TUE, 16 JAN 2001 22:02:16 GMT
AIM Athens, January 16, 2001
For years, I have wondered why hardly any Greek performing arts' colleagues attend international professional meetings and why they do not take part in discussions, seminars, workshops and collaborative projects, currently so frequent in Europe. Greek productions can rarely be seen at international festivals. Whenever I meet someone involved in theatre or dance from Greece, I urge him/her to recruit other colleagues and start acting as part of the European theatre and dance world. Excuses offered for passivity and non-attendance are usually vague and unconvincing. Interest for international affairs, if shown at all, usually only entails some activity with Greek classical drama abroad. Recently, I conversation with a small group of Greek theater colleagues, held in Athens, helped clarify the situation.
At the time that Melina Mercouri was the Minister for Culture in the mid 1980s, some 17 repertory companies had been founded outside Athens in order to decentralize quality theatre. Since then, most of them have become barely functional, they create one production per year, rather than 4 or 6, they tend not have an ensemble and the artistic leadership is often changed at the whim of the local authorities. Appointments are politicised, and the combination of firings and financial problems has the effect of making these theatres very unattractive to leading artists.
At the same time, Greece has had a whole series of ministers for culture and they have all had grand ideas, but departed too soon to be able to implement them. The successor would always begin anew and not much of a system was left in place.
A few years ago, minister Microutsikos offered to establish a 3-year subsidy contract for some companies, stipulating their output obligations. This was seen as a revolutionary innovation and greatly appreciated by the field. However, following his departure the practice was abandoned. For one of his successors, the priority was Thessaloniki as Cultural Capital of Europe (1997), where substantial investment in infrastructure was made. Most of the buildings were not completed on time, some are not yet operational, some have been completed, but hardly have adequate operational budgets and that specially programmed year concluded with a deficit of almost 12 million EUR.
Now, the attention is focused on the cultural program of the 2004 Olympics, a controversial projects of little transparency and focus, exposed to a lot of criticism and so volatile that it ahs cost several officials their jobs. .
In the meantime, two national theatres, in Athens and Thessaloniki, do receive their subsidies with some regularity. All other companies that have been promised subsidies do not receive them or only partially, with long delays. This affects planning and normal functioning. The promised sums are rather small
Currently, Athens has some 100 venues, most of them small, some converted from movie houses or other establishments, practically all are privately owned, without subsidy. There are numerous theatre companies and some 40 contemporary dance companies, of which 10 are quite active. Some of them periodically receive promises of subsidy, but not the money. The Kalamata festival has played an important role in the development of contemporary dance in Greece throughout the 1990s.
My colleagues are of the opinion that some 250 productions take place per year in Athens. Some venues keep one single production running for the whole season, and then a degree of profit is possible, others present a number of different productions, aiming to achieve an average of 40-50 performances. There are a few companies putting on theatre for children but most of the work is commercial and trivial. There are two dance studios, owned by the municipality, but the hourly rental of 10 EUR is considered too expensive and throughout the day the studios are mostly used by children taking ballet lessons and not by professionals. No funds have been earmarked, or are publicly known of, from the ministry for mobility, national or international, and no clear procedures exist for finding money for those purposes. Sometimes, financial support for travel costs is promised by the ministry to groups invited to perform abroad, but then not paid, or paid with great delay.
Some individuals and companies have developed international ties and have performed abroad but only at the cost of a great deal of personal sacrifice and often the investment of the entire fee for travel expenses. The circumstances are so unstable and unpredictable that advance planning, necessary for international work, cannot be done.
There is no organization that systematically develops international contacts for theatre and dance, except nominally the Greek ITI Centre, which has no means and less credibility.
There is, my interlocutors point out, an ideologically driven climate of self-sufficiency and self-centeredness permeating Greek culture and public opinion, so that the journalists and critics quickly label innovative, unconventional usage of classical material as national betrayal. There is also a widespread belief that artists should survive in the marketplace, from the marketplace, and from private donors, and not receive government support. Corruption, political appointments and government money wasted on a number of representative cultural projects reinforce this stance. Culture is conceived of, and debated according to, traditional and populist lines, so as to discourage innovation. Some colleagues point out that the limited knowledge of foreign languages also severely curbs the interaction of Greek cultural operators with the European players, although this is changing in the case of the new generation. Sometimes when they are abroad they are confronted with the expectations of foreign colleagues that they work primarily with Greek classical material. In that sense, at home and abroad, they are captives of their cultural heritage.
