People of no farewell, no return

«We’re the generation without farewell. We’re the generation without return,» words by the early 20th century German author and playwright Wolfgang Borchert, are deeply rooted in the heart of stage director Laertis Vassiliou, a Greek-Albanian immigrant who has experienced identity problems. When the stage director Vangelis Theodoropoulos asked Vassiliou to continue experimenting along the lines of Slavomir Mrozek’s «Les Emigres,» but with a greater focus on second-generation concerns, he immediately agreed. «Les Emigres,» which was staged at Theodoropoulos’s Neos Cosmos Theater in Athens just over four years ago, was a success, not only because it won an award for direction at a Balkan drama festival, but also because it managed to draw both Greek and Albanian audiences to the theater. Vassiliou, who is preparing to act in upcoming National Theater productions, is directing his latest play, «One In Ten» after penning a raw version of its script, based on personal experience, which was then adapted by Sylvia Liouliou. It features an all-immigrant cast. «We focused mostly on the psychology of the protagonists – how Greek, Bulgarian, Russian, or Albanian they are. And the discrepancies between their world at home and the outside world,» noted Vassiliou. The three characters introduce themselves by their real names and pull us into day-to-day matters which contain both humor and awkward truth. The trio presents a variety of situations from the time they first arrived until the present, as individuals now accustomed to contemporary European life. The difficulties they experienced in overcoming state bureaucracy to become legal residents is the play’s foundation. «These are stories of violence and action fueled by need, children forced to sell their bodies or pressured to change their names,» said Vassiliou. The action unfolds on an impressive stage set, a Greek flag formed by 900 light bulbs, created by Angelos Mentis for the modest confines of the Neos Cosmos Theater. Vassiliou, 33, arrived here in 1994 to sit exams for the National Theater after having studied at the Drama Academy in Albania. He began collaborating with Greek theater director Theo Terzopoulos as a first-year student here. More work with various others followed. David Maltese, one of the three cast members, is a musician who recently turned to theater. «It was difficult [adjusting here] at first. I also had a complex about myself. Now I think like a Greek and have come to comprehend racism. They could have responded similarly to a case of mass immigration in my homeland,» said the 30-year Maltese, who moved here from his native Georgia a decade ago. «But I’ve adjusted. All my relationships have been with Greek women. I’m going to go on living in this country so I’m obliged to learn the reality.» Three years his senior, fellow cast member Kris Radanov relocated here from Bulgaria seven years ago. «I’m turning my dream into a reality. I studied at Iasmos drama school and am now performing for the first time. On stage you virtually live the truth of the lives of others. ‘One In Ten’ contains our life stories,» said Radanov. «I get more emotionally affected by the stories of other people, perhaps because mine have passed. It was difficult in Bulgaria. Communism fell, nothing was certain, and our lives were predetermined.» Ekeleid Fezolari, the youngest cast member at 26, was the first of the three actors to arrive here 15 years ago, when his family decided to move here. He graduated from the State Theater of Northern Greece and quickly began performing. «I often got condescending remarks at high school and when I tried to get organized politically I was pursued by supporters of Chrysi Avgi [extreme rightist group]. I got beaten up badly. Maybe it wouldn’t have been as intense had I been from another country,» he noted. «I went through a stage where I would hide my name, have an identity complex, and experienced a tough time trying to get my papers. All this is covered in the play.» Vassiliou’s decision to focus on theater raised no objections with his family. His father, an Albanian married to a Greek woman, was simply glad that his son did not become a soccer player, the artist said. «For us who arrived here from the Eastern bloc, there’s general sympathy, perhaps because of the academies we had, the Stanislavski system which is particularly admired in the West,» said Vassiliou. «But that applied only to theater. Like the others, I also carried what I was in public places. I had to deal with a bad reputation that was generated in the early 90s when 1.5 million Albanians were going in and out of Greece. Of course, not all of them came out here to work. Like yourself, who has nothing in common with a Greek inside Korydallos Prison, I also don’t have anything in common with my compatriots imprisoned there. But anything foreign always generates fear,» he continued. When asked about his nationality as a new arrival here, Vassiliou would respond, «Greek-Albanian.» «Then they’d tell me that that doesn’t exist. And I would wonder: ‘Why, then, do Greek-Americans and Greek-Australians exist?’» The question of identity, or whether an immigrant opts for assimilation or isolation, is one of the issues raised in «One In Ten.» «I’ve been living in Greece for 13 years, I pay taxes here, but don’t have Greek citizenship,» protested Vassiliou, who ended the interview with a related joke. «A primary school teacher asks a young child for his name. ‘Agim,’ he responds. ‘What kind of a name is that? We’ll call you Antonis,’ the teacher responds. The boy returns home, his father calls him using his real name, but the youngster doesn’t respond, not even when his mother calls. They give him a bit of a beating and he goes to school the next day with a mark on his face. The concerned teacher asks, ‘What happened to our little Antonis?’ ‘Oh nothing, I was just beaten up by a couple of Albanians at home.’»