Persou: Interview with Theater Director Ellpetha Tsivicos

“Persou” is an immersive play that celebrates Spring by exploring the change of seasons through the lens of Ancient Greek mythology.

“Persou” is an immersive and experiential play that celebrates Spring by exploring the change of seasons through the lens of Ancient Greek mythology. The show was co-created by theater artists Ellpetha Tsivicos and Camilo Quiroz-Vazquez. “Persou” draws on Homeric hymns, the poetry of Giorgos Seferis and traditional dances. Audiences are transported to the Temple of Aphrodite in Paphos, Cyprus where they can interact with Gods and mortals as they plot to eradicate Winter forever by creating a kingdom of endless Spring. The show explores loss, death, displacement and grief as well as family relationships. As a participatory show, the audiences feast upon bitesize snacks, listen to live music, and enjoy a vivid dream-like surrounding. The show was first performed at The Cell in New York City which boasts ornate 18-foot front windows that remained open throughout the performance.

Ellpetha recently discussed the play via an exclusive interview.

PersouMeagan Meehan (MM): How did you discover your talent for writing and what was it about plays that most interested you?

Ellpetha Tsivicos (ET): Camilo Quiroz-Vazquez, my collaborator is the playwright, and I am more of the editor. I talk about the themes I am thinking about, the texts that inspire me, the conflicts that haunt me, and we discuss inspirations and then he writes, and we tweak and tweak until we are satisfied. I see in pictures and he sees in words.

 How did you initially get interested in theater and how did you break into the industry?

ET: When I was a toddler I would spin around in circles with my finger on my head, mimicking the ballerinas in my music boxes, so my mom put me in ballet, before I was even potty trained. I danced my whole life, and that got me into theatre in middle school, while also teaching me to love structure and form. I had an incredible director, who was a volunteer, in high school. He was a local detective that absolutely loved the theatre, and definitely used it as a healing space and cathartic release from the painful aspects of his job. It gave me that same release, and taught me about community within America, rather than just within my Greek and Cypriot local community. I studied at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts with Camilo and we have been doing our best to make work since then, in film and theatre. We got a lot of attention last August for doing the first live theatre during the pandemic. It was a workshop co-produced by the TEAM as part of their Petri Project Series, and it got al ot of attention because it was outdoors, and we integrated all the safety precautions into the show. That was really our first big break!

MM: Why did you decide to create an experimental play like “Persou” based on Greek mythology?

ET: Persou is my grandmother’s name, and is the Cypriot nickname for someone named Persefoni. My grandparents have been subsistence farmers their whole lives and my grandfather died from Leukemia, as a result of using Round Up without protection for several decades. Part of the funeral involved the entire village burying my grandfather, and my grandmother is Persefoni, so the connection to that story was just… very real for me. Also, I see Greek mythology scarcely ever done actually authentically. There is seldom any connection to Greeks or ancient Hellenes, or actual Greek culture because so much of our history was co-opted by the British and Westernized. People think of Greek mythology and think we wore togas, and we didn’t! So, I wanted to make a show for US, by US. The cast and many of the crew members are either Greek, or Eastern Mediterranean, and I wanted us to get the chance to tell our own stories, because that region of the world has a loooooong history and complex, but also very beautiful history, and we are often are excluded from telling our own stories.

PersouMM: How much research did you have to do to write this piece?

ET: A lifetime! Hard to measure something like that. This piece is my culture, my history, my language, my family. It’s not so much research as a place to hold my lived experience.

MM: What’s your favorite part of the play and why?

ET: The cast, because we are all from different parts of the Greece, the Hellenic Empire, and Eastern Mediterranean. All different communities brought together in one place… and also.. THE MUSIC! It blows me away. The musicians are just exceptional and so much of our culture involves food and music, and lots of drama, so it was great to have that all together in one place.

MM: Was it a challenge to plan for live theater during a lingering pandemic?

ET: To be honest, not that hard because it was our 3rd production during the pandemic and the first two were before we had vaccines, so we had to be so careful and we could barely rehearse in person, our shows were more visual than narrative, and it was all about sharing performance when it was difficult to be near people. With Persou, we had so much more room to build and grow because of the vaccine, and the easing of restrictions. It was really special to make something to usher folks back into the world.

PersouMM: What is some of the best feedback you’ve gotten about this piece thus far?

ET: That it helped people let go of some difficult things from the pandemic, and that they were so grateful to be given a space to do so. Many people said this, the fact that my art served a function is really moving to me.

MM: You run your own theater company called One Whale’s Tale, so how did you come up with that name?

ET: I think it involved walking past a bar called The Whalebone and imagining a burlesque club where all the dancers were whales and the owner of the club was an octopus with gold and diamond rings on their tentacles, and also the dancing whale in Disney’s Fantasia, and we really like telling tales!

MM: What kinds of work does One Whale’s Tale seek to produce?

ET: One Whale’s Tale is a production company that creates, fosters, and generates new independent content internationally with an appreciation for magic and preservation of culture.  We are committed to cultural representation and fair compensation.

MM: What other pieces have you produced in the past that you are especially proud of?

ET: We are really, really proud of “Quince” which is the project that garnered a lot of attention for being the first live theatre to happen during the pandemic. It just fulfilled so many of our values. It was in a community garden in our neighborhood that focuses on feeding the community and urban farming, our cast was largely immigrants and first-generation Americans, everyone was paid fair living wages during a pandemic when art jobs were hard to come by, we shared a story of celebration and joy with live music, and we gave people a safe place to experience live art during a time when gathering commercially was very difficult.

Also, we are proud of our digital piece, “Night Descends on Svalbard”, which was part of the Exponential Festival. It was a really special project because it gave us a way to explore the dark winter and the absurdity of the world that we were living in. We filmed it in January of 2021 as the Capitol building was being stormed, we were all receiving alerts on our phones between takes, we all felt shaken but lucky to be artists and have places to emote during dark times.

PersouThe story follow three researchers at the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway are forced to confront the night, after being stranded because of a global disaster, as the season of 24-hour sunlight comes to an end, and the dark winter approaches. “Night Descends on Svalbard” explores the unease that comes with isolation, and a lack of control. Set in the harsh Arctic tundra, we examined our ancient relationship with the Moon, the changing of the seasons, and the Northern Lights guided by Hellenic mysticism, the Popol Vuh, and David Byrne.

MM: What other projects are you working on right now and what themes might you like to explore in future works?

ET: We are working on remounting Quince this fall, and then again next spring! Bigger, more developed and better than ever!

MM: What are your ultimate goals for the future and is there anything else that you would like to mention?

ET: I’d like to change the world! Heal! Create! Art for all!

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Follow Persou at @ellpetha @camiloooo @onewhalestale