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On a day like today, September 13, 1908, the great theatrical man was born destined to change theatrical education in Greece, establishing acting as a social and cultural function rather than a profession.
By Alexandros Theodoropoulos
He was born in Bursa, Asia Minor, to a well-to-do family. His father, Errikos Coen, was a wealthy merchant and together with his mother, Melpomene Papadopoulou, they decided to move to Istanbul very quickly when Charles was just 6 months old.
Due to the financial comfort of his parents, Karolos received a – rare for the time - good education from a young age. In the first years he was educated with private lessons at home and later he studied at the Robert College of Istanbul from 1920 to 1928.
He continued his studies in Aesthetics at Sorbonne University and in 1929 he settled permanently with his mother in Athens. At the age of just 21 he started working as a teacher of the English language and literature at the Athens College where his brilliant career in theatre began.
He soon started staging amateur performances based on various small plays that he wrote, using his students as actors. That was followed by his first directions of famous plays such as “The Birds” by Aristophanes and “The Tempest” by Shakespeare.
As an advocate of Greek popular expressionism, Koun sought the revival and consolidation of the current in Greek arts. As a result, he founded the “Popular Stage” together with Yannis Tsarouchis and Dionysios Devaris in 1934, creating the most important experimental theatre of the time.
The choice of actors for the troupe was not accidental. Koun wanted actors from low social classes because he believed that in this way he could put into practice his modernist philosophy of attracting people from all walks of life to the arts. He believed that theatre and theatre education were not just a privilege of the few rich but also of the many poor and that the expansion of the theatrical audience was the real goal of this job, in stark contrast to the professionalism attitudes and arrogance of self-promotion.
Although the project was considered very progressive for the art standards of the time, the "Popular Stage" was disbanded in 1936 after facing financial difficulties.
Collaborations with the troupe of Marika Kotopouli and Katerina Andreadi followed, but his dream had always been to create his own theatre and a school imbued with his own philosophy.
Thus, in 1942, in the midst of the Nazi occupation and hardships, Karolos Koun made his dream come true by founding the Art Theater. Together with the first students of the school like Vassilis Diamantopoulos, Pantelis Zervos and other actors who later left their mark on the stage, he started staging and directing the first performances of the Art Theater.
In these turbulent years of the 1940s, Koun managed to pass on his own philosophy in theater and acting training pretty early, wanting to create a new and completely different generation of actors.
He was a pioneer to introduce to the Greek theater the - now established - Stanislavski acting technique, according to which "the actors must bring within themselves and in their personal lives the role they play, diving strongly into their emotional memory and intelligence." All this pushed him to a peculiar choice of actors from whom he sought "an underground sound, an invisible sign" through a dynamic subconscious.
During the temporary suspension of the art theater due to difficulties in 1945, Koun collaborated with the National Theater of Greece and directed international plays which until then were unknown to the general Greek public, such as Chekhov's "Three Sisters", "A Midsummer Night’s Dream" by Shakespeare and “Of Mice and Men" by Steinbeck.
With the reopening of the art theater in 1954, Koun focused on works by Chekhov, Pirandello, Wilder, Williams, and Miller, and followed the international trends of the post-war theatre, emphasising on Brecht and Beckett as well as on the Theatre of the Absurd.
In 1959, he staged the "The Birds" by Aristophanes at the Herodion, but received vulgar protests from the audience and was forced to stop the performance, which eventually went abroad and was awarded at the Festival of Nations in Paris, receiving rave reviews.
Known throughout Europe but also in America, Karolos Koun toured with the Art Theater at major international festivals and in cities like London, Paris, Munich and Vienna. In 1980 the Art Theater entered Epidaurus with the classic "Oresteian Trilogy” by Aeschylus.
In 1967, he became only the second director in 30 years to receive an invitation from the Royal Shakespeare Theatre of England to direct the legendary "Romeo and Juliet”. English critics described the play as the best Shakespearean play of the last ten years.
A teacher, director, playwright, actor, set designer and sometimes translator, Karolos Koun through his performances with the Art Theater was the reason the Greek public came in contact with international theater currents and got to know great playwrights such as Federico Garcia Lorca, Bertolt Brecht, Samuel Beckett and Arthur Miller.
In terms of domestic drama, he featured great Greek writers such as Iakovos Kampanellis, Loula Anagnostaki and Dimitris Kechaidis, directing many of their plays.
Some of his most famous words are:
"We don’t do theater for theater's sake. We don’t do theater to live. We do theater to enrich ourselves and the audience that watches us and all together to help create a broad, mentally rich and upstanding culture in our place.
Every one of us is helpless if being alone. Each of you, the closest to our endeavor, is helpless if being alone. Together maybe we can do something. Theater, as a form of art, enables us to connect, to be moved, to touch each other, to feel the truth together. That is why we chose theater as a form of manifestation of our psychic world ".
In early February 1987 he was rushed to hospital with severe pain. A few days later, he passed away at the age of 78, just at the time of the premiere of the play "The Sound of the Gun" by Loula Anagnostaki, which he had started directing a few days earlier.