Free imprisoned

Wigs, makeup, fame - it was all without purpose for Greek Australian actor Stathis Grapsas, having devoted years of his life voluntarily doing theatre with detainees of Athenian prisons. Now he is back in Melbourne to do the same

Young prisoners play theatre behind bars with audiences who visit the prison to watch their performance. The scene takes place in Greece.

For last three years, before his return to Australia earlier this year, famous Greek Australian theatre actor and director Stathis Grapsas undertook a voluntary project, which he initiated, in the Avlona Special Detention Centre for Youth, and created a theatre workshop with some of the inmates.

The Greek criminal justice system proves to be one of the harshest in Europe. Sentences for theft can range up to 14 years even for young adults, aged between 15 to 21 years old.

And in an unstructured Athens jail, which more often than not hosts 400 prisoners instead of the 200 that it was built for, offences all come together – from theft, to human trafficking, drugs, murders.

Having moved his life from Greece to Melbourne several months ago, Stathis pulls out of his backpack a bulky notebook; a precious gift he carried all the way from Greece.

As I flip through the pages, each one carries the heart of an Athenian detainee – messages for Stathis, written in the insecure, toddler-like letters of the troubled youth of Greece, its refugees, its migrants.

“File, thank you for everything. We’ll miss you. With you, I felt I was out, part of the community.” (Tzonis)

“Stathi, I want you to know that in these three years you gave me patience, joy, strength … one piece of paper is not enough … I will remember you forever.” (Thanasis)

“I wish you good luck. I hope you won’t forget us as we will never forget you. You taught me to give love to those around me and not to fight with other kids.” (Xantouvan)

Achievement, happiness, fame, harmony – all have individual defining factors, different from one person to another.

For a theatre actor in Greece, it doesn’t get any better than the National Theatre of Greece. And that’s exactly where Stathis Grapsas spent many of his years.

In summer, he would lead theatre workshops for students, teachers, amateur and non-actors from all corners of the world, as a resident director at Hydrama Theatre for 10 years, on the island of Hydra.

But it was not the stage fame and privileges of an actor that resonated with Stathis as strongly as his post-NATO invasion experience in Belgrade, Serbia did.

In 2001, in a big push to increase the employability of actors and employ them beyond cinema, theatre, TV, he conducted theatre workshops for beneficiaries in ten institutions for homeless and parentless Serbian youth.

The experience with orphaned children and homeless youth for Stathis was a determining factor on how he perceived himself, in the arts. Being more directly useful in the community had changed his whole perspective.

Always concerned about balance, for Stathis the job of an actor had two sides – the community side and the main theatre side.

“It was too strong an experience. I could not simply slide back into the performance, a children’s show I was involved with before I left. At that moment I couldn’t deal with the local kids, bad mannered and disrespectful.”

“It has been the work I have done in the community as an actor and director that has become more rewarding and memorable. This is the direction I feel most useful in and where I prefer to be involved. It is the place where I can offer my experience to those who are more concerned about the process of the theatre as a means of expression and an outlet of release for them and not only the end result of a staged performance,” Stathis tells Neos Kosmos.
In all the work he has done, Stathis applies the basis of a physical theatre approach, with his main influence being director Theodoros Terzopoulos and his stylised physical approach.

“Physical theatre suits me; it’s about sharing what I have with a person opposite. In a working, professional, personal or any other relationship. It’s beneficial for both sides, you communicate together when you start interacting. It serves a purpose for people who want to be challenged beyond a simple comprehension of a story.

“Arts goes hand in hand and runs parallel to our times, we can’t think of theatre that is in no-man’s land and that has nothing to say about the world that we live in.

“There was something heating up inside me that was waiting to come out. I was at the National [Theatre], but it got to a point where I wasn’t moved with write ups and crowds and success.

“My job at the National Theatre of Greece was one of the most envied positions. I wasn’t happy because there was something missing, as far as what I’m about as a social being is concerned – what am I actually doing for the betterment of a community? It was a bit idealistic, but how we find happiness is each individual’s person journey.”

In October 2010 Stathis decided to approach a prison. If he was going to support someone in a time of crisis, who was he going to stand next to? Who had nobody by their side?

“If I was to consider my life in the next 10 years, putting on the wigs and makeup, dancing on the stage, and being just an actor – I said no, it has to be more purposeful than that.

“The prisoners came to my mind – they don’t vote, no one invests in them. This all brought Belgrade back to my memory and I found my niche, my path,” Stathis remembers.

In a voluntary initiative that ran for three years to follow, Stathis organised a theatre workshop in a local prison where the inmates were boys aged between 15 and 21.

“It was going back to basics and understanding who I am. In the end, the prisoners have taught me more than I taught them.

“I just gave them the opportunity to express themselves. They taught me to listen, to understand, to be patient, to care, to put a perspective on the things in life, to realise how much will power we actually have and not to have a defeatist attitude towards anything in life. Their commitment
and dedication to what we were doing fuelled me with more energy and I just kept going back.”

Working in the jungle that prison is, Stathis says it was the courage and strength of the inmates that inspired him to find a different approach and code of communication with them.

“They were young guys from 15 to 20 years of age who were uneducated, uncultured, from difficult family backgrounds, with no support. The approach was different, I had to find a code of communication with them that they could understand – and that was the physical approach.”

After three years of working with prisoners, once the economic situation in the country made him decide it was time to leave, Stathis’ biggest dilemma was how to leave ‘the kids from Avlona’.

“In retrospect, if I was paid for my work, I wouldn’t have left. Your self esteem is being threatened by the system – you are trying so hard to be part of the system, to offer, to better it, and yet you are getting nowhere.

“I decided to leave.”

Before his return to Australia, Stathis was approached by the Psychiatric Prison of Korydallos, and conducted a workshop that culminated in a presentation.

“It turned a lot of things around for me in terms of how I feel about what I do. I am not a commercial actor, I’ve done that. We go beyond that at the end of the day.”

Now back in Melbourne, which he left close to 20 years ago, Stathis is keen to apply the techniques he learned from Avlona detainees in correction centres in Victoria.

With the system more regimented and structured, the process is taking more time, but with authorities already giving positive feedback to Stathis’ idea.
Until then, passionate about contributing to community, Stathis is taking part in a project by Northland Youth Centre.

Entitled Diversionary Program, the project is set up for children in difficult situations and in danger of imprisonment. The aim, of course, is to prevent this from happening and to engage children in something creative and positive.

He is also active in the Street Soccer program, initiated by George Halkias of The Big Issue, where detainees take part in soccer games with teams from the other side of the prison bars.

“Every Wednesday, before the tournament, we work with them to help them gain team spirit and some technical skills with the ball and amongst each other. This helps me find out more about the system from inside and understand the psychology of the detainees here in Australia better.”

On the same voluntarily basis, Stathis is involved in the workshops of YMCA in prisons, that offer some basic classes to prisoners, like obtaining the certificate CERT 2, as well as fitness workshops.

“I see that prisoners want something more than just fitness exercise or a dry lesson. Some of my own suggestions had a positive response so far, even in such an experimental stage.

“The good news is that there is interest amongst prisoners for something new as they are looking to fight the monotony and think ‘different’ in any way they can.

“After all, my work is about changing peoples perceptions about themselves and others around them.”