Greeks seem to have forgotten about their mythology as far as disability is concerned
Annita lives on the sixth floor of an apartment building. I arrived there at the same moment as Panos, who has a similar limited mobility as I have as far as walking is concerned. The elevator didn’t arrive, so Panos decided to take the stairs to the second floor to try to let the elevator arrive there. I followed. In his youth, he would not have been able to do this that smoothly, I learned later. Panos has learned to cope with his body. Not the least thanks to the neuromuscular acting method that Annita practices.
Unfortunately, Panos was the only actor with a disability who was able to come to Annita’s place. Eva, Stella and Mariliana couldn’t make it due to several reasons. I started the interview with Annita and Panos only. After a while, Jordan, Maria and Irene joined us. Jordan and Irene are two of the non-disabled actors. Maria is Annita’s assistant, but will also have a role in the upcoming play of the group. All five contributed to this interview. Since Panos doesn’t speak English fluently, the others translated my questions and his answers. However, I started with questioning Annita about the history and philosophy of ARTimeleia.
ARTimeleia is Greek for ‘whole and healthy’. Founder Annita Capousizi has a BA in Greek Literature, majored in Linguistics, has a diploma in Acting and a MA in Theatre Studies. She worked as an actress in performances in various theatres and festivals in Athens. She became involved in the foundation of MDA HELLAS (Muscular Dystrophy Association of Greece) by chance. ‘I was a private tutor for the children of the woman owning the foundation. One day, she asked me whether I would like to take over the theatre department of the foundation. That was 12 years ago. These people along with new members are today’s independent theatre group ARTimeleia. Eva and Mariliana were part of it from the start and are still members. Stella and Pänos joined later.’
Every adult with a neuromuscular disability can become a member of the group. Sometimes, Annita also invites people with high-functioning autism for a play. As far as the non-disabled actors are concerned, they join ARTimeleia at the request of Annita when she needs them. Jordan for example was contacted by Annita when she was looking for a specific character for her interpretation of Alice in Wonderland. The non-disabled actors are not permanently involved in ARTimeleia. The plays she chooses have to be about what she wishes to communicate. Which has always a link to what is happening in society at that moment. ‘I never pick plays that are exclusively written for theatre. Instead, I choose literature and poetry. I often integrate different texts into one play. In 2017, we performed "50m free style”, a synthesis of texts about sex and relationship when one has a disability. Normally we perform one play a year. Preparing the performance takes at least three months. Actors first have to learn to adapt the neurological approach that comes along with it. We rehearse three times a week, if we are able to find a suitable place to rehearse. Which is a big problem in Athens. Due to corona we haven’t performed for a very long time. Our next play was even scheduled before corona. It’s about a girl who is looking for her identity and it’s based on a children’s book. It’s called "The story of Lilly who has a shadow of a boy”. We will perform it very soon.’
Neuromuscular acting method
In the very beginning of life, the neurological structure of all human beings is the same. But, in people with neuromuscular disorders the function of this structure becomes disrupted and people are not able anymore to move around as they should. In other words they have a disability. The disabled actors of ARTimeleia learn to use their body in such a way they are able to act in a full-fledged way as possible. To achieve this, Annita works with the neuromuscular acting method. You can read more about the theory behind it on this page
Now, let’s put the theory into practice. Suppose Panos has to jump while acting. He can’t jump like non-disabled people do. How does the neuromuscular acting method enables him to jump? Annita explains.
follows the main principle that everybody is the same. People with a disability
can do the things that I do, only they do it differently. The jump is the
result of the procedure. Before one is even able to jump, several physical reactions
have to be set to work to facilitate the jump, the most important one being
breath control. Non-disabled people jump by transferring body energy to the
legs. Panos, on the contrary, jumps by relaxing his centre which is situated
just above the belly. The result is a different kind of jump than mine, but
it’s still a jump. Panos has more tension in his body. He needs to get control
over that. When I would teach you the neuromuscular method, you would be able
to jump as well. All disabled actors must be aware of their own disability.
It’s their own responsibility to judge whether something is possible or not.’
Panos confirms the theory described by Annita. In his words the acting method equals his own thoughts about how his body functions. ‘My acting arises from my body. Annita doesn’t treat her disabled actors more carefully than the others.’
Cooperation and the public’s reaction
Meanwhile, Jordan has joined us. Not much later followed by Maria and Irene. With everyone I discuss my next topic. How do the actors judge their cooperation and how does the public react to the actors? According to Panos and Jordan the actors are always very well prepared before going on stage. Not only with regard to their text, but also physically. Both Jordan and Panos stress the importance of the latter. The non-disabled actors first of all have to understand how their fellow disabled actors move and physically react. Actually having physical contact with them is an important part of this learning process. Only by knowing each other’s physical condition, the actors can trust one another on stage. And support each other should something happen which is not in the script.
It took Jordan a week to realize that ARTimeleia doesn’t differ from other theatre groups, despite the mixture of disabled and non-disabled actors. He loves the cooperation with all the people involved. Nevertheless, Panos remarks that non-disabled actors have some reservation when they come in physical contact with his body for the first time. But, very soon the actors become close and intimate by which they understand much better how his body functions. To Annita, it doesn’t matter whether a person has a disability or not. The extent of experience in acting is no criterion for selection either. ‘I choose my actors on the criterion of my admiration for them. They must have the right mindset to act in ARTimeleia. All the people I work with add something special.’
