You might think running a theater program in a bucolic setting in Greece would be a relaxing way to spend a few weeks every summer. If you run the program the way Ianthe Demos ’00 runs it, you would be wrong. But Demos and her actors say they wouldn’t want it any other way.
Over the past few summers, Demos has watched children rush the stage to play with some of the props during a performance. She’s had rehearsals interrupted from time to time by herds of goats. And when the rehearsals resume, Demos often informs the cast she’s decided to scrap her original plan and asks the actors to help her take the production in a completely different direction.
What began in 2005 as an artistic retreat for the actors in Demos’ New York City-based ensemble company, One Year Lease, has blossomed into an inspirational experience for both the professional actors and for 78 student apprentices to date from colleges and universities throughout the United States, including 29 from Vassar. Coping with the unexpected goes with the territory at the workshops Demos, a native of Greece, runs out of her part-time home in Papingo, a tiny village tucked high in the mountains near the Albanian border.
The young actors who have participated in this unique and demanding program say the rewards of studying their craft in such a remote location far outweigh the surprises and inconveniences. “Being in that environment allows you to be totally in the present and concentrate on your current tasks,” says Meropi Papastergiou ’14 who was a student apprentice in 2012 and returned last summer to serve as a facilitator. “When you get there, you’re thinking, ‘There’s no way I can do all this,’ and then you do. The whole company works really hard, and Ianthe works twice as hard as any of us.”
Demos says she has loved the theater since she was a child but always shied away from being on stage. “Acting is an inherent talent, and I never thought I had that gene,” she says.
By the time she arrived at Vassar in 1996, she was ready to try her hand at directing. Drama prof. Gabrielle Cody was immediately impressed. “I became an enormous fan of her work while she was here,” says Cody. “She was extremely creative, putting on plays in the basements of dorms, around bike racks and boilers.”
Demos says she took a couple of acting classes at Vassar but always preferred directing. “There is nowhere I would rather be than in a rehearsal room,” she says. “I love the process of figuring it out.”
Demos and Cody stayed in touch after Demos founded One Year Lease, and when she decided to have students join the ensemble company for the workshops in Greece, she asked Cody to come along. “Ianthe didn’t have a formula – she just wanted a place where the young actors could test themselves artistically and physically,” Cody says. “She’s created a minor miracle: a place where students, professional actors and some guest instructors can carve out something creative each day in that remote location.”
Demos says she is always gratified to see the young actors “almost grow up in front of me as they begin to realize their potential.” But she’s just as passionate about finding ways to make her group become part of the community. She runs acting classes for the children of the village, and for the past two years she’s enlisted the teenagers to act as language instructors so the students’ final production, held in Papingo and three neighboring villages, can be performed entirely in Greek. “Learning Greek helped everyone become closer to the families there,” she says. ”The community has really bonded around us.”
The month-long retreats have also yielded some tangible results for One Year Lease. Members of the ensemble company worked extensively last summer on a new play, “Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally,” by Kevin Armento. When the play opened in New York last fall, it received rave reviews from critics from the New York Times, the Huffington Post, and American Theater Web.
A member of the cast, Ethan Slater ’14, calls Demos’ directing style “scary, challenging, exhilarating – all of those. In some ways it’s similar to the training I got at Vassar where they build you from the ground up. Ianthe instills trust by explaining that theater is a collaborative exercise; she makes it clear we’re all in this together.”
Demos demonstrates her commitment to collaboration by engaging in many of the workshop exercises with the actors. A couple summers ago she took part in an exercise called “animal gestus,” in which the actors assume the physical characteristics of an animal or an insect. “We’re all doing this crazy physical stuff, and Ianthe is right down there on the floor with us,” he says. “She brings that kind of childlike enthusiasm to everything she does.”
Jackie Kristel ’00, who was one of the founding members of One Year Lease, serves as what she calls “the everything-but-the-artistic-stuff person” in Papingo every summer. She says she enjoys watching Demos challenge the student apprentices to do things they did not believe they were capable of doing.
“Ianthe throws a lot at them at once, and you see their trajectory go from exhausted to confused to not trusting her at all,” Kristel says. “And five days later they are saying, ‘This is the best experience I’ve had in my life.’”