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Playwright, actor and director Elena Carapetis’s latest project brings teenage bad-ass Antigone to the present day. By Jane Howard.

Playwright, actor and director Elena Carapetis

Elena Carapetis.
Elena Carapetis.
Credit: Thomas McCammon

“I’ve never had a five-year plan or a 10-year plan,” Elena Carapetis says. “I’ve just allowed myself to kind of be kicked along in life by the chaos. I didn’t start writing until I was 40, so I came to it relatively late and…” She trails off. “It was fear. It was just fear that held me back from starting.”

Carapetis has been a mainstay on South Australian theatre stages for the past two decades. Her roles include Yelena in Uncle Vanya, Emilia in Othello and Olive in Summer of the Seventeenth Doll. She has originated roles in new Australian work such as Ruby Bruise at feminist theatre company Vitalstatistix and This Enchanted Hour with independent company Brink Productions.

She  has toured nationally with Bell Shakespeare and internationally with Windmill Theatre Company.

During the past decade, she has also become one of South Australia’s most in-demand playwrights. Her latest project is a contemporary adaptation of Antigone, which opens this coming week at the State Theatre Company of South Australia (STCSA).

Playwriting, Carapetis says, is “so solitary and it’s so revealing about yourself and it’s so challenging. It asks you to really interrogate the things you believe in and think about. And how do you then engage an audience? How do you hold an audience’s attention with that premise, but keep them entertained?”

Her long career as an actor has set Carapetis up well as a playwright. “One of my strengths is that I think I can look at the world and look at the way that the people behave,” she says. “Because I’m an actor, you have to come from a compassionate point of view when you make a character. Because of that, I feel like I can write about imperfect, broken, damaged, toxic people and still come from a place of making them a human and not a trope. Making them surprising. That’s my intention. And I hope I do that.”

As a child Carapetis went to Greek school, where she encountered stories from Greek mythology. In the 1980s she studied classical Greek theatre at the University of Adelaide and “devoured” the plays. The text that really hit her as a teenager was Sophocles’ Antigone (441BC), in which brothers Eteocles and Polynices die fighting each other in a civil war. Creon, the ruler of Thebes, declares Eteocles a hero and forbids the burial of the traitor, Polynices.

Their sister Antigone is distraught that her brother doesn’t receive the proper rites and, against Creon’s ruling, buries Polynices. “I was struck by Antigone because she was just such a bad-ass,” Carapetis says. “She was just so cool. [I wished] I had her courage and her commitment to doing the right thing. Because she speaks truth to power and she’s a teenage girl. I admired her so much.”

When Carapetis was approached by STCSA artistic director Mitchell Butel to adapt a classic for their 2022 season, Antigone was her first choice. But, she told him, “I’m going to mess with it.”

“And to his absolute credit, he has encouraged me to create the kind of reading that I feel the play deserves now, given what’s happening in the zeitgeist,” she says. “The play is my response to that – not just to the core material of the classical play. But to the shitfuckery that’s going on in the world at the moment.”

She wants to ask who are today’s Antigones? “Why does this story continue? Why is it that we have young people – who are very rightly pointing out the flaws in the system that we live within, and who are screaming at us to do something different because it’s not working – why is it that we keep continuing to do what Creon did to Antigone?”

These questions are the spine of Carapetis’s adaptation. It begins with the original play and then moves to the modern day, asking why, 2400 years after Sophocles, the story remains the same. “We silence them. We dismiss them,” she says.

Her writing has often come back to ancient Greek stories. Her first play, Helen Back, shortlisted at the Adelaide Festival Awards for Literature in 2012, imagined a corporate debate about the return of Helen of Troy. In 2014, she directed students at the Adelaide College of the Arts in her own riotous retelling of The Bacchae. Her first play for the State Theatre Company was Gorgon in 2016. Named after the three snake-haired sisters, it was a story about teenage grief.

She has also drawn from more contemporary Greek stories of Greek–Australian migrants. The Good Son (2015), her first professionally staged production, was a small family drama about intergenerational differences. The Gods of Strangers (2018) was a sweeping trilingual epic that told the story of post-World War II Italian, Greek and Cypriot migrants who settled in Port Pirie, 230 kilometres from Adelaide at the top of the Spencer Gulf.

After Carapetis completed her degree in drama and classics at the University of Adelaide in the 1990s, she was accepted into the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA) in Sydney, which counts the likes of Cate Blanchett, Sarah Snook and Richard Roxburgh among its graduates.

