Future-proofing Maltese theatre in pandemic time | Sean Buhagiar

With all planned shows postponed until at least August 2020, Teatru Malta Artistic Director Sean Buhagiar assures TEODOR RELJIC that Malta’s national theatre company remains largely uncowed by the workings of a global pandemic, as it shifts its attention to online options and, crucially, Teatru Deposit: a scheme offering incentives to local performing arts makers who plan to stage projects once the COVID-19 induced restrictions have been lifted

Tele Teatru, Kwarta Kwarantina and Teatru Depożit: Could you tell us a little bit about these initiatives? Why did you feel they were the right kind of response from Teatru Malta to this current crisis?

They are all quite straightforward initiatives really. Kwarta Kwarantina was our knee-jerk reaction; a short-term platform aimed to generate creativity from home, engaging the public while giving creatives an opportunity to create shared moments of online artistic expression and getting a fee for it. Tele-teatru is a medium-term project, facilitating accessibility to audiences who have now lost their right to watch theatre; people will be able to enjoy some of our best shows online. We document all our shows and we are now putting that practice to good use. Our cavallo di battaglia is Teatru Depożit. This is a long-term initiative which will help us plan with artists and for artists. The concept is simple: we pay a deposit for a service, say actor or director, which is to be provided by them later. Why is this a good idea? Well, putting it simply, it provides cash for artists who we believe in today, in the hope that they will still be here tomorrow, hopefully still working as artists.

L-Interrogazzjoni, Teatru Malta, February 2020. Photo by Lindsey Bahia
L-Interrogazzjoni, Teatru Malta, February 2020. Photo by Lindsey Bahia

Had the pandemic not occurred, what would Teatru Malta’s trajectory currently have been?

We had big plans for this year. On World Theatre Day 2020 we were meant to launch our audience membership scheme, develop a platform for theatre-makers to network, mentor and discuss… among other initiatives. Besides these, we were on the way towards launching one of our most ambitious projects yet, a site-inspired outdoor production performed in verse and dealing with Malta’s problematic relationship with its natural environment. Fittingly, I can confirm here that we have postponed all our shows up until August.

How do you hope to recoup some of that momentum?

Well, to be honest our priority is not really to recoup the momentum, but to remain a relevant national theatre company. Striving to regain the momentum just for the sake of it would be a mistake, going ahead with the same programming would be a mistake. We cannot act as if this never happened. We cannot ignore the stillness. That’s the whole notion of momentum, no? What I mean to say is that we receive impetus from our artists and our audience and we will programme accordingly. We don’t necessarily want to get back on track, because the racecourse might not be the same.

Sean Buhagiar: “I am quite sure our art will be better after all this. Let’s hope that humanity does better first”
Sean Buhagiar: “I am quite sure our art will be better after all this. Let’s hope that humanity does better first”

What are some of the ways that you hope the theatre going public will respond to these initiatives? Do you think you’ll manage to recoup the same numbers, and even perhaps recruit some ‘newcomers’? How so? And in the case of the latter, how will you ensure they actually set foot into theatres once they are reopened?

To be frank, no, I don’t really think anyone will become a theatre newcomer just because they watched a theatre show online or on TV. I think that’s wishful thinking and I don’t think it’s how theatre works. If you were to ask a random sampling of people to cite the last film they watched together at home, they may stare blankly at you for a while before possibly coming up with an answer. But they will tend to remember the time they went to the theatre all together, as a family.

If the show is memorable, it is there, at the theatre, that the audience is recruited. I think this is more a question of accessibility than audience targeting. What I do think is that audiences can recognise the greater meaning of live art, and this generation will appreciate it more. Much like the generation that lived through the war appreciated access to food more than their children, so will this generation appreciate live arts more.

Those people ate more and better after the war, because they could, and they never again took it for granted. It was also healthier food, because people were used to rationing and so they then chose what to eat wisely. I think people will choose how to spend their time more wisely after this pandemic, and the arts can be a big part of that situation. Going by this, I like to think that with the right programming, we should aim for higher numbers.

Raymond “Fight” Beck, Teatru Malta March 2018. Photo by Lindsey Bahia
Raymond “Fight” Beck, Teatru Malta March 2018. Photo by Lindsey Bahia

What kind of overall impact do you feel that the epidemic will have on Malta-based theatre makers that Teatru Malta is at least on paper pledged to support? Do you think that ad hoc measures such as the ones you’re proposing are the way to go, or do you hope a more centralised and sustained infrastructure would be set into place should the virus drag on for longer than we’re hoping?

It is fantastic news that professional artists across the board are being treated as self-employed citizens and can get  subsidies applicable to other major sectors like tourism and catering. I have never been one to fancy an economical analysis of the arts, mostly because of the risks of excessive commercialisation.

However, one cannot ignore that the useful data, statistics and that the status of the artist have been raised through that approach. We cannot hold all the aces though. That means that there is a centralised infrastructure which is treating artists and creatives on a par with other jobs.

Currently, the central government’s emergency incentives and subsidies are the sustained infrastructure you are asking about. As a national theatre company, we cannot just place more public funds available to the artists, just because they are artists, or even worse, because I believe they are.  We are not all in this together if we expect to be treated better. This counts for artists too.

What Teatru Malta can do is create schemes like Teatru Depożit, whereby we make it possible for artists to either use this downtime to conceive projects or offer their services later. This could compare to buying gift cards from your local shops or pre-buying lunches from your local restaurant.

This is quite difficult for the theatre sector since it is harder for theatre-makers to convince audiences to pre-buy tickets for shows they don’t have dates for, or for companies and schools to book a show for the uncertain future. That is where we, and other public cultural organisations, should come in. We will hopefully still be here and we need to make sure our artists are there with us.

Finally, do you see any potential silverlinings emerging from this crisis that could have a positive impact on the local theatrical scene in the long run?

Theatre and the arts survived many a pandemic. I think these situations empower artists to go back to making art because they have to, not only because they need to. Hopefully, there will also be a stronger sense of community and togetherness, and that will permit more community-based theatre. We need to be better after this. I believe that humanity as a whole can be so much better, and so will our art. History has also taught us that tragic periods and circumstances have inspired great art and great stories. After the Black Plague came Bocciacio’s Decameron; the war inspired Brecht’s Mother Courage. Even when you look at more recent history, the HIV pandemic inspired a lot of great theatre; from Angels in America to Rent. Who knows, maybe COVID will produce the next Tony Kushner?! I am quite sure our art will be better. Let’s hope that humanity does better first.

For more information on the Teatru Depożit, Tele-teatru and Kwarta Kwarntina, log on to: https://teatrumalta.org.mt/