NEW YORK – Following the success of Fylakismena Mnimata- Imprisoned Graves which was recently presented at the Queens Theater and received rave reviews from many Greeks and non-Greeks as well, Pancyprian Artistic and Music Director Neophytos (Phyto) Stratis spoke with The National Herald about his artistic projects and future goals.
TNH: Fylakismena Mnimata- Imprisoned Graves was the subject of discussion and positive comments in the Greek community. What are your feelings about the success of the show?
Phyto Stratis: I feel total satisfaction and vindication, both from the artistic point of view and for the turnout, the acceptance and the reviews we have received. It was a difficult and high-quality project. They usually say that quality projects are not compatible with commercial success, but I firmly believe that high quality art can reach everyone, regardless of particular preferences. I had similar success in 2017 when I presented the poetic monologue by Yiannis Ritsos entitled The Farewell - The last moments of Grigoris Afxentiou in the burning cave, which again had the theme of the liberation struggle of Cyprus in 1955-1959. I saw again the public response, which was very encouraging, in three sold out performances in Astoria. Then we had the premiere of the same project in English. He competed at the United Solo Festival, the world's biggest solo festival, where the show was honored among 130 entries, awarded the United Solo 2018 - Best Poetry Show, again with sold out performances, Off Broadway.
TNH: How difficult was it to coordinate such a large cast? Almost all of the remarkable actors of the Greek community collaborated on the show.
PS: Personally, it was the first time I saw, in Queens, that so many artists from different organizations and associations participated as volunteers in a show. We counted 70 people. The Greek Cultural Center canceled a show in order for the actors to be there. FAMA Productions postponed the premiere of their show to a week later to allow their actors to participate. The children of the Pancyprian Choir, along with those from St. Demetrios and the Academy of Hellenic Paideia, collaborated. Also, leading artists of the Greek theater and Greek television who are currently in the United States took on the difficult roles of the fighters and their relatives, and the resulting production was based on volunteering and love for the work itself.
TNH: Will Fylakismena Mnimata play again in New York?
PS: I have been presenting this work in simpler forms over the last three years and it was a great dream to see it as a fully-staged production with my own musical direction.
A major goal, now, is for Fylakismena Mnimata to be performed in Greece and Cyprus. There is already interest from Fotis Fotiou, Nikos Christodoulides, and the President himself, Nicos Anastasiades. This is feasible in 2020, when it will be 65 years since the start of the Liberation Struggle. Besides, the show was held under the auspices of the Presidency of the Republic of Cyprus. There is also interest in presenting the show in New Jersey.
In any case, it is a project that is not only entertainment but also educational for the viewer.
TNH: How long have you been involved in artistic productions for the Greek community?
PS: I have been involved with the community for the last five years as the Pancyprian Artistic Director and Choir Director. When I began, the choir was 22 people including the founding members. Today, after 4-5 years, I am especially pleased to tell you that we are presenting these large productions with more than 70 people and the Choir has reached 40 members with a children's choir and many artistic events such as poetry nights and theatrical performances, under the Pancyprian Cultural Division. It was a great pleasure for me both as an artist and as a human being to have the community’s support. Also, in recent years, many associations have assigned me to organize their events, such as the tribute to the Polytechnic revolt and the Open House for the Consulate General of Greece in New York during the Greek Independence Day celebration. I have, however, a long career in the arts in the U.S., apart from the Greek community, beginning in 2010, after completing my studies. As an actor, among other things, I have participated in the major off Broadway production, Sleep No More, Agamemnon at La MaMa E.T.C., and as composer in the interactive productions Island Shakespeare.
A highlight was the interactive musical Serenade for which I wrote all the music and was based on the work of Edgar Allan Poe. This work was considered the first interactive American musical and was featured in a three-page article in the New York Times.
TNH: Who are your artistic models?
PS: As a composer, Andrew Lloyd Webber remains my model, with my favorite work being The Phantom of the Opera. As a producer, Sleep No More, which I consider to be the epitome of interactive theater and as an actor, the late Marlon Brando, due to his vast range. From modern actors, I admire James Franco.
TNH: We are in New York City, a city with rich, multifaceted, and diverse artistic activity. How do you intend to make use of your artistic creativity in such a wide market?
PS: My aim is to promote Greek culture to the wider American audience. I want to concentrate on American productions, without stopping the productions for the Greek community, but the example of my work with Fylakismena Mnimata is something I want to evolve for a purely American audience, with productions linked at least as a theme with Greek culture, always performed in a modern style, which corresponds to the contemporary, demanding American theater.
TNH: Are you happy with the artistic level you found in the Greek community? Do you think there is a similar interest in culture?
PS: Through the show Fylakismena Mnimata, a quality emerged, both in terms of production and the quality of the artists that took part, equal to that of the American theater. It is unacceptable, however, for such great and talented artists, actors who are fortunate enough to be in America now, that there is no proper infrastructure, that there are no theaters and support, so that these artists can make a living through art and not have to work at other unrelated jobs to make ends meet.
It is in the interest of Greek and not only Greek actors that the cultural sector be addressed. The infrastructure is inadequate. There is neither a proper theater nor the financial support to produce cultural events and performances up to the dynamic artistic potential of the artists.
The culture of a people is demonstrated by the level of the work being produced. Invoking ancient Greek civilization in endless revivals makes no sense if we do not produce culture today. I see, for example, Greeks in the community will pay $200 and $250 for a meal, but think twice about spending $20 or $30 for a ticket to a good show. It is a shame to pay thousands of dollars per table and rain thousands on imported artists' legs in shows that have nothing to do with entertainment (i.e. bouzoukia), while the local artist has to fight to be able to create and produce culture.
TNH: There is also the impending construction of the theater named for businessman and philanthropist Nikos Mouyiaris...
PS: I am pleased with the initiative of Pancyprian to create the first modern and fully equipped theater that meets the highest standards, in memory of the great benefactor of Greek culture Nikos Mouyiaris and named after him. It is something that is missing and something that should have been a priority for Greeks in America for decades.
I want to express my admiration for the work done by the late Nikos Mouyiaris, who, contrary to the established practice, turned his words into deeds. He spoke with his works, not with words.
TNH: What are you working on next?
PS: With the Pancyprian Choir, we are preparing two major concerts in New York and Philadelphia with singer Michalis Violaris, and with my own non-profit organization, Cyprus New York Productions, preparing a large production in partnership with Greeks and Americans, based on work by William Shakespeare, Othello of Cyprus.