This year marks the 105th anniversary of the Greek Community of Toronto (GCT). If you were to ask around about some of the well-established traditions at the community, you would surely hear about Theatre Nefeli.
Over the past 23 years, through many fiscal challenges, the Greek Community of Toronto has stayed true to its vision to preserve and integrate Hellenism in Canadian society by devoting $150,000.00 CDN over each of those 23 years to its cultural programs including Greek Language, Greek Dancing, and Greek Theatre.
The Polymenakion Cultural centre in Toronto, the hub for programs serving Greek-Canadians in the GTA (Greater Toronto Area) reaches one of its peak activity levels in the weeks leading up to February – theatre season at the Greek Community of Toronto.
Founded in 1991, under the direction of Nancy Athan-Mylonas who piloted a Dance Theatre Program at an existing Greek School site, the GCT’s award winning Theatre Nefeli has entertained audiences in Canada, the United States, and Greece. Twenty-three years later, Nancy continues to pour her heart and soul into inspiring her students to reach their utmost potential and “feel” the beauty and magic of the performing arts. Nancy was born in Egypt and moved to Australia with her family at age 16. It is in Australia where she received her classical training as dancer and actor. Her resume includes a long list of accomplishments as performer, teacher, choreographer, and director. She has received numerous awards, including the Order of the Medal of Australia for 25 years of service to the Arts through Greek Culture (1990), and the Canadian Silver Jubilee award (2002). She arrived in culturally-diverse Toronto in 1990 when her husband Christos Athanassopoulos was sent to Toronto for diplomatic service.
Among many other accolades, Theatre Nefeli has been awarded the 1993 Karolos Koun Award at the Pan Hellenic Theatre competition in Athens, the first prize award at Toronto’s CHIN International Folklore Competition in 1996, and the first prize award at the University of Crete’s Hellenic Theatre competition in 1998, and a Best Stage Direction award to Ms. Nancy Athan-Mylonas for Theatre Nefeli’s “Return to Ithaca” at the University of Crete in 2008.
Community in its truest sense is what Theatre Nefeli is all about. The GCT ensures that program costs are kept as low as possible so that they are accessible to all. In some cases, free programming is provided in keeping with the GCT’s mission to provide charitable assistance to those in need. Every new and repeat sponsor’s donation is greatly appreciated. Senior theatre members juggle workloads from their full-time English schooling and any associated co-curricular activities, attend Greek school, and devote precious free time to Theatre Nefeli rehearsals. The youngest members have a lighter load in terms of rehearsal hours but also attend Greek school and Greek Dancing. In the background – the busy parents or grandparents – shuttling the children to and from the programs. Volunteers assist with a wide range of pre-production and staging duties. Prices for this year’s performances are $10.00 for children and $25.00 for adults. Proceeds will go toward funding the same enriching Greek Language, Dancing, and Theatre programs in which the performers are enrolled.
This year’s theatre season is the most ambitious one yet with two productions set to be staged at the Armenian Community’s Hamazkayin Theatre in the first two weekends in February. With a seating capacity of 461, and located just northeast of the Polymenakion Cultural Centre, it is the venue that will welcome audiences for both Pol and Lara performed by the youngest theatre members (Ellinakia) and Lysistrata, performed by the senior theatre members (Theatre Nefeli). Pol and Lara is based on the children’s book, Pol and Lara are Travelling by Justine Frangouli-Argyris. Maria Kordoni, a young Greek writer/actor was recruited to write the stage adaptation that tells the story of Pol and Lara, the polar bears who travel from Canada to explore the climate and culture in Greece. Their story teaches children about environmental issues, thus exposing them to global awareness and social responsibility.
Ms. Athan-Mylonas pinpoints precisely what accounts for the depth and breadth of pride and fondness community members feel for the GCT’s Theatre Nefeli. Her students, children of the Diaspora, have sought out an opportunity to stay connected – through the arts – with the country of their parents or grandparents birth. The majority of this year’s cast and chorus members of Lysistrata (70 in all) are second-generation Canadians of Hellenic descent. A handful of cast members are in fact tri-lingual, and speak English, Greek, and French (one of Canada’s two official languages). They don’t just “speak” Greek, I might add. Their Greek is impressively fluent and expressive. Blended into the mix, the lead role of Lysistrata will be shared by Greek-born Barbara Papadopoulou, a graduate of the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki who has lived in Toronto for less than two years and Mary Hadjis, a veteran adult actor with Theatre Nefeli. In fact, many Nefeli Theatre members are performing in both Pol and Lara and Lysistrata – double duty.
I attended one of the final dress-rehearsals for Lysistrata at the Polymenakion Cultural Centre and was absolutely wowed by the cast’s energy and talent. The production, primarily in Greek with some English narration is more than entertaining. It is spirited and punctuated with the humour you would expect in Aristophanes’ comedy which was originally performed in Athens in 411 BC. Lysistrata sets out to end the Peloponnesian War by convincing the women of Greece to withhold sex until their men are willing to negotiate a peaceful resolution. All ends well. I’m proudly looking forward to my five year old niece’s official stage debut in Lysistrata with Theatre Nefeli. Anna Themeliopoulos, by far the youngest cast member, can tell you all about how she fits into the play, though, appropriately not quite the full plot. She will also tell you quite emphatically that she loves being Greek-Canadian, loves Greek School, loves her Theatre Nefeli castmates, and loves her teachers. Congratulations to the Greek Community on welcoming and nurturing another generation of performers in both Pol and Lara and Lysistrata!