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Can theatre be adapted to the unstoppable do-it-yourself trend? Of course, yes. Teatru Malta, a Mediterranean theatre company established in 2017 and recognized by various international organizations, demonstrates this in its latest project, Alice in Wordeless Land. Developed as “a Covid-19 friendly project,” the piece consists of a doll’s box, which needs spectator participation to come to life. “We wanted the audience to become the theatre-maker in collaboration with us,” explains its leaders, who revisit Lewis Carroll's piece from a feminist and inclusive perspective.

How to adapt a classical play to be understood in an entirely different context? Aligning it with the values ​​(much more plural and inclusive) of the new generations. Taking as a starting point the work of playwrights and activists Dario Fo and Franca Rame, Teatru Malta deconstructs limiting thoughts while creating a doll, symbol of the idea of women as objects promoted by mass media and production throughout history. “This project is about the position of women in today's society and how it creates space for problems such as the increase in domestic violence during a pandemic.”

Being Malta’s National Threatre Company, the creative platform has opted since its inception for a philosophy free of walls, adapting its performances to countless scenarios and formats. A way of thinking that now looks at internationalization through its new ready-to-assemble theatre piece, Alice in Wonderless Land, conceived during the pandemic. Besides being able to be produced in schools, multipurpose rooms or warehouse spaces, the initiative designed for young people plans to travel around the world. “It will be available and can be ordered by theatres around the world”. We talk to its artistic director, Sean Buhagiar, for full details.

Teatru Malta focuses on the viewer, rejecting limiting formats and encouraging the audience to take part in the projects actively. Which is your work philosophy?
We do focus on the viewer because the viewer is ultimately who we make theatre for. However, we remain artist-led. Our philosophy is to bridge the gap between our artists and the audience by means of a variety of theatre productions. In a way, we want to be all things to all people. Obviously, keeping in mind that we are The National Theatre Company and thus we have to create work which breaks new ground leaving space to mainstream programming for the private sector. We believe in programming for audiences, not to the audience. Our philosophy therefore lies in our programming.
The theatre venture was formed in 2017, and since then you have not stopped promoting what you call “a concept without walls”, offering a creative proposal which breaks the mold. What restrictions does traditional theatre imply?
I do not think traditional theatre is restricted today, it is only traditional. What I mean is that even in traditional venues, one is only as restricted as one wants it to be in the chosen space. When it comes to being a “non-traditional” national theatre company, I would say we did avoid two major restrictions: being tied to one or a number of venues which limit the scale and type of theatre we make, and employing a number of artists which we then have to work with thus conforming to one aesthetic.
In the last decade, short theatre plays have gained special relevance. The younger generation seem not to be willing to spend much time in a show, unless they are invited to participate during the performance. Many people are suspicious of projects that try to change the pattern. Even being aware of the benefit they can bring, they use to respond with fear and rejection. How was Teatru Malta received by the public? How has it evolved in the last four years?
I think Teatru Malta has been generally well received by the public locally. Statistically, we are one of the strongest local public cultural organizations, when it comes to audience attendance. However, we are still far and away from being part of the wellbeing of society as whole. We want many more people to attend theatre regularly, that way we can also help better audiences for the private sector and creating space for a stronger theatrical ecosystem. Even though Teatru Malta was producing different work, we found little fear or rejection when it came to the public. I do think, though this is an assumption, that local theatre makers were generally sceptical of the concept at first – which is quite normal according to my European colleagues. However, I believe that most have now accepted the space Teatru Malta is taking because we have proved the need for it.
I guess that, when you decided to launch the project, you had to define an action strategy. What was the first step you took to achieve your goals?
Teatru Malta’s first year was spent listening to stakeholders, building bridges with communities, and creating collaboration and space for co-production. We then came out with a myriad of different performances. In its first three years of programming, Teatru Malta had a substantial output with over twenty productions. Our main aim was to offer audiences a different kind of theatre to what the private sector was offering, in both Maltese and English, since we are bi-lingual island-state.

