Tragedy and Comedy

The arts thrive amid Greece’s economic crisis

Vassilis Noulas’s play Odes to the Prince mounts a scathing critique of Greek politics. courtesy ioannis kaminaris
Elections 2024
01 July, 2016

Tourists visiting Athens often marvel at the city’s oldest theatres—grand marble monuments that are an integral part of Greece’s ancient history. These tourists, however, would be unlikely to enter one of the city’s newest theatres: a cramped basement in a low-income, immigrant neighbourhood called Omonia.

But on a crisp Friday night in late January, the underground venue was at capacity. A few dozen audience members—mostly young, smartly dressed Greeks—sat on pillows and mismatched chairs, sipping wine from paper cups, to watch a play called Odes to the Prince. In a pivotal scene, the lead actor wore a mask of the Greek prime minister, Alexis Tsipras. Behind him, three other actors held photographs of Tsipras’s head, with parts of his face shaded out. The only lighting shone from two bare bulbs hanging from the ceiling, and the acrid smell of hand-rolled cigarettes filled the air.

The dusty basement has its own dramatic history, albeit a recent one. Before it became a theatre, it was a community gathering space for immigrants from Bangladesh, who would meet here to eat familiar food and share tips on adapting to European life. But in 2011, as the Greek economy tumbled due to a debt crisis exacerbated by the European Union’s strict central-banking regulations, the immigrants faced shrinking incomes. No longer able to afford the rent, they moved out. Soon after, Vassilis Noulas, a 41-year-old director with a beard and shaggy brown hair, repurposed the space into a theatre for his drama troupe. In October 2014, he began renting it at $120 a month. He kept the venue’s name—“Bangladesh”—as well as some of the broadsheet posters, covered in Bengali writing, that plastered the walls. He also hung a green, fluorescent-lighted sign that spells out “Bangladesh,” in Greek script, above the entrance.

In many similar places across Greece, artists are gathering in the craters left behind by the depression—empty properties in low-rent areas—to tell stories about their nation’s woes. With government funding for the arts now nearly non-existent, artists have also begun to devise new types of collaboration. Private-sector entities, too, have stepped into a crucial role as patrons for creativity. These factors have produced an unlikely artistic flowering in the face of economic hardship.

When Noulas started his career as a playwright, in 2007, he was able to tap into generous government grants. But after the crisis hit, the government adopted stringent austerity measures, and almost all state funding for the arts dried up. As of August 2015, the country had slashed its public spending by $65 billion. “We used to have an organised system where we got state subsidies every year,” Noulas told me. “That completely collapsed in 2011. Since then, there is absolutely nothing.” Without government funds, Noulas got more creative—by renting Bangladesh, and by staging productions in his friends’ apartments. He even directed a performance-art piece in Omonia Square: a large public plaza near the centre of Athens.

Although its coffers are empty, the government is still attempting to support home-grown arts—theatre in particular. In 2015, even as value-added tax rates increased for most types of purchases, the VAT for theatre tickets was reduced to 6 percent, from 6.5 percent. By contrast, VAT rates for cinema tickets rose to a whopping 23 percent.

“The striking thing is that it does not seem that theatre productions or attendance have diminished in any significant way since the crisis,” Cathryn Drake, an arts writer and curator, told me in an email. In 2012, Drake founded an arts initiative in response to the financial crisis, which arranged performances, exhibitions and workshops in disused buildings around Athens.

Kosmas Nikolaou is an abstract visual artist in his late twenties, who builds installations inspired by historical events. In 2011, along with two fellow artists, he took over an empty, three-storey factory in another rundown Athenian neighbourhood, a short drive from Noulas’s Bangladesh.

Today, the three artists rent the space for $300 a month. They work in it, and often also host parties and exhibitions there. “We feel like it makes sense to take advantage of the crisis,” Nikolaou said. “There are so many empty spaces, since no one can afford rent anymore.” Although he and the two others don’t collaborate on projects, Nikolaou said he draws energy from sharing a space with other artists—something he hadn’t tried before the crisis. “We each do our own work, but there’s a feeling of collaboration,” he said.

The private sector has also come to occupy a larger portion of Greece’s cultural landscape. The Onassis Cultural Centre, a gleaming multi-storey building located on one of Athens’s busiest thoroughfares, has a luxurious lounge and restaurant, and a labyrinth of practice and performance spaces for dramatists, musicians, dancers and more. It even has a grand symphony hall, stocked with dozens of instruments.

The centre is the legacy of Aristotle Onassis, a wealthy Greek businessman who, when he died in 1975, left a large portion of his fortune to create it. A statement made in 2015 by the centre’s president, posted on its website, reads: “In times like these, we, the private sector, have an obligation to provide assistance and to collaborate with each other as well as with the Greek State.”

During an interview in one of the building’s numerous theatres—an immaculate, high-ceilinged space—the vice executive director of the centre, Afroditi Panagiotakou, echoed the optimism I had heard from others about the creative climate in Greece today. She called the crisis a “great awakening” that has created a fertile environment for the arts. “It’s like chemistry,” she said. “By combining different elements, you get new and unexpected reactions. There’s a sense of community that wasn’t as present before.”

But the crisis has not meant more productivity for all Greek artists. Costis Drygianakis, a composer and record producer, told me that while some people are now freer to pursue the arts than they were before, because they no longer have jobs, the crisis has also caused “a significant percentage” of artists to “simply sink into depression.” For many, he said, “unemployment frequently means a lack of the basic means, like travel expenditures, in order to perform.”

Many Greek artists’ work today comments on the country’s political landscape. For instance, Odes to the Prince, which Noulas wrote by drawing extensively on the writings of the poet Nikos-Alexis Aslanoglou, mounts a scathing critique of contemporary Greek democracy. Aslanoglou’s poems are often read as homoerotic paeans between lovers, but for Odes to the Prince, Noulas told me, he reimagined them as exalted praises being delivered by a subject to a ruler. By having an actor dressed as Tsipras perform the poems, the director conveys that the prime minister is more of a monarch than an elected leader.

For Noulas, this political frustration is intimately tied to the financial crisis. He believes that under the weight of billions of Euros of debt owed to the European Union, Greece has lost its sense of self-determination. Just as ancient Athenian leaders were appointed by the city’s wealthy landowners, Noulas said, now they are appointed by the institutions that hold the purse strings of the European Union. “Our leaders,” he said, “are like puppets following directives from abroad.”

Despite Noulas’s discontent, even his play ends on a hopeful note, with the performance of a French song called ‘Et Si Tu N’Existais Pas’—And If You Didn’t Exist. He chose the song because its lyrics evoked the state of the arts in Greece, highlighting the power of creativity born from crisis. As the tune played from cheap speakers, a male actor gyrated at a microphone and mouthed the lyrics. “And if you didn’t exist, I would try to invent love,” the song blared. “As a painter who sees from beneath his fingers, the day’s colours being born.”