as a political, economic and cultural space of exchange and progress for all the countries that surround it ".

Aktina then explains why contemporary Mediterranean playwrights, perhaps due to the political and economic changes that occured in recent years, showcase similar concerns in their work and share common elements connected to their writing style. She then talks to me about this year's festival which will present works by four writers from Syria, Kosovo, Spain and Greece (Lena Kitsopoulou).

The next issue we investigate during our conversation is whether people outside Europe know anything about contemporary Greek theatre. Her answer underlines the immediate need to develop a more extroverted and organized cultural policy in Greece.

"I think we should, we ought to actually, have a much stronger presence abroad because I feel that we have a very interesting theatrical scene, and it's a shame you do not see that represented here. I do not know where else in the U.S. new works by Greek playwrights or theatre groups has been presented, or for example, in the conferences I've been to, I only met just one Greek theatre researcher talking about the scene in Greece. I understand that it can be a financial issue – there is no money, or rather no money is allocated to artists and researchers to help them travel abroad in order to present their work - but this can change.

I also think, that there can be some initiatives and decisions taken, even at a state level, that do not include money. In the U.S., there are so many remarkable young Greeks who work with zest and passion for no money or very little money and we strongly want to promote contemporary Greek theatre. You don’t need money to organize something. You need the will to want it to happen. Private donors and supporters should perhaps show a greater support to contemporary Greek theatrical efforts. For example, the Onassis Cultural Centre helped the Kanigunda theatre group to come here and present their work at the Between the Seas festival. If such respective organizations can at least once a year act similarly, there will soon be a difference".

We discuss more about this issue, because it seems like this is a huge problem in need of simple solutions that only a few have tried to give over time in Greece. I ask Aktina what could be the real reason behind the fact that the work of Greek artists isn’t promoted abroad and especially in the U.S..

"Perhaps it’s because here in New York, we do not know exactly who our audience is. For me it is essential to reach out to the American audience and young people, not just the Greek-American community. There is a part of the Greek community who are here for decades but do not keep up with what is happening in Greece today, regarding the arts. So we need a good plan and to be able to say: "Who is our audience? Who do we want to reach out to? How we can we become more attractive to international audiences or young people beyond the Greek block? At the same time in Greece, the concept of cultural management, under contemporary terms, does not exist".

Among Aktina’s recommendations on the issue, is the creation of websites that will promote the contemporary Greek theatre profile in a more organized manner, or contacting foreign publishers and universities’ publishing houses who are interested in publishing Greek plays.

Regarding the latter, we continue our conversation, which has begun to move past the question-answer classic motif of an interview, and we talk about both the contemporary Greek plays, in which Aktina sees a greater freedom when compared to their immediate predecessors, having stopped imitating the American realistic drama or European plays written in previous decades, and the subject of her PhD thesis: "Staged references of ancient Greek tragedy during the post-apartheid era in South Africa".

I ask her how she decided to investigate this particular issue.

"The reason that prompted me to look at the staging of ancient Greek drama in South Africa, was that political theatre was very strong in that country. I researched a period characterized by tremendous social and communal changes and what interested me is how the ancient Greek tragedy, as a text, its body of ideas and its structure, can express a society in the making. At the time when drama was born, Athens was a society under construction, because democracy was just being established and it was evolving. So I studied those parallels. How can the ancient Greek tragedy express a society in the making?

For quite a few years a director’s approach to ancient Greek drama underlined a sense of aesthetic experimentation with the genre, that was indeed remarkable and interesting at times. I think now we can look at the genre and its political aspect and what it can mean to us, how its ideas relate to the notion of collectivity, ie how can the idea of collectivity affect the way a country is governed, or how a decision is being made. In South Africa and in some stagings I saw that the Chorus, for example, expressed this world that was in the making, in a vividly strong manner”.

Aktina then highlights the differences between the often more stylized attempts that Western European theatre has showcased in its effort to stage ancient Greek tragedies, to the intensely physical dialogue between the Chorus and the Protagonists she discovered by studying the performances in South Africa, a country with so many different languages​​, races, and ways of expression.

When the pushpin of our conversation travels back to the U.S. she talks to me about the circumstances under which a large country like the U.S.  may shed its lights of interest on the contemporary culture of a smaller country like Greece. "When there are important changes, some form of crisis".

"Since they’re looking" I say, "let's show them". Aktina agrees with me and points out that right now there is a great opportunity that we can take advantage of, but stresses out the need to maintain some continuity.

It was Freud and Lacan, after all, who agreed that artists always were ahead of other people, in the way they perceived language and human subjectivity, the vital centre of each theatrical action.

And I guess, we shouldn’t dare to forget it.


For more information about Aktina Stathaki and the Between the Seas festival please visit the following websites: