An area of Sydney is being renamed 'Little Athens' in honour of Greek-Australians

A milk bar run by the Koulmandas family. Source: 'Little Athens' by Vasilis Vasilas

For decades, Melbourne has been known as the Greek hub of Australia, but it's about to face a little competition as a Sydney council renames a precinct between the inner west suburbs of Marrickville and Dulwich Hill.

Ask any Greek-Australian in Sydney and they'll tell you the Hellenic Art Theatre in Marrickville is a staple in their community.

Founded in 1983 by Greek Cypriot Stavros Economidis, who migrated to Australia when he was young, he was introduced to the art of theatre by actor and mentor Chrysostomos Mantouridis. 

"I thought there was, at the time in '65, the 70s, there was a demand for it," Economidis told SBS News.

"People didn't have anywhere to go culturally [in Australia] and that was one thing that would keep our culture alive, and the language."

Hellenic Art Theatre
Evelyn Tsavalas and Stavros Economidis have pressed pause on their current play due to COVID-19.
Charlotte Lam / SBS News

Currently, the theatre's lights are out due to coronavirus restrictions. After just two performances of the Greek play Plotos, Greek for 'wealth', the show was put on hold. 

But the community is ready to bounce back. 

"We're waiting on a razor's edge, we can't wait to come back," said the theatre's production manager Evelyn Tsavalas.

Tsavalas is among many in the community born to Greek Cypriot immigrants.

Greek migrants
Greek migrants and their contribution to Australia are being honoured.

Greek-Australians honoured

To thank the efforts of Greek-Australians in the community, including those responsible for the Hellenic Art Theatre company, Sydney's Inner West Council is renaming a precinct 'Little Athens'. 

The designated area is in between the suburbs of Marrickville and Dulwich Hill, where the majority of Sydney's Greek migrants moved to.

Inner West Mayor Darcy Bryne announced the decision on his social media pages last week. 

He said Greek migrants made the bustling suburb what it is today.

"This is an act of symbolic recognition and respect for the incredible contributions that Greek migrants have made to the Inner West," he said.

"They've made the Inner West the birthplace of Australian multiculturalism."

Why Sydney's Inner West is becoming 'Little Athens'
Why Sydney's Inner West is becoming 'Little Athens'

Attracting new audiences 

For the past 20 years, the Hellenic Art Theatre has been using surtitles so everyone can enjoy the productions.

Tsavalas said when they perform the Greek classics - from tragedies to comedies and contemporary classics - they see the biggest attendance from non-Greek speakers. 

Along with Economidis, she also runs regular theatre workshops for children which they say not only build confidence among young people but help keep the Greek language and culture alive. 

Hellenic Art Theatre's artistic director Stavros Economidis
The Hellenic Art Theatre's artistic director Stavros Economidis says the theatre has helped Greek culture thrive in Sydney over the decades.
Charlotte Lam / SBS News

Filmmaker Alex Lykos was born and raised in Marrickville.

His films are often based in its suburban streets, with plots that have strong Greek undertones.

One of his most popular has been the 2015 film Alex & Eve, which started out as a play performing to sold-out audiences in the area.

It tells the story of a Greek Orthodox teacher who falls in love with a Lebanese Muslim lawyer. 

Alex Lykos in the play Alex and Eve, which became a feature film.
Alex Lykos in the play Alex and Eve, which became a feature film.

"We started playing to an audience the size of 50, then it went to 150, and then audiences started reaching 400 a night, which for independent theatre is good," he said.

"They saw themselves on the stage and that's what got them to bring their families, their relatives. People who normally wouldn't go to the theatre were coming to watch this show because they could connect to it.

"This has been happening for 60 years or so, people grinding away, telling stories that come from the area we've grown up in."

The latest census showed up to 400,000 Australians have Greek ancestry and almost half live in Melbourne.

Historian Nick Doumanis from the University of New South Wales said what many people didn't realise is that Sydney had the largest Greek community at the beginning of the century.

Melbourne outdid it only after World War II. 

"Most Greek-Australians came here after the second world war with very little, hardly anything in their suitcases, and decided they would make a living here to try and find security and build a life. And they made the most with what Australia offered them," Professor Doumanis said. 

"Gradually, some things from Greek culture would then spread out into the community. So, for example, that interest Australians have in olives I think is primarily our influence - though Italians might have something to say about that."

At the Hellenic Art Theatre, the team can't wait to get back to business and keep their culture alive.

"The theatre has been built by us, by our own volunteers, with a lot of sweat, and we're not going to let that go. It's very important to us," Tsavalas said.

"As long as we're here, the theatre will be."

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