Mary Coustas has graced our screens and stages for three decades. We fell in love with her character Effie Stephanides in the ground-breaking comedy series Acropolis Now, and she has been making us laugh ever since, through her various shows such as Effie Just Quietly, Greeks on the Roof, and more recently Effie-The Virgin Bride, which she is bringing back this year – due to popular demand- with a series of encore performances.
There is much to be said about Mary
Intelligent, friendly, with a voice that is instantly recognisable and a smile that has warmed the hearts of audiences nationwide. She won a Logie for Most Popular Comedy Personality in 1993, was nominated for an AFI for her role in Mull, is the author of two books, Effie’s Guide to Being Up Yourself and All I Know and is, above all, an iconic performer dedicated to bringing joy and laughter to her audiences.
A natural performer mesmerised with the tales of her parents’ generation
A natural performer from a young age, Mary always knew she wanted to perform. She had also fallen in love with her parents’ generation, and was addicted to their stories. She still is. “I was very inspired by them, and still am,” she says. “I was grateful for the insight I had, that other children might not have had, or otherwise didn’t care. I was a grateful audience, and I started to mimic and re-tell their stories. That was the beginning – and I was very aware of the response I was getting.”
She also tried to bring a playfulness to what essentially were heavy stories. “They felt like they had left so much behind, missed out on a lot, even though they had made fruitful choices by coming to Australia for a better future,” reflects Mary. “There was a lot of heartbreak in their story, not only for what they witnessed, but also what they left behind.”
Having been to Greece many times, there is a deep connection to the land and its people. Does she feel like she has two patrides (countries)? “Yes! I’m torn between two lovers feeling like a fool,” she says.
The importance of being Effie
No one is more surprised than Mary that she is still playing the lovable Effie Stephanides three decades after the Wogs Out of Work stage show, which ultimately led to the hit TV show Acropolis Now.
“I wouldn’t have thought I’d be doing Effie all these years later,” says Mary. “I also know what got ignited in that first show of Wogs Out of Work in 1987. It was like standing on a landmine of recognition, adoration and applause. I knew something out of the ordinary had happened. I knew something major had happened with me and the audience.”
Mary toured with Wogs Out of Work, alongside her Acropolis Now co-stars Nick Giannopoulos, George Kapiniaris, and Simon Palomares, performing eight shows a week for three years.
“It’s almost like everyone had been waiting for their stories to be told, to have people exposed to the magic of how we (the Greek migrants) are. There was a mutual need at the beginning for us performers to express ourselves and for the audience to have themselves validated. The show was a much celebrated coming together of these needs.”
When asked what makes Effie remain popular and relevant all these years later, Mary is quick to respond. “Firstly, it’s her nostalgia factor. Effie is a taste of the past. It’s an unapologetic quality to say I’m just as relevant now as I was then. An honesty comes out of Effie that is always relevant. That kind of thing never has an expiry date. There is always a need for honest voices.”
There is also the visual which fans have come to love. The trademark big hair, the tight dresses, the heels, the glamorous lipstick, lending an almost Jessica Rabbit quality to Effie. “There’s something about the visual that people have an affection for, something we don’t even understand. Effie is dangerous, yet appealing. She’s childlike yet street-smart. She’s working class and ethnic but with a very healthy self-esteem.”
And then there is the accent. Unmistakable and often imitated, it catapulted catchphrases such as “how embarrassment” and “what a classic” into popular vernacular. Mary describes it as the broken English she used to hear growing up at home married with the yobbo Australian accent.
Effie: The Virgin Bride
With a youthful beauty that belies her years, she is a devoted wife and mother who is completely enamoured with her daughter. It is hard to believe that Mary not only found the time to write her hit one woman show Effie: The Virgin Bride, which toured Australia in early 2016, but she is back again with a series of encore performances due to popular demand.
“Last year’s show went very well, better than what I had imagined,” says Mary. “When people come to see a show with that title, they expect it to be funny, but I don’t think they expected all the little secrets, the little extras that I have in there as well. My objective was to deliver more than audiences expected.”
“I realised that the show didn’t run long enough for people to come and see it twice, or tell others to go and see it. It wasn’t just Effie’s usual fan base either, it was also the theatre-going population having a big interest in seeing it because it is a one woman show.”
Mary was fanatical about perfecting the script. She reveals she came up with seven drafts and there was a lot of re-writing. It was important to get it just right because she knew exactly what feelings she wanted the audience to experience. She acknowledges the great team of people she was fortunate to have in her corner, including her director, who committed to the show without seeing the script.
So authentic are the characters in her show, which include the notable uncle Vasili, many people, including those in Mary’s immediate circle, did not realise it was Mary playing the role.
“My aunt brought all her ‘horianoi’ to the show, and I heard her ask “pios einai” when Vasili came out. And when I heard the response “I Mary einai, I nearly cracked up.”
Mary has a fondness for Vasili as he represents how the Greeks see themselves, not how everyone else views them. “Our esteem is so healthy, you go to Greece and you just don’t come across insecure people,” she muses.
