One Nicosia businessman has turned his hobby of acting into a full-time vocation. THEO PANAYIDES meets him
The stage set is simple enough, a courtroom stripped down to basics. There’s a bench for the judge, with a gavel and American flag, then a raised dais beside it where a witness can be cross-examined. In front of the bench are two tables with chairs, for the prosecution and defence. It occurs to me that the staging will have to be clever, otherwise the audience will be looking at the backs of the actors’ heads when the lawyers make their speeches; the rather unwieldy theatre, at the Melina Mercouri Hall in Nicosia, has seats on three sides of the room.
“Who sits here?” I ask Andreas Araouzos as we settle across from each other at one of the tables. “Tom Cruise, or Kevin Bacon?”
“Kevin Bacon,” he replies with a note of apology.
The play is A Few Good Men, based on the Tom Cruise movie though it was actually a play (by Aaron Sorkin) long before it was a movie. It’s the latest production by Alpha Square, the theatre company founded by Andreas in 2002 – though in fact we meet towards the end of the run, on the night of the penultimate Nicosia performance with the actors trickling in towards the end of our interview, and in fact I catch Andreas just a few days before he’s due to leave the country, heading off to Greece for a month. A producer from Thessaloniki happened to see his musical version of Cinderella, a year ago in this very theatre, and immediately invited him to stage it in Thessaloniki with local actors, planning a big Christmas run and hopefully a tour of the region.
This is quite a big break, his first time directing a play outside the island. (It’s also his first time directing a play without also producing it, an experience he’s looking forward to; more on this later.) While in Greece, he’ll also be getting some important news from Cyprus, the list of productions that Thoc, the Cyprus Theatre Organisation, is planning to sponsor in 2017 – a competitive field, since 116 applications have been made by various theatre companies and only 40 plays will be funded. Thoc was also the main sponsor for A Few Good Men and in fact has been putting money in (some) Alpha Square productions for the past few years, which has been a godsend. Andreas has always had to hustle for private funding, often from unlikely sources – over the years, sponsors have included furniture giants Habitat and hairdressers Toni & Guy – “but the last two years, obviously because of the crisis, it’s been a nightmare”.
How has he managed to recoup his money?
“I made a loss, in some cases,” he replies grimly. “And, in other cases, [the play] was a tremendous success in terms of sales.”
So what happens if Thoc don’t fund any of his productions for next year? Is there a Plan B?
“No. I’ll make a Plan B.”
That said, it’s remarkable that he’s in the running for Thoc money at all – not just because the local theatre scene is increasingly jam-packed but because his path to the inner circle of state-funded companies has been unique, by Cyprus standards. Theatre folk invariably study Theatre – but Andreas studied Mathematics and Management in Manchester, did a stint in accounting with KPMG London, followed up with an MBA in Cyprus then worked in the family business for many years, doing theatre only as a sideline (he did go back to London for a belated acting/directing course at some point). Above all, Alpha Square was for years an English-speaking company, founded “in order to enhance theatre in the English language in Cyprus”. Only in the past five years – since The 24th Day, in 2011 – has it even tried to court the much bigger Greek audience, which of course is what gets subsidised.
Even now, his English accent (we do the interview in English) is surprisingly plummy, a fact he ascribes to having first learned the language as a child through private lessons with native speakers. I assume it also has to do with being an actor, which was his original calling (he only began directing with Doubt in 2009): he likes to caress the language, so “last spring” becomes ‘lahst’ and at one point he tells me – apropos of good friendships – that “I think it’s very important to la-a-augh with someone”. He talks in a steady, deliberate rhythm and his face isn’t especially animated, for an actor: its main characteristic is perhaps that the eyebrows lean slightly upwards when he speaks, wrinkling his forehead and giving him a perpetually slightly worried expression. What he says may read more assertively on paper than it sounds while he’s saying it. In person – with the constant undertow of doubt supplied by the eyebrows – the impression is a lot more circumspect.
“I don’t consider myself a risk-taker,” he admits at one point. “I do believe I’m a very practical person. BUT,” he adds after a pause (the dramatic ‘BUT’ after a few seconds’ silence is a feature of his conversation), “what I’ve done with theatre has been a huge risk. So maybe I don’t exactly know how best to describe myself”.
In theory, his strategy has been ingenious: break into the less-crowded world of English-language theatre, establish himself with a small stock company of actors (notably Paul Stewart and Alexia Paraskeva, alongside Andreas himself) and well-known plays, often recognisable from their film versions – so that, when he turned to bigger casts and Greek-language theatre, his track record spoke for itself. In practice, there was never any strategy. The family business imports cars, and Andreas worked there full-time till his mid-30s (he’s now 39) as Communication and Promotion Manager for Opel, Saab and Chevrolet – but he also liked acting, having been fascinated by theatre since his mid-teens (he’d been in YACT, the youth wing of the Anglo Cypriot Theatre), so “I started my own company that was strictly for ‘after hours’”. Alpha Square was his hobby – then the hobby took over.
