Composer & Director Phyto Stratis Talks to TNH about Fylakismena Mnimata

A previous production by the Pancyprian Association Cultural Division, In Foreign Land, included the Pancyprian Choir, soloists and actors, directed by Phyto Stratis. Photo: Courtesy of Pancyprian

NEW YORK – The Pancyprian Association of America Cultural Division presents Imprisoned Graves-Fylakismena Mnimata, composed and directed by Phyto Stratis, on May 18 at the Queens Theater in the Park, 14 United Nations Avenue South in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park.

Held under the auspices of the President of the Republic of Cyprus Nicos Anastasiades, the theatrical concert will undoubtedly be a moving event featuring the gifted actors and soloists of the Pancyprian Choir of NY. Stratis spoke with The National Herald about this unique and powerful production, the history behind it, and his upcoming projects.

TNH: Can you give some background about the events and the people that inspired the production?

Phyto Stratis: The Liberation Struggle of Cyprus 1955-59 is to us, Greek Cypriots, what March 25th of 1821 is for Hellenes of Greece – a struggle for Independence.

After decades of false promises by the British that the Cypriot people would be given their freedom and independence, in 1954 they finally made it clear that they would NEVER do so. That statement of “NEVER” was the tip of the iceberg; on April 1, 1955, Cypriots took their fate in their own hands and fought for four years. The Organizations of Liberation that were formed, along with civilians and young students, fought with anything they could get their hands on. This production focuses on the story of the Imprisoned Graves (Fylakismena Mnimata), which is the resting place of 13 brave souls (ages 19-24). Three were killed in action, one died of wounds in the hospital, nine were hanged from three gallows, and all were buried in eight graves. It’s so sad and hard to believe that these hangings took place in the mid-1950s and were ordered by the Queen of England Elizabeth II. The stories of these young men, the bravery and the dignity with which they faced their fate, is what inspired me personally to create this production. Their stories had to be put on stage and told in their own words. Every single word used in this production is directly from primary sources, the diaries, the letters, and the poems written by these young patriots. Nothing is fictionalized.

Fylakismena Mnimata-Imprisoned Graves, composed and directed by Phyto Stratis, will be performed on May 18 at the Queens Theater in the Park. Photo: Courtesy of Phyto Stratis

TNH: What can the audience look forward to on May 18?

PS: Truly an immense production! An original, dramatic musical work, with forty chorus members of The Pancyprian Choir of NY, accompanied by a live orchestra, and the 20 distinguished soloists and actors: Theodore Petropoulos, Stavros Markalas, Ioanna Katsarou, Tasos Karydis, Periklis Kassandrinos, Aggeliki Psonis, Lazaros Theodorakopoulos, Marios Ioannides, Georgios Berbpeis, Chrysa Petridou, Theodora Loukas, Anna Tsoukala, Christiana Kandilioti, Demetris Bonaros, Angela Tsamasirou, Mantalena Papadatou, Elena Crociani, Penny Tsinias, Fanis Gkikas, Demetris Michael, and Ariadne Panagopoulou.

It is an educational and very emotional production for sure, and quoting His Eminence Archbishop Demetrios of America, “[This is] the ideal way for someone to learn this important part of Cyprus’ history; it should be seen by everyone.”

TNH: What has been the most challenging aspect of working on this show and the most rewarding?

PS: To compose a piece, musically and in a form that is not conventional, such as a song cycle, or song and narration. What people are going to experience on May 18 is closer in form to opera and musical theater. Scenes and monologues blend into songs and the whole show feels like one big number. Coordination is for sure another one. Never before have so many artists generously come together to participate on a single production. I’m forever grateful to each one of them. The end result is what I found most rewarding. I’ve always believed when you do something from a good place in your heart and your intentions are pure and not self-centered, wonderful things happen. I’m very happy, very grateful, and very excited for Imprisoned Graves-Fylakismena Mnimata… and what a blessing to have this theatrical concert under the auspices of the President of the Republic of Cyprus Mr. Nicos Anastasiades.

Fylakismena Mnimata-Imprisoned Graves, composed and directed by Phyto Stratis, will be performed on May 18 at the Queens Theater in the Park. Photo: Courtesy of Phyto Stratis

TNH: How long did it take to put together?

PS: It’s been a work in progress the last four years. I presented different concert versions of it in the past, at events organized by the Federation of Cypriot American Organizations, but now the work is finally and fully completed. More characters and scenes were added, music has been revised, and new songs were composed to advance the story. This dramatic musical work is really a dream come true since I was a child. The song Telefteo trio apaghonismou (poetry by Evagoras Pallikarides) that is performed in the show, I composed when I was 14 years old and was awarded the first prize in a national competition in Cyprus. I would like to say again how grateful I am, especially to all the members of the Pancyprian Choir of NY for the trust, the support, and love they have shown me the last five years that I’ve been their Artistic and Musical Director.

TNH: With the passing of Nikos Mouyiaris, the Pancyprian Choir and the entire community lost a great benefactor. Besides buying tickets for the performance on May 18, how can people contribute and support productions like Fylakismena Mnimata and upcoming shows?

PS: Through our non-profit organization (The Pancyprian Association Cultural Division), by making tax-deductible contributions via sponsorships, but generally speaking, really by attending all the local productions. Artists are “peculiar” child-like adults, who are ready to sacrifice all the luxuries in the world for the sake of their art. Giving money or advertising in the playbill is a great thing, but what is even greater is actually showing up to their productions, to encourage them with an honest smile, with your applause, and your kind words. Art can make our world and our life better and truly there are some great theatrical productions and concerts happening in our community.

TNH: What are you working on next?

PS: Presenting the award-winning production (Best Poetry at United Solo Festival) The Farewell (poetry by Yannis Ritsos and directed by Ioanna Katsarou) Off Broadway and taking it on a tour in the United States, and organizing the presentation of Imprisoned Graves in Cyprus and Greece for 2020, which will mark 65 years from the beginning of The Liberation Struggle 1955-59.

Tickets for Fylakismena Mnimata are available at online: https://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/4236073.