We turn to art to discover life inside art’s truth. Art is real; it is not a dream, it is not a fantasy.

Elli Papakonstantinou

Immersive Theater

Text: Evi Kallini
Elli Papakonstantinou

Ιnternationally acclaimed theater director Elli Papakonstantinou is an inspired orchestrator, who reshapes the classics’ works into innovative theater experiences, inviting the audience to immerse into them. Her work is conversing with myths, politics and the grand narratives of our times, maestrically integrating and balancing all topics and issues that concern her as an artist. Restless and inexhaustibly productive, she has built a rich resume, with notable performances and distinctions under her belt.

Founder of the ODC Ensemble, she is a two-time recipient of the Fulbright Award, for her research at Stanford University and her work Oedipus: Sex with Mum was Blinding, while another work of hers, The Cave, was bestowed with the Music Theatre NOW 2018-19 international award. Her works have been showcased in Edinburgh Festival and the West End in the UK, in La MaMa Experimental Theater Club and the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York, in many European festivals such as Operadagen Festival (The Netherlands), Aalborg Οpera Festival (Denmark),  PUFF Festival (Croatia), Copenhagen Opera Festival (Denmark), New Drama Festival (Croatia), as well as in Neuköllner Oper Berlin and the European Cultural Parliament. In Greece, her works have been staged, among others, by the Athens Festival, the National Theater of Greece, as well as Athens Concert Hall and Thessaloniki Concert Hall.

Born in Athens, raised in Nea Smirni and with origins that trace back to Asia Minor, Elli heard as a child the stories of uprooting told by her grandmother, Elisso, an educated woman with intense metaphysical concerns. “Rough and horrifying stories”, as she explains, that formed inside of her the bedrock she keeps on turning to: a world with one foot set on cruelty and injustice (the world of politics and history) and the other one on allegory and the otherworldly. As she points out, there lies her passion for myths, as they have the power to interweave all the above. “Myths have so much to tell us. Even nowadays, we keep on making new myths, in a process that may elude us. All human beings live in the realm of myths, their own and the myths of those who surround them. We are made of dreams and desires; we do not have our nose pressed against the window of reality.”

Even though she initially studied to be a musician, she went on to graduate from Thessaloniki’s Faculty of Fine Arts, making the transition to visual art. She had her master’s degree in London, where she had the chance to travel as an artist to a rich gamut of different countries. In England, she mostly focused on contemporary dramaturgy, having closely collaborated with upcoming young theater writers, such as the legendary Sarah Kane. In the USA, she became intrigued by the use of new technologies in the field of performance art as a researcher in the universities of Princeton and Stanford, while embarking on a theater journey that led her to “difficult” destinations, such as Iraq.

This constant moving from place to place unveiled a different dimension of theater; in her own words “led her to embrace the uncanny and the colorful puzzle of humanity.” Her first contact with theater came as a teenager, in a school visit to the Greek Art Theater, where she met Mimis Kougioumtzis in person. “I remember the sun gleaming on the stage, a certain smell. I remember feeling that I belonged there. ‘Here, I can lay myself down safely. Here, if I fall, someone will catch me,’ I remember thinking.” Ever since that day, theater has always been a refuge, offering her this invaluable sense of belonging.

Her work revolves around many art areas (performance, music, visual arts) consolidated together in one single outcome. As she explains, her great theater teachers, such as Vassilis Papavassiliou and Lefteris Vogiatzes, made her realize that theater is our world’s grandiose mosaic, the only art where psychoanalysis, philosophy, politics and all the other arts cross paths. Her goal is to be creative and surprise herself and the audience, making use of all the means at her disposal. “I believe in the force of the uncanny. First and foremost, I wish for my art to overthrow my own expectations.”

“The way I see it, I feel closer to the theater in times of crisis. Difficult moments both on a collective and individual level redefine what theater means to me,” she comments, on the occasion of the antifascist play The Kindly Ones, based on Aeschylus’ Eumenides and staged at Mauthausen concentration camp, in Austria. As she recalls: “When I arrived there, I soon realized that I would be able to express myself only through the power of the myth, especially since this topic is a taboo and a collective trauma for the region’s residents. I turned to Aeschylus’ Eumenides, a tragedy that revolves around unwashed guilt and the primordial meaning of justice. Drawing inspiration from the myth, I wrote a play that encompasses modern-day thoughts and events (even the results of the latest European Parliament elections), alluding to issues such as the rise of fascism on a worldwide scale. In the end, the two worlds reflect on one another.”

Adjusting to the conditions imposed by the universal lockdown due to the pandemic, she experimented with a new form of digital theater, specially designed for the zoom platform, which she named “Theater of Reclusion”. Among her recent works stands out the play Traces of Antigone (2020), written by Christina Ouzounidis, one of first theater shows to be broadcasted online, which snatched the AMAZONE 2020 Award. Her digital plays Aède of the Ocean and Land and Hotel AntiOedipus were showcased in important festivals and institutions all over the world, such as Paris’ IRCAM/Centre Pompidou and Rome’s Romaeuropa Festival. In 2021, her work ALKESTIS, commissioned by Sweden’s Royal Dramatic Theater, in Stockholm, celebrated its premiere, while in 2022 she present the project EROS, in collaboration with the Nova Opera group of young Ukrainian artists, initially as part of the O. Festival in the Netherlands, and later on at the Municipal Theater of Piraeus, in Greece. She is currently working on Bacchae, a play that will draw elements from the titular tragedy of Euripides. It will be a large-scale international co-production carried out with the support of prestigious institutions such as Fondazione Romaeuropa, La Filature (Scène nationale), IRCAM/Centre Pompidou etc.