‘Only a few people deserve to be called playwrights’ | Leanne Ellul

Up-and-coming local playwright Leanne Ellul – winner of last year’s Francis Ebejer Prize with Ma Rridx Immur – speaks to us ahead of her participation in #malteeen, a multi-disciplinary cultural event targeting Maltese teenagers, and for which she will be holding a workshop on scriptwriting.

Leanne Ellul: “Scripts are not written to be read but to be performed”
Leanne Ellul: “Scripts are not written to be read but to be performed”

When did you first realise you wanted to write plays in Maltese? How did you first set about putting this desire into practice? 

I was drawn to the stage ever since I was young. My mum used to take me to several plays (even though ZiguZajg and Toi-Toi were not yet around); I used to watch in awe what was going on and longed to be part it. I also used to try my hand at writing; starting with a few verses.

Eventually I took some acting lessons for a time, which gave me an insight into what theatre is about. When I grew older, I had to read more and more scripts for a university credit about theatre, which gave me a stronger ground to build upon and try my hand at writing for theatre too. At first I used to write monologues (which I used to act out in front of the mirror!) and then moved onto more lengthy stuff.

How did it feel to win the Premju Francis Ebejer? Has the award opened doors for you?

I still remember the moment when the names were revealed – my heart was on hold. When my name was called out, I was ecstatic. I was really glad that all my efforts were recognised through such a prestigious award… The prize is not only an opportunity for the play to be staged but also an eye-opening experience.

Even though the script has won, now that it will be staged in March, I am constantly working with director Jimmy Grima to further improve upon it, thanks to his technical know-how. Besides, since being awarded the Prize, I have met a lot of other people from different backgrounds who gave me insights into theatre and to whom I am really grateful. Sometimes I’m still introduced as the “winner of the Francis Ebejer Prize,” which leaves me feeling both surprised that almost two years on people still remember me for this prize, and humbled.

What are some of the key challenges of writing plays in Maltese? 

Let me start with what isn’t a challenge. For sure, language is not an issue. I’ve heard people say that Maltese is a limiting factor and that one cannot express himself or herself properly in Maltese. I feel that this is not true at all. What is a challenge, however, is to attract an audience, to be able to write something that is contemporary enough to get people talking. Besides, scripts are not written to be read but to be performed, and certain structures are still too bureaucratic to actually pay off.

Have you found a favourite theme or subject yet? If so, why do you think you’re drawn to this particular kind of material?

Although I have penned two full plays so far, I still feel that I am in an experimental phase. Nevertheless, themes to which I feel I am attracted are those related to medical issues. Marjelena was about a person suffering from DID (multiple personalities), whilst Casey, the protagonist in Ma Rridx Immur, is a cancer patient. Most of the time, themes like these are only a starting point, yet they offer me a lot to work with.

What was it like writing a play for a Maltese audience? Did you find it challenging or liberating? And did you draw on personal experience?

First of all, the discipline of writing is always a challenge. Writing for a Maltese audience is challenging because nowadays people are watching more productions, both local as well as foreign ones, which means that what I write will almost immediately get compared to other scripts. People will sense out if a production is of a certain calibre or not.

On the other hand, it is also liberating experience. I watch quite a few plays throughout the year and think of what I would like to see. I love to quote Toni Morrison, who said that, “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” When it comes to plays, sometimes I feel the same way. This is not the only driving factor but one that I bear in mind when it comes to the local scene.

As regards to drawing on personal experience, I think it is inevitable. After the first performance of Marjelena, my dad came up to me laughing because he was able to pinpoint a bit where my personal experience was certainly evident. My boyfriend is able to sense these bits too. But that is because they know me so well. In fact, when I say that I draw on personal experience, it doesn’t mean that the play is about me; but certain experiences do find themselves ending up in certain scenes or settings.

How would you describe the Maltese-language drama scene at the moment? Do you think there is leeway for young voices?

I believe that at the moment there is quite a positive vibe – different incentives and festivals are not only giving the audiences quality material but are offering young authors the chance to showcase their talent. In fact, different professional drama groups such as the TMYT are staging notable performances. Some young actors are also trying their hand at scriptwriting themselves.

The Arts Council Malta, ZiguZajg and Agenzija Zghazagh – just to mention a few – are at the forefront when it comes to encouraging professional theatre by offering training courses, the tools to perform and also awards for scripts and actors, and this I believe will bear even more fruit in the coming years.

What advice would you give to aspiring Maltese playwrights? 

First of all, never call yourself a playwright. Let others apply that label to you. I still feel uncomfortable when someone calls me so, because I believe that it is a title one needs to work really hard to earn. I believe that only a few really deserve to be called playwrights in Malta throughout Malta’s history. I would also encourage them to write a lot.

You’ll often hear notable authors say that one must write a lot and discard even more. Writing may start out as a hobby, but if one wants to become a professional, one has to act like one. One must also be open to suggestions – sometimes criticism is hard to accept but one can only perfect the skills needed by accepting criticism.

It’s also important to read a lot. One can never read enough – not only plays themselves but also about the craft of theatre, which dates back millennia. Finally, as I’ve said before, remember that scripts are meant to be staged, not read, so watching plays would help a lot. I know sometimes it can get costly but, really, try to watch as many as possible.

YouTube and other channels are a good resource and one can find quite a good number of plays produced by different companies and houses. A few months ago I had the honour to meet Anne Furlong and I can still remember the last advice she gave me – one that she gives to her students too – do not only read plays but watch a lot of them too and above all watch different interpretations of the same play.

For more information about #malteen, log on to http://valletta2018.org/events/malteen-new-arts-event-for-teens/