Athens, London and Munich. Three European cities, three theater companies, three stages and different audiences for a production based on a series of sketches performed through a digital connection. “Phone Home,” a performance focusing on the stories of real people who left home to find a new one, was produced in three countries and is on stage and screen at the Sfendoni Theater in Athens through October 30.
The idea emerged during a discussion about Greek-German ties between Greek director Yiannis Kalavrianos and his German colleague Michael Sommer in the summer of 2014. “We wanted to show that besides [German Chancellor Angela] Merkel and the banks – issues that divide us – there are other things that bring us together. Besides, German philosophy and literature were based on the Greek,” Kalavrianos told Kathimerini.
This is how the Sforaris theater company and the Pathos Munich theater began working together, united in their effort to talk about those who come through Greece on their way to Germany, the land of their dreams. Along the way, they felt it necessary to tie the emerging project to the experiences of a metropolis such as London, a city known for its qualities of inclusion. This is how British director Tom Mansfield and the Upstart Theater joined the project.
Everyone followed the same working plan, with three directors and three playwrights collecting stories in each city. “In Athens, together with actress Alexia Beziki, we got in touch with people who had experienced similar situations. Besides, refugees need to be handled in a special way,” Kalavrianos said. “In the meantime, the migrant crisis broke, humanitarian organizations appeared on the scene and this became a daily issue.”
Nevertheless the performance, which is also being broadcast online – allowing audiences to select the city and the development of the story they choose to follow – is not limited to the migrant crisis.
There are also stories of people who chose to make Greece their new home. “There’s the case of a young woman who came to Athens from Paris at the age of 20 to study dance, who didn’t speak any Greek. There’s also a British journalist who lives in Athens while his girlfriend resides in Munich and his family is based in London.” There are heartbreaking stories too. “People who were forced to leave their homes because of war. In this case their conversations over the phone or via Skype take on a new dimension. When they say, ‘I called my mother and she answered,’ that means she is alive.
Another point of interest is their homes. Westerners living in Athens, for instance, are happy to furnish their houses with secondhand pieces, even items found on the streets. Afghans, on the other hand, might live in an empty apartment until they make enough money to buy furniture from IKEA.”
Technology is another key element of the production. Shows are live-streamed, while the actors communicate via Skype. The English-speaking parts of the production on stage at the Sfendoni Theater have Greek supertitles. Shows start at 9 p.m. sharp, while discussions take place between actors and audiences after the performance via teleconference.
Is “Phone Home” theater, one might ask? The display of something random, which is multiplied by technology and acts as an adrenaline rush for actors, is quite a challenge. “As far as the actors are concerned, it is rather strange to act while at the same time talking on screen.”
While watching these kind of scenes, however, like the story of a mother and her child chatting on Skype, what emerges is a different sort of reality. “This is the case of a child who visits a photography studio on Patission Street [in Athens]. The walls are covered with posters of idyllic landscapes and pine trees. There is an internet connection and the premises are very well-kept, so that all those using Skype can pretend they’re talking from their own homes.”
Was the trilateral collaboration as smooth as it appears on stage? “Sure we disagreed at times,” noted Kalavrianos, who has also worked with the Deutsches Theater Berlin. “[German] productions are large-scale productions. Ours have a certain variety. We’re open to all kinds of experiments. I’ve seen quality performances in Athens, as well as nonsense. But something always stands out among all the productions. For sure we don’t have the collective guilt of the Germans which runs through their repertoire, all the way through the actors and playwrights. In their efforts to avoid being seen as racists, I see a quota of playwrights in European theater, which shouldn’t really exist. Germans think they should not be describing the problems of a single black mother, for instance, and feel that a black female playwright would do a better job. But why is a black woman from Kenya able to handle the issue of racism better than a white Norwegian woman, for example? Perhaps the latter is a better playwright.”
Meanwhile, in Britain, other issues arise. “They have such a good relationship with the Shakespearean texts that they have fallen into a trap of their own making. That is why their playwrights and directors do not have large margins to experiment with. In contrast to the Germans, who are known for destroying and deconstructing everything before starting all over again, the British are more formal.”
Next, the Greek director is set to begin work on a new project based on Emily Bronte’s “Wuthering Heights.” The State Theater of Northern Greece production is scheduled to go on stage in February. In the meantime, the three-country production has revealed another thing: “Right now, Greek actors are more informed regarding developments on the European theater scene. Perhaps this has to do with our current need to keep our eyes on what is going on abroad. The British and the Germans are more complacent. While we were discussing the production, someone came up with the idea of reciting a poem in one of the stories. We suggested a poem by [the 13th-century mystic] Rumi. We were surprised to see that neither theater troupe had heard of the great Persian poet. What I’m saying is that the Greeks are more cosmopolitan.”
For more information about the performances, visit phonehome.eu and www.sfendonitheater.gr.