Contemporary playwriting is not readily accepted. There are some 2-3 authors in their 30s who have had some plays produced. Since recently, some publishers have been prepared to publish new Greek plays in small print runs if there is a production. No one is developing and supporting contemporary playwriting, and no one is attempting to make it known internationally in any continuous, systematic manner.
The well-established Festival of Athens, run by the national tourist agency, once had a reputation more for music than for other disciplines. Today it lacks a clear profile and a consistent quality. There are numerous summer festivals in other towns, mostly catering for the summer tourists, with entertainment programmed, and sometimes with foreign singers and dance groups, which are programmed to tour from one festival to another. For the Athenian theatre makers, these festivals have no significance. Because of this underdeveloped festival infrastructure and its periphery, foreign theatre and dance companies rarely come to Athens, and those that do, do so mainly with the support of the British Council, the Goethe Institute or some private initiative. The last time that prominent companies appeared in Greece was for the 1997 UTE festival in Thessaloniki.
The conclusion to be drawn from this discussion is that Greece has no articulate cultural policy in the performing arts. There is no continuity and no systemic, strategic thought, no objectives, no instruments and no credible mechanisms. I have encouraged my interlocutors to start a process amongst themselves to articulate the principles and foundations for such a policy, rather than to wait for politicians or civil servants to do it, because they will not do it. Someone devised the hypothesis that the preparation for the cultural Olympics in 2004 could bring about some systemic intervention. That was immediately questioned by most of the people at the table because the expectation is that this will be a very politicised project, carried out by the Ministry, which will keep its cards close to its chest.
I urged my interlocutors to identify possible allies in Greek society who could help initiate a policy making process. The eminence gris of Greek politics, Lambarkis, proprietor of a substantial media and communication empire and a figure of tremendous influence and sinister backstage operations, was named as a threat to such coalition building. Since his pet project is Megaron (the concert hall in Athens, partially subsidized by the government), he has allegedly been deterring potential sponsors from other initiatives in the performing arts and pressuring them to support Megaron and nothing else. After some hesitant reflection, the Onasis Foundation was named as a potential ally. It recently awarded a large prize for playwriting in an international competition, but has not had much exposure. My interlocutors did not know anything about the policy and funding program of the foundation. What the funding priorities of other private foundations are is also unclear; they keep a low profile and display no visible consistency in their actions. Perhaps some of these foundations could be persuaded into taking a role in the initiation of a debate and a process to come to some systemic solutions. Or some of the business consultation firms, either Greek or part of international chains (KPMG), would be willing to undertake some degree of facilitating work pro bono.
In Greece, there are performing arts professionals who are critical of nationalist self-centeredness, curious about international theatre development, often trained abroad and with ideas about how some coherence, transparency and sense of purpose could be injected into this dysfunctional constellation. There are no structures among the professionals to initiate such a process. Since the Greek performing arts' world is weak and fragmented, without sufficient confidence among the peers and with many hidden agendas, some cross-sectorial alliance might be a way to achieve a certain consolidation. The Council of Europe, European Cultural Foundation and networks like IETM could be involved at some later stage to deliver additional expertise, but the initial work must be done at home, by the Greek theatre makers themselves. They and their audience deserve an up-to-date theatre system, appropriate to a country that is a member of the EU. My interlocutors agreed with this course of action, and as far as I know, have in the meantime had some informal gatherings to determine further steps. But a much-needed overhaul of Greek theatre as a system is still a matter of private complaints rather than of strategic planning, public action, political lobbying and interaction with European peers.
--------------------------------------------- *Dragan Klaic is Director of Theater Instituut Nederland and Professor of Theatre Studies at the University of Amsterdam. This is a shortened version of a longer article, published in November 2000 as Blue Report 11 of Theater Instituut Nederland, Amsterdam