CULTURE

Educating Rania: Inspirational theater

It?s not every day that you get the chance to meet a person who has decided to change their life completely. Especially during times like these. The story becomes even more poignant when one realizes that the decision to change has been spurred by art.

In early 2010, the Municipal Regional Theater of Agrinio staged Willy Russell?s ?Educating Rita? in a production directed by Vassilis Nikolaidis. A welI-known play, the story focuses on a hairdresser who discovers that she has a passion for higher education. In Agrinio, the production under the artistic direction of Nikolaidis quickly became a hit among theater-goers in the western Greek city. Among the audience one evening was hairdresser Rania Papathanasi.

Having identified entirely with the play?s leading character (interpreted on the Agrinio stage by Katia Gerou), immediately after the performance Papathanasi decided that she would finish high school, go to university, make ambitious plans and change her life. And she has done just that.

Papathanasi?s hair salon stands right across the road from the theater in a small arcade, while her own story is uncannily similar to the Liverpudlian protagonist in Russell?s play.

I had already read the letter she wrote narrating her experience at the theater, in articles published in the local press as well as the Municipal Regional Theater of Agrinio?s 2011 program, and had contacted her to arrange a meeting. It proved no easy task, considering her busy schedule: attending school in the morning, picking up her children from school in the afternoon (one from junior school and the other from kindergarten), working at the salon in the afternoon and studying at night. I kept wondering about this woman who had been completely transformed after seeing ?Educating Rita? on stage.

?We?re staging a play about this hairdresser. Why don?t you come and see it?? Nikolaidis had asked her prior to her theater outing. He had been a regular client at the hair salon.

?I was so deeply moved. I came out of the performance and couldn?t get a hold of myself. It was all there in front of me: I could see myself going back to school, sitting at my old school desk and being with my teachers again. I went to the play with my husband and I cried during the play. He kept asking, ?Why are you crying?? and so at one point I turned around and said: ?You see what is going on up there? I can do it as well.? ?You want to be in a play?? he asked. ?No,? I said. ?I want to go to school. If Rita can, why can?t I??? Papathanasi told Kathimerini.

Papathanasi is a tall, beautiful blue-eyed 38-year-old with long blond hair and a fiery, passionate and determined gaze. During our meeting she was wrapped up in warm winter attire plus a hat and scarf she explained she was suffering from a high temperature after picking up a dose of the flu from her children.

?Everything happened too suddenly. I needed a few days before I could go looking for teachers. It was already halfway through the school year, so I couldn?t really start again at that particular point. I had to wait and prepare myself to go back to school in September,? she said. ?I saw the play in winter last year and by early April I had started having private tuition. I am now aiming for university, not just my high school diploma. It?s something I had hadf in mind for a while, but for a number of reasons didn?t get into. The decision had been bubbling inside for the last 10 years. My job is good, but I felt there were gaps. And then it all came together when I saw the play; it was like the icing on the cake. Now my dream is to study psychology at Panteion University and specialize in drama therapy.?

How hard was it to make such a decision? Did she have her family on her side?

?I made a U-turn. I changed my life completely. I wouldn?t do it differently though. I love my job and I want to keep working, not least because it gives me the kind of power and financial backing to carry on with the rest, but I know that I can only keep going with it up to a certain point. My family has been very supportive. I don?t think I would have managed without them and I would like say a huge thank you to them for all their emotional support.?

Meanwhile, back at the venue, theater students are rehearsing for a production set to be staged in the near future. This is proving to be a difficult year for the country?s municipal regional troupes, one in which decisions will be made regarding the Kallikratis scheme to overhaul local government. Funded with the sum of 57,000 euros in the first six months of 2011, the Agrinio theater company?s program appears to have shrunk.

?We don?t have other sources of entertainment here in Agrinio,? Papathanasi told Kathimerini. ?It?s not a very ?sexy? city, with little oxygen, not a lot of students, no sea and no tourism to change the town?s atmosphere.?

Meanwhile, I have been informed that there are people around town who have been influenced by her life-changing experience, notably women who are now following in her footsteps. The power of her decision, it seems, is contagious.

?In the four years I have been working here in Agrinio, I have met a number of people making their very first visit to the theater. A person?s life being totally changed by a play, however, is something I?m coming across for the first time,? Vassilis Nikolaidis, artistic director of the Municipal Regional Theater of Agrinio, told Kathimerini.

?I?m interested in staging plays which have things to say to people — just like ?Educating Rita? has — demonstrating that knowledge is not the property of the few but can turn into a powerful tool for many, as long as they are willing to get into it. At a time when all municipal regional theaters are going through such a deep crisis, it?s vital to see some results.

?In the case of ?Educating Rita,? we took the play all around town, including to schools. After all, isn?t that what art is all about? Inspiring people and creating the right kind of framework for this kind of behavior and reaction?? Nikolaidis said.