From Greece: Wilma Hothouse Company Members Jered McLenigan and Brian Ratcliffe share their experiences while training in Greece
Καλημέρα! Good morning from Athens, Greece! This is Jered McLenigan writing. Brian Ratcliffe and I have the absolute pleasure of being here for a 30-day intensive training program with Attis Theatre, under the tutelage of Savvas Stroumpos and Theodoros Terzopoulos. Philadelphia actress Rachel Camp joined us in the work for the first ten days; Wilma actors Sarah Gliko and Ed Swidey will be here for the final ten days. Mr. Terzopoulos will be directing the first production of The Wilma's 2015/16 season, ANTIGONE, which Brian, Sarah, Ed and I will be performing in, alongside 4 other Philadelphia actors and 4 actors from Athens. We've been here for about a week and a half, and our bodies have finally (sort of) adjusted to the time difference. Today is our first day off––the program consists of three separate ten day cycles with one day off in between––so we thought this would be a good moment to say hello and talk a little bit about our experience here so far.
It is a fascinating time to be in this country, to say the least. It seems as if every day here is a major news day and every week has a new deadline or ultimatum, as it has been for quite a long time. It is exhausting to constantly hang on live news feeds for vital information, and we don't even know the half of it––we've only been following the situation here for a few weeks now, which is economically and politically sprawling, complex and many-tiered and I certainly don't understand it fully. In the week and a half since we arrived we witnessed a feverish campaign for the referendum which was held on Sunday. Overnight we saw flyers and posters pushing for the "no" vote (όχι) plastered over every graffiti-laden wall in our neighborhood, the extremely left Exarcheia, home of Athens' anarchist movement (more on that later). Our new Greek friends, mainly artists in their 20's and 30's, were also for the most part all behind the no vote, of course as it turned out along with the majority of the population. In fact we didn't see any campaigning for a 'yes' vote until we turned on the evening news. My new friend, a poet called Thómas, equated all of the major news stations here with Fox News, calling them all right wing propaganda. The few Yes (Ναι) posters that we saw in Omonia Square on our walk to the theatre were torn down and in a heap on the corner in a matter of hours.
Last Friday we felt the energy of the city pitch towards the referendum- there was a rally of tens of thousands pushing for a "no" vote in Syntagma Square, led by the prime minister. On our walk home through Exarcheia a group of perhaps a few hundred young Athenians, mainly young men, suddenly came around a corner directly behind us. They were marching and chanting. We were caught and had no choice but to stay to the side and let them pass––it was not violent in any way but clearly extremely passionate and very moving to behold. It was, however, nerve-wracking and an example of how things can escalate from out of nowhere.
On Sunday we were released from the workshop at 10pm, right when the results of the referendum were announced. Our friends rushed to their devices for an update and were ecstatic at the news. We accompanied them to Syntagma Square where thousands gathered in a jubilant celebration of defiance to proposed further measures of austerity. The square had a festival-like atmosphere with chanting, singing, drumming, banner and flag waving; food, drink and souvenir carts were plentiful and of course everyone snapping photos to capture the moment. It is a moment in time I will never forget.
The scene here in Athens in the last few days still feels, as it has the whole time we've been here, pretty much business-as-usual with an undercurrent of uncertainty and anxiety. It's true that banks are still closed and capital controls have been imposed, limiting ATM withdrawals to €60 per day (which does not apply to foreign cards, though we are still living off of the cash we withdrew during our layover in Brussels before arrival), but nevertheless the streets are packed, most stores seem to be doing brisk business, the supermarkets I've been to all have stocked shelves, and the tavernas, bars and restaurants are all full to brimming into the wee hours.
No one knows what will happen, indeed the news changes almost hourly. Before the results of the referendum Mr. Terzopoulos warned us of impending possible chaos, it seems as if he is particularly concerned because of our home in Exarcheia. As I mentioned it is the home of the anarchist movement here and has a unique dichotomy. The neighborhood is very youthful and vibrant and the tavernas, bars and cafes are constantly packed, especially well into the evening. Literally right around the corner, however, there are protests and demonstrations almost nightly with gangs of youths throwing Molotov cocktails cordoned off by riot police, usually with a few burning dumpsters in the mix. We were out at a beautiful taverna with some local friends the other evening and we smelled burning. They said, "oh it's just the fires and the tear gas. No big deal. This is the way it is here. The anarchists gather, the police try to disperse them by spraying tear gas, so the crowds light garbage on fire to dissipate the gas with smoke." They were very cavalier about it, and we continued eating and drinking and laughing, as did the rest of the crowd. No one looked concerned in the slightest. Whenever we tell anyone where we are living they laugh and say "oh, you are getting the real Athens experience then, with the fires and the gas, eh?" It never seems to be taken seriously but just as another fact of life here, whereas to us it is quite jarring and often results in us having to take detours on the way home at night to avoid streets that are blocked off by police in riot gear. Everyone assures us that we are by no means in harms way living in Exarcheia, just getting a taste of a part of Athens that is off the path trod by most tourists.
Despite all that is happening economically and politically, the work is our main focus while we are here. The initial 10-day cycle was essentially the same work that we learned in a workshop this past January with Mr. Terzopoulos and Savvas in Philadelphia, which we practiced daily as a company during HAMLET and ROSENCRANTZ & GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD. Each day is a physically demanding combination of strength training exercises, partner stretches, cross-the-floor kinetic movements, and an exhausting and spectacular process called “the deconstruction of the triangle” (more on that in a future post!). I am grateful to have had the exercises in my body for half a year now, I feel strong and capable and am thankful for the opportunity to specify the movements and continue to search, to go deeper. We are learning alongside a fantastic group of artists not only from different parts of Greece but also Moscow, Prague, Beijing and Istanbul (we are 4 men and 27 women, by the way!). I am thankful for today's rest but also excited for the start of the second cycle tomorrow, which will take us into places yet unknown. We'll post more updates over the course of the next few weeks. Thanks for taking the time to read!