Letter from Thessaloniki

Yesterday, a story at the top of Kathimerini’s culture section was headlined: «Literary prizes exceed published books.» Kathimerini’s story went on to consider how this inflated production of prizes could affect the Greek book market. On Thursday, a similar topic troubled the theater critics who have gathered in Thessaloniki for the Europe Theater Prize, this year titled: «Prizes – Who Needs Them?» Starting with the premise that prizes may still open doors and change lives, the International Association of Theater Critics (AICT) soliloquized: «In our success-driven world, awards have become one of the most common expressions of ‘making it’ but they have also come to epitomize the superficiality and transience of success.» The reservations subsequently expressed were sincere and varied. One ran as follows: «Do juries mistake acts of speculation for strokes of genius, spectacular but shallow tricks of innovation, causing further estrangement between the audience and the art?» In yesterday’s article in Kathimerini, journalist Olga Sella worried about the increase of literary awards given with great fanfare to totally unreadable books. Theater critics in Thessaloniki pondered a similar question. They even wondered whether awards should be given at all all. The conclusion after many hours of panel discussion was that, yes, they should, especially when the prizes come with money attached. The discussion was chaired by IATC President Ian Herbert from the United Kingdom and involved Olga Egoshina from Russia, Jonathan Abravanel from the USA, Zeynap Oral from Turkey, Kim Yun-Cheol from Korea, and Manuel Vieites from Spain – all of them eminent critics in their respective countries. «This is a very competitive world where money is the king and fame the queen, and prizes are a perfect reflection of the values most people accept as normal,» Vieites said. The participants’ reasons for why prizes should be given varied. Although Herbert, a writer of tremendous civility and grace, confessed that he hates sitting on festival juries – «where you can be called upon to single out a best performance from a selection of completely different approaches to reaching an audience’s heart, mind or soul.» He admitted that competition is an inevitable part of theater. It always has been. To be precise, people have been discussing theater awards «for 2,472 years, 11 days and 29 minutes,» as Abravanel remarked in jest. «I can imagine a conversation in ancient Athens as two citizens meet on the street,» he said. «Who do you like this year?» the first asks. «Well, Euripides is the sentimental favorite,« his friend replies, «but my money is on Sophocles.» «Oh, no,» the first moans, «not Sophocles again!» «Best» and «worst» performances can be watched on the political stage as well. Announcing the replacement of a major «actor» in his Cabinet – the embattled Labor and Social Security Minister Savvas Tsitouridis – Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis on Saturday deprived one of his closest collaborators of an award that had already been bestowed. For there are prizes, in effect, for following the party line. And not just in Greece. «There are many, many, many awards given by governments, religious institutions, social and fraternal organizations, private corporations, even quasi-scientific and cultural entities, the purpose of which is to support orthodoxy. The precise definition of orthodoxy shifts with time and most certainly with politics,» Abravenel said. We know, we know. In this country, it’s deja vu on the most depressing scale. One can tell that Abravanel, who is from Chicago but whose forefathers came from Thessaloniki, still preserves some drops of hereditary Greek-Jewish blood in his veins. As some foreign critics visiting Thessaloniki were card-carrying journalists, and they wanted to be informed about Saturday’s political events, I had to oblige. «What does your prime minister mean when he said that values and principles will be upheld?» they asked. As I was still in shock that our country would even have thought of risking its good name by spreading disinformation regarding the mismanagement of state-run pension funds’ reserves, stock market «bubbles» and corruption, I made efforts to play it down the middle. After all, aren’t truth and credibility a nation’s most valuable assets? So who needs prizes? «It is the critics ourselves, dummy!» Kim Yun-Cheol concluded. «We are the ones who need prizes first and foremost! As you well know, the prizes give our critical evaluation official legitimacy, and thus safeguard our job security. In other words, we need the prize system, rather than the prizes themselves.» The Europe Theater Prize was awarded yesterday for the first time in Greece to German Peter Zadek, who was not present, and to the French-Canadian innovator Robert Lepage. The convention and mini-festival was fairly well organized by the National Theater of Northern Greece, the only Greek member of the Union of Theaters of Europe, an organization composed of 36 theaters from 22 European countries (as well as a theater group from Israel). There were some remarkable productions. The widely traveled «A Long Life» by the New Riga Theater, and «Fathers,» presented by the Schauspielhaus Zurich, both by the Latvian director Alvis Hermanis; «Locusts» – the award-winning play by the Serb playwright Biljana Srbljanovic – a presentation of the work of the avant-garde theater maker from Quebec Robert Lepage and, to crown it all, the «Peer Gynt» that Peter Zadek has staged with the celebrated Berliner Ensemble.

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