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In Pursuit of Persephone: A Journey with Persou
Theater Director Ellpetha Tsivicos explores the healing power of sights, scents, tastes, and sounds with her production of Persou, an immersive sensory experience celebrating the regeneration of spring. Ellpetha, with her cast and crew, and writer and creative collaborator Camilo Quiroz-Vazquez, takes you on a mesmerizing, dreamy tour of ancient ceremonial Greece and the myth of Persephone through a vibrant, colorful festival of music, dance, poetry, and visuals. Persou had its world premiere at Nancy Manocherian’s the cell theatre in Chelsea on May 19 for a six-week run. Ellpetha shares her thoughts on Persou and theater below in NEO’s interview with her.
What was your inspiration for Persou? Did you come up with the concept?
There are many! After this incredibly difficult year filled with so much tragedy and death, I wanted to create a cathartic communal experience based on what has always given me strength – my culture. As a Cypriot and Greek-American I am constantly trying to understand the ancient aspects of our culture and how they relate to our modern culture; as a child I didn’t understand that the Greek gods were any different than the God we learned about in church. Hellenes have been developing art and philosophy for thousands of years. There is so much wisdom about life, death, love, and everything in between. I was inspired by lessons I learned in mythology and philosophy and combined them with the practical knowledge my Yiayia and Papou in Cyprus taught me. They were both farmers and I learned so much about the changing seasons, the earth, strength, fearlessness, and the passing of life. With this performance I wanted to explore ancient Hellenic ceremonies and their connection to the earth.
Also, Greek drama and mythology are scarcely performed with any consideration of Hellenic culture. There is seldom any connection to modern Greeks or ancient Hellenes, or actual Greek culture because so much of our history has been Westernized. People truly think Greeks wore togas. I had many people in the show wearing authentic folk costumes from all over the Hellenic empire. I wanted to make a show for us, by us, but I wanted to also make it accessible to a general audience so they could better understand what our culture really looks like. The cast and many of the crew members are either Greek, or Eastern Mediterranean. I wanted us to get the chance to tell our own stories. That region of the world has a long and complex history, but also a very beautiful and rich one, and we are often excluded from telling our own stories.
Can you tell us a little bit about your collaboration with Camilo-Queroz-Vazquez?
Camilo and I met while studying at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts over 10 years ago and have been working together since. He is Mexican-American, we were both raised in immigrant communities that deeply valued family, community, and culture. We both feel the pull to hide our cultures in order to be successful as Americans. We have been able to actively push against that and place our cultures at the forefront of the work we make. We both care deeply about preserving our cultures but also allowing them to be updated in order to engage younger generations. We understand the world in similar ways but also in different ways that compliment each other. I talk about the themes I am thinking about, the texts that inspire me, the conflicts that haunt me, and we discuss inspirations. I see in pictures and he sees in words, and we bring them together.
I read that this is an interactive, sensory, and immersive experience. Is there any dialogue?
Yes! A lot of the script is inspired by the poetry of Giorgos Seferis. There is also dialogue in Cypriot and in Greek, which I feel is very important, not only because it is beautiful, but because there are some things that can only be said in the original language. I also think it is important for English speaking audiences to hear our languages and understand their rhythm and sounds, and how those sounds change the room. The interactive portion involves engaging all of the senses; upon entering the space, the audience’s hands are washed with orange blossom water from Chios. Then they are invited to take dirt and bury something they need to leave behind along with Persephone. We give the audience halloumi, olives, wine, and loukoumia, and use incense throughout the performance. Scent is one of the most important senses tied to memory. We gave every audience member a small plant near the end of the show as a symbolic gesture that the performance can live on.
What do you hope to covey to the audience through this theatrical experience?
I like the idea of my art serving a function. At the moment people really need a space for communal activity, catharsis, and to let go of the traumas of the past year. I wanted to create a space for people to find ways to heal after the pandemic, and slowly ease back into group activities. I used live music and Greek mythology to ease people back in to the world, while giving them a chance to “bury” what they wanted to leave behind. Many people said they got very emotional during that part of the show, but felt a weight had lifted off of them, with the freedom to start over. The music helps with that! I also wanted to show the audience how rich and how beautiful our culture is, and how powerful our stories are when they are told by us.
What type of theater genres are you drawn to?
I am drawn to experiential, site specific theatre that serves some sort of function, and creates a communal, dialogical experience, which involves turning the audience into participants. The goal is to invite the audience into a conversation that can extend beyond the performance. The theater is a natural gathering place, and when a group of people are willing to come together to experience something, it is the perfect opportunity to work out difficult ideas, conflicts, and find resolutions. Ancient Greek plays were social commentaries that spoke to the realities and conflicts that existed. They were not just superfluous performances but a way to question, examine, and serve a deep function in society, and that is why we still study them today.
Are there any playwrights or theater directors that have influenced you?
I am deeply inspired by physical theatre, the work of Grotowski and Boal are deeply influential in my work. I really believe in the power of a group of people moving together and the deep bonds that non-verbal communication can form. I am a true multimedia artist and draw inspiration from many mediums beyond theatre.
I love the poeticism of Tennessee Williams. He is one of the few American writers who creates the kind of magic and romanticism that I love. I am influenced by many other writers as well, like Cavafy’s ability to tell epic tales and bring myths into modernity, Anais Nin’s erotic short stories that inspire the freedom and sexuality women are often not allowed to have, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s way of finding magic in the brutal realities of war and life, and lastly Kazantzakis, Seferis, Remedios Varos, Mariah Robertson, and Hilma af Klint.
Was theater something you always wanted to do?
I’ve always wanted to change the world, and create art that builds awareness. I am a first generation American which means I exist between two worlds. What I try to do is fuse these two worlds together.I see a lot of work that is not approachable to people outside of the arts, and I think that has its place, but I know from experience that working class people, immigrants, and people who have escaped very difficult situations, desperately need art. I see how in Cyprus many people do not have a way of healing from the trauma of the invasion and occupation, and what that does to a society. For me, the theater has always been a place of healing. I try to share that with as many people as I can. Most of my work is cultural. I work with a lot of immigrants from many different countries and communities. To me, theater is an incredible way to preserve culture, which is in constant danger of being erased due to assimilation.
Do you have any plans to take this production outside of New York City?
Yes! I am planning to bring it other places in the US and hopefully to Greece and Cyprus as well!
Lastly can you tell us what Persou means?
Persou is a nickname for Persephone in Cypriot. My grandmother in Cyprus is yiayia Persou. Persephone is a special name in my family. All my female first cousins are named Persephone. I was supposed to be Persephone, but I ended up being named Elpida (Hope), which is very special in itself! The show is named after my yiayia Persou, and the many lessons from my grandparents in Innia Village, Paphos.