Everyone knows that Greeks tend to like drama; in fact, the ancients created it. But it takes an aspiring theater producer, actress, and director to bring the drama and performance of the Mediterranean region to a worldwide audience. This is the achievement of Aktina Stathaki, director and founder of the “Between the Seas” festival, now in its fourth year in New York City. The brainchild of Stathaki, the Between the Seas festival calls on the talents of artists, performers, dancers and playwrights from the cultures sharing the shores of the great Mediterranean and brings them to an eclectic audience in one of the most diverse cities on earth.
After studying theater in the National Theater of Athens, Stathaki felt a need to travel abroad. Her destiny brought her to the University of Toronto to complete a Masters degree in Greek theater. The Masters degree unraveled into a doctorate that kept her focus for seven years. The necessity for a festival of this sort was born from her involvement in various multicultural dramatic projects in Canada because as a Greek with an accent it was hard to make it in the traditional theater. “The whole experience made me realize that there was no place in the theater scene of North America for people like me who carry a different culture but do not necessarily fall into the stereotype of what multicultural is,” Stathaki explains.
She moved to New York pregnant with the idea of launching a festival that features Mediterranean artists and cultures. The idea appealed to her on both a personal and practical level; it meshed her practical and academic background into a coherent project and allowed her to create a community atmosphere. “I like festivals,” she beams, “I wanted to create a platform where all of us from the Mediterranean can see what we have in common and bridge the gaps among all the cultures that we share.” The idea was to create community and communion on a new ground, North America, and not have each culture isolated by “doing its own thing.” She specifically wanted to open up Greek culture to its neighbor countries especially since she perceived an isolationist current in diaspora Greek culture. It was crucial to reveal the long history of exchange among the cultures of the Mediterranean to each other and to those in North America. She points out that this register of identity as a Greek, as a white minority that is not categorized as a minority, gave her the impetus to launch the festival. “What I was looking for was not so much special treatment or favors but an acknowledgement of the particularities of the culture,” she says. “White does not mean North American and one can speak a different language and be a carrier of a different culture.” So in essence the festival aims to educate culturally both from without and within the culture of reference.
As an active participant in the theater scene in Greece but with a foot in the larger North American continent, Stathaki realizes that the Greek culture scene is isolated from a lot of what is happening artistically in Greece. She wanted also to give opportunities to young cutting-edge companies and modern playwrights in Greece who were staging exciting work to showcase their talent in the New World. Given the historical and political juncture Greece finds itself at this moment, she feels it is timely to capitalize on the international attention and interest in Greece, especially with the vibrant, bold work that is coming out of the Greek theater in the present. Compared to ten years ago, Greek theater has come into its own. Stathaki describes the drama scene in Greece as having begun a new era with “a new breath of art-making.” “It’s much more juicy now in the questions it asks,” she remarks. “The boldness of the writing is astonishing because it speaks with a greater urgency that makes it more vibrant.” It has moved out of the shadow of the conventions of art making dictated by Europe and found its own voice. However, few Greeks on this side of the Atlantic have had the chance to hear that voice. Her festival aims to bridge that cultural chasm.
Speaking in depth about the differences between native born Greek Greeks and Greeks of the Diaspora, Stathaki makes the observation that the Greeks abroad tend to be isolated as a cultural community. “Could it be that we are not interested in non-Greeks coming to see us?” she poses. We need to open up to new aesthetics and not perpetuate our own stereotypes by being so myopically focused on our own community. The Greeks abroad need to come into the larger cultural and aesthetic arena that an art form like drama affords. While her festival has garnered much positive acclaim by other artists and has found an enthusiastic audience with a core of loyal followers and donors, she laments the lack of support from bigger funding institutions and foundations that are Greek run, a reaction she sees as counterintuitive. While there are always individual exceptions to the stereotype of the navel-gazing Greek, she observes that many talented artists lose faith in the Greek community and don’t bother to pander to it. This reality provided another rationale for the Between the Seas festival—to create an arena where displaced artists could find a place to reconnect in a wider Mediterranean scope.
Balletto Teatro de Sardegna
The festival gains way every fall with a call for submissions far and wide for theater, dance, musical works from cultures across the Mediterranean—every one from Syria, Cyprus, and Turkey to Spain, Morocco, and Algiers. Stathaki shortlists the acts for the season and then tries to piece together the funding that will bring them to the stage during the summer months, usually in July or August. The festival has featured such performers as Rebeca Tomas, a flamenco dancer from Spain, Touafek’s Land of the Setting Sun, Moroccan singer Malika Zarra, . Keeping costs to a bare minimum and relying on an army of volunteer staff, the festival has been able to survive its infancy in the intensely competitive world of the NY City arts scene. “While the Festival is successful artistically,” she confesses, “there is still a lot of work to make it sustainable financially.” Her next step is to connect with funding bodies and regional government bodies in Europe and convince them of the value of what the festival does and garner more support from that end. The Festival is currently in the midst of a crowdfunding campaign at agogo. It has received a small grant for a project this year, and along with the returning body of original donors, this demonstrates that the community is growing.
Some of the performances from previous Between the Seas Festivals:
A Palo Seco
The idea of the festival has proven a “mixed blessing” in Stathakis’ words because clearly the idea resonates with both artists and audiences, many performers are keen on performing in NYC, yet because it is so new and unique there is no grant-funding body with no previous history of funding for such an initiative. Stathakis is growing it from the ground up, almost single-handedly.
The bi-focal perspective of a double or triple identity that living in two cultures provides has given Stathakis unique insights into being a Greek woman in the arts. For one, she recognizes that her Greekness has given her a sensibility and idealism that contrast with those of other cultures around her. “In Greece and in Europe, we engage in the world of ideals and the intellect, not so much with materialism, at least not yet,” she adds. She exults in the openness that Greek culture has ingrained in her. “We like connectivity, engaging with people, being social and being warm—all aspects that are reflected in the Festival atmosphere,” she says. She merits her broad education in the humanities in Greece with the open-mindedness and the ability to think outside the box.
In contrast, Stathakis claims that she became more aware of what it means to be a woman in the arts and the struggles that entails when she moved to New York City. She became more aware of the gender trope here rather than in Greece. Could it be that people have come out with this issue and talk about it more directly than they do in Greece which makes it more pronounced? “One did not become aware of the sexism surrounding female dramatists in the Greek theater until you remove yourself and see it from the outside,” she remarks. She also noticed another issue after returning to the Old Country two years ago—she did not have to worry about being taken seriously as a young artist in NY. In Greece, she was brushed aside because of her youth.
Despite the issues, Stathakis’ deep commitment to drama and the creative process keep “her real,” as they say on the street. “I believe in drama that is socially and politically relevant, that can speak to the us about what we are going through now, a kind of theater that can connect the individual psyche to the larger picture of uncertainty and angst in the zeitgeist,” she maintains. She advises aspiring dramatists and artists of the theater to make art for the right reasons. “If you do it for money or success,” she maintains, “you may or may not achieve it, but if you do it for love and for how it can enrich your life and the lives of those around you, you will achieve success on your own terms.” It would not hurt to have back-up skills in the theater also, for example knowing how to work lights or a sound board.
For more information about this year’s “Between the Seas” lineup go to www.betweentheseas.org. To contribute to the crowdfunding campaign visit https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/between-the-seas-festival-2014