Polishing up for perfection

Teodor Reljic speaks to playwright, theatre director and actor Malcolm Galea about Get Your Act Together, an initiative aiming to encourage up-and-coming playwrights by providing mentorship and funds, and which will be enjoying its first showcase at the upcoming edition of Science in the City

“Maltese theatre-makers seem to be a bit spoilt in the way that we see potential venues”. Photo by Jacob Sammut
“Maltese theatre-makers seem to be a bit spoilt in the way that we see potential venues”. Photo by Jacob Sammut

What were some of the initial ideas that led to Get Your Act Together? Did you notice a lack of engaged feedback for aspiring playwrights?

Ever since I started working in Maltese theatre in 2003, I’ve noticed that it’s been steadily evolving. The standard that audiences have come to see and expect has been steadily rising and even the way that companies are running their productions has been leaning towards the professional. Of course, there’s still a fair way to go but we felt we’d be remiss if we didn’t contribute to this evolution in some way.
Currently, almost all local playwrights write plays as a pastime and consequently they have the luxury to work on projects that are relevant to them that may however have a limited relevance.

Even people such as myself who write full-time have the nature of our work dictated by potential audience appeal, with relevance often taking a back seat. One of the primary aims of Get Your Act Together is to commission and mentor playwrights that are ready to create works that are relevant while also being appealing to local and international audiences.
However the main objective of the project is to alter the life cycle of locally-created theatre pieces.

Currently, a new play would be written either in Maltese or English and performed for between one and three weekends before being put away – cutting off any further development prospects. Even your average play by Francis Ebejer, arguably Malta’s most celebrated playwright, is unlikely to have been performed more than 50 times at most since it was first written. This severely curtails the development process. Get Your Act Together aims to counter this first by having the plays written gradually over a number of drafts, and then having them performed at different regional theatres with a week in between each performance.

This week would give the writer and production team time to respond to audience feedback and amend certain parts of the work. The idea is that by the end of the writing and performance periods, the plays will be closer to being perfected, with a realistic potential for further development at international festivals.

How do you hope that Get Your Act Together will offer something different in this sphere, than what has been offered by different entities in the past?

Pretty much everything that Get Your Act Together offers has been already offered by other initiatives in the past – although not as a whole. There are already entities that commission specific works over a number of drafts (Staġun Teatru Malti), others that perform an original play weekly or bi-weekly over a number of months (The Comedy Island), and of course there are several village companies that make use of venues outside Valletta. Get Your Act Together however will do all three at the same time.
Our focus is on producing work that will be relevant nationally as well as internationally and that can be easily exported to international festivals – mostly through resourceful casting and design.

What can you tell us about the first two scripts that have been chosen, and why do you think they make for an interesting starting point for this initiative?

Lizzie Eldridge’s play focuses on a widow who lost her teenage son to a drug overdose. In Eldridge’s poetic style we see the protagonist’s plan to plant a tree in the field where her son died thwarted by a developer’s plans to build a complex right over her son’s memory. It’s a very stirring piece that touches upon a number of sore points in the Maltese psyche while also being relatable on an international level.

Gianni Selvaggi is a younger writer and his piece focuses on a young man on the cusp of independence being diagnosed with a potentially terminal illness. Finding some wonderfully comedic moments in a very dark situation, Selvaggi’s protagonist makes a number of discoveries about life while dealing with a number of crippling situations.

Both pieces are relevant and relatable across several demographics and nationalities.

The event forms part of Science in the City. How do these scripts conform to the brief of celebrating both science and the arts?

We’re currently living in the Scientific Revolution where concepts that humankind has taken for granted for centuries are being systematically questioned and turned on their heads. It’s only natural that this would also be reflected in our theatrical output – just like how in bygone days theatre would have had a strong theme of philosophy, religion, empire, morality, and so on… Many exciting contemporary writers like Duncan Macmillan and Nick Payne infuse their plays with themes ranging from environmental awareness to quantum physics, so we jumped at the chance of a partnership with Science in the City.

Both selected plays have a scientific theme – mainly psychology, environmental sustainability and health. Applicants for the programme were informed beforehand that the selection process would take scientific content in mind. This also served the function of making the prospective playwrights propose pieces that would tick certain boxes – a fundamental skill for anyone hoping to operate professionally.

Finally, how do you hope that Get Your Act Together evolves in the near future?

On one level, we hope to keep contributing to the way in which plays are written locally – thereby giving Maltese works a fighting chance at a productive development curve. On a secondary level, we also hope to contribute towards altering the way that local theatre practitioners see theatres as well as people’s attitude to local theatre.

Maltese theatre-makers seem to be a bit spoilt in the way that we see potential venues and we keep retuning to the same handful of spaces – often opting to scrap a play if none of them happen to be available. However anyone who sees the excellent plays staged in lecture halls and hotel rooms at the Edinburgh Fringe would know that good theatre can be staged pretty much anywhere. Even in Malta I’ve seen some great plays in very unusual (and well-attended) venues such as catacombs (Inwardly Silent by Creative Island, 2017) and vaults (B’Sogħba Kbira by Bakkanti Troupe, 2016) but we can afford to have much more of that.

People’s attitudes might be the hardest to change, but that would come with time, quality, and accessibility. At the Edinburgh Fringe, I love hearing elderly people discuss plays they’ve watched and young people in regional accents argue loudly over what a theatre piece meant to them. It would be great if Get Your Act Together could contribute to the local push towards eventually achieving such a goal goal.

Get Your Act Together will be presenting a read-through event as part of Science in the City on September 29. The initiative is spearheaded by More or Less Theatre, with the support of the Valletta 2018 Foundation and the Malta Arts Fund within Arts Council Malta. More information: https://scienceinthecity.org.mt/event/get-your-act-together/