The sea is never too far and this ever-present force has shaped much of our history and culture. Rachel Agius talks to Jimmy Grima, artistic director of The Rubberbodies Collective, about the way the sea inspired its upcoming Malta Arts Festival performance.
Throughout these past years The Rubberbodies Collective has earned itself a reputation for weird and wonderful theatre, productions that push the envelope of reality just that little bit further.
These 50 minutes of live theatre are an opportunity to move away from the normal formula of straight theatre or film and give an endless myriad of provocations
Spearheaded by performing artist Jimmy Grima, the Collective is taking part in this year’s Malta Arts Festival with a piece that was especially commissioned for this year’s programme: Old Salt: (A) Portrait of Seamen, an outdoor theatre performance that hardcore theatre lovers are eagerly anticipating.
Combining the Valletta Grand Harbour as a backdrop and a dedicated team of performers, the production focuses on the maritime history of the area, particularly the stories of lost seafarers and the people who were left behind to remember them.
“Our work might come across as abstract, however the basis of this abstraction is a lot of research and development work,” explains Grima.
The research in question was carried out in collaboration with Liam Gauci, the curator of the Malta Maritime Museum and developed extensively to incorporate the work of several artists in true Rubberbodies tradition.
“The initial idea of this work comes from 18th-century Malta and all the captains and corsairs living around the port. Liam started us off by giving us some concrete historical references to such men at sea and I realised that our scenery at the port is somewhat fantastical,” Grima says.
The ensuing rich and fascinating narratives offered the perfect platform for he Rubberbodies Collective’s unique approach. Born in September 2009, it sought to bring together artists from different fields, giving them the opportunity to collaborate.
It all started happening soon after Grima got together with Rebecca Camilleri, fresh from Dartington College of Arts, to work on a project together. The group came to life once another collaborator, artist Matthew Pandolfino, joined.
“The collective has two main areas of focus,” Grima explains. “The first is to give as much administrative support to the artists as possible; the second is to encourage more artists to interact with the collective.”
Having been awarded the Investing in Excellence (INVEX) fund in 2011, these goals are being met.
“The INVEX fund allows us to organise our administration team better, which is an invaluable step forward for the collective,” says Grima. With progress comes innovation. Grima explains that the group’s main focus is the sea – previous projects include White Sea and Lore of the Sea, both created in 2011. Old Salt continues in this vein.
However, this event presents a number of new elements and challenges to the collective. Previous productions have involved abandoned spaces and indoor installations.
“This is the first time we are working in the open air and it is the first time that we have a live quartet playing,” Grima says.
The music of composer and sound designer Mario Sammut will be played on three cellos and one violin, bringing to life the sounds of the salt water, which plays such a pivotal role in the performance. In collaboration with Dr Arndt Kremer as co-writer, four actors will give voice to the past, through the wives, mothers, sisters and lovers whom the sea robbed of their men.
The collective firmly believes in including the general public in the creation of their productions – these stories are in fact theirs and their ancestors’.
“In all our previous projects, we always had a session with students. However this time, working in Vittoriosa, I thought it was only right to give something back,” Grima says.
“We asked the Malta Arts Festival to give the general dress rehearsal to the Vittoriosa community. On the July 11, prior to the premiere, we are giving out 300 free tickets to the residents.”
The element of social and community life underlies a crucial aspect of the performance. The oral narrative, passed down through generations, was a starting point for this project.
“We have incorporated a lot of stories and a lot of different ways to tell them,” Grima says. “This production is about these stories and everything that surrounds them, mainly their symbols and archetypes, the tones and rhythms which are transcribed within them.”
The narratives at the heart of the project will be the subject of a short novel and then, possibly, a graphic novel, to be produced later in the year.
“These 50 minutes of live theatre are, for me, an opportunity to move away from the normal formula of straight theatre or film and give a myriad of provocations and tickling to the imagination of every person in the audience,” he says, adding that his traditional, formal training as an actor has led him to want to challenge the imagination in new ways.
While traditional oral histories are not as frequently heard or spoken as they once were, suffering at the hands of the instant communication and archiving potential of internet technology, Grima believes there is still room for a story.
“There is a lot of work being done for Maltese literature and film and I think we are contributing towards it as well,” Grima notes. “I hope that it is not simply a revival but more of a development, a very well-researched development.”
For the collective, research and historical context have always held sway in the evolution of its projects but the methods and style highlight a change in the position of the artist.
“Because of difficulties and conflicts the modern world is facing, people are very much concerned with ‘survival’ rather than ‘enlightenment’,” Grima says.
“I think the artist, rather than seeking attention and patronage, shifts attention and focus towards the people and their struggles, be they economic, political or spiritual.”
Old Salt aims to do just that – to expose the complex entanglement of history, narrative, memory and theatre, to people who, whether they realise it or not, are both the source and the product of this age-long conversation.
Old Salt will be performed at the Grand Harbour Marina, Vittoriosa, on July 12, 13 and 14 at 9 p.m. Tickets are €15 (€10 with concessions).
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