Theatre still a booming business in Greece

Spectators pack the ancient Greek amphitheatre of Epidaurus for a performance of Aristophanes' play Ecclesiazusae, or The Assembly Women.
Spectators pack the ancient Greek amphitheatre of Epidaurus for a performance of Aristophanes' play Ecclesiazusae, or The Assembly Women.PHOTO: REUTERS

EPIDAURUS, GREECE • On a hot summer night, the ancient Greek amphitheatre of Epidaurus is packed to capacity for a performance of a 2,400-year-old play by Aristophanes, testimony to the Greeks' enduring love of theatre despite years of grinding economic crisis.

While cash-strapped citizens forgo the cinema and other luxuries, theatre ticket sales are booming, even if theatres struggle to cover their costs and actors often go unpaid.

Greeks can often catch echoes, even in ancient drama, of their current tribulations. Aristophanes' comedy of political intrigue Ecclesiazusae, or The Assembly Women, in which women take control of Athens and set up a communist-style government, is no exception.

The main female character is dressed as the fiery leftist speaker of Greece's parliament, Ms Zoe Konstantopoulou.

Ms Maria Tsilibi, a teacher, one of the 20,000 people who flocked to watch Ecclesiazusae, said: "Times are more difficult financially, but I would never abandon the theatre. The very words "theatre", "tragedy" and "comedy" are Greek, harking back to Athens' golden age in 5BC, when dramatists such as Aristophanes, Sophocles and Aeschylus used venues like Epidaurus to explore the human condition.

"It is part of our national pride. We can achieve catharsis through it and this is what we need today," said student Spyros Giannakakos.

Catharsis, a key concept of ancient Greek drama, denotes cleansing, but it does not come without sacrifice, say actors and theatre owners, who paint a grimmer picture about what is going on behind the stage.

"The theatre's audience is loyal and growing, but that shouldn't hide the fact that today's plays are made on low budgets and many actors are unpaid, primarily the young ones," says general secretary of the Actors' Union Nikos Chatzopoulos.

Unemployment among actors has reached a whopping 92 per cent, he said, yet drama schools still churn out about 500 actors annually.

The number of plays performed in Greece is set to increase to about 1,000 next season, starting in October, from 858 last year, said Ms Maria Kryou, theatre editor of Athinorama, Greece's most popular city guide.

"People still visit theatres because the ticket fees are much lower than they used to be. But the plays are not profitable for theatre owners. Only about 15 theatres manage to make ends meet and cover their costs," Athina Theatre's manager Dimitris Fotopoulos said.

Cinemas - another Greek word - are having a tougher time.

"Our official data shows a definite decline in sale of cinema tickets," said Ms Annie Kazerou, spokesman for the Greek Film Centre.

"From 11.7 million tickets in 2010, it amounted to only 8.9 million last year." She added that they had taken a hit when the government imposed capital controls this summer amid fears that Greece might have to quit the euro.

As a result of a new bailout Greece is negotiating with the European Union and International Monetary Fund, value-added tax in cinemas will now rise to 23 per cent. By contrast, the Greek government will cut VAT on theatre tickets to just 6 per cent to help support the domestic arts scene.

The Gazarte and Athinon Arena music venues in Athens have moved from staging concerts to plays.

Tickets to those with well-known actors, which once cost €20 to €40, are now €10 to €25. With promotions and subscriptions, they are even cheaper. A cinema ticket costs €5 to €8.

Giannis Zouganelis, one of Greece's best-known actors and a protagonist in Ecclesiazusae, has a simple explanation for his compatriots' continued attachment to theatre.

"People need to feel human," he said. "If Athens doesn't put on many plays, who would? The Dutch? They produce tulips, cows. What we produce is theatre."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 11, 2015, with the headline 'Theatre still a booming business in Greece'. Print Edition | Subscribe