Drama of Greek proportions
George Eugeniou at today’s Theatro Technis
George Eugeniou’s Theatro Technis is celebrating its 50th birthday. Richard Hodkinson talks to him about the ups and downs of running a small theatre
RUNNING a small theatre in London is a task beset by permanent fund-raising problems.
And no one on the London fringe is more aware of this than George Eugeniou. His Theatro Technis in Camden is about to celebrate its 50th anniversary and, it is probably fair to say, its 50th consecutive year of financial hardship.
Creatively, though, the 120-seat venue h as never been busier – the calendars on Eugeniou’s office wall show barely a dark week through the entire year, while every day sees the space used as a community centre, photographic studio, Greek library and café.
Tony Blair’s ‘golden age of the arts’ has not troubled Theatro Technis with a penny of additional funding and the roof does leak in places, but Eugeniou’s extraordinary theatre has come a long way since its first premises in 1957.
“By premises you mean the garage,” he says. “Yes, we were in a garage for years. It was freezing. We have a few problems here, but it’s better than the garage.”
A Greek Cypriot, Eugeniou came to London – an 18-year-old with a burning passion for theatre – in 1950 where he joined his older sister who supported them both by working as a dressmaker in Denmark Street.
His early actor training was financed by evenings and weekends spent working at a Lyon’s Tea Shop.
He won several acting awards as a student and as a consequence was given a leg-up in the business by eminent Shakespearean Sir Donald Wolfit.
A period in regional rep and the West End followed as did several successful television and film appearances, which usually cast the young Eugeniou, who still retains a marked Cypriot accent, as the shady foreign heavy. But it wasn’t until he auditioned for the great and visionary Joan Littlewood that the next 50 years of his life became set in stone.
“I heard about Joan and the Theatre Workshop, so I went to audition for her,” he says. “But she said to me ‘Look, I’m sorry, but my next play is an Irish play and you have a Cypriot accent’. I tried to persuade her that I really wanted to work with her and she said ‘Okay, give me a week to think about it’.
“So after a week she got back in touch and told me she’d decided to make one character an Irish Cypriot for me, so I played a young Irish delinquent with a Cypriot accent, and I was in.
“It was a wonderful experience and an approach to acting we had never been taught in drama school, so alive and direct and refreshing, and it taught me what theatre was for, what it could do. That was in 1956, and in 1957 we started here.”
Eugeniou initially formed his company with other Cypriot actors who met in one another’s rooms, before finding their first dedicated base.
“We found our garage,” says Eugeniou, “which we shared with the owner’s car for 10 years until he sold it. It was in Camden Mews, just off Camden Road – I think it’s still there actually.
“So we were established in Camden and I did go to the council back then looking for some support, but they told us to come back when we had achieved the same standards as the Old Vic.
“They couldn’t really understand that we didn’t want to be the Old Vic, that we had a different agenda...” His shrug suggests that, although it may have been the first, this certainly was not going to be the last such conversation the company would have with funding bodies.
The company provided a focus for political opposition to the Greek junta of the late 1960s, staging an adaptation of Sophocles’s Antigone set in Athens along with a pointed Prometheus Bound by Aeschylus, and also established an advisory service for the area’s large Cypriot community.
This relationship with refugees and immigrants became a source of much of the company’s creative work throughout the period of the partition of Cyprus.
In 1972, with the help of Camden councillor Ivor Walker, Eugeniou managed to win permission to convert a disused railway shed into a larger permanent home for his Theatro Technis.
It was basic in the extreme, but provided a theatrical space until 1978 when Camden Council decided to demolish it to make way for the Maiden Lane housing estate, despite Eugeniou’s attempts to have the venue incorporated into the design as a community asset.
The council’s then socialist instincts, however, wouldn’t allow them to totally abandon such a hard-working egalitarian kind of organisation, so when Eugeniou found the company’s current home, then the dilapidated St Pancras church vicarage and church hall, the council bought it and rented it to him at a peppercorn rate.
“We were responsible under the terms of the lease for restoring the building,” he explains. “The local kids thought it was haunted, and I suppose in a way it did have a few ghosts – the area was very working-class and there was a lot of racism still to deal with.
“There was a group of women nearby who got up a petition to stop us taking on the building on the grounds that we are Greeks and womanisers and gamblers. But we’ve been here ever since.”
For a brief moment in the 1980s the theatre enjoyed almost adequate Arts Council funding for its theatrical and community work. It then lost funding totally for 10 years until a slim lifeline in the form of the national lottery gave a short respite in the 1990s.
But that is how it has been for George Eugeniou since he arrived in this country 57 years ago.
Young theatrical companies from all over the world perform at his theatre (Japanese groups are regular visitors to the Theatro Technis) while his own productions (he still writes, acts and directs) uphold the radical, community-based, principles he absorbed from Joan Littlewood and her squad of brilliant theatrical minds.
It should be said that Eugeniou seems not to like the establishment much himself and, given a 50-year running battle with various councils and government funding agencies, they probably don’t like him much either.
But the name he chose for his theatre is significant: the Theatro part speaks for itself, but Technis, he explains, “is an Ancient Greek word”.
“It came from a time when people made no distinction between art, work and craft,” he says.
“People didn’t make theatre for money – they had to live, yes – but the work itself was reward enough. It was important then to have passion for what you were doing and to believe that your work benefited others too. That is Theatro Technis.”
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Theatro Technis events this year go to