Creative Development

Creative development - 2008


During our extensive tour this year (2011), we have been able to bring even greater depth to the story and new songs to the show. A fresh cast brings invigorated performances that build on the wonderful contributions of the previous actors who have given life to these vivid characters.

If the ovations at the Sydney Opera House (May 2011) are anything to go by, CAFÉ REBETIKA! is now a show truly for every music and theatre lover and for everyone who goes out to be swept up and entertained with something extraordinary.

CAFÉ REBETIKA! was conceived by Steve Helper during the 2005 Multicultural Arts Professional Development program (co-sponsored by the Australia Council for the Arts and the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology).

After this program, his first call was to the renowned Australian singer and actor Maria Mercedes and asked her if she would like to be involved. She immediately said “Yes!” Maria recommended Thomas Papathanassiou who she knew from the national (Australian) tour of CHICAGO. He immediately said “Yes!” and recommended Tony Nikolakopoulos. Tony immediately said “Yes!” and the creative nucleus was formed.

An actor friend of Steve’s, Nicholas Papademetriou, recommended Lina Kastoumis to help devise the show. Lina was skeptical but interested. She was a very important early collaborator, and, in one incredible paragraph, summarised the central relationship of Stavrakas and Areti. She further worked with Steve to identify the characters of Yiorgos, Petraki and Fofo. Lina also introduced Steve to the wonderful musicians of Rebetiki.

Creative development - 2008

Steve sought out as many “rebetologists” – academic authorities on the subject of rebetika - as he could find. in discussion with Melbourne Professor Dr. Stathis Gauntlett about the kinds of characters that would be in this world, he said, “A Communist. You have to have a Communist”. And true to those words, the character of Grigoris was born. His colleague at La Trobe University, Despina Michael, was also very helpful with research materials, resources and her own knowledge.

Steve also met with Gail Holst-Warhaft, the author of the seminal English language book on rebetika, THE ROAD TO REMBETIKA. He made a pilgrimage to Cornell University in New York where she is an Associate Professor. Her subsequent feedback on draft scripts and her letters of support to the Australia Council were invaluable.

Steve secured creative development funding from ArtsNSW – the Ministry of the Arts funding body in New South Wales. This workshop was an inspiring first step. Through improvisation and delving into songs, a show took a vague form.

Seeing that the show would need to become Victorian based, there would be no more funding from ArtsNSW. And, as Steve is based in New South Wales, he was not able to apply for funds from Victoria. In Australia, without any culture of “investing in a show”, the only other source was the federal government’s funding body, The Australia Council for the Arts that is notoriously competitive.

The Council knocked back the project 3 times over the course of 2 years. Not to be put off, Steve started to work with Thomas more and more on an informal basis. They even worked on it two afternoons in New York City when their paths crossed there.

Finally, in October 2007, on his 4th application, the Australia Council agreed to help fund a two-week creative development period in Melbourne. By this time, Lina had moved on to other projects while the rest of the nucleus remained in tact. Rebetiki were now on board as the music collaborators and arrangers.

Creative development - 2008

This two-week development period occurred in December, 2007. Joining the cast were Maria Theodorakis as Fofo, Alex Tsitsopoulos as Yiorgos/Michalis and Greg Pandelidis as Niko/Grigoris. Thomas played Petrakis, Maria Mercedes was Areti and Tony was Stavrakas. Fireworks! Explosions! Joy! Heartache! Inspiration! Seering Pain! - all the words that might be associated with birth would be accurate to describe the intensity of these two weeks.

There was virtually no script to start with – a few scenes from the first workshop, lots of notes and a strong outline (which was continually revised). There were also the inspiring rebetika songs. Dramaturg Angela Costi gave terrific feedback and was an important positive presence.

At the end of the first week, Steve indicated that although he had tried very hard to resist it, it was impossible not to have a prostitute character. It was like a key person who would have been there, was not. Two in the cast immediately said: “Katerina Kotsonis”.

A phone call to Katerina and she immediately said, “Yes!” She became part of the expanding nucleus on her very first day. She had no lines, no character description (except “a prostitute”) and amazingly, she became this new character who Steve decided to name… Katerina.

Steve got the Victorian Arts Centre to host the public presentations that conclude such workshop periods. In their space, Blackbox, the team presented about an hour’s worth of material that had been developed largely through improvisations and then refined into scripted dialogue scenes by Steve and Thomas. For some scenes there had been up to 20 versions that had been tried out before settling on a “final” draft. Some scenes were not presented as they were either still in an incubation stage or, no matter how many drafts had been done, they still just weren’t ready to be presented.

Road to Rembetika - by Gail Holst

Having the showings at the Arts Centre was wonderful because of its facilities and central location. It was especially wonderful because it seemed to guarantee that people from the Arts Centre would actually attend a showing (which they did!).

After each showing, we asked the audience for feedback. In short, it was extremely positive and totally encouraging.

However, we barely had half a show.

Determined to keep the momentum going, Steve then created a full draft script – utilising sizable amounts of the workshop developed material and exploring ever more deeply the motivations and personalities of these wonderful characters. Steve then sent the script to Thomas and they worked a bit more. We all thought that the dialogue needed an editor and a fresh eye. Enter Boucci Kowalenko. Boucci (who prefers this nickname to her baptismal name – boucci being a sort of Greekified word for “boogie-woogie” which her parents were very good at) had been head translator at SBS Television for many years. She loved the script and had some small but crucial pointers and, ultimately, provided the terrific English translations of the Greek song lyrics that appear projected during the show.

To be of more help, Boucci said she needed to hear the script read by the actors who were going to play the roles. Steve scheduled a reading in March 2008 in Melbourne of the full draft script. As some of the characters had changed in emphasis and tone since December, three of the roles needed to be recast.

Joining the reading in March were Steve Mouzakis as Yiorgos/Michalis and Peter Stefanou as Nikos/Grigoris and Lisa Charalambos as Fofo. Steve invited people along, informally, and luckily, Rob Gebert and Vanessa Pigrum from the Arts Centre did come. In fact, they are the only ones who did, along with Boucci, of course.

Creative development - 2008

From this point on, the Arts Centre really came on board and helped champion the show. Steve Mouzakis and Peter Stefanou became part of the family. Script development continued right through opening night a year later in April 2009.

In December 2008, Steve used some of his funding for a one-week workshop to iron out some last wrinkles prior to the production rehearsals in March 2009. This workshop was fraught with illness and some peculiar twists. Maria Mercedes at the last minute found herself inextricably bound to her contract for MENOPAUSE THE MUSICAL and not only could she not get out for the workshop, she was not going to be let go for the production.

A quick replacement for the workshop had to be found and luckily, the fantastic actress, Victoria Haralabidou (BRIDES; BLESSED) was able to come down to Melbourne for the week. Six days with her was fantastic and she made positive contributions in the process. In addition, Thomas could only come for two days at the end of the week. Plus, we were working in a brand new Fofo, Amelia Christo. Despite disruptions and illnesses, some crucial final discoveries were made making the whole topsy-turvy week pivotal for the success of the show.

Rehearsals in March 2009 continued the refinement process including bringing in a new Areti, Laura Lattuada. It would be wrong to say that the rehearsal period on this new show was all smooth sailing. However, we all were committed to creating the finest production of the highest standard and this common goal saw us through to an incredible and rewarding result.

The development process is now complete! The Melbourne season enabled us to see the show in front of a paying audience for the first time. This has given us the opportunity, like in the old Broadway out of town tryout days, to further refine and distill this great show into an even better one.

See you at the new CAFÉ REBETIKA!