Theatre as a vehicle for human resilience

Never shy of a challenge, actor and director Stathis Grapsas shares his experience working with inmates and actors with intellectual disability.

Stathis Grapsas can’t wait to go back to prison. No, the actor-turned-dramaturg has not committed any kind of crime. He is eager to go back to the Juvenile Prison in Avlona in the Northern part of Attiki, where he had conducted a ‘Personal Development Program’ for inmates, using theatre as a method.

It all started when he enrolled in a European Union program for the usefulness of theatre in the Third Sector – prisons, correction centres, hospitals.

“I’m always looking to see where I fit in, where I can be useful and offer to the community,” he says.

He found himself in Belgrade in 2001 working with children who became orphaned and homeless due to the war, which was a life changing experience.

“I realised that I’m more useful at a theatre workshop than as an actor onstage. And I have been one of the fortunate ones; I have been working for most of the 18 years I spent in Greece.”

Australian born and raised, Stathis Grapsas went to Greece at the age of 26, giving up a career in marketing to respond to a call by acclaimed Greek actor and director Kostas Kazakos, who offered three scholarships to Greek Australians to study at his drama school.

After finishing his studies, he worked with one of the most significant and creative theatre makers in Greece, Theodoros Terzopoulos, and also with the Greek National Theatre.

“But it wasn’t enough for me. Especially in 2009, when the crisis started, I sensed that something was missing; I didn’t feel well. So I looked and saw that in Avlona, the prison was in a terrible condition. They were calling for donations, they didn’t even have toilet paper. So I called and said that I have no supplies to offer, but I’d be willing to do a personal development program through theatre. They responded that they have no funds, so I offered to do this for free.”

Thus started a three and a half year collaboration with the juvenile prison and its school headmaster, Nikos Armenis. The third year was the most productive.

“We did a project called ‘Testimonials’, in which the inmates discussed their childhood experiences. It was important to see that these toughened people were once children and think of what went wrong for them,” the dramaturg says.

Then in 2013, he found himself without a job, so he came back to Australia like thousands of others. Here, he worked with the Greek community schools (recently presenting the project ‘I will always remember’ in which newly arrived migrant children share their memories from Greece), but he also approached the Victorian Justice System.

“They were very interested in what I’m doing, because there are theatre programs in female prisons, but not in male ones,” he says, describing his collaboration with the Metropolitan Remand Centre.

“But the paperwork here is endless, it took 10 months for it to be approved and when it did, they gave me a team of people on heavy medication,” he says, “when I had asked to work with inmates from the general population. Still, even these practically sedated inmates showed eagerness to open up.
“It was a ten-week program and I was told that I’d be lucky if they came for a couple of weeks. Most came for the whole of the program.”

This earned him a pass to work with the general population, but still another long period of paperwork ensued, followed by the riots, which put an end to all programs.

“The difference between Greece and Australia is that here the facilities are great, the conditions are humane, but the treatment is not. In Greece, the prisons are in terrible condition, but the wardens treat prisoners with more respect, you feel that not all is lost for them. Here, the prisons are privatised, run with high budgets, everything has to be measured, but it is more of a facade. Behind that, the system is problematic.”

Still, even after having to offer assessment on the percentage of personal growth and development of the inmates, even in dealing with a system where nobody is willing to take responsibility, he still wants to continue.

“I’m not optimistic for the correction system,” he says.

“I’m hopeful that, through human contact, we can shed some light in these lives. The role of theatre has always been educational and cathartic, to provide people with an emotional outlet.
“In ancient Greece it was accessible to all, it was the easiest way to discuss things and share emotions.”

This is why he wants to go back to Avlona – and to Thiva, where he has planned a similar program at a rehab centre.

“This time there has been some discussion for private funding. But I’m willing to go regardless,” he says and admits that his ticket is one-way.

“There’s always the option to come back, all roads are open. When I came to Australia, I went with the need to communicate, now I’m going back with the need to give.”

Before he does that, he has one last thing to complete; the last performances of the play ‘Heroes of the Past & Present’, which he developed with three actors who all have some form of intellectual disability.

“I’m drawn to a challenge,” he says, explaining how he worked with the team, who are all part of Fusion Theatre Company.

“I asked them to speak about the things that concern them. Andy McKinnon said that he is troubled by the refugee crisis, the people drowning at sea, so I thought of the Messenger in ‘the Persians’, who describes the loss of these people. Aeschylus makes this tragedy personal, not just about enemies falling by numbers,” says the dramaturg.

“Katrina Welsby, the second part of the group, is a dynamic young woman.
“She came and discussed how she can do anything despite her disability; she attends cooking workshops and math lessons, she is in charge of her life. So I thought about Iphigenia who comes forward to take the fate of the West in her hands.”

The third member of the team, Alex Litsoudis, was concerned about how we treat children in our culture, why they have to suffer in the hands of adults, especially at war.

“So we turned to Ajax, a play in which Sophocles practically describes post-traumatic stress disorder, and we modernised it, talking about soldiers who find themselves killing children at war.”

The result was a success, by any measure.

“I didn’t think of them as people with special needs, I worked with them as the professional actors that they are.”

What he learned from this experience was that “human resilience is limitless,” he says.

“We performed at the Emerald Theatre, and among the audience was one of the theatre’s founders, who wrote in the guestbook that he started this journey 38 years ago, but this experience made it worthwhile.”

‘Heroes of the past & Present’ will be performed at the Greek Centre (180 Lonsdale Street, Melbourne, VIC) on Saturday 22 July at 3.00 pm and 7.00 pm. Book tickets here.