What is it that consumes us to tell a particular story? If it’s something that has happened to you, it makes sense to want to express your journey. But what if it isn’t your story? Singer, writer and performer Helen Yotis Patterson became what she calls, ‘obsessed’ with collecting the stories of women who migrated to Australia from Greece. They form the acclaimed theatre piece Taxithi: an Australian Odyssey, extended twice due to demand and currently showing at 45 downstairs.
Helen tells me it was her grandmother’s avid storytelling that initially sparked her fascination with women and their taxithi – journey – to a foreign land. “My grandmother had seen so many things and that’s the way it is for many migrants and I didn’t want her stories to die with her”. Not long after her grandmother’s death in 2010, the Rusden (Deakin University) acting graduate worked at a boutique in Yarraville with a small notebook in her drawer. “Whenever I heard a Greek accent, I'd ask them ‘where are you from? Why did you leave? What happened on the ship? What happened after you arrived?’” She then went on to record some formal interviews. “I've lost count of the women I spoke with.”
This is my heritage and my loving gift to my family and ancestors. It is an important part of Australia's history, these stories must become a part of our collective memory.
If you’re planning to go and see Taxithi, takes some tissues. I can’t remember the last time I was moved this deeply. I took my mum with me who, just like the women in the narratives of Taxithi, left her family behind at the age of 19 because her father couldn’t afford a dowry. At one point I glanced at Mum and she had her head hung in sadness. Although painful for her to absorb, I could tell it was comforting to her – just like many other women who migrated – to have her struggle and journey not only voiced but acknowledged. “Through these women I have found the core of my Greek identity,” Helen says. “We children of migrants carry an old pain that is rarely expressed or even acknowledged. Like a puzzle, each piece has revealed to me something I had no idea I was missing. This is my heritage and my loving gift to my family and ancestors. It is an important part of Australia's history, these stories must become a part of our collective memory”.
Unapologetically Greek, Taxithi, weaves traditional music into the play, performed and sung by Helen, Artemis Ioannides (ABC’s A Beautiful Lie) and recent Green Room Award recipient Maria Mercedes (Sunset Boulevard, Love Never Dies and Master Class). The performances are so compelling, passionate and intense it makes no difference if you don’t know Greek; the nostalgia can be felt in the room, like a ghost.
It’s rare to see people of colour and culturally and linguistically diverse artists creating theatre in Australia. There are more hurdles, not only within our cultures, but externally in the arts world. Melbourne City Council contributed, and so too did the Hellenic Museum by providing a space for development readings. Helen also held a fundraiser.
“It’s tough to get this sort of stuff up,” Helen says. “I think producers and theatres underestimate audiences all the time. I wish I knew why. People like to be challenged, to think outside the safe shell of their own experience and it’s never been more important to do so”.
But with four children and the fact that Helen operates in an arts world where ‘excellence’ is considered anything but Greek tragedy, it’s quite possibly a miracle this work was seen through to production, especially since these stories took place in the 50s and 60s and it is now 2016 – 50 years later! It is well-known that there is a lack of stories being told by women from migrant backgrounds. We face additional barriers to white females, because we not only have our gender working against us but also the way we sound and perform and write is so very different to the way white (English) theatre has been presented.
There are very few roles for short plump Greek girls with a big voice. I was told more than once that I was too brown to be white and not brown enough to be brown.
“I auditioned a lot. There are very few roles for short plump Greek girls with a big voice. I was told more than once that I was too brown to be white and not brown enough to be brown. I have sung in all sorts of bands, musicals, I have been in plays. I’ve had four children and struggled to keep my performing going”.
But Helen didn’t give up. “I felt compelled to continue. I don’t know if I’ve ever felt so motivated to finish something before”. Her husband, Andrew Patterson, came on board as the musical director and she was guided by Thomas Papathanassiou, a playwright and actor. “I approached Petra Kalive [the director] at her sister’s wedding. I’d seen her work before and I knew she had a Greek background, which I feel is important to the piece. She must have thought I was a little nuts, but I sent her a copy of the script and she agreed to come on board. She has a really good eye, and a clear overall vision.”
Looking into the future, Helen hopes to tour the show nationally and also take it to Greece. “Wouldn’t it be wonderful to tell them what happened to all of us?” As for the broader impact that this lack of stories will have on future generations, Helen says, “as with most periods of unrest some of us ‘independents’ are asking questions and exploring the uncomfortable regions and there is an audience. These stories are so important, there are lessons to be learned in all of them. How can we move on in society if we only look at things through the lens of our own experience?”