Untold migrant stories reawakened on Port Pirie stage

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By Melissa Keogh

The stories of Greek, Cypriot and Italian migrants post WWII will be brought to life on the stage for what will be the State Theatre Company’s first regional premiere.

South Australian actor, playwright and Greek Cypriot descendant Elena Carapetis is reigniting the oral histories of migrants in Port Pirie, where her grandparents settled and she spent her childhood.

Historical fiction The Gods of Strangers will in November have its world premiere in the seaport town, home to many Greek and Italian migrants who settled in SA from their homelands after WWII.

Elena is State Theatre Company’s artist in residence and so when she was approached by director Geordie Brookman to write a play about the country, she knew instantly she was set for a trip down memory lane.

“He said do you want to write a show about the country, and I said ‘yes!’. Immediately before I had even thought about it, I just said instinctively that it will have to be set in Pirie and it would probably be based on my family history,” she says.

“He said ‘great’, and that’s how it all started.”

Dina Panozzo in The Gods of Strangers. Photo by Tash McCammon.

Elena explored her own family’s history to create The Gods of Strangers, featuring Dina Panozzo, Renato Musolino and Eugenia Fragos, and presented in association with Country Arts SA and Playwriting Australia.

The play is the result of a major commission through the Regional Theatre Strategy, which is the basis of a four-year partnership between Country Arts SA and State Theatre Company.

Set in 1947, the performance explores the untold stories and challenges faced by Greek, Cypriot and Italian migrants, with Elena dedicating the work to her grandparents, Yianni and Eleni Carapetis.

It will be performed in three languages, English, Italian and Greek and also in Auslan for the benefit of the deaf community.

“When my family and other Greek and Italian people come to see this show, I think it’s going to be the first time that many people have seen their own language and culture reflected back,” Elena says.

“More often than not women aren’t featured in the centre of stories, they’re instead connected to being someone’s mother or wife.

“I’ve basically done everything that people don’t expect to see; two protagonists who are women, over the age of 50 and English is their second language.”

The Gods of Strangers tells the tale of two migrant women who answer a knock at their doors by a stranger.

Photo by Sia Duff.

“At the heart of Greek and I think very much so Italian culture, is this idea of the meaning behind the Greek word ‘filotimo’, which means the hospitality and love you show to a stranger,” Elena says.

“It goes back to ancient Greek times when the gods would disguise themselves as humans and come to Earth to test humans, even if a beggar was at your door you’d let them in because they might be a god in disguise.

“These two women let these strangers into the house and it’s about what happens when these new forces collide with their lives.”

Elena researched for months Greek, Cypriot and Italian settlement in Port Pirie, visiting the region to reconnect with locals and hear their stories. She also visited libraries and spoke with academics to learn about what life was like in regional SA post WWII.

The play is also inspired by the stories of her own grandparents, including her grandmother who came to Australia as a young woman, set to marry a man she had never met, but only seen in a photo.

“With Greek culture, and with my grandma, she was sent a photo of a man she had never met, he paid for her passage, she got on a ship and came to Australia to marry him,” Elena says.

“But when my grandma got here, the man wasn’t the same man as the one in the photo, so she basically said, ‘I’m not marrying you’, which was huge.”

Elena Carapetis reflected on her family’s history for her latest work, The Gods of Strangers. Photo by Sia Duff.

Eventually Elena’s grandmother married neither the mystery man in the photo or the man waiting for her at the altar, but instead fell for the man who lived next door to her best friend.

Elena says The Gods of Strangers honours the sacrifices made by the women in her family.

Born in Whyalla, Elena grew up in Port Pirie before moving to Adelaide towards the end  of her primary school years.

After high school she studied drama at the University of Adelaide before being accepted into Australia’s leading drama school NIDA in Sydney, at a time when acting royalty Cate Blanchett had graduated two years prior.

After NIDA, Elena scored theatre and TV gigs before landing a role on Aussie drama Heartbreak High.

She spent 12 years in Sydney, moving back to Adelaide in 2003 “just check in with family”.

But Elena ended up staying in SA, employed by the State Theatre Company and cementing herself on the local stage as well as teaching at the Adelaide College of the Arts and Flinders University.

“What has kept me here is my family and the lifestyle,” Elena says.

“I’ve made some really beautiful connections with people here, they’re like my art family.”

The Gods of Strangers will premiere at Port Pirie’s Northern Festival Centre on November 9 and 10 before showing in Adelaide from November 14–December 2. Click here for details on the Port Pirie shows and here for details on the Adelaide run.

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