Making do with much ado | Philip Leone-Ganado

Adaptability is the watchword as we all struggle to both contain and live under the shadow of a global viral pandemic. WhatsTheirNames Theatre is no different in this regard, as TEODOR RELJIC discovers during a chat with director Philip Leone-Ganado, as the group prepare for a live streamed re-take of their 2018 run of William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, then staged at The Pub in Archbishop Street, Valletta

Promotional photo shoot for the original WhatsTheirNames Theatre Shakespeare in the Pub production of Much Ado About Nothing, staged at The Pub in Archbishop Street in April 2018.  Photography by Jacob Sammut
Promotional photo shoot for the original WhatsTheirNames Theatre Shakespeare in the Pub production of Much Ado About Nothing, staged at The Pub in Archbishop Street in April 2018. Photography by Jacob Sammut

Theatre in quarantine and under the shadow of social distancing restrictions – what are your first impressions of how it’s all going down, particularly within the Maltese scenario?

I’d like to say that, on an industry level, the fact that so many producing companies and artists are either state-funded or have alternative income will for the first time actually be a positive, and insulate us from the worst of it. But the reality obviously is that I really have no idea. Many people have lost work and will continue to do so the longer this goes on, so it’s never going to be easy, and a very bleak long-term impact is very conceivable. On an artistic level though, it’s heartening to see so many companies (in theatre and other performing arts spheres) taking to the challenge with such energy and coming up with new ways of doing things. If nothing else, I think we’ll remember how we responded to this.

What led you to decide to re-stage your take on William Shakespere’s Much Ado About Nothing, performed at The Pub two years ago, as a livestream on Zoom/Facebook? Who sparked off the idea among the WhatsTheirNames ranks, and were you more scared than excited about it?

Nearly all of the original cast are currently working or training full-time in theatre so, at the risk of putting too fine a point on it, we’ve got time on our hands. This seemed like a good way of stretching our theatre muscles during lockdown and putting something positive out into the world for people who’ve enjoyed our shows in the past. It feels like both for audiences and for ourselves as artists, if we can still create in some form, then we should try. And because this is such uncharted terrain, a reading of a play we’d worked on before seemed like a good way of easing ourselves into a new format while revisiting something with fond memories for us and our audience in a new and interesting way.

Much Ado About Covid - The social-distanced gang get back together on Zoom. Clockwise from top: Joseph Zammit, Philip Leone-Ganado, Tina Rizzo, Gianni Selvaggi, Giulia Xuereb and Nathan Brimmer
Much Ado About Covid - The social-distanced gang get back together on Zoom. Clockwise from top: Joseph Zammit, Philip Leone-Ganado, Tina Rizzo, Gianni Selvaggi, Giulia Xuereb and Nathan Brimmer

The production is a particular one also because all of the actors will be in separate locations at all times – how much of a nightmare will this be to coordinate, and on the flip-side of that concern: do you also look forward to embracing the chaos that comes with such an idea and approach?

The basic fact of having actors in different locations hasn’t been all that difficult to work with: the simple technological shift isn’t that different to moving a meeting on to Zoom. But obviously it’s not the same experience as a traditional theatre performance (to the extent that our pub shows could be called traditional). We’re having a lot of fun playing around with what it means to be ‘live’ together in this new virtual space, what the new dramatic possibilities are, how we translate some of the ideas we devised for the original staging to the new form, how we create an experience that stands on its own feet, rather than being a poor imitation of something else. At the same time, this is a reading rather than a fully-realised performance, so we’re very much going to be exploring all that on the fly, with our audience, which feels very much in line with how WhatsTheirNames has always worked.

Do you think this experience could pave the way for future WhatsTheirNames performances of this kind, even after the restrictions put into place due to covid-19 are lifted? Either as a way to present certain performances wholesale, or an ‘adjunct’ to traditional live performances? In short: to you see a wider potential for this sort of thing?

I can definitely see more of this sort of work for as long as the situation lasts, but it’s really too early to say what happens after that. Right now these are solutions theatre is having to come up with to deal with a crisis. They’re interesting and exciting but ultimately I don’t know which bits of them will still feel vital or relevant when this is over (if there is such a thing as ‘when this is over’). It’s definitely possible, and the use of technology in theatre is a massive area that Malta hasn’t really explored so far. But at this moment I’m still just looking forward to the time when we can get back to sharing a space together - that’s where the magic of theatre is. If we can draw from this something that adds value to that experience, that can only be a positive, but I have no way of answering that question yet.

What do you hope Maltese and Malta-based artists and creatives can learn from this danger and anxiety-ridden period?

I think there’s some scope for it to be an enforced period of innovation – we have to come up with new ideas because everything else we know has been put on pause for us. And there’s something to be gained from a stretch of time where ideas can be developed without the immediate necessity to produce. But honestly I just hope everyone gets through it. There’s real anxiety around and simply keeping our artistic spirits alive and ready for the day the lights come back on is just as valuable as productivity right now.

Much Ado About Nothing will be streamed live on April 15 at 19:30, through a link made available on the event’s Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/events/519330148778954/

More in Theatre & Dance