Interview by Marilena Theodorakou
I met Laura Tesman a few days ago in Athens for an exclusive interview for theatermag.gr on her direction based on the poem Hymn to Liberty of Dionysios Solomos.
The show is part of the 64th Filippi Festival in Kavala which is decicated to our national poet and will be presented in Faros for one day on 28th of July. Its was at the invitation of the Artistic Director of the Philippi Festival Thodoris Gonis.
200 years ago, the flame of Freedom was rekindled in the hearts and minds of the Greeks. Today, our narrator, a man who represents all the “branches” of the tree of democracy, travels from New York in 2021, (“From the soul love, greets the country of Washington”), in Greece of 1821, to remember.
To call her. To tell her story. Remember the sacrifices that must be made for freedom and democracy. But when the flame is lit, Liberty won’t just let him tell her story. She’s going to make him live it.
At a time in history when American democracy seems more fragile than ever before in recent memory, at a time when democracies around the world are threatened by polarization, disinformation campaigns and disruption, the Hymn to Liberty of Solomos speaks to us today as clearly as when it was written.
The show was created by Brian Freeland, Gene Gillette, Laura Tesman Gillette, Erato Kremmyda and Rosie McNamara. It contains live testimonies of Greek immigrants and expatriates living in New York and is presented in English and Greek.
“I came to the Filippi Festival in 2017 to create as a part of the Ancient Drama Workshop” says director Laura Tesman.
“We were given a completely open slate to look at Greek ancient drama with fresh eyes. In that festival, which was the 60th as I recall, we read a lot of greek plays and had always been fascinated by the myth of Io and how Zeus transformed her into a cow. I pulled from The Promitheas and from The Supplient Women of Aeschylus the different stories about Io and other resources that mentioned her and created an original play based on Io.
Two years later, in 2019, the director Ioli Andreadi brought Ion of Evripides -which was also on that same year of the Filippi Festival- to The Tank theatre in New York. When I heard they were coming I asked if Thodoris Gonis, the artistic director of Filippi Festival, could come to Brooklyn College where I teach and speak about the festival that was coming up that next year.
The festival happened to be on Odysseas. Thodoris Gonis did a beautiful talk about the epic poem of Homer and also what they were doing at the festival which would be to put different parts of the Odyssey around the city of Kavala that year.
When he said that, I instantly thought that I wanted to go back to Kavala, because it was an opportunity to do something else. I reached out and asked about the theme of the festival and thought I might be able to propose something”.
Then Thodoris Gonis told Laura to have a look at the Hymn to Liberty of Dionysios Solomos and talk to him about it. Laura read it with her husband, Gene Gillette who is a professional actor at the stage. You can check him at his website www.genegillette.net
He’s done Broadway, also national tours in the US but never been to Greece. That was the reason why Laura wanted to bring him to our country. Gene is American, he doesn’t speak Greek of course, so there was a little obstacle with the translation on the Hymn to Liberty.
Laura and Gene started researching and found the translations by Kipling and Arnold Green, and poetry by Lord Byron. And this is how the story begins.
“We came back to Thodoris Gonis in January 2021 saying yes, as long as covid restrictions lift” Laura tells me and I remember that all theaters in Greece where still closed (from November 2020) because of covid restrictions. It was such a bad period for Greek actors and the whole Greek theater community.
“At that time we didn’t know how quickly the vaccines would be distributed and there was the quarantine both in the US and in Greece. We were hopeful and also trying to understand why Americans would be doing the Greek Hymn to Liberty.
As we read it, it connected so closely to us and to what’s happening in the United States right now and in our political division. We are so divided as a country; this project actually came right after the insurrection at the US capital where a faction decided that the vote was not legitimate for President Biden and wanted to overthrow the final vote. That has never happened in the History of the United States.
Our liberty, our freedom, our democracy is really fragile right now. It’s the most fragile that we have ever felt it, and honestly, it’s frightening. We have close friends and even family who seem to believe that things are very polar opposite to what we believe. Then, there is the media that is really dividing us, we are getting the twitter feeds, we are hearing only what we want to hear through those resources and so we are getting more and more convinced of our sides. The truth can be hard to decipher. It’s just pushing us further and further apart”.
