Collage Talks: The State Theatre Company’s latest – ‘The Gods of Strangers’

What: The Gods of Strangers

Presented by State Theatre Company of South Australia

Written by Elena Carapetis

Where: Dunstan Playhouse

When: 14 Nov – Dec 2 2018

Tickets can be purchased via BASS

Dina Panozzo as Assunta and Renato Musolino as Vito. Photo by Chris Herzfeld

‘When a stranger comes to your door, you let them in. They might be a God in disguise.’

The Gods of Strangers is an original play by South Australian playwright Elena Carapetis. Inspired by the oral testimonies of Greek, Italian, and Cypriot migrants, the play tells the stories of those who made the long journey to Australia in search of a better life, the ghosts that followed them here, and the legacies they left behind. Set in 1947, the play follows two Greek and Italian women who welcome strangers into their lives with unexpected and sometimes devastating consequences. Two Collage writers, Tamika Glouftsis and Katerina Grypma, share their thoughts about experiencing this play as the children of Greek migrants.

TAMIKA: I haven’t been able to stop thinking about this play since I saw it. So much of it was genuinely like looking in a mirror that reflected my own family history and culture back at me. It was both utterly refreshing and deeply moving to see stories about my own heritage on the stage – it really made me appreciate what my grandparents went through as migrants and made me grateful for the opportunities their sacrifices gave me. I keep tearing up whenever I talk about it! I think they were tears of gratitude.

KATERINA: I’ve also been thinking a lot about it, it did feel like quite a special and personal production. Although I know the story of the play more closely resembled your family’s history than mine (being set in a regional area, Port Pirie, with migrants making a living through working on farms and at the smelter) I obviously also saw my grandparents, uncles and aunties mirrored in the characters: The big personalities, the sense of humour, the strong work ethic and zest for life.

I think a big part of the authentic feeling of the play came from the extensive use of Greek and Italian. The switching between languages is how we (first generation migrants especially) talk to each other in real life, and I personally always feel a unique sense of passion and affection when I hear and speak Greek which doesn’t quite translate into English. It felt kind of surreal to see that part of my everyday life in a State Theatre Company production.

TAMIKA: Putting on a trilingual play couldn’t have been easy, but it was a bold move that absolutely paid off. There is definitely a certain feeling and flavour to spoken Greek and Italian that couldn’t have been expressed as well in English. Yelling at someone in English just isn’t quite the same as yelling at them in Greek! It helped that the actors poured such incredible amounts of passion and energy into their performances, too.

It was absolutely marvellous to hear the language on stage in service of such an amazing story. It occured to me that when our stories as migrants are told in the media, it’s usually in the form of comedy. ‘Ethnic humour’ is great and I enjoy it very much, but it was so refreshing to see the other sides of the story told too – the struggles, hardships, and sacrifices that made it all possible.

Dina Panozzo as Assunta and Deborah Galanos as Vasiliki. Photo by Chris Herzfeld

KATERINA: Gods of Strangers especially highlighted the role and distinct experiences of migrant women as they established communities in Australia. I’m wondering what you thought about how this was done, Tamika?

TAMIKA: In Greek and Italian families, the women are so often the anchors of family, domestic life, and the transmission of culture and tradition from generation to generation. The Gods of Strangers emphasises this by focusing on the matriarchal main characters. Through these women the play explores the themes of motherhood, family loyalty, estrangement, and identity.

The play’s program even came with a cookbook! What a creative way to illustrate the central role that food plays in forming communities, cultural identity, and family life. Little touches throughout the play reinforced this, too. I absolutely cracked up when Assunta (the main Italian character in the play) referred to tsipouro (τσίπουρο) as ‘holy water’ and forced some onto the poor unprepared ‘token Aussie girl’ character. What did you think about the way the play examined the relationship between ethnic migrants and the dominant Anglo-Saxon population?

KATERINA: Overall I liked the way that was done! I think it struck a good balance between showing the discrimination and racism faced by the migrants, and the ways in which their cultures were eventually embraced by Australians, enriching this country’s culture and identity. That token Aussie girl, Agnes, embodied this transition in a way. While appearing insensitive and cold in the beginning, her eventual attempts at learning about Assunta’s favourite operas, background and worldview were as endearing as they were English. 

Philippos Ziakas as Yianni and Eugenia Fragos as Anna. Photo by Chris Herzfeld

On a related note, I also enjoyed the way the migrants expressed their impressions of Australia and Australians. There was a part where Anna, a lady that has come all the way from Greece to look for her best friend, says something like ‘This country is so big…and so empty.’ I remember my Yiayia describing her first impressions of Australia in a very similar way. It also reminded me of the interesting Greek concept of xenitia (ξενιτια), which refers to a number of ideas, including lands foreign to Greece, the act of moving abroad, and the Greeks’ vast history of migration and displacement.

TAMIKA: Thankfully, however, the story didn’t focus narrowly on domestic events. At times, the actors stepped out of character and narrated the social and economic context of the characters’ lives. Without the contextualising narration, I think the family drama would have felt disconnected. To understand why these characters act the way they do, it’s so important to understand the world they lived in.

Deborah Galanos as Vasiliki. Photo by Chris Herzfeld

KATERINA: The epilogue of the play ties together the stories of these ‘pioneers’ with the opportunities their children and grandchildren – us! – are able to enjoy today, directly because of their sacrifices. This ending was also very emotional for me, I think it was an effective way to summarise and contextualise the play. I left feeling extremely proud to be part of the Greek community.

TAMIKA: So did I! I highly encourage everyone to see this play. If you’re from a migrant family, it will resonate deeply with you. If you’re not, it will shine a light onto a community that has helped weave together the very fibres of the Australia we live in today.

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