Sotiris Karamesinis is a Greek theatre director, researcher and actor's coach. He is known for developing his own acting method, MUSA (musical system of acting), a unique system that is based on the art of the ancient actor, introducing music in contemporary actor's preparation and role composition. Since 2008 he lives mostly in Rio de Janeiro. He directs plays, teaches in drama schools and universities, while he leads workshops and master classes on his method and prepares actors for films and TV series. He is also a Research Associate, specializing in Cultural Diplomacy and Performing Arts at the Strategic Communication and News Media Laboratory in the International and European Department of the University of Piraeus as well as a Research Associate on the core of studies on Tragedy, part of the theatrical forms of the theater theory Department at the Center of Literature and Arts of UNIRIO University, Rio de Janeiro.
In 2008-09 he made a pioneering step to direct The Bacchae with the award-winning troupe of the film “City of God” theatre group "Nós Do Morro". He has directed plays of Euripides, Jean Paul Sartre, Jean Anouilh, Eugenio Ionesco, Graham Greene, Harold Pinter and many others in Greece, Cyprus and Brazil. As an artistic director, he has staged several major events in cooperation with institutions such as the European Parliament, the University of Athens, the Athens Megaron Concert Hall, the City of Athens, the Athens and Epidarus Festival, the Athens Olympics 2004, the International Theatre Institute etc. In 2014, he starred in the TV series "Destino de Janeiro" for HBO channel, directed by Fabio Mendoza.
Sotiris Karamesinis spoke to Greek News Agenda* about staging ancient Greek drama in Brazil, his acting method (MUSA), the contribution of ancient drama to contemporary theatre, the role of the artistic Diaspora in times of crisis and how art could contribute to rebranding Greece.
How did you decide to move to Brazil? Which were the main challenges you were faced with?
I find myself reiterating that Dionysus lives in Brazil. The Brazilian actors, with whom I first worked there, were 18 young men and women between the ages of 20 and 30. Most of them happened to be of Afro-Brazilian origin and had grown up in this community, with the Dionysian culture of the Hills of Rio de Janeiro. They were part of the legendary theatre group “Nós do morro” (We from the Hill). The troupe was first known through the participation of dozens of children, adolescents and young actors in the famous 2001 film “City of God” by Fernando Meirelles.
In 2008, I managed to travel to Rio and met them, beginning our cooperation. This was the first attempt, as far as I know, to stage Greek tragedy in a community theatre group in Brazil. I chose to teach and explore The Bacchae with them, because the culture they bring from their homes is Dionysian, their relationship with their acts and the music is organic and immediate. Even the fact that their perception of ancient tragedy was close to nonexistent, it worked favourably in this case; eager and impulsive, they were the best people for this and conducive to my vision for this tragedy.
The first key challenge then was to present the era as simply as one could to these actors and to make them understand the birth and flourishing of Greek theatre, but more importantly, its role in Democracy and involvement in public life. Another challenge is to always try to move your actors away from the simple interpretations and conclusions traditionally based on Christian ethics, so that we can conceive a pre-Christian world. All ethical questions and the language used have been inherited from Greek thought, but the concepts were different.
An equally important issue is the problem of translation. Translations of classical texts by scholars are academic and serve educational purposes, not written specifically in order to be read and understood by actors for performances. As a result, these texts are disconnected from the minds and emotions of actors, in turn making true perception impossible for the audience. To resolve this, I have from the start been dealing with the very difficult task of writing new translations for the stage - not simplified, but with the specific objective of addressing the text organically to the actors so that they find their target in the theatre square.
You have invented your own acting method, which you describe as a Musical System of Acting. What inspired you to create your own MUSA?
MUSA is a method of exercise, training and preparation of actors and role composition, using Music as a driving power and catalyst. It is an autonomous and holistic acting method, mainly focusing on learning how to use music as the backbone of an actor’s composition of scenes or monologues. This process leads to an organic creation and presence, enriching expressive means and facilitating the emotional readiness required for a unique artistic composition per role, not through a psychological but through a psychotechnical process.
The creation of MUSA is the result of years of research delving into Greek tragedy and its close relation with music. Theoretically, it is mainly based on the ancient 'Theory of Ethos of Music’. My personal experience of musical improvisation in theatrical performances and courses has given me some space for experimentation and research on that issue. So, I dedicated over a decade to working out, developing and organizing ways of reintroducing music into the art of acting. In the course of these years, my system was enriched by an abundance of theoretical and practical sources through a continuous dialogue with the great masters of the theatrical past, composers, performers and other sources from the fields of music and drama therapy, and studies on the anthropology of theatre, performance and rituals.
