Persistently on the mend | Ira Melkonyan and Jimmy Grima

We speak to performer Ira Melkonyan and director Jimmy Grima about The Rubberbodies Collective’s latest performance – the solo show ‘The Pill’, staged at The Splendid in Valletta from March 21.

Ira Melkonyan in The Pill. Photo by Lizal Koval.
Ira Melkonyan in The Pill. Photo by Lizal Koval.

What prompted you to explore, dramatically, this particular aspect of how the body works (or, rather, doesn’t)?

Ira Melkonyan: I would specify that the focus is not so much on body’s physiology of working or not-working, but on a social perspective of illness. In this process I was much more interested in how we treat illnesses and dysfunctions, what connotations contemporary medical and pharmaceutical structure established in our minds.

The core of this curiosity is both simple and abstract. I’ve always had a certain unconscious interest towards medicine. Since I was a kid I wanted to study in a beautiful neo-baroque building of Odessa Medical University. When I actually went to University (a different one, built in communist era when buildings were much uglier) and studied not medicine but the science of microbiology, I nevertheless remained faithful to the medical inclination and chose Medical Microbiology and the Virus of HIV as the subject for my final thesis.

Even then, I felt something about AIDS being a combination of a medical subject with aspects of sociology and humanities. So this is where I am now – learning to love these both interests of mine at the same time – science and medicine on one side and art and humanities on the other.


How did you incorporate the device of medicine into the show, as you were scripting it?


IM: For this performance I followed our usual methodology at the rubberbodies collective. It is a devised performance, which means there is absolutely no way of deciding upon all the aspects of the final performance at the beginning of the process; you always start with one idea and then it changes as you’re devising it, month after month. This is the philosophy of devising – be ready to let go and change if stronger material comes in. Obviously there is always a framework that you agree not to get out of – in my case it was always a science-related performance – but as you can see it is very wide border, leaving plenty of space for interpretation.

So, as we always do at the collective, I started with research. During this time I read plenty of – rather heavy – medical articles, which throughout the process mainly narrowed down to the subject of ‘medicalisation’ (Wikipedia says: ‘Medicalisation is the process by which human conditions and problems come to be defined and treated as medical conditions, and thus become the subject of medical study, diagnosis, prevention, or treatment. Medicalisation can be driven by new evidence or hypotheses about conditions; by changing social attitudes or economic considerations; or by the development of new medications or treatments’).

I read and took notes, most of which were still formulated using heavy medical and scientific language. Later, these notes had to be translated into human language and stories. It was at this point that I started to work with Laszlo Upor, our creative writer for the production, who hails from Hungary. We got into a writing process together, exchanging stories based on my scientific notes (though not exclusively).

By the time Katarina Pejovic – our Croatian dramaturg – came to Malta, I had already tried out several physical improvisations based on the material we have written. Together with her and director Jimmy Grima, we started narrowing down and structuring, identifying which aspects were missing in order to glue everything together in a cohesive way.


What are the main things you keep in mind when crafting a solo show, as opposed to working for an ensemble?

Jimmy Grima: This performance is developed on Ira’s line of research within the collective. Usually our work starts with the entire team around the table (the team being the core members of the collective) and everyone pools in their ideas, while my role as the director in the development phase is to find the common thread or the line which interweaves everyone’s vision of the performance. However this time round we have Ira at the centre and her research, ideas and vision and the first thing I did was sourcing additional resources for her to make this possible. She is our source.

Having one performer on stage carrying the whole show on her back is no easy task, so another element was the duration of the project. Usually we develop, devise and create a performance in approximately two to three months. This time round the entire process took more than six months from conception, to writing and finally staging the piece. During this period it was all about supporting Ira’s vision and making sure she has the right resources.


Does this particular show build on specific themes, areas of interest and aesthetic elements you had explored in previous shows?

JG: Not really, although since I am directing the performance there will still be a resonance with previous shows. However this time round we have a text-based performance which is a totally new territory for the collective, for Ira and also for myself if I exclude my acting experience from the past in classical and modern theatre scripts.

The fresh collaboration with Sandra Banthorpe as an art director will definitely feel and look different. She brought a new aesthetic to our work.

We are synonymous with visceral non-verbal site-specific performance projects. Some of these elements are present, however I feel that this time round we’re trying out different elements. We have a script as opposed to a storyboard. We do not have a full soundtrack which is accompanying the action and dance sequences. I decided not to have any stage lighting and my light design this time is all based on domestic and laboratory influences, of course thanks to Sandra’s vision and ideas. Ira chose to have audience participation.

All of this is new and I am satisfied that yet again, we did not allow ourselves to get comfortable with what worked before but rather, allowed ourselves to risk and go into uncharted territory.

The Pill will be staged at The Splendid, Strait Street, Valletta on March 21-23; 28-30 at 20:00. Tickets at €5 will be available at the door, but booking is recommended by logging on to

The show is supported by The Malta Arts Fund, the School of Performing Arts and the Theatre Studies Department of the University of Malta, and the Science in the City Festival.