It’s not as if you can ignore it. Katerina Vrana’s gloriously free-spirited, follicular abundance is the first thing you notice about this Greek-British comedian. “Hair like an exploding volcano,” marveled one reviewer. “Imagine a willow tree that’s come to life and gone instantly mental,” rhapsodised another comic contemporary. A Greek woman with a crazy big head of hair? Sounds suspiciously like a cultural stereotype, doesn’t it? But nailing cultural truisms is Vrana’s bread and butter. Her wildly successful one-woman show Feta with the Queen is essentially a one-hour “compare and contrast” exploration of her experiences as a Greek woman residing in the bosom of UK society. Much-lampooned traits like the British fondness for a cuppa, queuing, and the art of the passive-aggressive complaint are pitted against opposite-end-of-the-spectrum Hellenic customs: heroic hospitality, machismo, financial generosity – to potent comic effect. Since it debuted in 2013, Feta has sold out in venues across London and Athens, at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival in Australia, and at the influential Edinburgh and Brighton Fringe Festivals – to predominantly rave reviews. Of course, mining cultural stereotypes for laughs can be a risky game. There are many who consider it to be the runt of the comedy litter. But in the hands of the skilled and charismatic Vrana, who was born and raised in Greece before moving to the UK to study, it’s a gamble that continues to pay off handsomely.
Through her energetic, precise and affectionate delivery, Vrana manages to breathe fresh life into well-traveled observations in a way that leaves neither culture feeling bruised. The Athens’ comedy scene also owes much to Vrana - one of only about three or four professional female comedians presently working in Greece, she estimates. She brought the first open-mike nights (Five Minutes of Glory) to this country in 2012, in the jaws of the crisis, along with her Greek comedy peer Lambros Fisfis. ‘I realised that there was nowhere for Greek comedians to try out new material or for new comedians to go,’ says Vrana in the extremely-cultivated English accent that mystifies both herself and her family. (‘I’m Greek, Greek, Greek – I don’t know where the accent came from!’) ‘People kept telling us that no one was laughing very much or going out very much but in fact, the timing was perfect. Greeks wanted to go out and enjoy themselves again without spending a lot of money. And bars and clubs wanted to put on entertainment that didn’t cost a lot.’ But Vrana says she has never “gone for laughs” about the crisis – even back in 2012 when the theme was inescapable. ‘I discovered that people don’t want to hear political satire anymore. You can’t even make fun of it because it makes fun of itself. And so many Greeks are still in such difficult situations. I’m excited about what’s happening in stand-up comedy in Greece. But I’m pessimistic about recovery. And I’m very pessimistic about the political situation.’ Vrana, who will shortly perform at the six-day Art Links Athens 2014 festival, sports an impressive pedigree in improvisation and sketch comedy, mostly in the UK, and currently runs two weekly comedy events in central London (Rudy’s Comedy Night and Angel Comedy). She divides her time between Britain and Athens, honing her delivery in her native Greek tongue. ‘The first time I performed in Greek to a Greek audience, I have never been so sh**-scared in all my life,’ confesses Vrana, who will perform Feta with the Queen at Art Links on two separate nights (first in English, and three-nights later, in Greek). ‘I’d lived in the UK for years, I had no idea how to perform in Greek. It was like doing stand-up with my hands tied behind my back. But the audience were very kind and they carried me.’ Vrana’s Art Links appearance later this month kicks-off a prolific period. She will roll straight into another round of weekly performances of Feta in Athens at Theatro 104 in Gazi, and is now also busy writing her next solo show. ‘It will have nothing to do with cultural stereotypes this time. It has to do with sex!’ she says enticingly.
But back to that hair. Vrana believes that her traffic-stopping mane symbolizes in a nutshell the biggest difference between Greek and British audiences. ‘I do have about ten minutes worth of material on my hair,’ admits Vrana. ‘Self-deprecation forms a massive part of British humour. But self-deprecation just does not exist here in Greece. When I joke about my hair here, ladies in Greece say, “But agapi mou, it’s thavma! It’s miraculous! Be proud!” ‘British audiences are more familiar with stand-up. They know what it is and you can play around with them a bit more. It’s in their blood.’ Breaking in stand-up comedy in Greece, by contrast, remains more of a challenge, observes Vrana. ‘If you watch Greek television, the humour is very shouty with big faces, almost clowning,’ she says. ‘Greek TV has definitely stagnated. But in everyday Greek life, there is so much humour. If you look at Greek Twitter, it’s hilarious. It’s cutting. There’s humour and irony and sarcasm. It’s really very good.’ Vrana’s own comic inspirations are wide ranging and encompass the late Joan Rivers, Eddie Izard, Eddie Murphy, Maria Bamford and Wanda Sykes. But her one true comedy flame, she professes, will always be the Muppets. ‘I just love everything about The Muppet Show. The two old guys. The comings and goings on stage. The Swedish chef. Everything. I could go on and on.’ ‘Whenever I do one of those quizzes about “Which Muppet are you?”, it always gives me Animal,’ says Vrana in mock dismay. ‘I’m like, “C’mon… I want to be Miss Piggy!’’’ And yet, that hair… To reserve tickets to Katerina Vrana’s performance on Saturday October 18 (English) or Tuesday October 21 (Greek) and to find out more about the Art Links schedule, visit the website,Art Links Athens 2014.
Thank you to Amanda for this lovely article! For more details about Art Links, visit thewebsite.
