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The Greek Tradition in the Theater of Shadows or Karagyozis

25 June 2010 / 13:06:12  GRReporter
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"Theatre of Shadows is known in Greece as Karagyozis after the name of the protagonist who is poor, barefoot, always hungry and can never be satisfied" says Dimitris who is a puppeteer and deals with this kind of traditional Greek theatre already three years. "Perhaps I will never be rich, but I can not imagine working in an office and doing a dull job for me. I have fun with what I do and I love it and after 30 years when I wake up one day I will not wonder where I've wasted my life."
I started to deal with the Theater of Shadows after one summer I was on a seminar relating to this type of theater and making puppets. There I met Argiris Atanasiu, who leads the courses.  Then he offered me to work with his brother. So I started working with Kostas Athanasiou - my teacher. I learnt the basic principles of the Theater of Shadows at the seminar. I learnt how to assemble the stage and make the figures, participating in the performances of the Theatre of Shadows, of different materials. I learnt different stories about Karagyozis because there is no written text and the performances are largely based on improvisation. The Theatre of Shadows is known in Greek as Karagyozis. Its name comes from the main protagonist of the story - at least in Greece and Turkey.

Karagyozis is constantly hungry, he is a grotesque character, poor, barefoot and the only thing he cares about is to eat, to fill his stomach. He does not care either to earn money, nothing except filling his stomach. He eats everything, but never gets enough. We can not say he is a man, although he has human features. He is not man, because in some of the stories he dies, then resurrects, then again dies and goes to Hell, returns, agrees with the devil and then cheats...

His appearance is ugly. When you see him you will say "God, what is this thing?!" The features of Karagyozis are carnival-like; he is a grotesque hero, as Bakhtin analyzes the concept of Grotesque. Karagyozis has a large hump, which is a turned symbol of fertility. This is the same symbol as the belly of a pregnant woman only it is turned. Although it has the same meaning the hump shows the connection of Karagayozis with the carnival. Karagyozis has a very long hand, which is connected with a long penis - also a symbol of fertility. Overall Karagyozis is grotesque character - some parts of his body are exaggerated and enlarged, he eats everything and constantly, he gets drunk until he becomes a laughing-stock.

Nobody knows how this type of theater originated. Some features of the theater make us believe that it comes from India or China, but has spread from China to Morocco, not existing in Europe. It exists probably in the Balkans, which were part of the Ottoman Empire. Perhaps  the Ottomans learnt it from the Arabs who learnt it from the Indians, who in turn learnt it from Chinese ... They have the phrase “Karagyoz” in Romania, which metaphorically has the same meaning as in Greece – a fool.

This kind of theater was preserved in Greece, probably because the role of Karagyozis was amended. In the late 19th century Mimaros, who is the father of the Greek Karagyozis, changed the nature of the character - then Karagyozis was a bourgeois, but  Mimaros made him grotesque - Karagyozis is poor, barefoot. This change in the character of the protagonist, probably helped the Greeks to identify with him. Thus he has survived. This is the only country in the Balkans, where there is such a theater. And it is so recognizable.

Officially there are about 20 puppeteers in Greece to make Karagyozis performances. This is a traditional art that is passed from the teacher to the student, there is no academic training related to Karagyozis. As I went to my teacher three years ago – you put yourself to the craft and little by little the teacher leads you on stage and devotes you to the secrets of the profession. The training consists in learning you to move the puppets on stage. There are 30 main characters in these shows. First you learn the movements of the puppets and the different voices. The peculiarity of this art is that puppeteers perform the voices of all characters and change their voice constantly and because there is no written text to follow, puppeteers improvise all the time.

Good puppeteer in the Theater of Shadows is considered the one that has many well-trained voices which differ well. The puppeteer should be a good performer, able to joke and give a rhythm of the performance.

I guess that children who watch Karagyozis for the first time are impressed by the colors of the scene. Although it is theater of shadows, figures are painted in color and it is evident behind the canvas. But imagine – it is dark everywhere, suddenly the lamps behind the canvas light and there appear laughing, joking and dancing colored pieces. I think it is impressive for children. Moreover, parents prepare their children for these performances, they say they are funny and will have a good time.  

A few days ago a child came to me, and very enthusiastically told me: "Hey, I had not seen Karagyozis so far. This is my first performance." What is interested to the child is that the shows are interactive. Karagyozis speaks with the children, asks them questions, makes them take part in the action and in what is happening. Usually children viewers help the children of Karagyozis respond, cope with a situation. If the puppeteer is good at improvisation, he can even change the story and follow the wishes of children, according to what they want to happen.

Tags: TheatreTheatre of ShadowsKaragyozisPuppets
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