By Dimitris Rigopoulos
In stark contrast to commerce, the world of the arts and culture in Athens is showing a great deal of resilience and, more importantly, growth in these times of economic crisis. New venues keep opening in the city center as well as in the suburbs, spaces with different cultural identities that are often run as cooperative ventures.
Another interesting trend is that while in the recent past cultural venues tended to cluster around trendy neighborhoods like Kerameikos and Metaxourgeio, and more recently in the area between Syntagma Square and Athinas Street in Monastiraki, there has been a good deal of activity recently in the neighborhoods just off Patission Street, such as Kypseli, and Victoria and Amerikis squares, areas that have long been neglected and succumbed to urban decay. This is viewed as virgin territory for the contemporary cultural scene, and especially for younger people who weren’t around to experience these areas in the 1960s and 70s, when they represented the heart of culture and entertainment in the Greek capital.
Three new cultural venues are appearing in the broader Patission area, all housed in important buildings that are intrinsically linked to the history of that part of the city. Probably of more interest than their rich agendas is the fact that their founders decided to invest in parts of Athens that had been stricken off the map, especially in the current economic climate.
“I have lived here for over seven years and I would like to continue doing so,” said actor-director Giorgos Nanouris with some emotion is his voice. Nanouris was invited by Danis Katranidis to act as artistic director of the Poli Theatro venue, which is set to open within the next few weeks in what was once the Meli Theater, on Fokaias Street just off Victoria Square. The theater has undergone a complete revamp and will feature two separate stages as well as spaces for other events.
Nanouris has already drawn up the venue’s program for the first few weeks of operation, featuring a different show each night, ranging from concerts to stand-up comedy.
“Given that I live here, I can say with certainty that the situation in the neighborhood has improved significantly,” Nanouris said. “I think this explains the blossoming of the arts in the area.”
Katranidis agreed, especially in regard to how safe the neighborhood has become.
“I know the area because I had a two-season lease on the Meli Theater,” he said. “The situation today is much improved. Victoria Square is full of life, people sitting at cafes, children playing and no one feeling threatened.”
Despite the deepening recession and the specter of bankruptcy hanging over most Greeks, Nanouris and Katranidis are optimistic.
“I think that something has changed since last year,” said Nanouris. “Last year we were trying to figure out what was going on, what had happened to us. It made us nervous, made us freeze. This year we have come to realize that we can live differently, so we dug in our heels and decided to carry on despite the problems.”
Katranidis, however, is the man putting his money on the line in the middle of a crisis.
“Actors, all artists in fact, learn to live with risk from the first moment they decide to dive into these waters. The virtual reality we experienced for many years before the crisis cultivated a sense of complacency, among actors as well: If you weren’t doing theater, you could always do television. Now that nothing can be taken for granted, I have the opportunity to protect and live by my choices by putting a lifetime’s worth of savings into an endeavor that I believe is truly worthwhile.”
The building at 14 Spartis Street, near Amerikis Square, has a rich history. It was where the acclaimed writer M. Karagatsis grew up as a boy and lived in the 1940 and 50s as a married man. As a screenwriter and director, he shot a few scenes of the film “The Raid of the Aegean” (1946), while older residents of the neighborhood may remember the time when artist Yiannis Tsarouchis staged a performance there. The house also features in a short story by Menis Koumandareas. The building most probably dates to the early 1930s, judging by its modern neoclassicist appearance, which was popular during that period.
This historical home is now being prepped for the opening, possibly on November 30, of a new cultural venue called Alexandria, inspired by Vassilis Vlachos, a Greek actor who hails from the Egyptian city and founder of the venue. The building actually belong to a distant relative of Vlachos, making things much easier for him.
“I had the opportunity to make a dream come true,” he said. “I fell in love with this space from the start and I don’t think I even need to add the Karagatsis factor. I have tried to do the best I could with the money available.”
As far as the risk is concerned, Vlachos believes that “the most extreme acts take place during times of crisis.”
“I know I’m taking a risk, but at least I’m doing what I want, what I’ve dreamed of. It may sound a bit over-the-top, but here on Spartis Street I want to create a hangout that offers art but also become a reference point for the neighbors. This is a time when people want to do things and give. New citizens’ movements are blossoming, solidarity and assistance networks are being created; it’s as though we have woken up from a deep sleep,” said Vlachos.
Vlachos lives nearby, on Tritis Septemvriou Street, and confirms that the situation in his neighborhood has also improved in the past couple of years.
“Things are better; residents are out in the streets, sitting on benches, and I heard, much to my joy, that the Ilion cinema has opened again. At Alexandria we will also have a children’s corner and a small snack bar where people can come and have a coffee or a bite to eat; we have a lot in the works,” Vlachos said.
Another highlight at the Alexandria venue is its lovely backyard with palm trees, which will open in the spring.
In the heart of Kypseli at 91A Kyprou Street, what was home to a television repair shop back in the days of black-and-white, is now a venue called Television Control Center (KTE), which aims to bring together artists from different disciplines. The project is the brainchild of four people: actress Foteini Banou, writer Dimitris Alexakis, theater scholar Teta Apostolaki and sociologist Aris Asproulis.
The building was originally constructed for a nightclub that never went into operation and ended up functioning as a TV repair shop for around 20 years.
The loft has a cafe, a library and free wi-fi service, while the basement is currently hosting a performance of “Drama Perpetua,” directed by Giorgos Frintzilas, and an exhibition of photographs by Andreas Schoinas. On November 22 and 23 there will be a tribute to documentary filmmaker Christos Karakepelis.
Banou, one of the founding members, admits that there is not much in Greece right now to inspire optimism, “but the time is now; now is when we came together and decided to do this without further delay. Yes, it sounds like a huge risk, but at the same time it is our dream.”