“I have a really conflicted and messy memory of that time,” she says. She wasn’t cast in a lead role until her third year, as Maggie in an adaptation of The Mill on the Floss. The director, Jennifer Hagan, “believed I deserved the opportunity to have a real crack at something,” says Carapetis. But also – crucially – the character was described as looking like “a gypsy”.

“There were really calcified attitudes about what constituted an ‘Australian’ and what constituted the kind of person who got represented on television or on screen or on stage,” she says of the theatre industry in the 1990s.

And, she says, this discrimination starts at drama school. “If you’re always being cast as ‘the crazy one’ or ‘the outsider’ or ‘the weird one’ or ‘the one that doesn’t quite fit in’, you’re usually on stage for less time, so you get less training, because your [real] training is on the rehearsal room floor.”

After graduation her agents pitched her to casting agents and the casting directors told them, “It’s not a Greek role.” “And I’m like: I was born in Whyalla,” she says. “My dad’s side has been here for nearly a hundred years.”

She landed a part in Heartbreak High, joining the diverse show in its final season as the young science teacher Jackie Kassis, and then worked in Adelaide with the youth theatre company Magpie 2 under Benedict Andrews. “There was a lot of pressure to be exceptional,” she says of her early acting jobs. “And I’m not saying that I was – but the pressure for me to be exceptional was there because I knew my opportunities were a lot more limited.”

Carapetis relishes the increased diversity on Australian stages and screens. “It warms my soul,” she tells me. “Because people deserve to go to the theatre, or turn on their television, and to see themselves reflected back at them. It’s really painful to not see yourself as a part of a society or a culture. It’s damaging.”

Working with Andrews was one of the reasons she returned to Adelaide from Sydney. “He was a forward-thinking person who was really curious about the different kinds of mixes of people that he could put on stage and what that did,” she says. Carapetis still expected her return would be short, but she wanted to be around her brother’s children as they grew up and was rocked by a major relationship break-up. And then, she says, “I was caught by people in my industry here.”

“I value being a part of a small community where I can try to forge really genuine connections with people. There is something about the fact that the smallness of the industry [in Adelaide] keeps you really accountable,” she says.

Carapetis credits these small-town relationships as the impetus for her expansion into playwriting and directing. She spent many years writing for herself – “really angst-ridden journals when I was a teenager” – but she didn’t see herself as a playwright. It was Adelaide-based writers such as Duncan Graham and Finegan Kruckemeyer who noticed Carapetis’s eye for storytelling and dramaturgy on the rehearsal room floor and encouraged her to give it a go herself.  “I guess I could say, ‘I wish I’d started earlier,’ ” she says. “But what do you do? I started when I started.”

From 2017 to 2019 Carapetis was employed by the State Theatre Company as resident artist. She acted and directed and her plays and adaptations were staged by the company. Her residency coincided with artistic director Geordie Brookman employing an ensemble of actors who worked across multiple shows through the season.

Being embedded in a company was a boon, says Carapetis. “You just get match fit. Your creativity is this muscle. And the only way you can get better is to do it, and to be allowed to fail as well.” She says this space for failure – or even just “a gap between what your intention of your work is and what actually happens” – is crucial to growing as an artist.

Too often, Carapetis says, failure shuts the door on future opportunities, but when artists are embedded in a company, the next project is built in. Artists are given time to practise and to establish a “gossamer thread” of relationship between all the artists working in the company. “A shorthand ... happens and [a] trust ... happens between people. You create together as a company, as an ensemble, a particular way of working together.”

When Carapetis read the script of End of the Rainbow, a biographical play about the last months of Judy Garland’s life, she brought it to Brookman to suggest it be programmed. He said she should direct it. “In classic me style, my immediate response was to go ‘Oh no, I couldn’t. I couldn’t possibly do it,’ ” she remembers. “And I thought to myself: when else am I going to get an opportunity to be offered to direct a mainstage play? It wasn’t on the mood board, but I’m glad I did it. And I’m glad I didn’t know how hard it was going to be.”

I ask her what is next, and she pauses.

“I don’t want to write if I don’t have anything to say,” she says. “I don’t want to direct if I don’t feel the piece I am considering directing speaks to something that resonates in me deeply. And I only want to work on shows as an actor where I feel that the narrative is valuable.”

Carapetis says it’s scary for an artist to say no to things, “because we’ve been conditioned to have this psychology of scarcity”. “But in the next stage of my life, I think I would really like to home in on what my values are. The kind of art that I want to make. And the way that I want people to feel when they see the work,” she says.

“And that might mean saying no to particular things. I don’t know what I’m going to be doing next year, let alone in five or 10, but that’s okay. Because that’s the way I’ve always been.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 21, 2022 as "Classic role model".

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Jane Howard is a Walkley award-winning arts journalist.

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