Celebrating the Spirit of Democracy: The Annual Lysicrates Foundation Dinner

September 1st, 2023

In the heart of ancient Athens, the Great Dionysia Festival had a power like no other. For a whole week, this grand play competition captivated the entire city, bringing forth legendary playwrights like Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides. Nearly 10,000 spectators gathered beneath the imposing Acropolis, at the Theatre of Dionysus, to witness the magic of live theatre. It was a time of fervent engagement, where audiences laughed, cried, and immersed themselves fully in the performances. Astonishingly, attendance was not only encouraged, but citizens were compensated for their lost wages, underscoring the profound importance of this cultural event in Athenian society.

Democracy, a cornerstone of ancient Athens, was not merely an abstract concept but a living, breathing force that the Greeks ardently upheld. As history would have it, the audience themselves were the ultimate arbiters, choosing the winning play. These ancient Athenians were a spirited, forward-thinking people who laid the foundations of the democratic principles we cherish today.

Yet, the true victors of this theatrical spectacle were not only the playwrights and the audience, but also the wealthy sponsors of the triumphant troupe of actors. In 334 BC, one such sponsor was Lysicrates, whose graceful monument in Athens still stands as a testament to his success.

Fast forward to 1868 in Sydney, where another visionary, James Martin, a former servant's son, mirrored Lysicrates' monument in sandstone. This replica, nestled in the Botanic Gardens, remains one of Sydney's most treasured secrets.

Choregic Monument of Lysicrates, the Royal Botanic Gardens in Sydney

In 2014, the Lysicrates Foundation recognised that Sydney's monument was crumbling. They embarked on a mission to restore it and rekindle the spirit of the play competition in the 21st century. Inspired by the Greek model and ethos, the Lysicrates Play Competition was born. Just like its ancient counterpart, it remains free and subject to the democratic judgment of the audience.

Additionally, the Foundation sought to honour James Martin's indomitable spirit by inaugurating the Martin-Lysicrates Play Competition for children aged 9 to 13. Mirroring its elder sibling, this competition is free and relies on the votes of the audience, albeit a younger one. These Australian children not only engage with the Greek spirit but also learn about the enchantment of live theatre and the power of democratic participation. In their fervour, they become akin to the Greeks of old, barracking, shouting, and laughing.

Maintaining these two annual competitions and keeping them free necessitates funding. In response, the Lysicrates Foundation hosted a sparkling fundraising dinner at the picturesque Catalina Restaurant in Rose Bay, overlooking Sydney Harbour. The event was graced by the presence of the Governor-General David Hurley and Mrs. Hurley, the Foundation's patron, as well as distinguished figures like Sen. Tony Sheldon and former NSW Chief Justice Tom Bathurst. The Consul-General of Greece Yannis Mallikourtis and Mrs. Mallikourtis also lent their support.

Attendees delighted in performances of excerpts from three exceptional Lysicrates plays, skilfully delivered by accomplished actors who seamlessly moved among the tables, engaging the entire party.

This enchanting evening, set in a magical backdrop, was all inspired by the enduring Greek spirit in Australia, a legacy that lives on 2,500 years after the Great Dionysia Festivals.

In the words of Dr. Patricia Azarias, Deputy Chairman of the Lysicrates Foundation, "The unique Lysicrates Prize, and more recently the Martin Lysicrates Prize (for children) have now become icons on Sydney’s arts calendar, for their showcasing of major new Australian talent, and for the power given to the audience to choose the winner. The Governor-General and our Patron, Mrs. Linda Hurley, a host of major political figures, and numerous public and private bodies have given us wonderful support over the years.

"Countless children have, for the first time in their lives, experienced the magic of live theatre and the empowerment of the democratic vote."