An interview with Io Voulgaraki

  •  Author: Karanatsis Christos
  •  Published on: 09/08/2015

by Christos Karanatsis

Io Voulgaraki is one of the most interesting people of the contemporary Greek theatre world.

“Why is that?” you may wonder. A logical question.

If you take her prestigious theatre studies in Greece and Russia aside, information which you can find by typing her name and the word CV in a search engine, Io has the qualities of a calm, coherent, serious and truly low-key person. Before you read the answers to the questions I sent her, which between the lines justify my description of her, let me share with you a moment that I carry with me since last summer. A moment she will also find out about by reading the next few lines with you.

A few months ago, Io’s theatre team called PYR (Ancient Greek for fire) staged Friedrich Schiller’s The Robbers at the Athens Festival. I knew her name but I didn’t know what she looked like and I had never spoken to her. And so it happened that we found ourselves in the same foyer, where after the production’s premiere I noticed, from a polite distance of course, two key characteristics that our online communication later came to justify: a) That she really paid attention to her friends’ comments on her work and b) that she approached each person who came to congratulate and talk to her with genuine interest and attention.

So let’s see now what she had to say to about her new work, Greek theatre playwright Dimitris Dimitriadis, contemporary Greek theatre plays and the possibility of her, at some point, teaching at a Greek Theatre Academy.

Your new directorial work is titled KASSANDER. Why did you choose this play by Dimitriadis? Why now? What led you to this work as an artist?

Kassandra, who later became Kassander, actually found me during the summer of 2013, a time when I had just finished studying at GITIS in Moscow and while I was also preparing my first directorial work there, long before the proposal of staging The Robbers at the Athens Festival. I have a colleague and a friend of many years, Alexandra Kazazou, and both of us fervently wanted to work together. And for some inexplicable and instinctive reason when I saw the back of the book at a bookstore shelf and read its title “Kassandra’s Annunciation” instead of just buying it or going through it, I said to myself "I will take this to Alexandra so we can read it together”. And so we bought it and read it together –well I was reading it and she was listening-  and when we got to the end we decided to call the playwright, Dimitris Dimitriadis. So you can call it an impulse. An impulse that gave birth to the actual show.

Apart from how I “met” the play however, its text talks about the human body in a deep, truthful, undoctored manner, at a time when we have become very conservative when it comes to the human body and our sexuality, even if we pretend not to. But I was also moved by its theme, the impossible union of Cassandra and Apollo. This theme became the core of the show, where Apollo is present on stage while he is not in the play’s text. This impossible union becomes a parabolic narrative, within which each one of us can see parts of his personal tale, either real or imaginary.

Tell us more about the show, as the audience saw it in Poland. What where their comments and observations on the show that you’ve kept?

The audience embraced the show in Poland and their response was truly touching. For me, the Polish audience was a very interesting audience. On one side they are conservative in many aspects of their lives, being Catholics with a sometimes overtly sensitive religious sentiment and on the other side, they are used to going to the theatre, prepared to engage in a dialogue with something, anything really. They recognize theatre as a force which by definition provokes but not in an obvious or superficial manner but a rather substantial one. This has to do, I imagine, with the great tradition they have both in the arts of theatre and cinema.

Many members of the audience commented on the text’s and the show’s poetry, others on its humor and some on the “cruelty” with which we theatrically examined the Female. I was surprised that the audience members showcasing less resistance were young, 17, 20, 25 years old and much older, over 60 years old. They were very open to listening and reacting. The audience between these age groups had defense mechanisms, which I felt we probably bombarded with the show, that were bigger and stronger.

Let’s talk about Dimitris Dimitriadis. What was it in his writing that stroke a cord with you? What are the elements in his writing that possibly became a concern or made it harder for you to approach them from a director’s point of view?

 In Dimitriadis’s universe people have a request connected to love thus they face a shortfall when it comes to love. And this is a very important issue for me. What’s also fascinating is the challenge of dealing with some of Dimitriadis’s writing mechanisms such as word repetition or completely new words that he creates himself. It would be a mistake to just ignore them and a mistake to deal with them like they are part of a dare exclusively connected to form. Besides, form cannot exist on its own, like the body cannot exist on its own unless of course it’s dead. I think in Dimitriadis’s work you can recognize his effort to discover something, something that has not yet been told or not yet described in the way he experiences it.

