‘I wrote theater to take revenge’

Panayiotis Mendis has been an actor for 25 years and a playwright for just about 10, but it is his theatrical works that have gained him more attention – indeed, he recently won third prize in the prestigious Onassis Foundation International Competition. Even so, if you ask him whether he feels more of an actor or a writer he will say, actor. I get terribly embarrassed in front of writers, he says, even those younger than me. I think of them as writers while I think of myself as an actor. But he always wanted to be a writer. At drama school in the early 1970s, things were clear from the start for the young man from Piraeus: I remember our teacher Pelos Katselis asking each of us why we were there – ‘You want to be on the front cover? You think you won’t have to work much, why?’ I said, ‘Because I want to write theater.’ A lot of things were welled up inside me. I wanted to talk about all I had seen around me growing up; I wanted to take revenge, to exorcise things, to understand. The only way to talk about all this is to become a politician or a writer. And I never had much time for politicians. He entered the theater as an actor in the mid ’70s, while his first play was written in 1988 at the age of 35. Playmobil won the State Prize a year later and was performed at the Theatro Technis. He doesn’t feel that he came late to writing. I don’t think they would have accepted me earlier. This isn’t Britain, he says. But I still find it difficult to call myself a writer. Privately, I always wrote, and once even had the nerve to send some work to the author Menis Koumandareas to get his opinion. I didnot expect him to answer, but he – whom I admire so much – sent a telegram asking to meet me. ‘You should continue writing,’ he told me. I feel very fortunate as a writer: My debut was at the Theatro Technis, and who would have believed it? I owe my development as a writer to the Stoa, which has staged four of my plays. I saw much care being taken over my work there, I learned to take things out, I learned the economy of theatrical writing, studying next to Thanasis Papageorgiou. I was very lucky that my path crossed with those of Thanasis and Leda Protopsalti. A great gain, both as a person and a writer. Didn’t the prizes, aside from the financial respite they offered, also encourage the writer? The Onassis Foundation International Competition gave me the opportunity to meet some very worthwhile people and experience a different standard from what we get here. Do you know how they informed me from the Ministry of Culture that I had won their prize? They sent me a check! Without a word or anything! But, do they do anything with their funding to help theatrical writers progress? Does your new play Xenoi (Foreigners), which won the Onassis Prize and will be staged at the National, differ from your previous plays? As writing, I don’t know, those who see it will be able to tell. As subject matter though, yes, it is completely different. [The play is an epic poem in the form of a drama on the subject of Greek immigrants to America, in which a widowed mother attempts to maintain the traditional and dynamic motherly devotion toward her children in a world that is diverse and disparate, wrote professor Walter Puchner in the jury decision for the Onassis Prize. The mother has four sons. One hooks up with a Russian woman, also an immigrant, but his brothers and sisters-in-law are against her; they reject her. Only the mother supports them. But what else can she do immersed in a way of life that creates alienation?] I read an article about the agencies that sprouted like mushrooms in Russia, and sent over what were supposedly brides to Western countries, educated girls with degrees and intelligence, who they then forced into prostitution. It shocked me. And one day when my wife mentioned something similar to me that had happened to a family we know in America, I immediately felt the need to write about all this. It set an alarm bell off. So I wrote Xenoi. There is no article before the word, just Xenoi. Because the sense of alienation in a foreign land concerns all of us – Greeks, Albanians, Kurds, all. I feel my own country is a foreign land. I feel suspended, as though I don’t exist. There are no footholds, nothing to hold onto. Nothing belongs to us, we don’t belong anywhere. We exist only as commodities. We are being bombed by nothingness. We live in a country which belongs to the so-called developed Western world, but we live a nothingness. Have you ever considered writing about television, which is at the forefront of the promotion of this nothingness? I tried it with the Greek Radio and Television Corporation (ERT), and not only once. They always pull out, they are always afraid of the subject. Over there at ERT, there are some frightening characters around the managers, in important positions, an absolute curse. Not to mention that they sometimes force stupid collaborators and actors on you. This has also happened to me. So I sent them a polite letter and quit. How do you intend to use the approximately 30 million drachmas from the Onassis Prize? To send my 12-year-old son to a good school. Because I know very well what he is receiving as a Non-Education at school. And it’s not just the minister and the government to blame. There’s a whole system underneath and this is where things go wrong, we are permanently stuck. We’re not bothered what kind of Greeks the schools produce. What depressing situation exists in there. So I feel lucky I can send my child to a good school with this money. 10 short years and 4 top prizes In 10 years, Panayiotis Mendis has won four prizes – two state and two international, from the Onassis Foundation – with over 10 of his plays performed: – Playmobil, State Prize 1989, played at the Theatro Technis in 1992 and at the State Theater of Northern Greece in 2001. – Anna, Eipa! (Anna, I Said!), Stoa Theater, 1996. – Alimono kai Merika Ah (Woe and a Few Ah’s), Kaisariani Theater, 1997, and the Corfu Municipal and Regional Theater, 1998. – Reality kai Show (Reality and Show), Eleni Kourkoula Company, 1997. – La Cumparsita, Stoa Theater, 1998. – To Boxeraki (The Boxer Shorts) and Enoikiazetai (For Rent), Ersi Vassilikioti Kairon Theater, 1998. – Don Quixote, Corfu Municipal and Regional Theater, 2001. – Ethniki Pinakothiki (National Gallery), Stoa Theater, 2001. – Ena Dendro Megalonei sto Brooklyn (A Tree Grows in Brooklyn), Stoa, 1996. – O Gatos Sinoue (The Cat Sinoue), Larissa Municipal and Regional Theater, 1999. – Klik, Klik m’ena Pontiki (Click, Click with a Mouse). – His new play Xenoi, which won third prize this year in the Onassis Foundation International Competition, is to be staged in February at the National Theater. And also in the new year, Thanasis Papageorgiou and Leda Protopsalti will go with the Stoa Theater Group to Thessaloniki to perform two Mendis plays, Anna, Eipa! and La Cumparsita.

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