For Greece’s Theaters, the Coronavirus Is a Tragedy

EPIDAURUS, Greece — As dusk fell here on Saturday, a white-robed chorus filed onto the sparse stage of a limestone amphitheater for the National Theater of Greece’s production of “The Persians,” the world’s oldest surviving dramatic work.

It was on this stage in 472 B.C. that Aeschylus’s play was reputedly first performed — but this time, it was the audience, not the cast, that was wearing masks.

The show, which was taking place as part of the Athens and Epidaurus Festival, was livestreamed to an audience around the world and was hailed as theater’s return to the place where it all began after the coronavirus lockdown darkened stages across Greece. To abide by restrictions set by the health authorities, visitors wore masks to enter and leave the amphitheater, and ushers in plastic visors and surgical gloves enforced social distancing. The theater’s usual 10,000-seat capacity was capped at 4,500.

Even before the pandemic, Greece’s theaters were in trouble. Years of austerity saw government spending on the arts slashed, with subsidies for the largest theaters cut in half, or withdrawn altogether for some smaller venues. As a deep recession hammered the economy, tens of thousands of businesses closed down, leaving little prospect of support from the private sector. Dozens of theaters closed; others survived only by cast members covering the costs of performances themselves.

As Greece started to emerge from its financial crisis, in 2018, state funding started trickling back; the major state-funded theaters edged up to three-quarters of their pre-crisis budgets, and the smaller theaters that survived recouped some of their losses.

Then the pandemic came and threatens to wash all those gains away.

On March 12, the government closed all theaters in the first wave of its response to the coronavirus. Since July 1, open-air venues have been allowed to resume, but only at half capacity. The conditions under which indoor venues would be allowed to reopen have yet to be decided by the health authorities, according to Nicholas Yatromanolakis, the general secretary of the Greek Culture Ministry.

“No one knows what will happen yet,” he said. “We have to roll with the punches.”

Even if closed theaters reopen in the fall, the social-distancing rules that they will most likely have to introduce will mean greatly reduced ticket sales — and state subsidies on their own are not enough to keep most organizations going.

Greece has so far weathered the pandemic much better than many of its neighbors, recording about 4,300 cases and just over 200 deaths from the virus, but many in the industry worry that a second wave of the illness would mean that venues have to remain shuttered for even longer.

Dimitris Lignadis, the artistic director of the National Theater, which staged “The Persians” at the festival, said in an interview that he was bracing for losses. “I’m doing it to keep up appearances, to keep the theater alive,” he said of this summer’s reduced program.

The Greek government has announced some measures to cushion the blow for arts organizations. In May, it set aside 100 million euros, about $120 million, to support businesses in the arts sector that were forced to close and to compensate workers left out of a job. But only €4 million was pledged for theaters, a pittance in comparison with the funds made available by other European nations.

Dimitris Antoniadis, a former president of the Union of Greek Actors, said state compensation for performers only helped those who were working when the lockdown began. When the virus struck, about 80 percent of Greek actors in the austerity-hit industry were unemployed, he said, noting that roles were now so scarce that many had now sought work in cafes and hotels to make ends meet during the pandemic.

“It’s not like the virus came along and ruined some sort of paradise,” he said. “Things were already hard, now it’s hell.”

During the lockdown, the Culture Ministry encouraged theaters to find ways to bring in revenue for themselves, such as by recording plays for paid digital distribution. It is also planning to help theaters present productions with English subtitles, in the hope of drawing in foreign visitors — though tourism, too, has been battered by the pandemic. A program of more than 250 performances in archaeological sites around the country, organized by the ministry, will run through the summer.

“We tried to expand the safety net, to protect jobs and to promote Greek theater,” Mr. Yatromanolakis said.

Distributing aid to theaters has been complicated by poor record keeping, however. One problem the authorities faced in dealing with thousands of requests was that there was no official record of theaters, or actors, in the country, and it was difficult to ascertain which claims were genuine. A register is only now being compiled, Mr. Yatromanolakis said.

The chaotic state of the Greek arts sector has long been holding it back, said Lydia Koniordou, an actress who played the lead role in “The Persians” and who was Greece’s culture minister from 2016 to 2018 in the left-wing government of Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras.

Institutions frequently employed artists with contracts that offered little protection or without contracts at all, she said.

This, along with widespread financial mismanagement, had turned Greece’s cultural sector into a “bombed-out landscape,” she added.

Ms. Koniordou said that during her years as culture minister, she had managed to curb wasteful spending by state-funded theaters and secure an extra €3 million in annual subsidies for smaller venues. But, she added, the arts were generally viewed as a luxury, and were not a priority.

“Culture is seen as something decorative, like a vase of flowers,” she said. “If you don’t have money, you won’t buy a vase of flowers. But culture is our society’s compass, our North Star. If we lose our compass, we lose our way.”

Many theaters are now looking to charitable and philanthropic institutions to fill the gaps. The Onassis Foundation, a nonprofit founded by the Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis, has handed out hundreds of grants since the beginning of the lockdown. It also commissioned dozens of new video works from artists during the lockdown that are available to view on the foundation’s website. “The idea was to support artists while also creating an impression of an era,” said Afroditi Panagiotakou, the foundation’s director of culture.

At the performance on Saturday, many in the audience were hopeful that theater in Greece, a tradition stretching back thousands of years, would find a way through the crisis.

“It’s amazing to be back here, especially after that nightmare with the lockdown,” said Vania Saroglou, a 36-year-old teacher, as she set her bag and program down in the empty seat next to her.

“Whatever happens, Greeks will always have this,” she said. “It’s in our DNA.”

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