Theatre, migration and the playwright

Theatre works written by Greek Australian playwrights are the subject of Eleni Tsefala’s doctoral project. NATALIE LIVADITIS discovers how Tsefala came to her research topic and the discoveries she had made in talking with the writers.

Theatre maker, actress and teacher Eleni Tsefala, began a task one year ago nobody in Australia has attempted before.

The medium of theatre Tsefala says has proved to be a fitting landscape to canvass the challenges faced by the first and second generation Greeks in Australia.

Her apartment in South Yarra bears the evidence: Tsefalas’ entire living space has become a laboratory of passionate research into the history of Greek theatre in Australia.

Since moving to Melbourne a year ago from Greece to commence her research as part of a PHD thesis with the University of Crete, Tsefala has amassed countless numbers of scripts of plays written by first, second and third generation Greek Australian playwrights.

They mingle side by side on her kitchen and lounge room table.

Transcripts of interviews conducted in Sydney and Melbourne and collections of para-phernalia of past productions lie among the hundreds of pieces of paper assembled in piles around her apartment.

“I have come to Australia to explore bilingual Diaspora theatre and I have chosen to ex-amine the case of Greek Australian playwrights from first and second and possibly third generations – it all depends who has written theatre and is interested to share their work with me,” said Tsefala.

Born and raised in Canada by Greek immigrant parents Tsefala later moved to Greece where she studied philology and theatre at university.

In 2001, she completed a Masters degree at the University of Athens and University of London, composing a thesis on theatre and its role as a tool to combat ethnic discrimination in communities in England.

“I explored theatre and education companies which were Hindu, English or Afro-English who were working with ideas of racism, stereotype, prejudice and discrimination in their work.

They were coming up with beautiful theatrical pieces, performing them out in the open and they were doing this work with their communities, schools and students from their communities in their own language and culture,” she said.

This prompted Tsefala herself to question how the Greek Diaspora used theatre over generations to explore the migrant experience, eventually turning it into an idea for a Phd.
On discovering there were too few plays about Greek migration in Canada to constitute research for a Phd, Tsefala approached the General Secretariat of Greeks Abroad and stumbled across a play, A pair of cultures – “ena zevgari kaltses”, which inspired the angle for her research and sparked a chain of events that would lead her to Melbourne.

“I went to the General Secretariat of Greek’s Abroad and I found the play of Koula Teo, “Ena zevgari kaltses” – A pair of cultures.  It gave me the idea – that is what I have to do, find plays that go under the heading “a pair of cultures.”

At the time of her discovery, Tsefala was starring alongside Melbourne-born Greek Australian actor Costas Mandylor in the film Emma Blue.

Mandylor suggested Tsefala contact his mother, Louise Mandylor, who eventually exposed Tsefala to the Greek theatre community in Melbourne.

To be able to research the topic Tsefala decided to move to Australia.

While her research is still underway – aiming to be completed in July, Tsefala says she has already noted marked differences between the plays of first generation and second-generation playwrights.

“What is beautiful to see is all these different generations going into a dialogue, or inter-generational dialogue because the challenges that the first generation has found by coming here to Australia are represented in their plays; the true stories of migration are described in these plays.

“They bring along all the myths and traditions of the language that they carried from home, the reflections of their villages, their homeland, their relationships to their ancestors, to their history and a loyalty which I’ve found very affective. On the other hand we have the second generation who have seen this homeland or haven’t but still from these reflections, myths and stories include so much about the background of their parents and grandparents but on the other hand they want to relate to the country that were born into,” posits Tsefala.

“Themes like the proxy marriages, religious differences, language spoken at home and in the neighborhood and at school, if they like it and if they don’t, they are subjects they bring up in their stories.

Also the traditions that their parents [follow] or the fact that parents wanted them to go to Greek school. Do they really want to go to Greek school or do they really have to go to Greek school? These are subjects they try to argue and understand in their plays.”

The medium of theatre Tsefala says has proved to be a fitting landscape to canvass the challenges faced by the first and second generation Greeks in Australia. These plays speak not only to them but also to wider migrant communities of Australia.

“Putting it on stage and magnifying the challenges that they face today is about actually opening up these subjects to the audience.”

Theatre has become the medium by which Greek immigrants relieve themselves of all these burdens, put them aside, make peace with the country they live in order to continue their lives and see themselves in the present.

It has become the way by which Greeks have  explored who they are, their identity, the issues which occupy their everyday lives.

She tells me wholeheartedly that Greeks in Greece can appreciate and care for the stories about Greek migration.

“I think that the experience of the Greeks Diaspora concerns them very much today and also the Greeks in Diaspora around the world,” she said.

Before leaving for Australia, Tsefala translated and performed along with three other women Tes Lyssiotis’ play Blood on the Moon, which was received with praise from Greece.
“We performed it in Volos, which is an experimental stage and the reaction that I got from the Greeks in Greece was amazing,” she said.

“And that’s what I encourage – that these works do not only concern you here in Australia but they are works which concern the Greeks there because you can rarely even find a family that has nothing to do with migration; everyone has someone that migrated or they themselves were migrants that probably repatriated and turned back home so the stories that these playwrights have written are their stories too and the challenges they face here, they still face.

Tsefala urges, her voice filled with conviction, that Greek migrants should celebrate both languages and the respective cultures, and somewhat laments the portrayal of the hardship in the plays engendered from the migrant experience.

“Being an immigrant, you don’t have to choose this or that. Living in two cultures is not a dilemma – it’s a choice. With the first generation I am trying to conserve how they felt, their experience, and how the second generation felt because that was my experience as well and it will be interesting to see what the third generation will come up with.

Tsefala believes the groundwork and research on first and second generations must first be completed and understood before the position of third generations can be illuminated.

Tsefala aims to publish her findings.

She concludes by saying, “If there are any other playwrights I would be thrilled to find out more, because this is a collective presentation of Greek Australian playwrights and it makes their voice stronger.”