Now in Cassandra – I can only talk about the particular play since I know it from experience- I was left puzzled from the very beginning due to the lack of plot which always helps you tell a story. What do you do when you have a text in your hands, with the force of a river stream, without any punctuation, no scenes, no other characters, a text that looks more like an announcement, a manifesto rather than a theatrical play in the traditional way? How do you handle it on stage so that it doesn’t look like literature but more like theatre? This made me prepare even more for rehearsals where I directly gave the theatrical adaptation of the text to the actors, working with it from day one rather than with the original text.

How can a young director avoid fashionable sirens regarding, for example, directorial authorship or the way she/he handles the text on stage? How can one see, by watching a performance, whether it is the result of a personal creative journey, study and experimentation rather than a sort of unconditional allegiance to popular contemporary approaches?

To be honest, I don’t know who exactly are these "fashion sirens" where they reside and how one can hear them. Each staged show is a part of your life. And life is too short to preoccupy ourselves with fashion, I think. Whatever it is you want to do with a performance -to confess something, suggest something, report, comfort, whatever the goal is for each artist, one has to meet and deal with many very different people to do this. This is not simple. To accomplish it you need passion, honesty, knowledge and hard work on a daily basis. So there is no time left to attend to any fashion sirens.

What one sees in a show is very relative. Fortunately, we are all so different. Someone may have deeply loved a show, having watched it over and over again while someone else may not be able to even remember it. I think, however, that usually that irresistible, true to the core, need to tell the story you want to tell, when a story exists of course, shines like a pure light of your work that eventually and mysteriously captivates the audience even if they disagree with the way you decide to tell the story. I am one of those people who believe that the "How" makes a difference in art, but I try to always remind myself that the "How" involves the "What".

Now on the subject of contemporary Greek theatre plays. Are there any other contemporary Greek playwrights that you love or whose work you want to explore as a director?

I feel that I don’t know much on the subject of contemporary Greek theatrical writing, maybe because I lived abroad for many years or because I adore classic texts. But I have to confess that when I saw, for instance, Wolfgang by Dimitris Mavritsakis or when I read The Milk by Vasilis Katsikonouris, I said to myself “how nice, we do have interesting contemporary Greek plays ". I’m also interested in Lena Kitsopoulou’s work, Alexis Stamatis’s. In our job you constantly look for your material ... My teacher says, "Whatever it is you do, read a play a day. Who will find the new Chekhov? "

Do you feel that there is a specific movement which some contemporary Greek writers express? And if so, what is it? If not, does this help their work travel abroad or not?

I wouldn’t say that there is such a movement. We are in a rather chaotic period, where many different things are written and almost everything is staged! Perhaps variety is the new identity or it will leads to a new one. I wish it does. We are only at the dawn of the 21st century. Now regarding Greek plays abroad, I think that is part of a bigger problem regarding Greek theatre’s presence abroad in general, a presence that is sadly very limited and small.

If you were offered a position in a teaching group of a possible Theatre Academy that would focus on directing would you accept the offer even if it meant that you wouldn’t be able to direct again? And if you could combine both professions what would you choose as part of an ideal curriculum?

IF, we say that there is finally a Theatre Academy in Greece and if it was seriously organized and one was able to study theatre directing, as one can in all civilized countries, I would be happy to work for it. I do not believe however, that a theatre educator outside the theatre world is a good thing. At the same time teaching shouldn’t be treated as a sideline.

That means one should be able to devote quantitative and qualitative time to his students, but exclusively working as a teacher isn’t a prerequisite for me. Actually the opposite is. In Moscow I had the blessing to have teachers who dedicated a lifetime to teaching and spending their lives between the academy and rehearsals. Working keeps you alive in the reality of the theatre world, in the here and now, remaining active as an artist and this can only benefit your students.

The content of the curriculum is not a simple thing and I do not think it can be covered in a short discussion like ours, if we are talking about a Theatre Academy. A curriculum first depends on the operating model of the academy or the university, from how everything will be set up. Are we talking about directing classes or both acting and directing classes together? Are we talking about different teachers or a head that will work with his/her team? Are we talking about a four-year course? There are many parameters ... And at the Academy you are not alone as a teacher and you shouldn’t act like you are. Even when you're the head, you have to be in constant dialogue and cooperation with your team. Of course, with regard to the material which students would work with through the years of their studies, I think that they should study Greek drama (classic and contemporary),classical international repertoire, from prose to poetry and theatre text in verse, all types or forms of theatre drama really.