Meet Athens’ answer to Carrie Bradshaw at Art Links Athens 2014
THERE is something uniquely horrible about having your heart broken in a foreign land. And then being abandoned there on your own to pick up the pieces. But debut novelist Marissa Tejada has turned this unenviable life event into the best thing that ever happened to her. In a case of art imitating life, the failure of Tejada’s own Athenian romance several years back provided the trigger for her first novel Chasing Athens, published recently as an e-book by Musa Publishing. The semi-autobiographical plot revolves around an American expat living in Athens who is faced with the classic “should I stay or should I go now” dilemma when her new husband walks out on her after just a few months together in the Greek capital. The romantic fiction is set in 2012, in a turbulent Athens in the steely grip of the crisis. Tejada, a smart, sassy and glamorous American of mixed-heritage, has all the credentials of a contemporary Carrie Bradshaw – one of the “chick lit” icons she admires so much. Tejada, too, is a journalist by trade, who grew up in Brooklyn, New York, and is in her mid-30s prime-time. ‘I’m not afraid of labels like “romantic fiction” or “chick lit”,’ says the petite divorcee, who lives in style-conscious Kolonaki (another Bradshaw echo) and has been happily dating a Greek restaurateur for the past three years. ‘I embrace it. I love Bridget Jones. I love Sex and the City.’
Marissa Tejada will soon appear at the Art Links Athens 2014 festival at a free event on October 19 where she will talk about Greece as the inspiration to write and the rocky road to publishing a debut novel (there will also be special-edition signed print paperbacks on sale). Here, she talks crisis, creativity, culture - and about her love for her adopted city of Athens – with Serendipity Magazine. SM: Congratulations Marissa on the success of Chasing Athens and on being the kind of girl who when life gave her lemons, went out and turned them into caipirinhas! So just how autobiographical is the story of Ava Martin?
MT: Ava Martin was totally made-up. But her experiences definitely reflect something that happened to me. I’m an American expat living in Athens and my relationship didn’t work out and I had to decide whether to stay in Greece. So these were my feelings too. SM: But New York is one of the world’s most intoxicating cities. Weren’t you seriously tempted to go back? MT: The number one question I get here is, “You’re from New York, what are you doing here?” But every city has its good and bad points. I lived in San Francisco and actually liked it better than New York. Now Athens is my home. You get to know the language and how the people are. I can’t picture myself anywhere else. I would cry if they told me I had to leave tomorrow! SM: How is “Athens Marissa?” different from “New York Marissa”? MT: When I go back to New York, I’m a bit ruder. It’s part of the vibe. I find myself being more edgy and in a rush to do things with my life. Here in Athens, I feel lighter. SM: As a debut author, just how difficult was the road to publication? MT: It was so difficult! As a journalist, I didn’t know about the publishing world; it was all so new. I didn’t want to go down the self-publishing route because I wanted an editor and a team to work with. It took me about a-year-and-a-half to find somebody who believed in my book and believed in me. It was coming close. People were saying: “It’s really great, but not quite there.” Or “We can’t take on another romance novel.” It was rejection, rejection, rejection. I had to keep going because I really felt that I had a story to tell. It was my dream. I spent so much time and effort after my day job to write this novel – often until 4am. But in the end, you just need one person to believe in you and that will take you far. SM: Athens during the crisis was almost like the second lead character of your book. How do you think the crisis has affected this city’s creativity? MT: Right now, we are seeing artistic revolution in Athens and inventive new businesses popping up everywhere. People not leaving Greece but choosing to stay. I think so much great art has to come from pain and suffering – emotions that stem from things that are not easy. And what brings out personal art is the same. Death. War. Money or family problems. All these things bring out so much within us and the crisis is just one example of this for Greece. SM: Do you have your own favorite creative “hot spot” in Athens? MT: I really love Strefi Hill near Exharchia. I used to live near it before I moved to Kolonaki. I love walking or running up it when I want to feel inspired because it has flavor. It’s kind of run down but it has a view of the Acropolis and Lycabettus and you can see all of life (including the dog walkers and the drug dealers!) SM: What are your two favorite things about Athens? MT: I love the safety here. When I lived in San Francisco, I would take a taxi just to go two blocks at night because I didn’t feel safe downtown. Here I feel like I can walk around alone even at midnight because people are generally good. I also really appreciate the culture here – the quirks - and the way Athenians joke. Different things touch you here. They’ll shout at you in the street then on the bus, they’ll stand to let an older person sit. Athens is very contradictory – hot and cold – and I love that. SM: And what two things would you most like to change about Athens? MT: As an expat, I would have to say the taxi drivers! And I wish Athens was a bit more like northern European cities with people on bikes everywhere. Athens has so much potential to be like that because it is small and it’s pretty. It would just be so much nicer if it was more traffic free. SM: Tell us the last three books you enjoyed? MT: Maybe Baby by Kim Golden, she’s a great American expat author of women’s fiction. Farm Fatale by Wendy Holden – another great chick-lit author. I love her British humor and witty style. And Cooked by food journalist and author Michael Pollan. I’m a huge fan. SM: How does it make you feel now to see your own story finally come to life? MT: Writing Chasing Athens was the best thing I ever did. Far and away the most satisfying experience of my career. Whatever happens next with the sales and the critics, I’m just so happy that I got it out there because I really feel like I had a story to tell. I thank Greece for so many things. And this book is one of them. SM: Thank you Marissa Tejada. See you atArt Links Athens 2014.
Thank you to Amanda for this lovely article! To find out more about the Art Links schedule, visit thewebsite.