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Bringing a reckless audacity to stage

THEO PANAYIDES meets a theatre director determined to change the way other people’s worlds are brought to life in Cyprus

Theatre directors come in all shapes and sizes, but you won’t find many others who spent 10 years – between the ages of five and 15, practically their whole childhood – appearing on TV every week with their mother and older sister. Unfortunately, Athina Kasiou doesn’t want to talk about that. “I’d rather talk about the work,” she mutters with a touch of embarrassment – though she doesn’t refuse point-blank to talk about it, merely brushes it off as a blast from the past, no big deal.

“For me, and for the team, it was a fun activity that we did on Fridays and Saturdays,” she shrugs. “We were not professionals, we were children, we were singing and talking and having these adventures–”

Yes, but wait a sec. This was the late 80s and early 90s – a time when we barely had TV channels, let alone YouTube and Facebook – and there she was on TV, the whole country watching her grow up in Paidika Hamogela (‘Children’s Smiles’) and Gela Hamogela (‘Laugh and Smile’) on CyBC and Logos. Surely everyone at school watched these shows, or at least knew about them?

She laughs nervously. She’s bespectacled and fine-featured, her round face so thin and alert it appears jam-packed, like every square inch of it is occupied. She leans forward, speaking fast and sometimes stumblingly. “They did, but I never felt – it was never – because we’re a small community in Cyprus, everyone knows each other, it was never a big deal, never affected me.”

Surely it made her feel special, though?

“I don’t know. Maybe it’s the way we were brought up, but this was very much part of our everyday – I never felt – I don’t know, maybe now, but I never felt it was something…” She shakes her head: “We were enjoying ourselves, we were having fun. It was like you’re going to a dance class, or music class. And because it was in a family environment” – her mum, who runs a kindergarten, used to write the scripts – “it was just like doing an extracurricular activity.”

Maybe so. I suspect there was slightly more of a buzz to being on TV than going to a dance class, and I reckon there must’ve been times when she felt like a mini-celebrity – or alternatively when she told her mum ‘I’m 13 years old now, I don’t want to be doing kids’ TV anymore’ – but no matter. The main takeaway here is that Athina doesn’t like to talk about herself, which is obvious in any case. She cringes a little when I ask about her personal life, and lifestyle in general. “I don’t like sports,” she replies in desperation, as if trying to come up with something. “I like shopping! Going to the theatre. I’m a little boring like this, I’m very – one-dimensional, maybe”. She’s been married for three years (she’s now 33) to Haris, a civil engineer. They live in the old town of Nicosia – and she tells me where her home is, but declines to do the interview there. Instead we meet at Kala Kathoumena which is literally just around the corner, the better to keep things impersonal.

It’s fair to say that most of her energy gets poured into her work. “We enter – I enter – a project so much that nothing else exists outside this project,” she admits – and, in the six years since she came back to Cyprus from her studies, she’s made a name for herself with the Open Arts theatre company, directing a series of productions including, most recently, Love and Information by Caryl Churchill. Those studies were extensive (she did a BA at Emerson College in Boston then an MFA at Middlesex University in London, along with stints at the Russian University of Theatre Arts in Moscow and the ISI Indonesian Art Institute in Bali), and the shows she stages are known for conceptual inventiveness, specialising in so-called “site-specific” productions.

For instance? Well, for instance A Midsummer Night’s Dream staged not in a theatre but the orange grove of her family home in Strovolos – a conceit inspired by the “experimental immersive theatre” she used to watch in London, the point being to create not just the play but a facsimile of the world of the play. There were two simultaneous strands, she recalls, the world of ‘the Mechanicals’ and the world of the Fairies, the audience guided by the voice of Puck on a pirate-radio station as they made their way from one to the other – but the main ingredient was the sensual excitement of actually standing in a forest (or close enough) while watching magic unfold in a forest. Or take her production of The Cherry Orchard staged, ingeniously, at Tivoli Luna Park, the venerable (and now defunct) amusement park in the grounds of the old State Fair in Nicosia: a play about old and faded Russian aristocrats forced to sell their family estate to pay the mortgage, experienced by the audience in an equally faded setting – an obsolete shell of a place, haunted by the ghosts of forgotten glories and already in the process of being evicted.

It’s a slight paradox that Athina, who seems fairly diffident as a person, appreciates boldness when it comes to her art. I find her reading a book called The Theatre of Thomas Ostermeier, Ostermeier being a German director and former enfant terrible whose style is known for taking no prisoners; his ‘capitalist realism’ aesthetic “forces his audience to watch the gritty violence of reality caused by a ruthless capitalist system,” according to Wikipedia. (I browse through the book, embellished with Athina’s notes; on one page, the phrase “grasping the very core of our human community” has been underlined.) When I ask for the stage productions she recalls most vividly she mentions the Ostermeier-directed Crave, by Sarah Kane, at the Barbican – Kane, who committed suicide at 28, was another pugnacious and aggressive artist, famous for so-called ‘in-yer-face theatre’ – and Strindberg’s Dream Play staged by Katie Mitchell, probably her single biggest influence as a director. “I couldn’t believe that theatre could do such a thing.”

