FIFTEEN YEARS OF AXIOTHEA, FIFTEEN YEARS OF THEPAK – PROF. MICHALIS PIERIS SPEAKS TO NIKI MARANGOU
For the past fifteen years, the Cultural Festival of the University of Cyprus has been housed in a beautiful old mansion in old Nicosia, on Axiothea Street, where the cultural heart of the University of Cyprus beats.
Performances by THEPAK (the excellent and ever-renewing Theatrical Workshop of the University of Cyprus) and by invited Greek and foreign companies, concerts, conferences, seminars, honorary evenings for eminent personalities of the Letters and Arts, lectures, and a host of other activities have enriched the cultural life of the capital for fifteen years.
Heart, soul and driving force of the Festival is the tireless Professor Michalis Pieris, who contributes to its success in so many ways and with hard work.
We spoke with Professor Michalis Pieris, who has graced and enriched our magazine with his collaborations over the years. We feature here excerpts of that conversation:
N.M.: Dear Michalis, please tell us how and when the idea for this annual festival was born, and how it eventually materialized?
M.P.: What sparked the establishment of the Cultural Festival was the excellent reception and great success of the first theatre production held at the Axiothea Mansion, namely the world premiere of the Chronicle of Cyprus by Leontios Machairas presented by THEPAK on June 6, 1998. Psarantonis and Evagoras Karageorghis had offered the music and songs to the production without remuneration and, wishing to thank them, we proposed that they each hold a concert at Axiothea. And so, two very successful concerts were held, showing us how well they worked in this beautiful venue; immediately, the idea for the festival developed. Meanwhile, artists who had seen the venue were asking to perform there as well. Ross Daly had asked to do two concerts even before it had any technical infrastructure. Gradually, the festival was established and set its policies. Maintaining its high standards, it has now reached a point where we have difficulty choosing what to showcase from among the superb proposals of noteworthy groups that we receive.
N.M.: How is the festival funded and how does it survive financially?
M.P.: Today the festival is funded by the University of Cyprus and possesses the proper infrastructure and professional staff. In the beginning and for several years, however, we depended on our students, on members of THEPAK, and on outside collaborators, who supported the Festival on a volunteer basis. To this day, the members of the theater workshop are not remunerated for their participation or for the countless hours of rehearsals.
Since the Festival has been established as an institution with a significant and meaningful contribution to the cultural life of the country, we have been able to attract sponsorship from corporations and individuals who recognize our efforts. I mention here OPAP-Cyprus, which has supported the Festival for five years, the Central Cooperative Bank, and the Teachers’ Cooperative Credit Union that support our efforts by subsidizing the activities of THEPAK. The proceeds from the events also supplement the Festival’s budget, although they are never enough to cover the costs. The aim of the Festival is not bring profit to the University, but to enhance its educational, cultural and social contribution.
N.M.: This year also marks fifteen years for THEPAK, which boasts a number of great successes to date. Please tell us about its history, about its goals and future plans.
M.P.: THEPAK was founded in 1997 as a theatrical research workshop whose main area of study would be the Greek Literature of regional Hellenism, especially of Cyprus and Crete. Based on my experiences at other universities in Greece and elsewhere, I wanted to establish a university theater with aspirations and high standards that would stage performances only when they could be considered contributions (as well as interventions) to the country’s theatrical activity. The University’s Senate viewed my proposal positively and created THEPAK as an institution of the School of Philosophy, which was in the process of being established at the time.
Having launched the Festival with a difficult and ambitious production, namely the Chronicle of Cyprus by Leontios Machairas, we have slowly built a repertoire that includes Lysistrata by Costas Montis in the Cypriot dialect, the Constantinopolitan comedy Fiakas by Demosthenes Misitzis, Romiosyni by Vasilis Michaelides, The Ballad of the Bridge based on Cypriot and Greek folk songs, Erotokritos by Cornaro, etc. Each production has been a step toward the workshop’s main objective, i.e. the study of unknown or lesser-known works of Greek Literature (dramatic, or with dramatic potential), while filling a void in the theatrical activity of Cyprus and raising public awareness around the linguistic, literary and national values and worldviews contained in these works.
How well THEPAK’s performances have been received – most of which have been staged over 50 times in Cyprus and abroad – shows that our approach to these works is appreciated by the public and that our work truly fills a void in the cultural life of the country. I believe that this is because of the special way that THEPAK approaches its performances, through a continuous and persistent study of the works which, every time, gives us the impression that we are deepening our knowledge in that area. And this is something unique because our grammatology is treated as a mine from which we are continuously retrieving diamonds, diamonds the art of language. Our future plans include several other projects, the study of which is already under way, although we have not reached the point where we are ready for a performance. I am referring to dramatizations based on the work of Demetris Lipertis and Christodoulos Galatopoulos, and to gems of Cretan Literature, such as Erofili by Giorgos Chortatzis and the three Cretan comedies (Katzourbos, Fortunatos and Stathis), as well as performances based on the study of significant dramatic (or potentially dramatic) works of Modern Greek Literature (e.g. Sikelianos, Cavafis).
N.M.: How do Cypriot audiences, both the students and the art-loving general public, receive such a rich and varied Festival menu?
