Scotland, England, Australia, Greece and America?
I missed Katerina Vrana’s show Feta With The Queen at the Edinburgh Fringe in August, but I caught up with it a couple of weeks ago in London.
Katerina is a British-based Greek actress/comedian with a pure English accent who has a lot of hair and a lot of potential. Feta With The Queen is about her experiences as a Greek living in the UK and was a flawless comedy show with a flawless performance by a comedian who had a good script and total audience control.
Shortly after that London show, she flew to Greece to perform Feta With The Queen there and, last week, she flew to Melbourne for Australian shows until 17th December.
I talked to her yesterday, after her jet lag had abated. It was lunchtime in London and half past midnight in Melbourne, where she had just returned to her flat after her show.
“How long did it take to write the show?” I asked.
“About a year,” she told me. “It actually started in Greek, not English. I did it in Athens in Greek, though it was a slightly different show. And then I wanted to see if bits would work in the UK, so I started working on it in English in Spring 2012.”
“And it changed from the first Greek version?” I asked.
“It’s complicated,” said Katerina, “because stand-up is such a new form in Greece that they sometimes don’t know the conventions and how it works. So the simplest way was a very simple format of We do this… But, in the UK, they do this… And that would make them laugh. I obviously developed it for Edinburgh.”
“I somehow imagined,” I said, “that the Greeks invented stand-up comedy. They invented everything else in performance.”
“You would think so,” agreed Katerina, “But, like everything else, they probably invented it 3,000 years ago and haven’t touched it since.”
“Was Aristotle not doing knob gags?” I asked.
“Ooh loads,” laughed Katerina. “It was political satire with loads of knob gags. And a lot of sexism, which we do very well as a culture.”
“The British do that very well too,” I said.
“You’d be surprised how much behind us you are.”
“That’s not a phrase I want to hear…” I said.
Would you refuse to give feta sponsorship to this performer?
“Last year,” said Katerina, putting me back on track, “I tried to get sponsorship from feta companies in Greece and one of them was extremely positive but, after they’d said Yes, a week later, they got back in touch and said: We’ve just had a meeting and we’re not sure what stand-up comedy is, so we’re saying No.
“A friend of mine brought the CEO of that company to see my show last week in Greece and he said Well, we clearly need to sponsor this girl. So hopefully, next year, I’ll be able to get some sponsorship, because I’d like to go to New Zealand and possibly Montreal, though I’m not totally sure.”
“But, anyway,” I said, “after trying the planned Edinburgh show out in Greece in January, you also previewed it in Melbourne in Spring this year.”
“Yes, I thought the best way to preview it for the Edinburgh Fringe was to take it to another festival where I could work on it and perform the whole show as often as possible instead of doing one preview a month in London – and also to see if it had any resonance to people who aren’t Greek and aren’t British. Can it stand on its own if the people don’t live in the UK but have an understanding of the UK? If you are not Greek or British, does the show work? And it did.”
“And now,” I said, “having performed an early version in Greece and previewed it in Melbourne, then run it successfully through the Edinburgh Fringe, you have just played the finished Edinburgh version in Greece again…”
“People had sent me messages from Greece,” explained Katerina, “saying We want to see the show that got all the 5-star reviews in Edinburgh. So it’s the same Edinburgh show you saw in London with a couple of Greek swear words thrown in.”
“How did it go down?”
“It went really well,” said Katerina. “I had to add an extra show because they sold out. Greeks take forever to book. There was a very slow trickle of advance booking then, the day before I performed, all three shows booked out. So, on Sunday, I did two shows back-to-back.”
“And it being in English was not a problem for the audience?”
“No. But it’s not enough to be able to simply understand English. I tend to speak fast sometimes and I didn’t want to compromise by slowing down, though I did slow down some things in the end… Greeks tell you immediately if they don’t like something and someone did shout out: Speak slower! and I said (in a posh English accent) I’m terribly sorry.”
“Did you have to change the actual content for a non-British audience?”
“No, I did add a couple of Greek swear words instead of English because they were more natural in that context. But only tiny little tweaks like that. No massive changes. I wanted to take the show I did at the Edinburgh Fringe to Greece.”
“Did you revert to a Greek accent?” I asked.
“No. If I’m talking to people in Greece in everyday situations, I do revert to a Greek accent but, when I’m talking to myself on stage, it’s easy to keep my British accent.”
“So, in a sense,” I said, “when you’re on stage, you’re not talking to the audience, you are monologuing in your head.”
“More or less,” agreed Katerina. “I’m basically opening the door so you can look inside my head.”
“And you might take this same Feta With The Queen show back to the Edinburgh Fringe again next year?”
“Yes – Maybe… Well, in whatever form it might have taken by then, because I’m going to keep working at it. I want to include more nationalities and I lived in India for a year and a half and I’d like to bring that in a bit.”
“In India,” I said, “with your English accent, they presumably thought you were British?”
Same hair; different approach: Indian guru, not Greek comic
“No,” said Katerina, “they didn’t know what to do with me because, to them, I didn’t look white enough to be British and my hair confused everyone. They kept saying Haha. Your hair is like Sai Baba.”
“A guru in south India who died in 2011 with a lot of hair. I actually tried to see if I could get little parts in Bollywood films when I was in India, but they said I didn’t look foreign enough. That’s plagued me a lot in my acting career: I never look ‘enough’ of the thing I want to go for. I routinely get turned down for Greek parts because I don’t look Greek enough.”
“What does a Greek woman look like in theory?” I asked.
“Yes. That’s what they think we look like… Like Salma Hayek.”
“Yes. I get that a lot, especially in the US. Not so much in the UK, because so many Brits go on holiday to Greece that they know what Greeks look like.”
“So where do Americans think you come from?”
“They can’t even hazard a guess.”
“I suppose,” I said, “to seem Greek in America, you would have to be bald and suck a lollipop like Kojak. But ‘bald’ would maybe not be a good look for you.”
“I would lose half of my material,” said Katerina.
“Your show would presumably play well to Americans?” I asked. “You’re talking about British and Greek culture, but that can be understood even by people who have not actually lived in either country.”
“Yes,” replied Katerina. “But, at the moment, I’m concentrating on one continent at a time!”
“So what else in happening in Australia?” I asked.
Katerina performs first version of Feta show in Thessaloniki (Photograph by Sofia Camplioni)
“I’ve got some meetings with a couple of producers – I’m talking about bringing over some Greek acts and touring them in Australia, because there’s such a massive Greek population here.
“In Greece in the summer, as soon as May hits and the heat goes up in June/July, everything stops. Theatres close down; everything closes down unless you’re doing something outdoors – and stand-up does not work well outdoors because there are too many distractions.
“So comedians don’t work in Greece from May to October and therefore June/July would be a good time to take Greek comedians over to Australia because it’s autumn there. There’s such a demand in Australia for new comedy and new voices.”