Uke-playing, pink-haired Phi Theodoros seeks to shift stigmas through story and song

Growing up in the Adelaide Hills, Phi was raised in a creative family. Her mum, a visual artist and writer, and dad met in the regional town of Lameroo, “locking eyes across a crowded staff room” and quickly becoming involved in the local community theatre scene. This energy channelled into a lively household in the Adelaide Hills where singing, guitars, and pianos were constantly heard, alongside involvement in local school theatre productions.

Phi Theodoros | image supplied

Theodoros identifies Ink Pots Arts, a Mount Barker-based youth theatre organisation, as an early catalyst for her involvement in community arts. Joining as a founding drama student at 14, she has since been involved in many of the company’s productions and has been involved with its board since 2009. Through InkPot, she has been able to meet many artists working as thespians, musicians, and circus performers, finding a platform to contribute to the wider community via coordination of activities for teenagers including Battle of the Bands, various visual art exhibitions, and numerous workshops.

Wanting to stand out from her guitar-playing kin, Theodoros started playing the ukulele at 15, with her first instrument provided by a brother’s partner who had brought it back from Hawaii. Struck by the portability of the instrument (and the ability to play it more readily), she began to develop a reputation as the girl with pink hair who plays the uke, gigging throughout her University years presenting story-driven shows focussed on perspectives and experiences that are often overlooked.

In the time that Theodoros has performed with ukuleles, she has become intimately aware of their various complementary functions and attributes. Describing them as “welcoming, inclusive, also dark and brooding”, warranting attention as a serious instrument (as exemplified by the likes of virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro), she also recognises the capacity of the ukulele to foster community. The benefits gained by community groups playing the ukulele are numerous, involving learning, rehearsing and performing in an enjoyable and accessible setting, and simultaneously bringing people together, fostering a sense of belonging perhaps not provided elsewhere in a person’s life.

This combination of early theatre work combined with ukulele performance has provided a unique vehicle for Theodoros to connect with a variety of marginalised audiences, using her privilege as a white woman to consensually present diverse stories. Many of these shows and their connected stories aim at providing a platform for people in vulnerable communities, holding space for conversations and allowing audiences to see and hear those people, in the hope of “shifting stigmas through story and song”.

Phi Theodoros | image supplied

For the past seven years Theodoros had also worked in the disability sector, for the organisation Life Without Barriers, with a variety of clients including young people in foster care, refugees, and people who are differently-abled. In this work, Theodoros combines support work with insights from arts practice, identifying creative activities as a tool for self-regulation for differently-abled clients, providing a means of self-expression and articulation of their lived experiences.

In tandem with her support work, Theodoros is also Resident Artist for the organisation’s Living Arts program, a school holiday workshop series providing connections between young people, the arts, and the wider community. Now, having worked for Life Without Barriers for seven years, she has been able to grow with young clients, seeing their development over that time, and the impact of the arts in their journey. “It’s a privilege to be a positive influence and connect with people for the two hours we get to spend with each other”, she says, acknowledging the rich relationships that come from showing up, providing quality time for people, being playful and explorative but helpful, taking offers, and honouring the privilege of being invited into such spaces.

One such relationship which has blossomed is with actor, comedian, dancer, singer and spoken-word artist Kym Mackenzie. A long term employee of Bedford industries and performer with Bedford Players, Kym presented his first solo fringe show, Kym’s Overall Extravaganza Showcase, at Fringe 2021. A variety show highlighting his talents, it also provided a platform for Kym to express his experiences living with disability and provide insights to an audience that might not otherwise engage with him. “It’s important to allow performers to present diverse stories”, says Theodoros as a member of the supporting crew, “where the audience can recognise the common quality of being human, and hear stories from people often overlooked or othered”. Through the vehicle of cabaret, which she sees as a means of creating space and inviting conversation, the performing arts can provide visibility for marginalised people, who appreciate the feeling of being seen and heard, having the capacity to share their stories and lived experiences. Rightly so, Kym’s show received Fringe 2021’s Week One ‘Spirit of the Fringe’ award.

For her own show, Theodoros is presenting Love At A Distance in Fringe 2021. Conceived in 2019, and first presented at Feast Festival that year, the show discusses relationships that don’t fit the heteronormative, exclusivist standard, and the strenuous impact that distance can have on relationships, whether it be physical, emotional, social, or technological.

Amongst the stories shared is one focussed on compassion fatigue that can result from supporting a partner with mental health issues and the experience of emotional distance there. Another is on the distant communication that emerges as (older) couples deal with one partner’s onset of dementia, and the grief experienced through gradually losing fragments of memories cultivate over a lifetime. One story of close personal significance the story of her yia-yia’s (grandmother’s) journey of travelling as a refugee from Greece, shared through a song that her dad wrote of his mother’s experience, feeling disrespected and unloved within her new country, an experience that is still all too common today.

At the heart of the show, which is a SA COVID Support Grant recipient in Fringe 2021, is a want to celebrate the experience of love in all forms. By articulating different cultural understandings of love (as in the eight types in Greek philosophy, and Chapman’s five languages of love), Love at a Distance aims to sensitise its audience to a greater understanding of themselves, their wants and needs, and means of relating more effectively to others. This awareness can extend to past relationships where, rather than dwelling in negativity and hate, we might be able to recognise that the relationship no longer served us, yet acknowledge the meaningful time spent together. “Everyone deserves time, everyone deserves love and respect”, says Theodoros, who believes that through becoming more attuned to our modes of affection, we are able to grow closer together in our relationships. Through considering how to relate respectfully and compassionately to others, we are able to come closer together with one another and in our broader communities.

Love At A Distance has several more shows being presented at Gluttony from 5-8 March.

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