M.P.: In its fifteen years of operations the Festival has developed an audience that knows how to see, listen and evaluate. Its response to THEPAK’s performances, or to the featured concerts and other events, is not smply positive; our audiences come to Axiothea confident that they will have a unique experience. For us, this is both a big commitment and responsibility that simultaneously strengthen our resolve to continue on our course, feeling that we are offering something of essence and quality to complement and enrich the capital’s cultural agenda.
N.M.: Surely you and your colleagues labor greatly and sacrifice much time and energy for the organization of the Festival. It is the moral reward equivalent?
M.P.: The workload is staggering but the enthusiastic comments from the audiences and the artists with whom we have a fruitful dialogue, as well as from a large part of the University community, make us feel that our efforts are rewarded. I will not withhold, however, that certain forces within the University – fortunately not many – do not understand the nature of this work and cause various problems for us. We carry on despite this opposition, fortified by the love and support of our public.
N.M.: What types of performances and events attract the greatest interest from the public, and which of these have been most successful in the last fifteen years?
M.P.: I should certainly mention the THEPAK’s first performances, which have always attracted a great deal of interest, although they have been staged dozens of times. There are audience members who have watched some productions more than five times over the course of the fifteen years that THEPAK has been operating.
Great success has also been enjoyed by concerts given by certain artists, who have been associated either with the space of Axiothea, like Psarantonis and Evagoras Karageorghis, or by artists who have built up their own audience in Cyprus through their collaboration with the Festival, such as Chimerinoi Kolymvites and Savina Yannatou.
Unexpected success has also been marked by the selection of some new or unknown to Cyprus artists, such as the group from Lower Italy that we invited a few years ago and the trio from Portugal that gave a Fado concert this year. This indicates our audience’s clear preference for the Mediterranean culture, which is the main theme of our Festival. At the same time, it supports certain artists who have pursued a solitary path in their art, such as Stephan Micus.
I believe that we have also created a tradition in jazz – something that ensures that our selections will attract a large audience, whether we may are presenting artists from Europe such as the Milan Svoboda Quartet and the Kratochvil, Ackerman, Zangi Trio, or Cypriot artists such as the group by Takoushis and Karapatakis.
Hugely successful were also the appearances of well-known and beloved artists such as Chainides and Alkinoos Ioannides, while we also consider it very important to have hosted new talent such as Moumtzis, Antoniou, Landias, Kontemeniotis, et al. We certainly do not forget our debt to our folk tradition and consider it very important that Domna Samiou, Chronis Aidonidis, Christos Sikkis, Michalis Tterlikkas, Kyriakou Pelagia, and Kyriakou Mouaimi and Byronis among others have performed at Axiothea.
N.M.: THEPAK’s performances have also been performed outside Cyprus. Where exactly where these performances held, and how were they received?
M.P.: So far, THEPAK has played in many parts of Greece (e.g. Crete, Ancient Olympia, Mystras, Athens, Thessaloniki, Ithaca, Ioannina), and in many and very culturally diverse European countries (e.g. England, Albania, France, Germany Spain, Italy, Holland). We were always received very warmly, whether we were there as guests of Modern Greek Studies Departments and universities whose students and members were familiar with Greek culture and with the works presented, or we had been invited to perform at major Modern Greek Studies conferences – something that gives performances another dynamic framework. Particularly moving were our meetings with the Diaspora for which our performances were not only a unique cultural event, but also a bridge to the homeland. We have also performed to audiences that did not speak Greek and who followed the work with the help of narrator in each language. Even in these cases the reception was very warm because of the peculiarities of the performances, which draw heavily from ancient drama and folk ritual, and because the works themselves are of interest to a wider audience, not just to Hellenists. For example, when we presented the Chronicle of Cyprus by Machairas at Sorbonne, the majority of the audience was comprised of French Medievalists who were thrilled to see a medieval work, which is associated with their own history, on stage.
N.M.: Are there plans to upgrade the Festival further, and to give it a more Pancyprian character so that a wider audience can enjoy it?
M.P.: The protagonist in all events of this Festival, the beautiful Axiothea, fortunately or unfortunately, cannot be transferred elsewhere. It is there, at the edge of the Green Line, where it plays a significant role in bringing life and color to the area. I do feel, however, that the Festival already has a Pancyprian character since many people travel from Larnaca, Limassol, even Paphos to our events.
THEPAK also transports the spirit of Axiothea to other parts of the island by presenting performances in cities and communities throughout the free Cyprus, but also in the small enclave community of Karpassia. We are always open to suggestions and willingly respond because we believe that our work deserves to reach a wider audience, including small communities, which are oftentimes the most warm and receptive.
For years we also have enjoyed a wonderful cooperation with the Rialto Theatre in Limassol, collaborating on concerts or performances that take place at the same time in Limassol and Nicosia.
N.M.: What are the Festival’s plans for the coming year and for the future?
M.P.: We will definitely keep with the Festival’s thematic scope because we are very interested in Mediterranean culture, and especially in the cultures of the periphery and of fusion. We are moved by the culture which is produced in idioms and dialects because it has not been leveled by the dominant culture of a place, and because it is something distinctive, something that concerns even areas that lie outside the norm. And so we will continue to select small groups and/or solo artists who create the familiar ‘homey’ feeling, groups that are naturally situated in the residential venue where our Festival takes place.