The art of theatre is an ideal escape for the soul. A fact that director, Stratis Panourios, is well aware of, because, since last November, he has passed through the gates of Korydallos prison more than eighty times, in order to put on ‘The Tempest’, by William Shakespeare, inside the prison, last June.
Twenty inmates joined Stratis in this journey and after eight months of intense preparation and drama lessons, the team presented their work to friends, inmates and guests. The First Theatre Workshop inside Korydallos prison was an initiative of the National Theatre of Greece and the Office for Crime-Prevention of the Ministry of Justice, that aimed to “open up the prisons” to the community and to become a creative experiences for the inmates. It most certainly seems that it was successful in achieving these goals.
It was a pioneering project; its long-term goals were the communication and reintegration of the participants through the art of theatre,” says Stratis Panourios who is responsible for supervising the workshop, to APE-BE.
Stratis Panourios could not but believe in the therapeutic function of this art. “Theatre allows for introspection, to change your way of thinking and ultimately to escape, to discover a new you. It is not incidental that next to the Asklipieio of Epidauros, at the sanatorium of the body, there also existed the theatre, the sanatorium of the soul. Theatre enters the psychology of the individual, influencing their feelings and thoughts, and essentially making a remarkable difference to both. In a single word, I would say that it can produce a psycho-metamorphosis,” he stressed.
The workshop, which combined education, creativity and research, began last November with twenty participants from all the wings of Korydallos prison. The group attended a series of sessions which included both theoretical and practical studies on the basic principles of the art of acting, while reading and dramaturgically analysing selected plays by William Shakespeare.
The theatrical company was joined by Asimina Anastasopoulou, actress at the National Theatre and, in January 2017, the rehearsals for ‘The Tempest’, written by the Elizabethan playwright, began. The adaptation of the script was done by the participants, through research and dramatic analysis; focusing on the preservation of the poetic language and fusing it with the everyday language used in prisons.
For Stratis Panourios, this particular play touched the hearts of the participants. “The choice of Shakespeare wasn’t incidental, because, his most significant plays concern the study and the psyche of his villains. Through them, he gives us the opportunity to become acquainted with characters who have committed all the crimes in the penal code, those who have overstepped all limits… By getting in touch with the Shakespearean play, all the participants have the opportunity, to compare through acting, each one for himself, their past experiences, their current choices and also their future potential.”
Of course, in ‘The Tempest’, as the director points out, not even a drop of blood is shed. All murder attempts are called off. Wars are not waged. The action takes place on a desert island. There, the duke of Milan, Prospero, lives in exile with his daughter, Miranda; he had been forced to leave by his brother who threw him into the sea.
“During his twelve-year stay on the island, Prospero managed to achieve the greatest accomplishment of an individual; to be his own person, to truly acquire a free will. And when, with the assistance of an ethereal spirit, he has the opportunity to bring to the island, by means of a tempest, those who had been unjust to him, he can manipulate them. He can take vengeance on them or forgive them. Vengeance and forgiveness are present throughout the play. Two words that trust me, have a different meaning in prison in relation to the outside world,” he underlines.
The director declares to APE-BE that: “The Tempest symbolises an inner condition of turbulence in a person’s life, one which can certainly be succeeded by serenity and the creation of new potential for a new life; far from Prospero’s ‘imprisonment island.” He also stresses that, after Shakespeare, the next project by the Theatre Workshop may well include an ancient tragedy.
Last May, in Tedx Athens, Stratis Panourios talked about his experiences during the rehearsals at the ‘second chance school’ of Korydallos prison, about the people he met and also about how punishment can become an opportunity.
The most difficult point for a director in the production of a performance is the first rehearsal. So, when I arrived at the prison, I asked myself: “Why am I here?’ What should I say to these people, people who have never experienced it? Should I talk to them about theatre? And, what is the role of theatre inside a prison? Looking at them, I realized that I didn’t know anything about their past, about the journey that had brought them in prison. They are not actors who come to play a role, but real people who found themselves here to share something important, something that we must discover together. Inside the group there is a sailor. His marine adventures were the stimuli for improvisation. When he started talking about the Atlantic Ocean and with him as captain, we started creating the conditions of a sinking boat. It was delightful. Both they and I, really felt that we had escaped. We had escaped spiritually and had gone far away, to an incredible island,” he said.
As he admits, he was able to relate with many emotional moments in that session. But he focuses on one; when Prospero, at the beginning of the play, tells his daughter for the first time: “Now, my child, I’ll tell you who your father is; he who is not a king only in a miserable cell.” One of the participants approached me at the end of the rehearsal to tell me how much he was affected by those words. They reminded him of the first time his child was coming for a visit, which was also the first time he shared who he really was.