Stavroula Toska was excited. Her Beneath the Olive Tree had won first prize for documentary at the Santa Fe Film Festival, an awesome achievement for a first-time filmmaker, particularly for one who had come from ground zero – never having picked up a camera before – to tell a stunning, inspiring story of Greek women in Trikiri concentration camp during the Greek Civil War. This documentary also won three more prestigious awards.
The origin of the film had its own drama. Oscar-winning actress Olympia Dukakis had been bowled over by Greek Women in Resistance, a book by Eleni Fourtouni, and had hung on to the book for thirty years. When Toska went to Dukakis asking her advice on scripts she had written, Dukakis told her to deep-six them. As a discouraged Toska was leaving, Dukakis rushed out the door and handed her the book. “I stayed up all night reading the book. I was in tears and awe.” The riveting documentary, Beneath the Olive Tree, was born with Dukakis as narrator and producer.
I wanted to know more about the director of this important film. We met at the Maison du Macaron on West 23rd Street. Toska swiftly placed our order and then carried the tray to our spot, a cozy leather couch. “Don’t worry,” said she. “I was a waitress for many years, and am used to carrying trays.” Talented and highly motivated, Toska impresses with her personality, energy and can-do attitude. During the New York City Greek Film Festival, she showed her film and sold tickets. “In every job I’ve had, I’ve always wanted to do more. I start asking how do you do this, how do you do that?”
She grew up in Sindos, a small town in the suburbs of Thessaloniki. When she was seven, her father died, and her grandmother moved in with Stavroula, her mother and brother. “Mostly we lived on my grandmother’s pension, and income from some family property, but my mother always made sure we had sneakers and shoes, even if there were holes in hers.” Early on, she determined to be an actress and told her mother, “Don’t worry. When I grow up, I will become a rich and famous actress and pay all our debts.”
A graduate of the American Farm School, she earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Marketing and PR from the ICBS Business School, Thessaloniki, before heading off to Athens to pursue her dream. Rejected by the National Theatre, she studied with Vassilis Diamantopoulos at the IASMOS Acting School, and then with Yiorgos Armenis, at the New Greek Theater Acting School. She had roles in two soaps. “The more I got into the studio system and learned how things worked, the more I said I don’t want to stay here. The films and TV I admired were coming from America.”
Even with the great Olympia Dukakis as her guide, Toska is her own best mentor. “I had this conversation with myself and said, okay, Stavroula, this is what you admire. You must go there. You cannot stay here. I did spend one more year in Athens and changed acting schools. I wanted to start producing, and said to my fellow classmates, let’s do this, put on our plays. They weren’t interested. So I said, Stavroula, why do you even bother? Just go.”
She bought a one-way ticket to New York in 2000. “When I announced it to my family, they froze. My mom was the worst. My grandmother was the only one who said, let her go. My grandmother was so restrictive with my mom, but so giving with me.”
In Manhattan, she checked in at the Youth Hostel on 103rd and Amsterdam, and auditioned at the prestigious American Academy of Dramatic Art, training ground for famed actors including Lauren Bacall and Robert Redford. She competed with thousands for a spot. “I’m shocked that I was accepted. The tuition was $13,000 for the first year, and I only had $400. I found a job at the Herald Square Diner at 32nd and Broadway, and asked the Academy if I could start the next semester. I found a roommate. My rent was $250. I was saving up. I became much focused, working seven days a week and double shifts. The diner owner, Spiro, was incredibly kind to me. I’ve been very lucky.”
Although she did well, continuing to work at the diner while studying at the Academy during her first year, she could not continue for the second year because her student visa was rejected. The reason: her family could not support an international student in America.
“I didn’t have time to feel bad. I said, okay, Stavroula, what’s next? Not being in the Academy for a second year really forced me to get out there and hustle. I started auditioning. I had two agents. I did small parts in off Broadway shows, and really worked. Memorizing. Rehearsing. Trying out. I began to lose my appetite for acting when I realized that I was never right. They wanted me to be blonder, thinner, shorter, different. One of my agents thought I looked Latin and sent me on auditions. With ninety-nine real Latins in the room, I didn’t stand a chance. So I said, focus on something else. I wanted to make some real money. I was in my late twenties.
“I was still working in the diner. I left there and began doing office work. One thing led to another. I ended up at the Paris theatre as a cashier. I learned payroll, how to place orders. A year later I was the General Manager. At the Paris, I was making more money than I could imagine. It’s a very exclusive venue, and we would have premiers. I would welcome Jennifer Lopez, Tom Hanks, George Clooney, all these people. Francis Ford Coppola. I wanted to talk to them, but I said, what’s the point? I’m the manager of the theater. Everyone has an idea. Everyone’s an actor. I would look so ridiculous, so unprofessional if I approached them. I was almost thirty. I said, okay, Stavroula, what do you want to do with your life? I wanted to make a difference.”
She determined to take a year off and explore, travel, maybe get back to acting, and to write. “I realized that it was time to tell my own stories. I didn’t have to be in front of the camera. And that’s when I met Olympia and went to work on Beneath the Olive Tree. I am so grateful to my mentor and dear friend, Olympia Dukakis. She has truly changed the course of my life. She has been with me every step of the way.”
Toska spent six years making Beneath the Olive Tree, including repeated trips to Greece to talk with the women who had been incarcerated at Trikiri. “It’s a fascinating process. It’s exhausting. We edited over a period of 2 ½ years. We were going back and forth to Greece, doing more interviews and the women were giving us more gems. The first time, I went with the idea of getting their stories and writing a screenplay based on that. But after meeting them, I wanted to put them on film and let the world hear them tell their stories.”
Stavroula looks forward to bringing to the film to Greece, hoping to premier it at the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival when her mother will see it for the first time. “She hasn’t seen the film yet. I want it to be special, for her to see it in a movie theater and see her reaction.” Unfortunately her grandmother, who actually spent some time in a camp, died before the filming began.
She has other irons in the fire. Including producing a feature documentary, A Photographic Memory, and working as a member of the Film Fatales, a collective of women filmmakers. Last year, she produced a web series, Living the Dream, about being an independent director, and she hopes to launch a TV series. “It’s been my dream. Olympia made the introduction to Tom Fontana, who has produced work including Oz and the Philanthropist. I pitched an idea to him and we’re now in the process of pitching it to two networks. What else? I’m writing my first screenplay and I want to film it in Greece. I’m excited about the TV series. But TV is the land of broken dreams. We’ll see. Olympia will act in the TV series. There’s a role in it nobody else can play.”