My method actually emerged from the need to create my own tools so as to share a new working Code with my actors for the aesthetic homogeneity and functionality of a very different system of preparation, which leads to an equally special aesthetic effect. My way of learning and making something mine is to discover it again by myself. I don’t know any other way of apprenticeship: we always need to reinvent everything from scratch, and my own Ariadne's thread to find my path was music.
What do you consider the contribution of Greek drama to contemporary theater? How has it affected your own position as a Greek director in a foreign country?
Ancient Greek drama is a great and irreplaceable school for actors, of a demanding nature and a training ground for the body, voice and every expressive means at our disposal. In modern Greece we have a long tradition of the kind, with already several generations of exceptional actors and directors who have devoted their lives to study, work and refine this genre. Whoever wants to confront existential texts, even in contemporary theatre or cinema, meeting with the myths and characters of Greek drama is a prerequisite. Just like classical piano studies and repertory cannot be outside a pianist's education because the pianist might later choose to play jazz, Greek drama lays the foundations for actors.
Because of my origins and my love for Greek drama, my involvement in projects, discussions, and anything related to it is inevitable. Over time, some key artists and researchers, professors, actors with love and zest for their craft, have gathered around me; this craving for the quality and substance in Greek drama unites us. It is they, and the conditions we create, that console me in the absence of my people and my country. Wherever I go, whatever I do, my Greek origins combined with my interests as a director and teacher brings me back to it. Most of the plays that I’ve staged in Brazil are tragedies, and the lectures, the workshops, even the way I learned Portuguese, are related to my constant contact with the theatre and the translation and teaching of these texts.
This is my daily contact with Greece, which I always miss, and it is both a blessing and heavy responsibility. As the official Greek state does not exist outside Greek territory on issues of culture and language, all the responsibility and the burden is on us, on the few that are in such a position. I am working in Latin America, perhaps someone else in Africa, another in some part of Asia, in absolute loneliness on our mission, and with a very heavy burden on our back.
Since you are a Research Associate specializing in Cultural Diplomacy and Performing Arts at the University of Piraeus, do you think that art could contribute to re-inventing Greece’s national image?
The power of Greek artists lies in the continuous dialogue between the past, where the origins of Western civilization lie, and modern reality. It is what defines us, as part of our identity, and in a way, of our mission. It is an existential, dynamic and at times confrontational process, especially when living in Greece. Given that the influence exerted by the aesthetics and artistic creation of our ancient ancestors is undeniably strong, it may often become an unbearable burden, a devastating experience for the artist of our time. Yet, when living and creating abroad, our ongoing relationship with antiquity, which we are destined to continue as well as move a step forward, is what gives us our individuality, our confidence and helps us articulate a substantive artistic discourse.
For better or worse, the image of modern Greece is constantly compared to that of our famous ancestors. Yet, a more realistic look reveals how disastrously we have treated our heritage. However, to use cultural diplomacy terms, Greek artists, researchers and innovative scientists, all those who in one way or another have distinguished themselves outside Greece, act as ambassadors conveying another image of our country, that which all fervent admirers of Greek Civilization would like us to keep alive. It is this Greece that millions of people around the world wish to visit and become acquainted with; and that should be our primary concern.
A country of sterile addiction to the past and nationalism is of no interest to anyone; neither is a country of cheap folklore or an Aegean and Ionian Sea full of hydrocarbons and heavy industry. They want to know and experience a country that maintains the ethos and kindness of the past, that considers man the measure of everything. A country whose citizens are considered pioneers in education, art, humanism, ethics, dignity, democracy, research and scientific and philosophical thought; and a nation that preserves harmony with nature and continues to adore beauty, a misunderstood virtue which authentic Art still serves and tries to delve into.
What are your future plans and ambitions? Are there any artistic projects underway?
My desire is to stage some more theatrical plays in Greece. After all these years of working abroad and with the experience I have gained, I believe that I have a lot to share, new ideas to incorporate in my artistic work. Besides, I have missed directing in my country, in my language, interacting with old and new friends and partners. Over time, I aspire to create a team of actors and partners from both Greece and Brazil operating on the basis of a common working code that my acting method, MUSA, could enable. I have long been planning to stage bilingual plays and joint research and teaching workshops that shall be launched in Greece and then presented in Brazil. However, such an ambitious project requires support and funding by a cultural institution or authority interested in the creation and export of an artistic product with international characteristics.
My second ambition, which may be feasible in the short-term, is to present and share all this valuable knowledge and experience of MUSA, with other countries, besides Greece and Brazil. I would like, for instance, to embark on a training tour in the USA, where I could conduct a number of seminars and workshops at universities, drama schools and theatre groups on MUSA and how it could contribute to the performance of not only Greek drama and other classics but also modern theatre, cinema or even television. I believe that the combination of the ancient actor’s art with modern theatrical acting would appeal to a large audience wherever it may travel.
* Interview by Athina Rossoglou