Her own personality, as already mentioned, isn’t much like the reckless audacity she appreciates onstage. Any bad habits? Does she drink too much, smoke too much? “Maybe this is my bad characteristic,” she replies with another nervous laugh, “that I don’t smoke too much or drink too much. If I have work, I go to sleep early”. What does she do for fun? “Hang out with friends. Go out, watch movies. Nothing too crazy.”

What if we were in a large group of friends? How would she behave, what would be her role? Her reply is revealing. She’d try to “keep things moving,” explains Athina. If, for instance, a sudden silence descended on the group, she’d be the one to break the silence – “to keep the momentum”, and prevent the evening from deflating. She might make some comment, just to get everyone going again – but then, having got the conversation back on track, she’d fade into the crowd: “I don’t need to be the centre of attention”. She works best, in short, as an enabler of others – not a bad trait for a director who doesn’t write plays or (despite her TV childhood) view herself as an actress, her job being to facilitate the bringing-to-life of another’s imagined world.

Her style as a director is similarly empathetic and unselfish; she doesn’t try to impose herself on the actors, that would be wrong as well as out of character. The first step is always to “break it down” together – research the life of the writer and the life of the play, “try to find what’s behind this play”. Then she starts setting up situations, both actual scenes and invented situations which may shed light on the characters. “You start finding freedom when you understand how the play is working,” she explains – so they keep rehearsing, and “every time you do it, there are little windows that start opening up… I think it becomes real with the communication onstage, when the people onstage know what they want from each other, so it becomes human”. Love and Information went through two months of daily rehearsal, including a fortnight of research and analysis; the point is to create “a common page”, so the actors feel included in the process and accept her judgment when she guides or corrects their performance. “I don’t like – I mean, no-one likes conflicts in rehearsal”.

Some people do, I point out. Some artists thrive on them.

“Yeah, I don’t. I’m the opposite. Maybe I’m too sensitive, but everyone [should be] here because they want to be here… I think I am sensitive to the people in the group – especially when we have a focus, a play. I believe, as a director, I know how to bring everyone’s focus back to our work.” Her style is methodical, a long way from the stereotype of the director as martinet. “I’m not gonna be the director who’s going to shout, or push someone – because I’m not such a person”.

What kind of person is she? A low-key person, a civilised person. Selfish drivers always used to infuriate her by parking on the pavement right outside her house, she recalls – but the most she ever did was leave a note on their windshield. When’s the last time she lost her temper? She blushes slightly, as if embarrassed to keep answering my questions in such boring ways: “I don’t lose my temper”. She’s very calm, she gets that from her dad.

profile3Well, what would she do if she saw a man beating a dog in the street? Would she intervene? Yes, she replies, but “I would be calm”. First she’d check that the dog was okay, then she’d ask the man why he did it – seeking motivations, like they do in theatre. “You start to think OK, why did that man hit that dog? Why is he being driven to treat animals like this?”. She’s obviously in the right job, I note with amusement. Yes, she agrees, it’s good for her job – “but then, for [creating] change, maybe it’s not”.

That’s the point, of course – because the likes of Sarah Kane and Thomas Ostermeier are (or were) political artists and Athina too wants to bring about change, both aesthetically and, by extension, socially. What she’s doing, after all, is fringe theatre (Open Arts is a small venue, holding no more than 100 people) that aims to shake up local audiences with radical plays or, in the case of Shakespeare and Chekhov, radical stagings. She hopes to make the audience more “present”, she tells me, make them more awake, less complacent: “I think more and more – because we’ve seen so much as people, we have internet, our speed of mind is so much faster – I don’t think anyone wants to sit and be spoon-fed”. She’s part of a new generation that looks beyond Cyprus – and, implicitly, isn’t going to be satisfied with the old ways of doing things. “We’re not locked in an island,” she says, not in 2016 and the Age of the Internet. “It’s really easy to be European”.

Fine; but change requires a certain anger, and perhaps a certain boldness – not just in theatre, but in real life as well. “I think we are a repressed people,” she says of her fellow Cypriots, “I think we hide away” – but of course she herself does it too, more or less, the creative, cultured, well-educated, consciously ‘European’ artist who loves avant-garde theatre but leads a sheltered life because what else can she do? “I think this is a problem we are all facing, not only in Cyprus,” she muses. “The pattern of our society now, what has it led us to do? Find a little job, make sure we have a good night’s sleep in our good beds – because that’s where we feel safe. That’s the measure of what it is to be OK”.

At least Athina is trying to change things, bringing creativity and imagination to her own little patch. Still, the struggle goes on – not just the struggle to be true to one’s art, but simply to make a living from it. Fringe theatre isn’t really sustainable here, despite her success, and the future of theatre is uncertain in general, with so many other distractions – though it stands apart from most of the others, being the only form of mass entertainment that offers a live, communal experience (apart from football, she adds ruefully). What are her own future plans? Does she want children with Haris? Another nervous laugh: “Do I want kids? Yes, sure, maybe one, someday”. Just the one? Just the one, she replies firmly, adding her reasons for that preference to the list of things she’d rather not talk about.

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