I actually sense a slight contradiction, or perhaps just dichotomy, in Andreas: on the one hand, a cautious character who shrinks from too much flamboyance and risk-taking – on the other, a stubborn type who likes things to be done just right, even if it means doing them himself. The latter side emerges in unexpected ways, as for instance when I ask about living in Cyprus. He’s not unhappy here, he replies, but his dream has always been to live in London, where he first became “mesmerised” by a West End production of Cats at age 12 – and there’s also something more, which may be part of the reason why he turned to English-language acting in the first place: an attraction to traditionally British virtues like efficiency and even decorum, good manners, formality.
He always enjoyed the fixed hours when he worked in an office, he insists with un-bohemian sangfroid. He never minded having to wearing a suit and tie, “I like suit-and-tie”. What he doesn’t like in Cyprus is the “prochirotita”, he tells me, lapsing into Greek – meaning sloppiness, unprofessionalism, a casual way of doing things. “You know, the receptionist eating her cereal when you go to visit the company. Or the girl at the counter in the bank being on the phone to her father to pick up the child, while you’re making a deposit. I don’t like that. I don’t like that – and it’s everywhere. Some sort of mediocrity. I don’t like spelling mistakes in signs, or in newspapers. I don’t like how I’m misquoted in interviews.”
Easy to see why such a person might become a producer, as the only guarantee that things would be done to their liking. “Producing theatre is a hassle,” admits Andreas. “It’s not enjoyable. But what I like about it is that I get to do what I want, with the people that I want, the way that I want it”. These days, he’s either in the midst of a project or preparing another one, writing emails, booking venues, trying to buy rights from agents abroad – and of course trying to find sponsors, which has never come easily.
Even in the old days, when money was a bit more available – we’re talking around €60,000 for a bigger production like Cinderella – it was mostly a case of keeping one’s ear to the ground, trying to sniff out who might be in the market. “They’re not really interested in the artistic value of it. Sponsors in Cyprus will just say, you know, ‘Should I support the arts a little bit this year, or should I not?’. I rarely found that it was the play that attracted”. And of course the money is never enough. A Few Good Men (‘Code Red’ in Greek) got some funding from Thoc, plus additional support from Intercollege and Royal Crown Insurance – but “not enough,” he laments. “Not enough. Not enough for the cost… The sane thing to do was to say ‘Thanks but no thanks, I can’t do it with the money you’re giving me’. But I was stubborn. And I really wanted to do it”.
This is the tragedy of Cyprus theatre, says Andreas, “that the sales cannot support the cost of production. So we’re always desperate for sponsorship, and for getting people in [the theatre]. So this promotion thing is a non-stop struggle – promote, promote, promote – and at the same time you want to do it right, you don’t want to be pestering people”. This is why he’s glad to be going to Greece for a month, where he can just direct the actors and not worry about marketing and finance, “and writing 20 cheques and all that”. This is also why the other side of his psyche – the cautious character for whom promotion doesn’t necessarily come naturally – is increasingly making its presence felt, to the extent that he’s starting to wonder how much longer he can go on at this pace.
What’s he really like, deep down? Is he an extrovert? “You know,” he replies after a pause, “I think my friends would say I’m an extrovert, and they’ll turn to me for a laugh, or for the analysis of something, or ‘He’s the artist, let’s hear from Andreas about this’, and so on – BUT I’m very aware that in the past, I think, five years I’ve become anti-social.” He avoids big groups and parties; he’d rather go out for a quiet night with a couple of friends. His other passion (apart from theatre) is reading, and one of his favourite authors is the scathingly funny, openly gay memoirist Augusten Burroughs – but what he especially enjoys, says Andreas, is Burroughs’ “self-deprecating” quality. I suspect he’s not the classic impresario type, smoking big cigars and regaling a roomful of people with stories about himself – more the genial bon viveur theatre person, sharing lively gossip with a few kindred spirits over a glass of Bordeaux.
The play’s due to start in less than an hour. The actors have now arrived, and the audience is starting to gather outside; just as well the set is simple, and can be struck in a matter of minutes (the courtroom is actually the second-act setting, left standing from last night’s performance). We’re interrupted by an assistant with a question: a 15-year-old boy will be watching the play by himself, and his mother wants to know if it’s age-appropriate. Maybe she’s worried by the sign prominently displayed at the box-office: “We would like to inform our audience that the performance will include loud noises”. The ‘noises’ are actually just a gunshot – but the law says we’re supposed to warn people so we warn them, says Andreas firmly, once again anxious that things should be done just right.
Maybe they’ll go for a drink after the performance, he and his cast; the Nicosia run’s almost over, and surely they’ll want to see him off before Thessaloniki. Most of his friends are theatre people, he admits, and “it’s the kind of profession that when we go out with other actors, all we talk about is acting – BUT I really enjoy that… I’m not one of those people who say ‘oh for god’s sake, let’s stop talking about work’. It’s not work. It’s – it’s passion!”. His own passion’s grown from a hobby to a full-time vocation – not just full-time, more like 24/7 – and a company he’s built up himself, with “these two hands” as he puts it. “I am unprotected,” says Andreas Araouzos, meaning that it’s all down to him – not the funding that may or may not arrive, not his well-off family who have nothing to do with Alpha Square, not the reluctant sponsors and frustratingly sparse local audiences – and he’s fine with that. Unlike Tom Cruise in A Few Good Men, he can handle the truth.