Next-door ‘Boy with a Suitcase’

Migrant children in Greece are now everywhere – in every apartment building, neighborhood and school. It is only natural that the subject should be of interest to a children’s theater, but in Greece the issue could also be considered a bit daring due to the way society views its migrants. One director, however, has risen to the challenge. And who else could it be than Xenia Kalogeropoulou, who for the past 33 years has been synonymous with children’s theater in Greece? While other children’s theaters, even state-run companies such as those of the National Opera, the National Theater and the National Theater of Northern Greece pick the easy way out each year by presenting classics «especially adapted for children» with grand productions, Kalogeropoulou – who also performs every night in «Bella Venezia,» directed by Lefteris Voyiatzis – is staging Mike Kenny’s «Boy with a Suitcase,» directed by Thomas Moschopoulos, at the Porta Theater. The play examines the «who,» «why,» «where» and «how» migrant children have found their way into our society in a manner that is lighthearted and humorous, as well as very theatrical and poetic. Kalogeropoulou recently spoke to Kathimerini. Where does the boy with the suitcase come from and where do we encounter him? In the play, we first see the young boy, Naz, at his home in some unidentified Asian country, spending his days peacefully with his family, and especially with his father, who tells him beautiful stories. A war breaks out and the family is forced to flee, finding shelter in an enormous refugee camp. They haven’t enough money to all leave for England to live with the eldest son who has already moved there, so they decide to send Naz alone. They put him on a bus that must cross a desert and this is where he meets young Krisia and they become friends. Together, the boy and girl will experience this long odyssey. They cross the desert, as well as snowy mountains and tumultuous seas. They spend two years at a port, working under the most horrific conditions, they get lost and then they find themselves in London. Naz keeps the stories his father used to tell him close to his heart and relates them to other people, giving them and himself courage in the face of harsh reality. And the stories have made him realize that if you put up a fight, you will survive and succeed. Would you describe this as a sad play? That is the most important thing that this wonderful playwright Mike Kenny – one of the most popular children’s theater writers in the UK – has succeeded in doing: This story, which relates a lot of extremely brutal things, does not at any point spook the audience. In contrast, it is fun and very lighthearted. Does it help children understand where their foreign schoolmates may come from? We have already been told about children leaving the theater and the next day at school asking a young Albanian in the class where he or she came from, or whether they came alone. They acquire a different way of approaching the children who are not Greek. Is the issue of immigration a big concern of yours? And, if so, how come you did not write a play of your own with Thomas Moschopoulos, a collaborator with whom you have already written so many wonderful plays? We have been very concerned with the subject for some time, but we were not sure how to go about writing it, what our angle would be. When we read Kenny’s play, we thought, «That’s it.» It is such a simple play, clear-cut, tender and funny, and with so many meaningful things to convey. And it does this without taking a higher tone, without sounding like a sermon. It is a play with «secrets,» as I like to describe it. It has one level that is very clear and easy to understand, and under this there are more levels, more «secrets.» Were you a little bit concerned about the reaction of Greek parents, who recent polls have shown to be among the most xenophobic in Europe? Yes, we were a bit worried about this, actually. And in fact we received quite a bit of criticism at first, even from schools. In the first weeks of the play, we did not have a huge waiting list for tickets the way we normally do. Now, the tide is starting to turn and more people are coming to see the play. I think there is a prevailing sense of fear in parents that does not really have to do with racism, but with the question of how they will explain certain things to their children. These issues are very sensitive and complex. I think the play itself helps people overcome some of this unease. On the other hand, we were very touched by the support shown by significant institutions, such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the General Secretariat for Youth, the City of Athens and the Migrants in Greece Observatory of the Lambrakis Foundation. What were your first few performances like? The play works fantastically. Parents came up to us and said that after «Sklavi» («The Little Slave,» one of Kalogeropoulou’s more popular plays), they never expected a play to move them so much. Teachers are now insisting that we put out an educational kit; something they have rarely done in the past. Most importantly, the children seem to enjoy it. I must say it has put our minds at ease, because we were a bit scared. It is not a run-of-the-mill play, meant simply as entertainment. Did you run into any problems when staging it? So many that we had to rework it. When I first read the play, I wondered how Thomas could do it all. The scene on the bus, another in a port, one in London, different stories that relate to one another… The set designed by Lilly Pezanou and the lighting by Lefteris Pavlopoulos were a great help, but the actual «world» in which the two characters live is composed by the other actors’ bodies: They fly like birds, put their arms together to make a window, do a clock chiming the hour; they convey each different environment and a lot of other things that have been achieved through many months of group rehearsals, under the guidance of the movement coach, Martha Kloukina. Thomas is thrilled with the result and thinks it has opened the way to an entirely different way of working. He actually wants to write a play meant to be staged in exactly this manner. Who plays Naz? Petros Spyropoulos, a young actor we selected from among 200 who auditioned for the part. The other members of the cast are Orpheas Zafeiropoulos, Katerina Mavrogeorgi, Stergios Nenes, Ilias Panayiotakopoulos, Stavros Sioulis and Maria Filini. The music has been written by Coti K. Porta Theater, 59 Mesogeion, tel 210.771.1333.