How Mary Coustas used comedy to heal herself and her fans

Greek Australian comedy legend Mary Coustas talks to Neos Kosmos about being back on stage with Nick Giannopoulos in Star Wogs - The Ethnics Strike Back! and how personal tragedy has made her a better performer

Mary Coustas is well known as the much-loved Greek Australian character Effie who first appeared in the ground-breaking comedy theatre production Wogs out of Work and TV show Acropolis Now.

In 1992 Effie released a duet with Gary McDonald’s iconic character Norman Gunston, Amigos Para Siempre (Friends for Life), and the single reached the Top 20 charts in Australia. The next year Mary won the Logie Award for Most Popular Comedy Personality.

While over the years she has appeared on television and on stage, recently Coustas reached national attention after numerous attempts to have a child ended in disappointment.

In May 2011, Mary and her husband George Betsis’ 17th IVF attempt ended in tragedy when their first daughter, Stevie, died during a premature birth at 22 weeks.

But in 2013 and after over a decade of fighting to become a mum, Coustas found some joy after giving birth to daughter Jamie after more than 20 IVF attempts.

Coustas says that being able to perform on stage helped her to process the pain of losing a child, but getting to a place where she came out the other side was not easy.

“I can tell you that I lost my composure with all of the trauma that I experienced,” she told Neos Kosmos.

“It felt like the drama of everything that I encountered turned me inside out. But my feelings are so much more accessible to me now, and it’s made me take far more risks as a performer.
“It has made me more empathetic. I think I cry much easier too, when people tell me their stuff, I think I laugh easier. I think I am more affectionate. I think it reiterates what is most important in life – that is, connection, relationships, staying close, togetherness, and support.
“After a great loss, that’s just one of the beautiful gifts you get in amongst all the rubble of heartbreak.”

Coustas says the pathos she garners from her stage performances are a dedication to her daughter’s passing.

“She fought very hard to stay alive against all odds and so I won’t dump all my disappointment and pain on to the memory of my daughter. I won’t do that,” she says.

“The only thing I can do is to use it for some good for me, to help heal me and others like me. That’s why I wrote the book (her 2013 memoir All I know: A Memoir of Love, Loss and Life), and that’s why this show with Nick is to heal others like us who have felt a lot of pain about not feeling like they belong.”

Mary Coustas. Photo: IMDB

Coustas says that being back on stage with Giannopoulos after over two decades in Star Wogs – The Ethnics Strike Back! reminds her of the connection that would come to inspire both Wogs out of Work and Acropolis Now.

“I served him as a waitress,” she says.

“We discovered that we went to the same primary school and the same Greek school. So, I think it is destiny and luck. It was like seeing a male version of me. He was ambitious, so talented and so curious about what was possible.
“We knew we had great chemistry and that was 32 years ago. To be now in 2018, I’m excited to be able to work with him. It just goes to prove that great collaborators never lose their magic, and I know that the audience knows that, and Nick and I know that too.”

Including the Effie and Jim reunion, Star Wogs will feature a number of Giannopoulos’ and Coustas’ other characters, and the award-winning actress says the audience will find them very relatable.

“We are our fans. We relate to those people because we are like them,” she says.

“It’s why it’s given us such longevity and the loyalty for so many decades are the fans. They are speaking a language that is familiar to us, the pain, the hilarity, the political stuff, all of that. It’s very relevant to how we live and our identity.
“When they come and see us live especially, and also in Acropolis Now, they are being seen and they are being spoken to in a way that is very satisfying on every level.”

When Wogs out of Work and Acropolis Now broke through the mainstream, for many of the broader Australian population it was the first time they had witnessed multicultural life at play.

Coustas says the impact of Anglo Australia experiencing stories of Greek migrants and their children told by authentic voices created a more empathetic society.

“As a culture we were invisible,” she says. “We never saw things that we could relate to on television – we’d be token shopkeepers. But we are in love with our culture, with this schizophrenic Greek Australian experience that we have that when it suits we are Australian and when it doesn’t we are Greek.
“It was a great offering to create characters that the whole country fell in love with on stage and then in Acropolis Now. Because I think what it does is it made everyone a lot more open to their neighbour and they had an understanding and a language they could communicate with.”

Mary Coustas as Effie.

The use of the word ‘wog’ throughout those productions changed the term’s meaning. Instead of being derogatory, for those who had been racism victims of it beforehand, they now had the chance to take ownership and wear it as a proud badge.

But three decades on from those first stage shows, Coustas feels that while the racism is not so much in-your-face as when the first generation migrants arrived, it does prevail in Australian society.

“When we did get called wogs, and all of us did, it was the greatest pain,” she says.

“It still something in the memory of how we all grew up. It’s in the memory of how our parents were addressed when they first came out here. Racism is a lot more sophisticated now. It’s not as blatant as it was in those days, but it’s still relevant as people aren’t as overt about it. It still makes us feel like we don’t belong and being the child of a migrant you inherent the melancholy that your parents had when they first came out here. That fire in us never goes away, we are almost trying to make sure that level of judgement is minimised by taking ownership and detoxifying the word by doing shows about it.”

As well as her daughter, Coustas’ father and grandmother have also passed away, and she says performing on stage in shows such as Star Wogs is a way of keep the memory of first generation Greek Australians alive.

“I feel a sense of responsibility to my parents and people of my parent’s generation,” she says.

“They were never indulged into thinking they had a future in the arts or that they had a platform. As their educated children, we had more freedom and opportunity, I feel a responsibility to keep their stories alive, to keep their spirit alive, to keep what we were born into alive as long as possible and to entertain people for as long as possible along the way.”

* Mary Coustas and Nick Giannopoulos perform alongside Sooshi Mango in their new comedy stage show ‘Star Wogs – The Ethnics Strike Back!’. The show is touring nationally from August to October. Find out more at wogs.com.au