Laura talks to me about the beautiful poem of Dionysios Solomos that tells the story of this brutal wars fighting for our independence.
“Gene did some filming around the 4th of July at the Statue of Liberty in New York and that will be an opening to the poem of Dionysios Solomos, saying, in a way that we are lost a little bit as Americans right now. Where can we go to rekindle our hope and our faith in liberty, our vision of liberty?”
That is the question that pops up in our conversation and we both look at each other in a way of despair. Laura then, remembers one of the early lines in the poem she won’t come unless you call her.
To her understanding it means that Liberty will remain hidden and even imprisoned though, we can find liberty in our minds. It’ s a quote that she loves.“At the end Liberty comes out and tells us that great you fought you’ve won, but this is fragile. The thing that will tear us apart is disunion, we have to be unified. You can’t let slander, let lies and disinformation convince you. You can’t try to grab power, because if each one tries to grab the power then none of you can remain free. That really spoke to us so clearly, so we’ve created a bit of a framing device around the poem, which we are performing as a play”.
Gene Gillette and Laura have collected interviews of Greek expatriates, some of them are singing the Greek National Anthem. A couple of them said of course I know the Anthem, I haven’t sang it in 20 years though, can I remember it? And of course they remembered it, Laura mentions.
“We asked people about the 200-year anniversary of the Greek Revolution in 1821 and what Greece means to them now. All of the responses were very different; some people spoke about not having been to Greece in 30 years, some said they visit every year.
I must say that everyone was so emotional about the anniversary and what the 200 years means to them. It means everything to them. This is our liberty, this is freedom, we would not be where we are today without that. These where their words. It was incredibly moving. We interviewed a woman whose grandfather passed recently and she had a video with her grandfather and a friend singing the Greek Anthem in a home in the US where both had dementia. It’s amazing that sometimes they couldn’t even remember each other, but they remembered the Greek Anthem. Always. Even two or three generations away from Greece, the great grandchildren of ex patriots feel Greece in their bones. And that is beautiful”.
“The line about Washington is one of the lines that really inspired us as Americans that we are part of this poem, that what was happening at the US was an inpsiration to Greece” says Laura and she refers to the 22nd stanza that Dionysios Solomos says that with love greets the land of Washington, glad that she her bonds has broken, that her freedom she has won.
“Part of our framing device is that Greece is the inspiration for American Democracy. We did not realise that you had this Revolution in 1821. We imagined Greece still as the Ancient Greece, as the seat of democracy, as the founding philosophies of the world, of western civilization.
It was then that we realised that Greece and US were so linked in terms of the movement towards equality, true equality and true freedom. Ancient Greece was not free, throughout Europe there’s always been a caste system, a social order.
That moment in the poem feels more reciprocal, the Greeks influenced us and the Americans influenced Greeks and in this way we are connected. I think it’s one of the reasons why many western countries are still so fascinated with Greece as well. We always feel welcome here, because there are some countries that don’t welcome Americans as much. There is a mutual interest and concern for one another. We recognise in one another the ups and downs”.
There are two actors, Gene Gillette and Rosie McNamara. Gene is the narrator and Rosie plays Liberty.
“As we worked on the play we begun to realise in a way or maybe we imposed a little bit by creating this idea; that once he activates Liberty, then Liberty makes him live through these experiences of the various wars that he’s narrating and describing” says Laura.
“He’s like the ancient poet who is telling the travels and becomes enraptured by the poetry. The style is very physical. We have a small stage that we are using and a sword, a lantern and the two actors who are trying to tell the story through a gestural physical language that maybe it’s not exactly the thing, but hopefully it allows the audience to feel the emotion of those experiences.
For me it’s a combination between an American style of acting and a more maybe European, or i think even eastern approach. I tried to get both actors very grounded and rooted; and have that physical life, but also have the emotional connection that you associate with American acting – maybe a bit more naturalistic approach in American acting.
