Mid-afternoon, we stopped in a little souvenir shop to buy some postcards, and got chatting to the shopkeeper – a lovely older gentleman – who told us that there was new free museum in town, one dedicated to the Greek folk tradition of shadow puppets. He gave us a flyer and explained it opened at 5.00pm.
We both thought that this sounded rather interesting. I’m fascinated by folk art and traditional culture, and he’d been telling us about how it was a dying art and this museum hoped to excite a new interest in traditional arts. We had an hour or so to kill, and so continued our wander, spending some time on the pebbled beach collecting sand-turned pieces of colourful glass. Because…well, because why not? It was a pleasant enough way to spend half an hour, and we gave a little back by helping to clean up the beach.
At 5.00, to our surprise, the same man from the shop – Giorgios – arrived. As it turned out, the museum was his personal project, with a workshop, a small shadow theatre, and an extraordinary collection of shadow puppets not just from Greece but from around the world. It was fascinating. He has painstakingly arranged all the exhibits, with information about their origins and histories, as well as about the various materials they’ve been made with. Many were vellum – not the cloudy paper kind, but the delicately tanned leather kind – painted carefully and cut out like lace. They were marvellous. As Giorgios gave us a personal tour, his absolute passion for his subject was unmistakeable.
What was more exciting was that Giorgios not only collects shadow puppets but makes them himself. He showed us his workshop and the puppets he was working on, and the level of detail that goes into each was remarkable.
Giorgios told us some of the history of Greek folk shadow theatre, introducing us to the traditional characters and explaining their features. There’s the clumsy and vulgar Barbagiorgos, honest Hadjiavatis, romantic Dionysios and more. Each have their own histories and features, so that traditionally people knew the characters.
For something a little different, and pretty special, Giorgios also makes puppets to order – from a photograph provided by customers. He showed us puppets he’d made of and for visitors from around the world – young girls as princesses and mermaids, boys as superheroes and weightlifters, comical men with ridiculous moustaches for hilarity. I think this is a fantastic way to foster interest in a fascinating tradition, and wish I’d had more time in Gythio to have some personalised puppets made myself! For added entertainment, he’d made shadow puppets of famous people, including actors and politicians. Angela Merkel’s caricature wasn’t overly flattering, but then she’s not too popular a lady in Greece.
Giorgios demonstrated how the shadow puppets work, and let us play with them behind the light screen for ourselves. Watching him moving multiple puppets around gracefully and with ease, both Mum and I felt quite awkward trying to replicate this. But it was certainly fun, though we were glad that we only had an audience of one to laugh at our attempts.
The ‘Shadow Theatre Narrative’ museum and art space, also called THEASI, isn’t featured in any guidebooks. I couldn’t find any information about it online, and the website listed on the flyer is only partly complete. If we hadn’t stopped into that little shop for some postcards, we’d never have heard of it and would have missed out on what was really the highlight of our brief visit to Gythio.
Shadow Puppet Narrative – THEASI – is located at V. Kalkandi 4 Street, Gythio – opposite the entrance to the stadium. If you’re ever in Gythio, I highly recommend paying a visit.