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A multicultural drama of strangers in a strange land

Theatre

For Greek-Australian actress Deb Galanos, taking part in State Theatre Company’s new drama The Gods of Strangers was a chance to explore her family’s own story of post-World War II displacement and migration to Australia.

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When Galanos’ uncle, Jim Karaolis, arrived in the booming iron ore town of Port Pirie in the 1950s, he became the first Greek scientist to work at the iron smelters.

The son of parents who were born in Cyprus and worked in Egypt, 30-year-old Jim was sent to Australia along with his two brothers after his family was caught in the chaos of the Suez Crisis – also known as the missile crisis – that engulfed Egypt.

“The family were refugees out of Egypt when the missile crisis occurred and everyone with a British passport – which my family had – got kicked out,” Galanos tells InDaily.

 “My mother and her two sisters and my grandparents went to England as refugees and then they stayed in refugee camps in England until the boys were able to bring them out, and that was a question of money.

“Especially with the missile crisis, they knew they just had to get out and Australia just seemed – because it was a younger country – to have more opportunity for them to make something of their own rather than starting out somewhere that was more established like England or the US.

“So my uncle arrived in this big wide town of Port Pirie and he began work assessing the quality of the iron ore to pay their passage to reunite the family.”

It was a common journey for many of the Greek, Cypriot and Italian families who arrived in Australia during the post-World War II immigration boom, and whose oral histories have inspired The Gods of Strangers, State Theatre’s newest play by resident artist and Greek-Cypriot descendent Elena Carapetis.

The Gods of Strangers explores the struggles they faced through the story of two women – one of whom is Galanos’ character Vasiliki  – who one day in 1947 each have a stranger arrive at their door.

It set in Port Pirie, where it will premiere at Northern Festival Centre on Friday, before a season in Adelaide.

Galanos says she had many conversations with her Uncle Jim to prepare for her role in the play. 

“I spoke to him a lot about the presence of Greeks in Port Pirie.

“The characters are based on real people but there’s a lot of dramatisation.”

For Jim, Port Pirie quickly became his “home away from home” among the established close-knit migrant community.

“It was a lovely, gentle town when he was there,” Galanos says.

“Because he was Greek, the Greeks embraced him like he was their own son who had just arrived in town.

“He got there and he didn’t know anyone and by the time he left he had christened someone’s child and he became quite good friends with a lot of families.”

But Galanos says her Gods of Strangers character, Vasiliki, experiences a different reception from the Port Pirie community in the play as a “mail-order bride” who arrives with a baby, no money and a violent fiancé.

“My character, Vasiliki, she came out here by boat in the hope of marrying a man who had paid for her passage to come out, but she already had a baby with her,” she says.

“When she arrived, her fiancé was not very happy and became violent with her, so she had to escape the situation.”

The Gods of Strangers picks up Vasiliki’s story roughly 20 years later, when her son has grown up and she runs a shop that she bought with the help of an Italian boarding house owner.

“Being a single woman is a bit difficult. She does get picked on sometimes by the neighbours who bring up some racial slurs,” Galanos says.

“But she is a pretty strong woman and she learns to hold her own in the community.”

Galanoss says that despite being set 60 years ago, the story of resilience and survival still resonates in today’s Australia, with refugees arriving from war-torn countries in the Middle East.

“These refugees will be coming and will be wanting to find that sense of belonging, that sense of community that the European immigrants were searching for 60 years ago,” she says.

“This whole story is about making sense of displacement and trying to find who you are in this new place.

“The message still resonates today just as much as it did back then.”

Jim, now 88 years old, will return to his former home of Port Pirie for the first time in 60 years for the premiere of The Gods of Strangers. 

When I went back I tried to find some of his friends – although it was such a long time ago now – and I bumped into a few people and they kind of remembered him,” Galanos says.

“For my uncle I think it will be a big thing, now that he’s 88 years old, to go back and have a look around to see what it’s like.

“Hopefully he will be able to reconnect with the community and find the people whose arms were always around him all those years ago.”

State Theatre Company will present The Gods of Strangers at Northern Festival Centre in Port Pirie this Friday and Saturday night and at Dunstan Playhouse from November 14 to December 2.

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