An amateur theatre production about disability services might not be the typical feature on a playbill but Everlyn Tsavalas thinks the stage is the perfect way to engage the Greek community on the topic.
“For us, theatre is a school,” Ms Tsavalas said.
“In any of our productions we always want people to leave here enriched in some way or another, whether it’s a comedy or a tragedy.
“It was quite challenging making such a serious subject light and entertaining, but it’s rewarding because what better way to educate people — just like our forefathers did in ancient Greece — than by putting on a play?”
Education through entertainment
Ms Tsavalas and fellow members of the Hellenic Art Theatre in Sydney’s Marrickville have been busy rehearsing their original production, titled ‘Brushstrokes’.
The show consists of three short plays which aim to present the life-improving benefits of accessing the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) to Greek-speaking audiences.
“There are still the first-generation Greeks who don’t speak or read English,” she said.
“We’re trying to show how the NDIS can help them and how the person with a disability can live some sort of normal life.
“So it’s a way of getting the message across to them to show the cultural side of it as well; the stigma that a lot of them live with, the shame.”
The production is an initiative of not-for-profit organisation Settlement Services International who are also engaging Italian and Macedonian audiences through similar themed plays for those communities.
Encouraging access to services
Working as a language interpreter in social services has given Michael Kazonis an insight into the difficulties faced by people living with disabilities.
He has witnessed many families that have avoided asking for assistance due to pride or fear of embarrassment.
“It can be very hard to persuade them to go out and seek help because they think they can take care of [a relative with a disability] forever,” he said.
In the play his character has paraplegia and uses a wheelchair — he even got some acting tips from a friend who lives that very existence.
Being able-bodied, Mr Kazonis initially found it difficult to restrict moving his lower body whilst performing.
“It’s a totally different world; it wasn’t easy in the beginning but I think I’m okay now,” he said.
It is the second time he has played a character with a disability after a previous production about mental illness also staged by the theatre company.
“I hope people turn up and see that there is help out there because that’s the message we’re trying to give to people.”
Learning about disabilities
It has been a learning experience for Chrysoula Kechagia-Fragala who said she had not met many people living with disabilities throughout her life.
She joined the theatre company after recently migrating from Greece and has found what she calls a ‘family’ among its members.
“It’s really interesting to raise awareness on people with disabilities while giving me the opportunity to get involved in a great community,” she said.
Taking on the roles of a carer and a physiotherapist in two separate plays motivated her to research what professionals do in those lines of work.
“From their experience we learned how people with disabilities actually behave and what kind of treatment they need.”
Making disability visible
Mimika Valaris produced many school productions during her teaching career but this will be the first time in a while she will be treading the boards.
She portrays a grandmother who denies that her grandson has an intellectual disability and shelters him from the outside world.
In her own experience Ms Valaris feels that disabled people in the past were often ‘invisible’ from society.
“We have to become aware that they’re human beings like everybody else and they may need some special attention, but apart from that they shouldn’t be kept away from everywhere,” she said.
“It’s good to be able to present valuable, important plays to the Greek community and I think this is what we’re doing; it’s very worthwhile.”
Brushstrokes plays at the Hellenic Art Theatre in Marrickville, Sydney, from April 13 to May 6, 2018.