Before Facebook and the world that lives online, civilisation had to make do with the art of theatre; a form of expression that emerged in ancient Athens. Whilst Aristotle occasionally frowned upon theatre as diverting from the traditional festival culture and storytelling of classical Greece, we are lucky that few took notice of the great philosopher from the Hellenic Kingdom of Macedon.

The Classical period gave us Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes, Menander, and most would have to compete in competition celebrating the ancient gods. In the City Dionysia’s competition, which commenced in 534BC, the talent was incredible, allowing us to gain a glimpse of the world that existed in ancient times. The arts had wealthy patrons and Lysicrates was one of the most supportive.

The tradition of competition and audience participation to democratically select a winner can be traced back to Athens, and it is an initiative that the Lysicrates Award is duly following.

Founded by John and Patricia Azarias, the prize has gained instant recognition and acclaim, with the premier of NSW and the opposition leader attending the first event.

The Alexandria-born Mr Azarias and his wife helped raise $90,000 to establish the prize from private donors and a further $60,000 through the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage for the restoration and preservation of the Lysicrates Monument. The monument itself is over 150 years old and is nestled in the beautiful Sydney Botanic Gardens.

Earlier this year, Sydney writer Steve Rodgers won the first Lysicrates Prize for new Australian playwriting. His work, Jesus wants me for a Sunbeam, explored the issue of euthanasia and suicide. For his efforts, Mr Rogers was rewarded with a $12,500 prize after the audience voted for him after viewing elements from the finalists at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music.

Whilst he had the audience in stitches with his play that included elements of humour to create a thought-provoking response, the issue is one that he believes in. As a result, he has been able to complete his work with the prestigious Griffin Theatre Company.

Lysicrates Book launch

On September 16 at NSW Parliament House, the 2015 Lysicrates Book launch was held with Minister for Planning, The Honourable Rob Stokes. One hundred people attended, including representatives from both sides of parliament, the Consul-General of Greece, Dr Stavros Kyrimis and supporters of local art and culture. The book outlines in pictures and words the prize and the Lysicrates Monument in Sydney, which stands at seven metres!

Whilst Melbourne has become arguably the Mecca of theatre in this country, it is worth noting that theatre has a long presence in Australia, starting in Sydney in 1789. Convicts performed a play entitled Recruiting Officer, watched by an audience that included the governor. Theatre was generally looked down upon in the early colonial era, however, it was allowed in one form or another during the first few decades on the condition that the audience behave. By the 1850s the audience became more sophisticated and were allowed to take in Shakespeare and opera.

During that same epoch over in England, I was informed by Mr Azarias that Englishmen would visit classical sites in Italy and Greece.

“They would bring back to English society a love of classical proportions in sculpture/architecture, and would make copies. A favourite model was the Choragic Monument of Lysicrates, which stood alone in Athens in the Street of the Tripods. In the world there are over 30 copies of this enchanting folly, but probably the best situated is the one standing in our own Botanical Gardens, made of golden Sydney sandstone.”

The Sydney Lysicrates Monument was commissioned in 1870 by Sir James Martin, who appreciated Greek culture. For those in Sydney or intending to visit, this is an impressive addition to the list of tourist sites. The book itself will also provide you with a priceless overview of the treasure in our very own backyard.

As Sydney now prepares itself for the next round of the Lysicrates Prize, the city and the founders of the award call upon the spirit of ancient playwrights to once again bring new talent to the fore of theatre.

The Lysicrates Book is available through the Lysicrates Foundation. It will become an annually produced book. Check for further details.

* Billy Cotsis is the writer of Draconian Decision of the German Drachma.