A discussion with Katia Arfara

  •  Author: Karanatsis Christos
  •  Published on: 18/09/2014

In December 2010, the Onassis Cultural Centre in Athens opened its doors during a time of crisis and economic insecurity.Its main goal was the support of contemporary Greek culture without excluding anyone or staying within predefined creative borders.

This point underlines an intention that Katia Arfara, artistic director of Theatre and Dance at the Onassis Cultural Centre, frequently underlined during our conversation about the work of the Centre in its almost four years of life, but also about the current state of the Greek theatrical stage and Greek playwriting.

Her tone of voice is pure at heart. Her words are carefully chosen. There are moments when her hands are repeatedly drawing geometrical shapes on her notebook. It is almost as if she is thinking about the future of a cultural centre that has proven it is able to listen and successfully "communicate" all the changes and habitual nuances of the city that accommodates it, but at the same time of a centre that can become a speaker which echoes artistic voices from neighboring or faraway lands that are on a 24/7 connection.

Our discussion begins with the Stage. The first platform for up and coming theatre artists, which was organized by the Onassis Cultural Centre almost 12 months from today.

"The Stage tried to map down new trends. What are young theatre artists that have just graduated really into creatively? What is the path they choose, as directors or performers in a country where the contemporary theatre world faces many hardships and unique challenges? Do they prefer to confront classic texts? Do they write their own plays? Do they choose the “devised theatre” road which is quite popular among emerging theatre groups"?

She talks in detail about the participating artists who managed to present their work thanks to this platform. I try to read between the lines what she aptly summarizes minutes later when we discuss the criteria under which these artists where chosen.

"Our main criterion was the consistency and clarity of the dramaturgical proposal. What did these people want to bring forward through the stage? How the content of their proposal related to what is happening now, the audience, citizens of the modern world. What also played an important part was the artists’ intention to experiment by walking on lesser known trails. How much confidence and courage did they have in order to collaborate with artists from other creative fields, for example."

 The Onassis Cultural Centre showcased an equally daring mood which was indicative of the content of its artistic programme, from its very first months of existence. Its artistic director in theater and dance, manages to take me on a short yet characteristic journey that underlines all the above: From the silent performance by Latvian director Alvis Hermanis entitled Sound of Silence to the “city –state” stage creation by the Kanigunda Greek theatre company, which the Centre further supported by publishing its text, to the trust it has offered to young Greek artists such as Lena Kitsopoulou and Dimitris Karatzas.

The question that follows is related to the art of writing for the theatre and the characteristics of contemporary Greek plays. What are they like? What are their possible weaknesses? What does a professional of her experience has to say about the disease of theatrical palaver?

"There are many different kinds of writing for theatre today. Some lack clarity and concentration. But we meet the works of playwrights like Yiannis Mavritsakis who has created his characteristic personal style, or Dimitris Dimitriadis whose language can’t definitely be characterized as palaver. Any text that is badly-written can run on forever. Even a performance can run on because it is not just a text issue. It is a matter of stage language.

It is important to know what it means to write for the theater. To have a sense that what is written will actually be performed. Especially for us working at the Onassis Cultural Centre it is vital that a play reflects what is happening now. This does not mean that we are looking for plays that discuss current affairs topics, but for texts that echo contemporary anxieties and deadlocks and pose questions. The contemporary can address issues future generations may face. It does not mean that these plays are stillborn or that they have a very short life. Well-written texts about our “now” can endure the test of time."

I ask Mrs. Arfara where does she possibly attribute these identified weaknesses that modern Greek plays carry, especially those born in the devised theatre universe. She mentions the word "dramaturgy". I feel like we've hit a vein of gold.

"In Greece we have just a small number of people that work as professional dramaturgs. A dramaturg can work with a classic, a devised or a more modern kind of play or even a contemporary dance performance.

As far as the Onassis Cultural Centre is concerned, our team organized, just months after we opened our doors to the public, a dramaturgy seminar for choreographers, dancers and prospective dramaturgs with dramaturg Hildegard De Vuyst  who has worked with Alain Platel, the Rootless Roots, etc. This year, a group of Greek dramaturgs collaborated with Dries Verhoeven on the text of his performance entitled No Man's Land. And these are just two cases.

So there are young artists who want to become dramaturgs. What we do is just a small yet valuable brick on the wall. But in order to replace what’s missing in this field we need systematic work and lots of time. The good thing is that when it comes to the Greek theatre world, there is at least a conscious understanding on why we need the dramaturg”.

Mrs. Arfara continues by offering a reasonable explanation on why Greece falls behind regarding the issue of “dramaturgy”. She mentions that academic theatrical departments in Greece are young at age if compared to respective departments in Germany or Belgium and the local ones initially gave weight to the history and the performative evolution of contemporary Greek theatre and of course the Ancient Greek classic theatre texts.

Just before we run out of time I ask her for an opinion about today’s Greek theatre reality.

Her reply contains hope, a state of creative alert and an underlining of a need to organize things better.

"We need to find ways, through which the state, or private companies or even us at the Onassis Cultural Centre can support contemporary Greek playwriting, either through the publication of new plays or their promotion as translated texts abroad. This support can also be expressed through various networks, which aim to shine a light on contemporary European playwrights, networks that support and encourage young playwrights who struggle to make ends meet. 

We need to support the expressions of contemporary Greek culture, which is currently in crisis. There are theatre groups with a ten year history who find it hard to continue working, creating. Of course we need time to set up such a plan and systematically promote a project. Unfortunately the ministry of culture isn’t currently worried about finding a relevant solution. We at the Onassis Cultural Centre are trying our best but we cannot do all the work needed. It's not productive when Greek artists are invited abroad to showcase their work and there is no one out there to cover their travelling expenses. Especially when there are cases where other up and coming theatre companies from abroad are supported by a system which engages the local government, the national ministries of culture and foreign affairs and private donors. If we don’t make these necessary changes, the future will be bleak in a time when Greek theatre is at its best. It will be unfortunate if we don’t act on time”.