I’m trying to marry those two things because Gene is a trained Shakespearian actor, he is accustomed being physical but in a more realistic way. The way we worked on this play is not realistic, so it’s been a wonderful challenge for Gene because he has always wanted to do that kind of work but never had the opportunity.
Rosie on the other hand, actually has done more musical theater, she’s a dancer, a singer and she’s more accustomed to moving but not like this. We explore physical actions of the actors, I never tell them what to do; but actually ask them to use the specific move or gesture that they created. I’m not imposing, I want them to create the movement”.
Audience will listen to the whole poem of Dionysios Solomos in English. That’ s something that worries a bit Laura, but she tells me there will be subtitles in Greek, so that people who watch the performance will stay focused even if they listen in another language.
That is quite true i must say, it really happens when you are watching a play in a different language. You may get your mind lost, but trust me this is certainly not the case here.
Yes, it’s 158 stanzas, of four rows each, that makes it 632 lines in total. Very challenging indeed for an actor to learn, Laura tells me.
“Gene started learning it in early February; while the English translation is very Shakespearean in a way as it was done in 1860. Dionysios Solomos wrote the poem in 1823, so the use of the words even for English speakers is more Shakespearean but so beautifully written. The poetry of the language is just beautiful.
We felt that we wanted to do the poem justice and not cut any part of it. There is a hard section that we thought that maybe we could cut it, but we just had to do the whole thing. Now, we love that part because it made us figure out what it is”.
At this point, Laura Tesman explains that the Greek National Anthem is actually the first two stanzas of the poem of Dionysios Solomos Hymn to Liberty; and I add that in 1828 it was melded by Nikolaos Mantzaros.
Then Laura plays on her phone the music that Erato A. Kremmyda -the greek composer based in New York who has worked with her in several projects- had an idea to adapt the Greek National Anthem in a way that it doesn’t sound so “march-like”.
“We are performing in front of the ramparts of Kavala. There’s the lighthouse and then the ramparts of the original wall of the city of Kavala next to the lighthouse and we are doing it in front of these ramparts. My projection and sound designer Brian Freeland is going to map the rampart with a video and create effects like gentle waves, blood effects, and even make the wall appear as if it is moving. The sound effects will be very subtle; but will help us to establish location and mood”.
“We have fallen in love with the poem of Dionysios Solomos and the language of the piece” Laura Tesman replies to me. “We are looking forward; maybe looking for some grants and funding to help us stage it elsewhere.
Aris Asproulis (the Director of Communication and Publicity at the Filippi Festival, also a writer) has some great ideas actually, one of them is to approach a couple of theatres in Queens, where most Greeks live in New York.
I’m also thinking to perform this play on a barge in the Hudson River. In 2012 we did a production of Eugene O’ Neill’s Anna Christie on that barge where people had a view of the Statue of Liberty. Gene Gillette, my husband, filmed this part of the intro and spoke to the owners of the barge. They told us to bring it there next year. So that’s an idea!
Also The Tank theatre where Ion was performed a few years ago, the play that Ioli Andreadi directed; and the artistic director there (Meghan Finn) is wonderful”.
She reveals to me how happy she feels being back in Greece and that she hopes to come back next year if she can find some interested places to show this performance. Or maybe a new Greek play!
“Hymn to Liberty” of Dionysios Solomos
At the 64th Filippi Festival in Kavala, Greece
Translation in English by Arnold Green
Directed by: Laura Tesman Gillette
Production: Spleen Theatre and Filippi Festival
Artistic Directors of Spleen Theatre: Laura Tesman Gillette & Gene Gillette
Collaborative partners of the show: Brian Freeland, Gene Gillette, Laura Tesman Gillette, Erato A. Kremmyda, Rosie McNamara
Actors: Gene Gillette, Rosie McNamara
Projection and Sound Designer: Brian Freeland
Music Composer: Erato A. Kremmyda
With support of: School of Visual, Media and Performing Arts at Brooklyn College και PSC-CUNY Research Foundation.
When: 28 July 2021 at 21.30
Where: at the 7th public School of Kavala (Faros)
Tickets: from 5 euros