In the 1950s a young Cypriot on the brink of a glittering acting career in film and on the West End stage decided to jack it all in and set up his own theatre.
George Eugeniou did not just want to put on plays, he had a vision for an alternative theatre that was part of the community and voiced its needs and struggles.
Graduating over the years from a room to a garage and then a Victorian railway shed, Theatro Technis staged both original and classic dramas while also becoming a centre for other activities.
Today it is preparing to celebrate its 60th birthday with a series of events that will also serve to highlight ambitious plans to expand its current premises into a creative hub, with a focus on developing the careers of young people across the arts.
“We have managed to survive the last 60 years through hard work and passion,” says George. “Now we are planning for the next 60 in order to continue the ethos of Theatro Technis.”
Now 85, he remains at the heart of the venture he founded in 1957, astonishingly travelling from his home everyday to do a full day’s work at the theatre, a converted church house in Camden, north London.
He came to London in his late teens, joining the growing number of migrants who had been arriving from British-ruled Cyprus since the 1930s to escape hardship. Like many of his compatriots, he ended up earning a living of sorts in the restaurant trade, in his case as a waiter in a Lyons teahouse.
But fired with a love of acting, he eventually enrolled into drama school, in 1952, and within a few years got his first job in repertory before appearances on the West End stage. By now on the books of a top agent, he began to win roles in leading films, including Ill Met by Moonlight, alongside Dirk Bogarde, and Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom.
But everything changed after a visit to Stratford East where Joan Littlewood was shaking up the world of drama with her radical Theatre Workshop. Enthralled, he auditioned for a part in her production of Brendan Brehan’s The Quare Fellow. “Joan told me my thick Cypriot accent was a problem as the part was of an Irish delinquent but took me on anyway on saying she’d make the character Irish-Cypriot,” he laughs, enjoying a tale often told.
“Nobody could understand a word I said, but Joan loved it and I never looked back. I was inspired by her ideas and the way she worked and decided to set up my own theatre.”
He gathered together a group of performers and writers who would meet wherever was available until a fellow Cypriot offered them the use of his garage in a north London mews, the only problem being that they had to share it with his car.
Despite the limitations, the ensemble were able to put together an impressive number of dramas, among them an adaptation of Lorca’s Blood Wedding and a play penned and directed by George, Chimneys and roofs, about the rag trade so many Cypriots worked in. These were all staged at various venues, including the former Unity Theatre and Littlewood’s Theatre Royal.
With an injection of financial support, Theatro Technis was soon able to expand its activities, touring Cyprus with two of its own plays and becoming directly involved in the welfare of the Cypriot community, which had settled in Camden in large numbers following continued political upheavals back home, starting up regular sessions at a local Citizens Advice Bureau.
“Actors on the whole live very isolated lives, most of the time looking for work, whereas by getting involved in people’s problems you enrich your life and become a better actor for it,” says George.
In 1974, this principle was to be tested to the limit following Turkey’s invasion of Cyprus, prompting an influx of 10,000 refugees to the UK. By this time, Theatro Technis had acquired its own premises on a windswept expanse of land off York Way in King’s Cross owned by Camden Council. “It was just a dilapidated railway canopy standing on pillars and when I asked the council if we could convert it into a theatre, they asked me if I was mad. I said yes I am,” he laughs again.
In 1972, Theatro Technis, whose members included George’s wife Maroulla, began converting the shed into a 100-seat venue that was to become a sought after destination for theatre buffs. For three months in 1976 they braved the long and lonely walk up York Way, then part of King’s Cross’ notorious red light district, to watch the sell-out production of Oh Democracy, a musical adaptation of Aristophanes’ political satire The Knights. As Theatro Technis hit the theatrical spotlight, it was also responding to the refugee crisis with a massive support campaign.
In the midst of this, Theatro Technis became involved in a drama of its own when the council announced that it would have to go to make way for the planned Maiden Lane council estate. There was a vociferous counteroffensive, which found its way on to the BBC’s Open Door programme, but to no avail.
Never one to let a setback get him down, George discovered St Pancras Church House was up for sale. “The building was very run down and Maroulla and I came across the skeleton of a cat inside, but it seemed perfect,” he recalls. “We didn’t have the money but we said we would buy it. We always followed Aristotle’s dictum of ‘A convincing improbability is preferable to an unconvincing probability’.” Theatro Technis moved in in 1978 and now owns the building.
With greater space at its disposal, the theatre launched a number of initiatives, including a youth theatre, video workshop and advisory service and stepped up its link with other groups.
Then in 1985 Theatro Technis hit the national headlines after the The Apellants, its play about a Cypriot family seeking sanctuary in a church to avoid deportation, inspired a real life campaign when, at George’s request, St Mary’s Church in Somers Town took in a couple on the run from the Home Office. The stand-off lasted five months and led to the government granting 2,000 Cypriot refugees indefinite leave to stay.
“Our founding principle is ‘from life to art back to life’ and the sanctuary campaign is a perfect example of this,” says George with some satisfaction.
Over the years as Camden’s Cypriot community settled down and moved on, Theatro Technis widened its focus while at the same time deepening its own local roots. A highlight of this was its work in setting up Cypriot Village, a small estate in Camden run by St Pancras, now Origin, Housing Association, in which half the flats were allocated to Cypriots. A plaque above the estate’s entrance unveiled by the local mayor earlier this month attests to the achievement.
Save for a “golden age” in the 1980s, funding has always been a problem and today it has to rent out office and performance space in order to pay its way, but this has also helped frame its vision of building an arts and education centre on a small piece of empty land next door.
The theatre itself is seldom dark and when I visit George is in the midsts of preparations for the two-week anniversary celebrations in May, which will include a showing of Tayo Aluko’s Call Mr Robeson and Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus.
“Being an actor was not sufficiently stimulating,” he says looking back at his parting of the ways six decades ago. “I wanted to set up an alternative theatre whose roots lie in Ancient Greek playwrights like Sophocles and Euripides, great humanists who wrote about the way we live and govern ourselves. Now I am doing total theatre.”
This article first appeared in Camden New Journal, March 4 2017