Maria is Annita’s assistant and an actress. She’s going to perform in the upcoming play too. Irene has performed earlier in ‘Alice in Wonderland’, a 2019 production of ARTimeleia. Her thoughts about the cooperation between the actors: ‘I believe everybody has to overcome something in life. For example, I have a fear of height. Many Greeks do have an unrealistic image of disabled people. I still have many questions for them myself, but have been afraid asking them so far.’
Time to talk about the public’s reactions. ARTimeleia only performs in Greece and in the Greek language. It would be too complicated to make a tour abroad. The theatre group at first had a fixed number of spectators who come to their plays, but this started to change with every performance they were staging. The spectators have become familiar with the concept of disabled and non-disabled actors on stage. When spectators are not familiar with ARTimeleia, they are very reserved in the beginning, according to Annita. Sometimes they show pity with the disabled actors. It then takes time and effort to change their minds. However, Annita has noticed a progression regarding this the last years.
Jordan says the clue is to
make people forget they are watching at disabled actors. In the end, it’s about
the play itself. Panos tells many people say to him they admire him for his
presence on stage. They regard him as ‘a hero’. He doesn’t have this thought
himself. His disability is part of his person. Just like acting on stage is.
Living with a disability in Athens/Greece
On Tuesday September 6th, I had been in Athens for two full days. Before the interview started, Annita asked me whether I liked Athens so far. I didn’t wish to offend my hostess, but she knew enough looking at my expression and noticing my hesitance to answer. What had really struck me negatively these two days were the chaotic traffic and the miserable condition of most pavements. When it was time to discuss the subject of accessibility and inclusion in Greece with all the participants, I quickly was reassured my reaction to Annita’s question was not offensive at all. Everybody confirmed that Athens is not a good city for people with a disability. How does Panos get around here every day?
He was born with his neurological disorder. As a child, he had difficulties keeping his balance. He wasn’t able to climb the stairs either. When he had to descend, he sat with his butt on the stairs and went down that way. We’ve seen that he has improved the skill of climbing and going down the stairs tremendously at the beginning of this article. Panos has the meaning Athens is unfriendly towards people with a disability. Nevertheless, he claims to have found his way to live here. Acting is his work, which doesn’t give him a full income. The Greek government distributes financial support to citizens with a disability, but that’s not enough to live from. All in all, Panos manages to succeed living in Athens. ARTimeleia isn’t his only employer. Right now, he’s acting in a new tv series about people with a physical disability. The series wants to show the viewers how people with a disability cope with every day life. It will be broadcasted from the end of 2022.
This is news to all the others present as well. They are of course glad for him about this opportunity, but at the same time show scepticism. Is this really going to change the situation of people with a disability or is it just a temporary fashionable subject? They fear the latest. Panos does too. Lately, disabled actors seem to become more in the picture, but the overall image non-disabled people have about their disabled fellow countrymen hasn’t changed. And that image is not positive, so they all tell me. Non-disabled Greeks have the opinion that people with a disability always have to be taken care of, that they are to pity. There are not many disabled people on the streets, out of shame. They prefer to stay inside. (remark: I did see two wheelchair users in the centre of Athens. They were clearly begging for money) Elders who have a child with a disability are concerned something might happen to their child while being outside (accident). In general they have not much faith in a good future for their child. The main cause of this all is a lack of education, according to all present. Panos adds that people with a disability should become more confident and go outside. All agree that inclusion of people with a disability starts at school. When young children learn there are children who have a disability, and learn how to get along with them, much could be changed in society.
This unfavourable image my interlocutors
sketched, inspired me for the title of this interview. Earlier that day, I had
spoken to an Athens street musician near the Akropolis. He saw
my disability and told me about the Greek god Hephaestus, the god of
blacksmithing. The myth goes he had a disability, he limped. It’s not clear
whether he was born that way or that he got his disability after intervening in
a fight between his parents. However, despite his disability he was a wise god.
So, the guitar player told me. It thus seems to me that the Greeks have
forgotten about this myth. Otherwise, they would have looked differently at
people with a disability, wouldn’t they?
What about the accessibility in Athens or in Greece in general? Most public buildings are not fully accessible, I am told. ‘The term accessible is negotiable in Greece’, so I hear. And the public transport? The subway is accessible, but the elevators to the platforms often don’t work. Some busses have been adjusted to people with a disability. There’s a law in order about the accessibility of buildings. My interlocutors don’t have much trust in it. ‘Suppose you make a building accessible by placing a ramp. When a car parks right in front of it, the ramp is of nu use. The non-disabled have to look with different eyes to accessibility matters.’ Panos and Annita have the final word by mentioning that all the promises of politicians with regard to the situation of Greeks with a disability are just some kind of marketing. In reality, not much improves.
You can follow ARTimeleia on the internet.
Copyright text and pic: Johan Peters, September 2022 - …