Music & Theater: One Man. One Mission. Socrates Now

Posted Portes Magazine MUSIC & THEATER
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{Yanni Simonides – co-director, producer, and actor of a modern rendition of Plato’s Apology of Socrates speaks with Portes Magazine about resurrecting the relevance of Socrates worldwide with his solo theatrical performance titled “Socrates Now,” a production of the New York and Athens-based Elliniko Theatro.}

“Socrates Now,” a modern rendition of Plato’s “Apology of Socrates,” has captured audiences worldwide, reflecting the diachronic relevance of the ancient philosopher’s oral defense. Channeling the dynamic and provocative character of Socrates through an 80-minute solo performance, actor and producer Yanni Simonides breathes a new life into Socrates that reaches audiences far beyond university classics departments.

Using only a mask in the likeness of Socrates, a plain tunic, and a table set as props, Simonides brings humor and drama to a classic piece. The play explores key questions surrounding Socrates’ famous defense and rebuttal against the guilty verdict and death sentence in 399 B.C. At the end of the performance, Simonides transitions from the solo act into an engaging dialogue with audience members, turning the spectators into participants.

“I try to create a living persona of Socrates,” Simonides says. “By channeling Socrates, we try to engage the audience as he would. Those that have an inkling to stay have an understanding that the same honesty and consideration in the performance will be in the discussion.”

Simonides incorporates the after-performance discussion to illuminate the spirit of Socrates himself as a purveyor of questioning those around him. In practice, there appears to be very little departure between the act and the discussion, which has sometimes lasted up to three hours after the show, Simonides notes.

“This project has been quite fulfilling and popular, especially at schools and with young people, which has been my goal,” Simonides says. “Socrates is extremely loved around the world, even in countries where he is not well known.”

Some of his most challenging but inspiring performances have been given in front of young people from underserved neighborhoods, because it demonstrates how Socratic ideas are universal and diachronic, Simonides asserts.

“In some of these schools, they don’t give a damn I’m there,” he explains. “To them I’m there because someone brought me there, and my challenge is to own them. Socrates has to own them. If I don’t own those kids, I’m nothing as an actor… or as a channel for that old man. One on one I go into the audience and I address them eye-to-eye, and I improvise within the confines of this trial. And the marvelous thing is that they get it at the end of the performance. In the end, I’m just someone there who can tell them a relevant story, and that’s the only way you can reach these kids,” says Simonides.

In line with the Elliniko Theatro’s vision to promote Greek Culture worldwide by expanding the temporal, spatial, and social boundaries of Hellenic Theater, Simonides has brought a renewed Socrates to 16 countries, with over 300 performances in both English and Greek. “Socrates Now” has been translated in six other languages, in part to make Socrates universally accessible in the name of Hellenism, Simonides says.

“Hellenism belongs not to us, but to the world.” – Yanni Simonides.

“The idea that Hellenism in its totality needs to be experienced by us Greeks and then presented to the world should be a question, not an answer,” Simonides claims. “So this whole practice of saying that we created democracy and we go around the world giving Hellenism to the rest is not what we do. Hellenism belongs not to us, but to the world. The world has ownership of Hellenism. We are privileged to live in a place, and be the continuous agents of this magnificent place, but we are stewards to this history and we have a responsibility, not a right to Hellenism.”

Collaborating with dozens of leading universities, theaters, libraries, schools, and organizations around the world, “Socrates Now” has taken a variety of stages, and drawn a diverse range of audiences. One of Simonides’ largest performances drew close to 4,000 guests at Columbia University, in two nights.

Launched in 2004 as the “Apology of Socrates” in New York, Simonides has since taken the performance to Europe, the Americas, the Middle East, and has notably performed at the United Nations, the Athens Ancient Agora, and the NBC Today Show.

“Socrates is a force and an icon that we humor with banter and irony and whatever means that force and invite you to engage, and that’s what attracts people,” Simonides says. “The reason he is first among equals is because he was the most direct of them all. Socrates was the horsefly on the ass of Athens.”

The performance’s popularity stems from Socrates’ reputation and questioning character, which resonates around the world and throughout history, revealing a shared commonality that cuts through ethnic, lingual, and cultural barriers, Simonides says. For Socrates, virtue was knowledge. This was not in terms of formal education, but rather, in terms of the knowledge sprouting from self-examination, because before judging others, one must first examine one’s self. Furthermore, Socrates held that everyone had goodness in themselves, a goodness that would emerge with constant questioning and searching to find the treasures within, while learning to live a good life.

Having performed before thousands of observers, Simonides explains that every society faces the same issues, complexes, and hunger for answers, whether it be a group of students at Harvard, school children from the ghettos, or people from the little villages of Kythnos island. No matter the location or audience, there exists a commonality in the questions Socrates once asked of his fellow citizens over 2,000 years ago, Simonides points out.

“They are all fellow citizens and humans, so their approach and discussions are similar,” Simonides says. “And this is why [Socrates] is so right and compelling.”

The frank discussions and universal questions regarding goodness and the ultimate understanding of one’s self draws audiences to the performance again and again.

“If need be, some come the next day just for the discussion, as they understand that only through this way they can find the truth,” Simonides says.


About the Actor: Yannis Simonides is a Yale Drama School trained actor, writer, and Emmy-winning documentary producer. He has served as professor and chair of the NYU Tisch Drama Department, and is the founder and director of the Greek Theater of New York and Greek Theatre International (Elliniko Theatro). He has received the support of the National Endowment for the Arts, The Greek Ministries of Culture and Foreign Affairs, Time Warner, the Mobil Foundation, as well as the A. S. Onassis, I. Kostopoulos, S. Niarchos, M. Tsakos and A. Leventis foundations. As a founding member of international literary organization “The Readers of Homer,” Simonides has helped stage marathon audience-participation Readings-Celebrations of the Iliad and Odyssey in 14 different venues around the world. In 2009, he was honored by the city of Athens as Ambassador of Hellenism for his lifelong service to Greek arts and letters worldwide.

About the Elliniko Theatro: The Elliniko Theatro is a non-profit organization encompassing both the Greek Theatre of New York in the U.S. and the Greek Theatre International in Greece. Founded by Yannis Simonides and his colleagues in 1979, the Greek Theatre of New York has since served Greek and English speaking audiences with acclaimed productions internationally. Serving as a sister organization to the Greek Theatre of New York, the Greek Theatre International was founded in 2010 by Yannis Simonides and Stephania Xydia. Both companies aim to bring performing artists and works of Greek drama and literature beyond national boundaries and traditional theatre spaces, into schools, universities, festivals, communities, and public spaces around the world. Recent productions include dedications to Homer, Constantine P. Cavafy, and heroes of the Greek War of Independence.

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