Encountering the other | Marcelle Teuma

Rima: Encounter with migrant narratives will be the theatrical iteration of the Rima Project – an artistic and anthropological exploration of migrant narratives in Malta. We speak to director Marcelle Teuma about how she went about transforming the real-life stories of migrants gathered by the project coordinator into a theatrical performance taking place at the end of the month

Marcelle Teuma (far right) directs Sharon Bezzina (left) and Marta Lombardi at the rehearsals for Rima: Encountering migrant narratives • Photo by Virginia Monteforte
Marcelle Teuma (far right) directs Sharon Bezzina (left) and Marta Lombardi at the rehearsals for Rima: Encountering migrant narratives • Photo by Virginia Monteforte

What were your initial impressions for this project when you first joined it, and how did it evolve over time?

I received a phone call from someone I knew who at the time was part of the team that came up with this project. She told me that they were in the process of creating a project and their idea was to narrate stories of migrant women living in Malta. She contacted me to see whether I would be interested in helping them to get these stories narrated through some form of a theatrical event. Of course I was immediately drawn in because as a theatre director I am very interested in making female voices heard.

Eventually this person dropped out and the project took another route that led us towards the narration of migrant stories of women and men originating from various countries around the world. However due to unforeseen circumstances which were totally out of my control the evolution of this “performance” drew us towards an unexpected turn of events whereby four out of the five narratives I have adapted belong to female migrants.

Did you have any ideas about how you wanted to explore the topic of migrant narratives in Malta ahead of the project and if so, how did they develop once you started meeting with the performers?

No, I did not have any ideas how to explore such a topic, at least not until I began to receive the narratives. The creators of this project did not want to hold this event in a theatre building.

They wanted an informal setting, so I came up with the idea of creating an itinerant “performance” within a house, essentially because, to my mind, this is why a migrant is a migrant – because she would have had to leave her birth country, her home, and look for it elsewhere. It was not an easy task to find a house that could host this event and due to logistical problems the project “migrated” to Sala Nobile in Palazzo Pereira, Republic Street, Valletta.

The space is always a determining factor for me in order to begin to explore a theatre project, especially when there is no written text and no theatre building to host it in. This time around, aside from having two established performers, I also wished to have migrants who were willing to collaborate and narrate their own real-life stories. Marta Lombardi and Ali Konate, together with two established performers Sharon Bezzina and Magda Van Kuilenburg, will be giving life to five migrant narratives. In the case of Marta and Ali, they will be narrating their own.

Given that the performance will be devised from ‘real life’ narratives, what is the journey from script to stage like? How do you go about taking real-life stories – subjective, personal narratives – to transpose them onto the stage?

It is extremely difficult to describe such a complex process within the framework of a newspaper interview, and be understood by the reader. They are interesting questions without any doubt but they merit a lengthy explanation. The main ingredients would be: a physical structure, props, tangible metaphors and a pinch of serendipity.

Did you use all of the stories presented to you? If not, by which criteria were they chosen?

No, I did not choose all the stories presented to me. Being real-life stories and under a theme which is common to all the narratives gathered, i.e. searching for a home, my main reasoning was always to find ways of how I will engage spectators who will be willing to come share this experience with us, and how to maintain their attention, enough to get them face-to-face with the complexities of the life of a migrant.

I chose according to the performers I cast for this “performance” and according to the two “migrants” who were willing to take a leap to narrate their own narrative.

What was it like working with both professional and non-professional actors? What are some of the greatest challenges in this regard?

The greatest challenge is probably to be able to get two people who have no theatre training whatsoever and to place them within a setting that is extremely demanding – that of being able to “perform”. Apart from being a theatre director I am also an educator, so I have used my experience in this field in order to find an equilibrium that can withstand all of us put together.

In a sense I do not distinguish between professional and non-professional, but at the same time that I am continuously aware of this reality as I get the four “performers” to grips with what needs to be done. All are doing their utmost and I believe we have something extremely unique to share with our audiences.

As a theatre director I have retained my usual demands, so to speak, so on the one hand the stakes are high especially for Marta and Ali but at the same time I wish that my aim to entice our audiences with a good quality, provocative “performance” will be reached.   

Knowing that the performance dates of Rima also coincide with Unifaun Theatre’s Lampedusa, are you glad that local artists appear to be willing to tackle the subject – from different angles – on the stage?

Unifaun has always been at the forefront of our theatre scene by putting up theatre pieces that are relevant to today’s context. RIMA will have migrants sharing their very own narratives alongside other stories collected from migrants who are living here in Malta. Both initiatives deserve a thumbs-up from the local theatre scene.

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

I think it is more than about time that in Malta we have a state-of-the-art theatre building that hosts theatre performances only. Theatre artists in Malta have no resources to work with, no rehearsal spaces, and no space where a would-be set design can be constructed to be used throughout the rehearsal process.

RIMA: Encounter with migrant narratives will be staged at Palazzo Pereira, Republic Street, Valletta on February 26 and 27 at 20:00. Doors open at 19:30. Entrance is at €10, €12 at the door. Bookings: [email protected]. The Rima Project forms is associated with the Valletta 2018 Foundation and supported by the Malta Arts Fund