As you walk down Strait Street, a woman’s voice guides you through the long, narrow corridor filled with remnants of the British colonisation era.
At a normal-looking corner, she whispers a fragment of its history in your ear. No, you’re not crazy and hearing voices. The sound comes from headphones which are part of a performance called the Strada Stretta Experience. It is a fitting opening event for Altofest, which is best explained as intimate theatre to be felt up close.
The theme is simple. Find a space donor who will accept an artist into their house, who will then create a performance in that house. A number of performances in different houses across the locality happen one after the other. All this makes up the Altofest experience.
The concept is new to me, and I would be lying if I said that I understood it from the get-go. Like the experience itself, it took me the full course of a lengthy interview I had with Giovanni and Anna, the organisers of this experience, for the message they want to convey to fully sink in.
It all started in Naples eight years ago and has become a yearly event. According to Anna Gesualdi, the main aim of the performances was to “bring contemporary performing art closer to the people by jumping the mediation of exhibition”.
As we talk over coffee, however, it is clear that the concept of Altofest is more complicated than that. Anna says: “It’s not a question of ticket prices, it’s a question of culture”. The Altofest Malta shows in fact have few spectators, around 10 to 15 each, with booking mandatory. These spectators build relationships with each other as they go to the different shows of the day. In Giovanni’s words, “it is a community that is bound through the experience of art.”
Although they had an idea in mind, the Altofest members had only ever done the theatre productions in Naples. It took some time for the Italians to come to understand Maltese culture and personality.
Valentina, one of the photographers documenting Altofest Malta, says that Maltese society is private. It was the biggest problem and yet the greatest thing about working with Maltese space-donors. “You wouldn’t have the option to go into people’s homes because it’s a very private thing for Maltese society.” Valentina said. “That was a privilege.” It was one of the things why Valentina was attracted to the Altofest project in the first place, since it allowed her to get the chance to explore beauty for its own sake. “It allows me to see how to get a lot of visual and intellectual stimuli by different artists. It’s like going through theatre but in very different forms.”
Anna and Giovanni said that it was clear that the Maltese had gone through a period of British colonisation.
“A Maltese person has the structure of an English person, but he can’t afford it because he is Mediterranean. They are English, but they are not cold like the English. They are warm. Their timing is a Mediterranean timing, but this is compressed in an English structure. And you see this conflict.”
Anna said that this tied in with Altofest, as they wanted to focus on the daily life of Maltese people while conveying a particular point of view. “We looked into cities which were less affluent, and had a particular point of view on the geography of Malta. So that way we had a complete map”.
This gave me a good idea of the whole idea of Altofest Malta, but about the space-donors themselves? How did they feel about the experience?
In the tightly spaced corridors of Żejtun, with the ringing of the parish church in the background, I found Katie Vella, one of the Altofest space donors.
Katie is an immensely energetic person, both in the way she talks and the way she bustles around, handing me the leaflets of the Altofest Malta and showing off her lacework and her house.
She confesses that she was never a big fan of the theatre. Not because she disliked it, but rather because she could never stand sitting down doing nothing for two hours while watching a show. “It’s not because I don’t like theatre, but I need to be doing something”. She emphasises by showing me her lace pillow, which keeps her fingers busy as she watches her television.
Initially, Katie had reservations about becoming a space donor, as she was afraid she wouldn’t be able to communicate with the artists. “At first I was very shy, because although I knew English, I was rusty”. Despite this, she managed to get along well with the large group of Greek artists who came to live with her for a few weeks.
Some might say that the whole idea is kind of an elitist way to conduct theatre. Indeed, I feel like Valletta 2018 could have done a better job at advertising the event, so that it could have reached out to a wider audience. As it was, it was the friends of the space donors as well as the people in the Valletta 18 circles who knew most about it.
Consequentially this meant that it possibly could have run into the issue that Giovanni mentioned of friends not having the whole connecting experience. Such an intimate experience was limited to the few. With that said, it is obvious that Altofest Malta was a success, boasting full bookings on all performances.
What is certain is that it is an interesting and novel way to perform theatre - much more intense and with a close-up feel even for those with no pretension of understanding theatre.
Sam Farrugia is a journalism student at the University of Malta and part of the British Council's Capturing Valletta student journalists project.