I’ve been doing Greek community theater in NYC for many years. Much like any other workplace (artistic or not), it has its highs and lows. Great memories, fun shows, awkward shows, a slew of anecdotes from “that one time when…”, friendships, rows, gossip, politics… All these put together in a made-in-Greece melting pot, comprise the theatrical equivalent of the indomitable Gaulish village where Asterix, Obelix and the gang thrived and lived merrily. The Greek theater community in NYC is, in fact, comprised of many different memorable characters.
This is what my years with Greek and Cypriot theater organizations in NYC have taught me: Community theater has as much potential, as it has disorganization. And believe me, there is a loooooot of potential.
The community is relatively small, and therefore, people tend to think small on the administrative side. Marketing efforts are very basic. If you’re putting up a show, don’t expect a well-thought-out strategic promotional campaign. The strategy is: talk (and the Greeks are born strategists). Talk about it, tell your friends, tell your co-workers. Push, hustle, pound the sidewalk! Beyond printing postcards and sending an unimaginative email blast to a feebly-updated 40-year-old contact list… you’re on your own.
Willingness is a usually unfair credential…
…but it’s enough to appoint people in certain positions. The person who is in charge of the press releases isn’t always the most gifted writer but, he/she is “the one that handles that.” The person who is in charge of online promotions isn’t the most tech savvy or digitally creative person but hey, “I’ve seen my 13-year-old niece do it, so it can’t be that difficult. Now, how do I ‘paste’ something..?”
If you want to buy a spotlight to set it by the stage, you have to look for the theater’s electrician. He’s never around because he doesn’t need to be. He just happens to know more about wires and equipment than everybody else, so you have to check with him. Then ask the treasurer if there’s money in the budget for a new spotlight. In some cases, the electrician is also the treasurer.
The quality of the show itself is dependent on the artists. Which is why the shows are normally top-notch and well-presented. But for the most part, administrative positions are volunteer-based. There is no interview process or assessment of skills. Step 1, you get involved; step 2, you fall into a position.
The “Cheers” effect
You wanna go where everybody knows your name… That’s community theater. At the end of the day, there are no strangers. When you swing the door open, you’re not greeted with a “Hello! Can I help you?” You’re greeted with a “Ωωωω!! Καλώς τον ψηλό!! Πασ’ στην ώρα, μόλις έβαλα πάνω τον καφέ!” You don’t have to know what it means, that’s what makes it special…
They are not the best at running an organization, but they like having company. They value groups of people collectively getting together in good spirit, no stress, no hassle. And who doesn’t? After a long anxiety-filled day in the City, who doesn’t want to go somewhere where they can be treated like a friend, like someone with a name? The Greek laissez-faire mentality interferes with many things, and that is both great and frustrating. They will do the required minimum and set the bar at “This’ll do.” No stress, no hassle. But it makes you wonder if they’re curious to know what’s on the other side of the fence, if they pushed themselves just a little to go that extra mile.
It keeps the flame burning
When I was going through some relationship issues, my cousin told me: “Well, maybe you guys are forgetting those feelings that you once had for each other. You can’t expect that flame to burn on forever on its own. You have to work at it! Go back to those times when you first started going out with her and everything was fresh and new. Remember how you felt back then? Refresh that! You have to remind yourselves why you love each other.”
The struggle to survive in NYC, can make you lose sight of your dreams. Breaking through in acting is tough, it’s tiring, it’s full of disappointment and it makes you question if you were ever any good in the first place (I could post separately on this topic, but sadly, there have already been one too many such blogs/articles). Essentially, the struggle makes you forget those feelings of why you love [insert artistic profession] so much.
Greek community theater is a blessing in disguise. Sure, I didn’t come all the way from Cyprus to do Greek shows. But on my way to pursuing the dream towards bigger and better, Greek theater gave me the opportunity to hone my craft, it allowed me to keep on being creative, to experiment, to try different things, new things! I’ve had the good fortune of participating in community shows whose quality and production value was even better than many off-Broadway plays.
Thousands of other actors with limited resources and a not yet strong enough résumé who don’t speak a foreign language don’t have this opportunity. They can’t try out for city-funded performances which give them the freedom to create and develop their work extensively. They may have to settle for low (or non)-paying experimental projects with limited runs in small spaces, shoestring budgets and two-drink minimums. I suppose that is the hardened gritty New York way to rise to the top. But then again, consider that the Hellenic Cultural Center of the Archdiocese in Astoria has two conference rooms, a fully equipped 200-seat theater, full dressing rooms and a kitchen! The truth is, I wouldn’t have creative access to this, if I didn’t speak Greek.
Community theater has helped me remind myself of why I love doing this so much. It has, in fact helped “keep the flame burning.” At a time when the rejection of the city had started to become unbearable, I step on the stage, and I feel the energy from the parquet floor, the warmth of the spotlights, the breath of the audience, and I think to myself “Oh yeah. That’s why I do this.”
It’s whatever you want it to be
Again, I didn’t come all the way from Cyprus to do Greek shows. For me, community theater was just a stepping stone (and a solid one at that), a way of staying involved and “keeping my head in the game” while I pursued bigger opportunities in NYC. That’s not right or wrong. It’s just a personal choice; it’s what felt right to Alex Malaos. Others might find themselves immersed in the scripts written in their mother tongue, enthralled by the revival of the ancient greats or just conveniently snug in the now familiar troubles-are-all-the-same environment, and decide that community theater is the way to go. And that’s great too!
So whatever you decide to make of it, make sure you give it your all. When you’re part of something that’s culturally unique, you’re part of a family. Community theater is a huge learning experience. And much like any other family, it’s by no means the best, it can be great one time and fully dysfunctional the next; but it’s what you got. Work with it.