Finding life in deterioration | Jimmy Grima and Ruth Borg

We speak to rubberbodies collective producer and director Jimmy Grima and actress Ruth Borg about the collective’s upcoming production – Ma Rridx Immur, based off a Francis Ebejer Award-winning script by Leanne Ellul.

Ruth Borg and director Jimmy Grima during rehearsals for Ma Rridx Immur
Ruth Borg and director Jimmy Grima during rehearsals for Ma Rridx Immur
Ruth Borg and director Jimmy Grima during rehearsals for Ma Rridx Immur
Ruth Borg and director Jimmy Grima during rehearsals for Ma Rridx Immur
Ruth Borg and director Jimmy Grima during rehearsals for Ma Rridx Immur
Ruth Borg and director Jimmy Grima during rehearsals for Ma Rridx Immur

Jimmy Grima: “I am always on the look-out for collaborators”

What led you to collaborate with Leanne Ellul on this project? How did it feel to get someone from outside the rubberbodies ‘inner circle’ to collaborate on a new project?

Jimmy Grima: Leanne Ellul is not so much of an outsider for the rubberbodies collective, she has been one of our associated artists since 2012. We have worked together on other projects particularly translations from English texts to Maltese which where then used in the collectives’ work such as Hal Mitfa a work commissioned by Ziguzajg in 2013. When Leanne approached me with the winning script I simply accepted.

I do not remember if I read the script beforehand and then accepted or if I accepted and then read the script. The most important aspect in accepting was that she will be open for a process where her script will be edited and re-written several times due to the nature of the devising technique that I use to create within the group. She accepted and we started to work on the first draft. Having the role of artistic director in the collective I am always on the look-out for new collaborators and thanks to this drama I have met a lot of new potential associates which I am very glad to be working with.

Given that it has a character-driven story, would you say this play is more ‘traditional’ in feel and execution to your previous – perhaps broadly defined as more ‘abstract’ – work?

JG: If you plot a line and put abstract on one side and ‘narrative’ on the other side, the work of the collective usually stands at the abstract side. In this case it is just the other way round. We started from the narrative or character-driven story –  as you refer to it – and then travelled together towards the abstract. The work still remains a ‘straight’ drama, however it inevitably has moments where it lands in rubberbodies land. I must confess that working with Maltese text, having the energies and talent of the young Maltese generation of actors of Ruth, Marta [Vella] and Ryan [Cutajar] with the presence of the older generation from Josette Ciappara is a very beautiful and rare experience, one I would love to be able to enjoy again.

What kind of development would you say this play marks for the rubberbodies collective?

JG: This is the first time for the collective to work with a script, a Maltese drama. When Mario Sammut (core member and founder of the collective and its sound designer and composer) came to the rehearsal studios for the first time a couple of weeks ago, he told me he never expected we (the collective) would tap into such work. We’ve worked in the non-verbal mode for years, with Mario providing accompanying soundscapes. Rather then composing music and laying out sound textures this time round he has the actor’s voices to work with as well. Our non-verbal work has a very strong poetic aesthetic, however. Laying out text – especially Maltese text – on the table marks a new possible direction and enable us to connect and communicate in a new way. Working with straight actors rather than performers and introducing them to our techniques and aesthetics presents me with a new opportunity of creating work. I would definitely like to explore how to bring the two together and include a script-writer and actors in new works bring the ‘abstract’ and the ‘traditional’ as new tools of creating new Maltese work.

How would you describe the Maltese theatrical scene over the past couple of years? What do you think it ‘needs’ most of all, at this stage?

JG: What has been happening over the past few years is very promising. It needs what every theatre needs. It needs to be staged. The primary thing is to be recognised as being relevant and shown, directed and produced. I am sure there  are loads of scripts which have never been produced on stage, a lot of award winning scripts remained in the authors drawer. Initiatives such as the Premju Francis Ebejer and the support that Malta Arts Council offers towards supporting the staging of the winning script grows and the development of Maltese theatre work is supported in its development through co-productions and synergies between the traditional and the contemporary.

Ruth Borg: “I felt challenged like never before”

What's it like to be central to a production, as you are now? How did you approach your character, and make her journey more palatable to your process?

It is both exciting and intimidating to be so fundamental to a production, especially when considering that by the end of the play the character you are interpreting is slowly deteriorating because of an ongoing terminal illness. It is a very sensitive issue and I often felt burdened by the weight of what is expected from me playing this role. However I decided to leave that at the back of my mind and constantly remind myself that the play is more about Casey and her strong intrigue by the human condition rather than on her illness. I decided to approach this character by focusing on her aliveness, and not on her deterioration.

How do you go about playing a character suffering from a terminal illness without resorting to the maudlin or melodramatic?

It was not hard at all to deviate from the melodramatic because from the first reading of this play one is able to discern the force of this character that will not have any sentimentality, but is fully focused on other things like her job, poetry and her boyfriend. Because she scarcely allows others to see her pain and fatigue when she does, because she can’t help it anymore, those are magical and touching moments in the performance. Ellul did not allow room for Casey to be seen as maudlin or melodramatic. Casey is introspective, but she is not soppy.

What was it about Leanne Ellul’s script that you found attractive, or relatable?

I was mostly captured by the poetry. In the beginning, I, like all actors, was influenced by the written word. Ellul wrote a wonderful piece of dramatic text which explores humanity and touches upon timeless themes. I was fed with information, and each piece of information that I came across was giving me ideas and impulses on how I should appear and walk and sit and speak and so on. The script is very well-crafted and developed and the arch of all the characters and how they are intertwined together is magic. It is not often that I feel this instant connection with a script. Furthermore Casey is more or less my age and we have a lot in common it is also a narcissistic attraction to the character as well.

How would you compare this experience to the other productions you've participated in?

I would start by saying that there’s a long way from reading something to having something result in a good performance in a play. The process involved in achieving a good performance is individual to each performance and luckily for me it has generally been a fascinating experience in many of the performances I have worked in. However this production has been an enormous learning experience for me much more than others have. Jimmy works in a very meticulous way and is so obsessed with quality and the magic of theatre making. He is one of the youngest directors I’ve worked with and his energy and dedication is infectious.

He extrapolated my defects during the first rehearsal, lay them on a table for me to see and we worked on them for the remaining period of rehearsals. I felt challenged as an actress much more than I usually am, and that is the thing I need most at this point in my career. I am rehearsing eight hours a day this was also a first for me.

Moreover, 12 days before opening night we were still re-working scenes discussing how best to execute them. Usually, so close to opening night everything is set in stone. Needless to say, this kept me on my toes and I constantly feel like there is more to explore with Casey and her journey as a character. In view of all this, this performance has been a beautiful adventure and I hope to be working with this great bunch of people soon.

A co-production of the Manoel Theatre and the Rubberbodies Collective with the support of the Arts Council Malta, Ma Rridx Immur will be playing on March 20 and 21 at the Manoel Theatre, Valletta. The rest of the cast includes Ryan Cutajar, Marta Vella and Josette Ciappara

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