It’s evident, listening to her talk about her experiences with the show, that Mary enjoys the performances as much as her audience. She tells a story of a night at Sydney’s Enmore Theatre where, amongst the laughter of over 600 people in attendance, she could single out the laughter of one of her friends.
“There is something fantastic about making strangers laugh,” she says, still amused at the memory. “But when I can make people who know me laugh, that’s different. My brother said to me that every time he sees my show he’s completely surprised – and he’s known me all my life.”
There can be no doubt that the stage is Mary’s favourite platform, allowing her to have the most direct relationship with her audience. It’s a relationship she takes very seriously, despite the comedic themes injected into her storytelling. It’s always been of utmost importance that her stories are relevant to her audiences. “I do not want to talk about anything that my audience can’t relate to. I’m not interested in doing that. Effie is talking about the same stuff they live with every day – love, finances, struggles, and so on. Effie’s job is to reflect in this show. When we are talking about a wedding, we are talking about something everyone can relate to. This audience needs to see themselves on the stage. Everyone’s been to a wedding, everyone can relate to a story of annoying in-laws,” Mary says with a chuckle. “This is what Effie is going through.”
“Playing Effie is like putting on my favourite ugg boots”
Having portrayed Effie for so many years, it must be hard to draw the line where Mary stops and Effie starts. Mary divulges that they are more similar than she would’ve thought thirty years ago. Who would win an argument between the two? “I would win on logic, and Effie would win on loudness and guts.” Does she ever dream as Effie? “No, I don’t dream as Effie, but I dream I’m playing her. I often think as Effie to amuse myself,” she laughs.
“I do keep Mary and Effie separate but occasionally if I’m with someone who likes to quote that stuff, I’ll go into character. Sometimes even with my husband.” She recalls their three month trip to Greece last year, on which she also took her mum and her daughter. Driving to one of the islands, Mary felt a sudden urge to act as Vasili, because she was seeing examples of Vasili everywhere, and she missed the character. “Vasili has charisma, he has heart and soul. He is politically incorrect. Even if you don’t like him, he can bring you around. That’s what he thinks!”
Three decades of portraying Effie has bestowed her with an archive of memories and hilarious scenes. When asked to choose a favourite scene from Acropolis Now she says without a doubt, the episode ‘Shakespeare was a Greek’, where Effie is playing Juliet. “Actually, any time Effie had to act was very funny. Obviously the fans loved the episode where she was in a beauty contest, and Effie going for a job interview. I loved it whenever there was a lot of playfulness.” Asked to choose her favourite scene out of all the stage shows she has been involved in, surprisingly, she chooses one she was not featured in, “Definitely the factory scene in Wogs out of Work, where the two boys (Nick Giannopoulos and George Kapiniaris) are playing their mothers in the factory line. That was the best scene.”
“Nothing good comes from giving up”
Mary’s struggles on her decade long journey to motherhood has been public knowledge. Keen to cast awareness on the challenges of IVF, her honesty and raw emotion had all of Australia showing an abundance of support and encouragement. We admired her iron will, her unfaltering hope. We wanted to show our support when she was her most candid. We cried with her, felt protective of her vulnerability. We willed her to succeed and celebrated with tremendous joy when she finally was able to realise her dream, giving birth to a healthy baby girl she named Jamie in 2013.
Where does Mary draw her incredible inner strength from? “I don’t know,” she says with complete candour, “I am incredibly patient. I don’t have that patience anymore, because I’ve been through too much. For me, if it’s almost impossible, then I think I can almost pull it off.”
At her first IVF appointment, the doctor told her the odds were not good. She was all too aware of the risks and potential disappointment. “I couldn’t understand why someone would tell me I couldn’t do it if the risks were all mine,” she says. “I had to get married to IVF. That was my next big relationship. If I stayed in the game long enough, I knew I could get there in the end.”
Mary chose to pour her heart out, and closely document her experiences and struggles in her book All I Know; A memoir of love, loss and life. “I called my book ‘All I know’ because all I know is that I know nothing, and that keeps me humble. Having the attitude ‘I don’t know, you tell me,’ lets the other person give you information. That can be gold.” In her book, Mary references very early on what that saying means to her. And yet does know something – that life and death are only a breath away from each other.
She is proud of the memoir, not only because it allowed her to deal with a lot of emotions “I couldn’t type fast enough, I couldn’t see the screen through the tears,” she discloses, but also because it is quite an uplifting book, despite dealing with grief and loss. She shares her favourite line “Life is not out to get you, it’s there to introduce you to yourself. You don’t know what you’re made of until you find out.”
According to Mary she herself would’ve undermined her own strength had she not gone through everything she did and found out she was much stronger than what she thought. “The Greeks have a saying,” she says matter of factly, “auta exei I zoi” (such is life). We must also remember we are not alone.”
Mary will take her hit one woman show Effie-The Virgin Bride around Australia in April, May and June. For details including dates, venues and tickets visit frontiercomedy.com/effie