Thursday, October 20, 2011
NANCY ATHAN-MYLONAS: Artistic Director - EAST AND WEST OF SUEZ
On October 15, 2011, Nancy Athan-Mylonas received the CEGA Award for Education from the American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association (AHEPA). CEGA is the acronym for Celebrating Excellence in Greek Achievement. The Award is in recognition of her “nurturing of seven generations of young talent” in “Greek traditional and modern dances, dance theatre, ballet and mime.”
The article that follows was published in The Greek Press of December 23, 2004. I felt that it is worth posting now without any changes.
The second floor of the Polymenakion Cultural Centre behind Toronto’s St. Dimitrios Church is a large hall, good for meetings, dances and other cultural events. Once a year a raised platform is put in, stands holding some four hundred people are installed and the unprepossessing room becomes a theatre. Calling it inadequate would be the politest thing one can say about the place as a home for drama. But don’t tell Nancy Athan-Mylonas that. She is the Artistic Director of the Greek Community of Toronto and in her eyes that space is as good as Epidaurus, Drury Lane or the Comédie Francaise.
In the past 12 years she has staged some thirty productions ranging from half-hour dance presentations welcoming dignitaries to full plays by Euripides, Aristophanes, Lorca and Moliere. Her main focus however is Greek dramatists and she has directed such plays as O Agapitikos tis Voskospoulas, Maroula’s Luck, and Golfo. She is now rehearsing Nikos Kazantzakis’s Zorba the Greek in a dramatization by Michael Vitopoulos.
All her work is done with amateurs and volunteers. Her talent pool is second and third generation Greek-Canadians for most of whom Greek is, at best, a second language. She has to put them through the paces of not only learning and comprehending their lines but also brushing up on their accents. And then she has to direct them in the play. Most of the instructions are given in English.
Who is this lady with the passion and the vision for Greek theatre in Toronto? Nancy Mylonas (the Athan or Athanassopoulos part of the name will come later) was not born in Greece, she has never lived there and she never even went to fulltime Greek school. She is that paradoxical but quintessential child of the Diaspora with a huge difference. Despite her cosmopolitan upbringing on several continents, she has remained Greek to the core.
Before World War II, her father, George Mylonas, migrated from Mytiline to Athens. He wanted to seek adventure so he hopped on an outgoing ship in Piraeus. The ship, as it turned out, was headed for Egypt, and the stowaway was kept on board because he could bake Greek sweets for the captain. He eventually married, settled in Suez, opened a big Greek sweets bakery and prospered. He sent his daughter Nancy to a French school where she fell in love with classical dancing and mime in addition to learning French. Nancy spoke Greek at home, French at school and Arabic on the street.
The political situation in Egypt under Nasser was untenable for foreigners and Nancy, at age 16, emigrated to Sydney, Australia. She continued her studies in classical dance and mime and joined a Greek theatrical group under Chrysostomos Mantouridis whom she remembers as a great director. Afterwards she established her own school where she taught classical dance and mime. In addition she worked in stage, film and television. She was the fragile Laura in Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie as well as the earthier Eliza in My Fair Lady in addition to numerous appearances on television and documentary films.
In 1989 she married Christos Athanassopoulos, the commercial attaché at the Greek Consulate in Sydney. Christos added the Athan to her last name and, in 1991, he was transferred to Toronto. Nancy came with him and she got a job as Executive Assistant to the board of directors of The Greek Community of Metropolitan Toronto and plunged into theatrical work. She started teaching dance and theatre for the Board of Education’s Greek programme at Wilkinson Public School and came across one of those rare, eye-popping discoveries - there was an incredible amount of untapped talent in our community.
She asked The Greek Community for permission to form a theatre group. The initial reaction to her idea was less than enthusiastic. Her woven clothes earned her the moniker “tsouvallou” (something between a bag lady and someone who does not make The Ten Best Dressed list) and the idea of staging plays raised fears of her putting a fez on the Community’s metaphorical head which translates neatly as splashing red ink all over the financial statements. She was prepared to do the whole thing on a voluntary basis and promised to break even, she said in a recent interview.
She was eventually given the green light and went on to create a theatre group. She advertised and hundreds of applicants showed up. She accepted only thirty. This led to the founding of The Nefeli Community Dance Theatre. She later added the Ellinakia dance group for young children and established The Community Theatre Nefeli. Hundreds of children and youngsters have learned dancing and been exposed to the theatre by Nancy. They have been able to recreate scenes from the Greek War of Independence to village life in 19th century Greece, from 20th century Athenian aristocracy to 17th century Parisian aspirations to nobility.
Her first production was Chere, O Chere Efeftheria (Hail, Freedom) based on poetry about the Greek War of Independence compiled by Michael Vitopoulos. In 1993, she staged Michael Vitopoulos’s Canada, My Ithaca and took the production to a theatrical competition in Greece. There were sixty entries in the competition ranging from elite schools in Greece to groups from Australia, Cyprus, England and other European countries. The Toronto group won first prize. Looking back, Nancy feels that the success came almost too soon but a triumph is a triumph and there was no looking back after that. She won two more first prizes in competitions at the University of Crete. One was for The Poet of Freedom, a production based on the poetry of Greece’s National Poet, Dionysios Solomos, and the other for Children of the Flame a theatrical extravaganza written by Greek-Australian poet Sophia Catharios.
The playwright’s text is frequently no more than a rough guide for Nancy. If the play calls for a cast of ten, she will put thirty people on the stage. If the script does not call for singing or dancing, Nancy corrects the omission by putting in singing and dancing. Lorca’s Blood Wedding, for example, does not require dancing or clarinet music, not unless Nancy is directing it that is. She is unapologetic about what she does. She needs to involve as many people as possible in each production and create humour and generate energy to keep the amateur players and the equally amateur audience entertained. Besides, she says, the Chorus was an essential part of Ancient Greek tragedy and what she does is provide a connection to the works of the classical tragedians. But she was completely faithful to Spiros Peresiadis’s Golfo, she points out. He had provided all the comic characters and opportunities for singing and dancing that she needed.
But, according to Nancy, the best is yet to come. She has begun an ambitious project whose aim is to capture the vanishing culture of the Greek immigrants in Canada. There are memories, traditions, customs and folklore that she wants to record and create theatrical presentations from the raw material. She is calling the project To Sentouli tis Yiayias (Grandmother’s Hope Chest) and she is mobilizing teachers and other volunteers to collect the information from immigrants from every corner of Greece and provide the Community with invaluable archives.
The Greek Community has probably seen more theatrical productions during Nancy’s tenure as Artistic Director than it had in all the years since its establishment in 1911 to her arrival in 1991. A proper theatre will be built in the new Hellenic Cultural Centre and her energy is not abating. Of course, there are plenty of fezes but they are on the heads of youngsters on stage or parading on national holidays and never in the financial statements.