We can’t afford to be antiquated! Marta Vella on upcoming ŻiguŻajg Festival

Prolific London-based actress and theatre-maker Marta Vella is the new festival director for the massively popular ŻiguŻajg Festival, an annual fixture that focuses on high-quality performing arts experiences geared towards children and young adults

Cooke and the Art of Bullying (2014)
Cooke and the Art of Bullying (2014)

First of all, how did it feel to be appointed director of this very prominent festival on the Maltese cultural calendar? What has your relationship with it been like so far, and how do you hope to contribute to its ongoing history?

I’m thrilled to have been appointed festival director for ŻiguŻajg. I’ve performed, directed and written for several editions of the festival so I have first hand experience of the festival from the ‘inside’. I have a great fondness for the festival, for me, it has always been a highlight of the cultural calendar.

How would you describe the range of your experience in theatre? And crucially, being based in the UK, what would you say are some of the key differences in which both countries approach the craft and culture of the theatrical sphere?

It’s very hard to put a label on an artist’s experience: how do you even measure range? What I can say is that having trained and lived in London for the last five years, I’ve been very fortunate to have been exposed to some stunning work which wouldn’t be as accessible in Malta; that’s for sure. That is one of the main things that stands out – accessibility – on several levels. Venues, ticket subsidies, sign language performances, audio description…  there’s a LOT of work to be done here.

Marta Vella
Marta Vella

What kind of contribution would you say the ŻiguŻajg festival has given to the Maltese cultural scene in general? How have you seen it evolve over the years, and how do you hope to evolve alongside it?

ŻiguŻajg has exposed children and audiences to excellent international work. It has given artists support and a platform to push themselves and blossom. It became a staple in Malta’s cultural calendar and a very successful children’s festival in its own right. Each year, the festival has reached wider audiences and set higher standards. I want to keep pushing the envelope, commission work that is relevant and bring more of the magic only Żigużajg can bring to children and their families.

I want to keep pushing the envelope, commission work that is relevant and bring more of the magic only Żigużajg can bring to children and their families

How does it feel to be jumping into the fray during the covid year? What are some of the more innovative ways in which you hope to be able to address this crisis through the festival itself?

Well, let’s just say that I have my work cut out for me. What happened this year has changed the world as we know it. It’s no secret that our industry is one of the worst hit and that it’ll be one of the last industries to recover. In terms of the festival when you’re thinking of dubious travel arrangements, uncertainty in schools reopening, intimate venues, work that involves contact and our audiences being children and their families... we were certainly hit from each direction. Festival coordinator Andre Mangion and myself had to go back to the drawing board and rebuild a vision from the ground up. I have to say, however, that at no point did we think of cancelling or postponing. While I cannot divulge too much on the program yet, we’re certainly keeping innovation at the core of it all.

I question many programming choices that I see repeated year after year. We have so much to say, so much to be raging about: we’re Maltese for goodness sake!

What do you make of the local theatrical scene? What would you change about it?

I always say that given our resources, the fact that there’s no professional industry or real money in theatre; the fact that we have a scene at all, is astounding. There’s so much heart and commitment from local artists, that in itself is very inspirational. What I would change would definitely be not to play it so safe, to dare more.

I question many programming choices that I see repeated year after year. We have so much to say, so much to be raging about: we’re Maltese for goodness sake! It saddens me to see some dull, antiquated choices when firstly there’s so much good, daring work out there and secondly all we need to do is look around to find something to make our blood boil enough to make some art about it.

Apart from this upcoming adventure with the festival, do you have anything else in the pipeline for the near future?

Hopefully all the work that was cancelled or postponed during the pandemic will have a new life. A play I wrote ‘Iġri Neħles’ was meant to open at Teatru Manoel in March and in April the first play I was directing in the UK was going to kick off its UK tour. I am also working on two personal projects but it’s a bit too early to spill the beans on those!

This year’s edition of the ŻiguŻajg Festival will be taking place in November 2020, with its programme of events to be announced in early October 2020

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