Who are the people behind the company? Are you all originally from Malta, or is it an international team?
Our core team is Maltese. However, since we outsource our creative process, we tend to work with a lot with international artists. We prefer to promote international collaboration when it comes to our artistic output, rather than our production work. We are however a full member of the European Theatre Convention, which puts us in constant discussion with the major theatres in Europe.  As a longer term vision, we believe we can become an ideal place to test international collaborations and co-productions with audiences. It’s easier to risk here.
Despite contributing to a new way of doing theatre, you turn to classic plays and texts from past centuries to reinvent them, giving them all a new meaning through a pedagogical vision. Is it important to learn from the past not to make the same mistakes?
I think the original aphorism that inspired that phrase is by Spanish American philosopher George Santayana in The Life of Reason and originally reads: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. In conclusion, classics were not mistakes. If we do not appreciate the world’s classical cannon and we do not understand why they became classics, we only risk repeating; and that would be the mistake. We have a project called Proġett Klassiċi, in which we translate the work of a classic author in Maltese. This year we are working on Brecht’s Mother Courage.
And how is the process of reinvention of classics? How do you manage to adapt them to the present time?
When we produce such work, we try to give it a newfound context by associating an artist who wants to make something groundbreaking, or make a contemporary comment out of the work. We experience international work in our mother tongue, whilst re-telling a beautiful story in our own way. Written classics have become classics because they are, in some ways, timeless stories. Theatre is a product of its time, and that is why we have to deal with them differently. That is why we also produced two classics for teenagers in the last two years, the generation that can build on them most after all. As Isaac Newton said, “If i have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants”.
Since you created the company, you have been part of Żigużajg International Arts Festival for Children & Young People. The only festival in Malta specifically aimed at children, offering them international productions and commissioned works annually. What can you tell us about this project?
Żigużajg is a ten-year-old festival for children and youths led by Spazju Kreattiv, our national centre for creativity. It has been an awesome project because it brought curated work for children, something which was lacking here. Together with the festival, we decided to focus on the demographic that the festival seemed to struggle with in terms of engagement, teenagers.  We worked on a workshop for youths with difficult backgrounds in a school with French Director Christiane Véricel, and on a contemporary adaptation of Anthony Burgess A Clockwork Orange for teenagers. In 2020, we produced Franca Rame and Dario Fo’s Alice in Wonderless Land.

However, on this occasion you had to reinvent yourselves due to the restrictions. And you have done it through Alice in Wondeless Land, as you said, which you have called “DIY Theatre Event”. A performance package you have sent to schools maintaining all the measures and social distance. What is this new initiative about? What does this pack include and how is the process once received?
Alice in Wonderless Land by Franca Rame and Dario Fo was developed as a Covid-19 friendly project which can hopefully outlive the pandemic. We wanted to remain true to the nature of live theatre. The pack is essentially a doll’s box, on which you will notice that we called this a DIY theatre performance.
What are the benefits of DIY theatre?
DIY as a term is often associated with an aesthetic that celebrates the imperfect and the make-do mentality, but it can also be born of necessity. This performance is not simply a product you can just put together yourself, it is what you can call a participatory product. It needs you to be a participant.  Therefore, more specifically, this is a ready-to-assemble theatre piece. We also wanted the audience to become the theatre-maker in collaboration with us, and that’s why we give you the tools and instructions, inspired by ready to assemble furniture pieces, to do so. In simple terms, you are not making your own show, we are making a show together.
Alice in Wonderless Land emerged by a feminist monologue from 1976 by Franca Rame and Dario Fo, inspired at the same time by Lewis Carroll's fantasy novel. Why is this manifesto so important?
Dario Fo and Franca Rame were the people’s clowns. They were playwrights, actors and political activists, who wrote for the people and treated their audience as their ‘most valid collaborator.’ In the prologue of Alice in Wonderless Land, Franca Rame writes it is “A kind of monologue in one act whose staging can be made using filmic projections, props, mannequins and puppets. However, each director is free to use the supporting elements they prefer.” She never performed this show and promised that if she and Dario decided to “Throw themselves” in the project, they would let us know. Sadly, they never did. This is why I feel in a way that it is unfinished, because their most valid collaborator never collaborated on this. I feel that this performance respects the work of the two theatre masters, whilst challenging its possibilities.
Freedom of choice in a classic piece like this… It was a declaration of intentions with no doubt.
Despite Dario Fo’s Nobel prize for emulating “The jesters of the Middle Ages in scourging authority and upholding the dignity of the downtrodden”, I believe that Franca Rame and Dario Fo’s writing is still marginal to the commonly-accepted canon of European literature. On the other hand, Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is undoubtedly one of the most famous stories ever told in our history. It has been translated into almost a hundred languages and adapted in so many different ways.

