The kids are alright...

Ziguzajg, a children’s festival with an increasingly positive reputation, lets children and young people take over Valletta to discover the wonderful world of the arts. MaltaToday spoke to Festival Director Toni Attard on what makes these events special.

How would you describe the evolution of Ziguzajg, from its beginnings to now?

Explosive! The festival stems from the excellent collaboration between a number of artists, cultural organisations and government entities who are committed to deliver an excellent artistic experience for young audiences.

Although the festival started as a weeklong event, it has now evolved in an ongoing project by St. James Cavalier Centre for Creativity, possibly developing into one of the most dynamic festivals for young audiences in the region.

What would you say is the secret behind its enduring success?

The positive growth of the festival is inspired by the increase in the number of young people interested in the arts and the encouragement of schools and parents who believe in the value of the arts.

The diversity of the festival programme is also due to the commitment and engagement of Maltese artists, who are devising more exciting new work for young audiences.

What is the most significant challenge for a children’s festival in particular? What were some of the things you needed to be sensitive to, and what did you learn from one edition to the next?

Ziguzjag is the first festival experience for most children attending. Through the festival, a significant number of children are experiencing their first theatre, dance or music performance.

This exciting opportunity comes with huge responsibilities for the festival and the artists involved. Therefore our challenge is to ensure that each festival component reaches a high level of excellence and a memorable experience for all.

Some perceive art for children as some cheerful activity or glorified animation to keep them occupied for an hour. Ziguzajg commissioned artists and visiting companies are very meticulous in researching their work and in presenting it in the most imaginative way possible.

So yes, some work may be cheerful but other pieces may be challenging, at times even controversial. And not every work for a young audience has to have some pedagogical objective. Ultimately, we’re in the business of creating art, although the simple act of participating in the arts is educational in itself.   

In terms of programming the biggest challenge is finding multiple venues that can stage the various parallel performances held in Valletta every day. In addition, programming for young audiences is more complex than other festival genres because each performance and event is designed for specific age groups ranging from early years to teenagers.  

How did you go about selecting local talent to participate in the festival? What were some of the factors you looked at?

Our festival mantra is to deliver the best programme because young audiences deserve the best artistic experiences. Devising the programming for the festival is a two-year process, which includes an open pitch session and talent scouting to develop certain ideas proposed by the festival.

Every January we hold an open pitch session for any artist to come forward with ideas. As festival director I’m interested in age-appropriate, innovative and contemporary work across all artistic genres, which may also develop beyond the lifespan of the festival week.

The open door policy allows artists to share their ideas with other artists, often leading to new collaborations. We then discuss the shortlisted projects at length and invite the artists to develop further their concept.

After a six-month research process, we invite all participating artists developing commissioned work for the festival to a two-day sharing seminar. During this seminar the artists share their work in progress with each other and with an international director invited by the festival as an external monitor.

In September all artists are reconvened for a final workshop to present their progress, discuss logistics and share some tips on international touring, accessibility and learning programmes for school visits. This process makes Ziguzajg a unique platform for the development of new work and an excellent partner in creative risk-taking.   

What about international participants? How did you ‘source’ them, and based on which criteria? How did you determine that they would be suited for a Maltese children’s festival in particular?

We participate in international networks and festivals to hand pick international productions that compliment the diversity of commissioned works. Since theatre for children and young people is not a regular activity within the Maltese theatre season and we do not have a rich tradition of theatre for young audiences, it is very difficult to determine what children may or may not enjoy.

On the other hand this is a unique opportunity to present outstanding international work as a benchmark for our audiences. Ultimately, if I don’t laugh, cry, feel mesmerized or be enchanted by the simple act of experiencing the performance, then as festival director I’m not interested in programming the work.

Be it dance, puppetry or circus arts, we try to select works which can only be presented within a festival environment. Most of the international shows in Ziguzajg, produced by some of the best professional companies in the world, have also performed in major festivals internationally. Some important companies are now approaching the festival to feature in their touring circuit.

What are some of the highlights from this year’s edition? And how does it build from the last year’s edition?

The fourth edition of will present an eclectic programme of international performances and commissioned work to thousands of Maltese children, young people and their families.

We also plan to invite international programmers to view the works featured in the newly launched Malta showcase initiative to export our work to international festivals.

This year the festival will mark the 25th anniversary of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. We strongly believe that each and every child has a fundamental right to access culture and participate actively in creativity. We are doing so within a year of national celebrations, marking events that few children may relate to. So we’re making sure that we engage in creative conversations about identity and self-expression. Expect some wacky visual arts projects, thought-provoking drama, pumping balancing acts and young people taking over the city.