In many regards she reminds us of Karolos Koun, the great teacher of the theater, who left a huge void in 1987 when he died. Even the way they grew up is almost identical – in wealthy homes with educated parents in schools that few could approach – and the fact that they were both born outside of Greece and yet they chose to come back and give back to their homeland starting, with the American College of Deree, by teaching acting in theatre.
Eleni Skotti, an acting teacher as well as the director and creator of the NAMA group, could say that when she came to Greece in 1993, she was meant to continue the teachings left by Karolos Koun: redefining the theatrical landscape, eschewing the sophisticated play and sophisticated scenes and incorporating more innovative theatrical tools.
A Greek-American born in Beirut with a Greek-American father, who was the U.S. ambassador who opened the U.S. Embassy in Syria under Henry Kissinger, and a Greek mother from Persia, she was happy to see and live in unique places and to meet interesting people.
She began her theater studies at age 17 at the American Academy of Drama in New York, and continued at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville. She later attended Royal Holloway in London and New Bedford College. The big, new chapter in her book of life, titled Greece, began when she was 27 years old.
“My mind thinks like an American, but my soul is clearly Greek. That’s why I’m here. Eventually I followed my soul, and ended up in Greece. I did not want to be in English-speaking ghettos, I wanted to adopt the attitude of the Greeks. I love this country and the people. The Greeks are sympathetic, hospitable, and receptive to new things and new people.”
Starting from small underground theaters as an actress and a director, and always having her alter ego, George Hatzinikolaou (the well-known playwright who trusted her and supported her from the very beginning) by her side, she was met with many difficulties, seen both as a woman and as a ‘foreigner’. She was eventually able to overcome these ‘obstacles’ so that she could finally be recognized for her 20 years of hard work as one of the most important female directors present in Greece, and to be sought after for her particular way of teaching, which does not allow the soul of the artist to hide or to find excuses – not even for a minute. Actors often find it difficult to defend themselves against this deep psychoanalytic approach, which starts with Stanislavski’s methods by undermining the pre-conceived notions that the actor has of himself. As she told the National Herald (TNH), “I work very much with the actor. I do not care if I am seen. I enjoy the process of finding the character in relation to the story we want to tell. I will tire out the actor – both brain and body will sweat.”
That is why the projects of Eleni Skotti’s NAMA team, who work with the psychologically realistic theater better than everyone else in Greece today, have been recognized as important. Eleni and her team choose actors for their talents and their ethos, not by their names. Wild Seed, Dear Elena, The Power of Darkness, The Foxes, Never Swim Alone, They Call me Emma, and La Chunga are just a few of the many successful and award-winning performances of great theatrical writers who have been elevated by the contemporary Epi Kolono Theater, which is the same name of the space that houses the NAMA team.
The competition never causes her to veer from her goal. Her survival instincts served her well in the challenging landscape she chose to enter, as did her ethos, but also the particular culture she brought with her – her origins and her knowledge – ‘constrained’ her to a close circle of remarkable people, with whom she exchanges ideas, love, respect, and knowledge.
Her advice to young people who want to become involved with theatre is valuable. “To become an actor, you have to feel like you’re going to die, like a fish out of water, if you do not become one! Of course, if the fish comes out of the bowl, then it will fight. But this fight is wild and ugly. Because he/she will hear a lot of ‘no’s’ and will start to feel uncertainty. And the love for the theater – it can suddenly become a very bitter process. It is better find a way to get a steady paycheck and keep theater work on an amateur level. Theater education is a beautiful and useful experience for everyone, but the more formalized profession is a hard one. Few can withstand it and few succeed. Try to keep it beautiful!”