How was the ‘Wonderless Land’ imagined by the duo of creator?
Franca Rame’s deconstruction of the story into a one-act monologue is symbolic of her lifetime quest to deconstruct the patriarchy. A straightforward attack on patriarchy and its fantastical feminist axiom are the catalysts prompting this sense of disturbance. A disturbance we still need today. That is why we feel that this manifesto is crucial.
“Wonderland is not always what it seems.” Under this premise, you build this new story, in which a parallel between women and dolls is drawn. The story pays attention to Alice, while she discovers herself in a world dominated by men. Equality, self-knowledge and social vindication make an appearance during the play. How have you adapted the message to be understood by children?
The performance is strictly 14+ and asks the presence of two adults. It treats its audience as an imagined community subject to androcentrism and what is understood as the patriarchy. Furthermore, our target audience is teenagers because we were interested in the liminality of adolescence. We want to make this DIY performance with them during their rite of passage into adulthood. This project is about the position of women in society today, and how it creates space for issues like rising domestic violence during a pandemic.
The project is available in both Maltese and English, and was featured at ŻiguŻajg Festival 2020, as we mentioned above, in early December. How was the experience?
Creating the project during the pandemic was quite exasperating. The project was very well received in our public shows with several activists endorsing it, and it also had a theme song by Alexandra Alden, a Maltese singer based in Holland, which was premiered in collaboration Commission on Gender Based Violence and Domestic Violence. Prior to the premiere, two focus groups were organized with teenagers as well as a special viewing for leaders in feminist, domestic violence prevention and gender equality activism. Through ŻiguŻajg, the project was available to schools and NGOs garnering the attention of a good number of schools with students over the age of 14.
Has anyone rejected or criticized your project?
We had one church-associated school who returned the box (very symbolic of Dario Fo) and some conservative educators who were skeptical about how prepared our teenagers are for such an in-your-face treatment of this subject. However, we knew that we would get such reactions. The project comes with strong resources packs prepared by a professional drama therapist and scrutinized by psychologists. We feel that the project is audacious, but also necessary.

You say you knew you would get such reactions. What can you tell us about the theatre scene in Malta?
Malta has a very young theatre history when compared to most of Europe. Today we still have a very strong amateur theatre practice, though we have seen an increase in professional activity during last years. This also results in projects where professionals and amateurs collaborate. Most of these students are studying in the UK, which makes their theatre style and essence very anglo-saxon, resulting in a more homogenous and less Mediterranean theatre aesthetic. We are trying to balance this out by offering different methods and thinking. Moreover, verbal theatre in Malta exists in our two official languages, English and Maltese, with most artists choosing one or the other, and we are trying to challenge this dichotomy.
We are living an uncertain moment that will surely bring us many changes. Do you think theatre will change forever?
I think the appreciation of theatre will change. Much like post-war generations appreciated their food probably more than our generation does today. However, I don’t think I can say that theatre will change forever because of this pandemic. Humans have lived through many a pandemic and theatre did not change overnight. It did inspire great art though. Ultimately, theatre is made by human beings, and if human beings change forever, so will their theatre.
And finally, what can you tell us about Teatru Malta's next projects?
We have quite a number of projects in development due to the pandemic. We are currently working on a dance theatre piece commenting on current Nouveau Riche trends, an outdoor site-specific theatre performance dealing with environmental destruction using circus elements, a dystopian interactive theatre experience in a dilapidated hotel written by a game writer, a musical in the dark, amongst many others projects. And besides projects, we are working on our upcoming strategy along with creating a space for our artists to meet, discuss and share projects and work on a monthly basis. Let’s just say we have a lot of work to do.

David Alarcón
Maria Galea (The Insynk Collective)
Performance pictures
Elisa Von Brockdorff

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