By Lefteris Karagiannopoulos
EPIDAURUS, Greece (Reuters) - On a stiflingly hot summer night, the ancient Greek amphitheatre of Epidaurus is packed to capacity for a performance of a 2,400-year-old play by Aristophanes -- testimony to Greeks' enduring love of theater despite years of grinding economic crisis.
While cash-strapped Greeks forgo the cinema and other luxuries, theater ticket sales are booming -- even if theaters struggle to cover their costs and actors often go unpaid.
Greeks can often catch echoes, even in ancient drama, of their current tribulations -- and Aristophanes' comedy of political intrigue "Ecclesiazusae", or "The Assembly Women" -- in which women take control of Athens and set up a communist-style government -- is no exception.
The main female character is dressed as the fiery leftist speaker of Greece's parliament, Zoe Konstantopoulou.
"Times are more difficult financially, but I would never abandon the theater. It's a form of cultural education. One can't replace that," said Maria Tsilibi, a teacher, one of the 20,000 people who flocked to watch "Ecclesiazusae".
"It's an important part of our history."
The very words "theater", "tragedy" and "comedy" are Greek, harking back to Athens' golden age in the fifth century B.C. when dramatists such as Aristophanes, Sophocles and Aeschylus used venues like Epidaurus to explore the human condition.
"I have reduced my spending on cinema, drinking, parties, but I still haven't cut down on theater," said student Spyros Giannakakos. "It is part of our national pride; we can achieve 'catharsis' through it and this is what we need today."
Catharsis, a key concept of ancient Greek drama, denotes cleansing but it does not come without sacrifice, say both actors and theater owners, who paint a grimmer picture about what is going on behind the stage.
"The theater's audience is loyal and growing, but that shouldn’t hide the fact that today's plays are made on very low budgets and many actors are unpaid, primarily the young ones," says Nikos Chatzopoulos, general secretary of the Actors' Union.
Unemployment among actors has reached a whopping 92 percent, he said, yet drama schools still churn out about 500 actors annually.
The number of plays performed in Greece is set to increase to around 1,000 next season, starting in October, from 858 last year, said Maria Kryou, theater editor of Athinorama, Greece's most popular city guide.
"People still visit theaters because the ticket fees are much lower than they used to be. But the plays are not profitable for theater owners. Only about 15 theaters manage to make ends meet and cover their costs," the Athina Theatre's manager Dimitris Fotopoulos said.
Cinemas -- another Greek word -- are having a tougher time.
"Our official data shows a definite decline in (sale of) cinema tickets," said Annie Kazerou, spokeswoman for the Greek Film Centre.
"From 11.7 million tickets in 2010, they amounted to only 8.9 million last year. This year, even though there was an ambitious start due to some big Hollywood productions, the numbers have dropped," she said, adding that they had taken a hit when the government imposed capital controls this summer amid fears that Greece might have to quit the euro.
As a result of a new bailout Greece is negotiating with the European Union and International Monetary Fund, value-added tax in cinemas will now rise to 23 percent. By contrast, the Greek government will cut VAT on theater tickets to just 6 percent to help support the domestic arts scene.
The Gazarte and Athinon Arena music venues in Athens have moved from staging concerts to plays.
Tickets to plays with well-known actors that once cost 20 to 40 euros are now 10 to 25 euros -- or with promotions and subscriptions even cheaper. A cinema ticket costs 5 to 8 euros.
Giannis Zouganelis, one of Greece's best-known actors and a protagonist in "Ecclesiazusae", has a simple explanation for his compatriots' continued attachment to theater.
"People need to feel human," he told Reuters. "If Athens doesn't put on many plays, who would? The Dutch? They produce tulips, cows. What we produce is theater."
(Editing by Jeremy Gaunt and Gareth Jones)