Sean Buhagiar has just been appointed the first artistic director of Teatru Malta. Philip Leone-Ganado asks about his vision for the company, growing divisions in the local theatre scene and the risk of the arts scene becoming an echo-chamber.
As a completely new structure, many people still don’t have a very clear idea what Teatru Malta is going to be. Can you elaborate?
It’s a national theatre company, but without walls. It will be produced and co-produced theatre, and will also act as an advocate for theatre in Malta. But ultimately it aims to create – in collaboration and co-production, but also on its own steam.
As it’s not going to be hiring full-time artists, like (national dance company) Żfin Malta, what form will these productions take?
I think having the same creative crew for different projects would mean losing opportunities. This company needs to produce different work for different audiences. It’s going to employ a lot of people, but on a lot of different projects. I want the projects to be artist-led: where the artist is helped to create a project for us.
Why is this needed? And why now?
It’s an opportunity for us to produce work that is not obvious. It should fill in lacunae in the kind of work that’s being produced. There’s a lot to be done in terms of audience engagement and the professionalisation of the sector. By offering more work and collaborating with educational departments and festivals, hopefully in five years we’ll have more people working in theatre.
A company without walls is needed now because we need to decentralise. There’s nothing wrong with a lot being done in Valletta, but there are a lot of opportunities out there. I want Teatru Malta to perform in the Manoel as much as in nightclubs or village squares.
Right now there is a lot of talent and not a lot of collaboration. It’s still about empires.
Do you acknowledge a growing rift between older English-language companies and a newer scene, Arts Council-endorsed, that you largely represent?
No, I wouldn’t call it a rift. I do acknowledge this situation, but I don’t see them as enemies. They complement each other and it’s healthy to have a sector with different views and artistic interpretations. I don’t think that either wants to destroy the other or ‘be better’. Obviously they both fight for their audiences, but that’s healthy for audiences. Teatru Malta should work with both and more – we shouldn’t have a dualism but a wide variety.
A lot of people feel that what is happening is homogenisation. Because the Arts Council has a set of specific priorities, we may be leaning to a place where all theatre fulfils roughly the same goals. Could Teatru Malta be a further step in that direction?
A lot of that would need to be answered by the Arts Council. But as far as Teatru Malta is concerned, homogenisation would not be a good thing. Part of the vision I presented is that it should produce work which isn’t happening right now. So if you’re seeing a lot of the same type of work being produced, Teatru Malta should not produce that sort of work.
Is there any risk of throwing the baby out of the bathwater? Not everything we have now is worth discarding. Could we lose that by striving to do something radically different?
I don’t think there’s that risk because I think what is there should remain. I’m not talking about discarding anything. We shouldn’t try to compete with local producers for audiences.
But you are in a uniquely privileged position. You have the endorsement of the State behind anything you choose to produce, so while you’re not going to be competing with existing companies, anything you actively choose not to pursue could be left to die on its own.
You’re right, and it’s a huge responsibility. Someone once said what is funded is becoming art in today’s world, so it will be difficult to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to particular work. But ultimately the decision is related to a vision.
There is a lot of talent and not a lot of collaboration. It’s still about empires
Private theatre companies can continue to produce their own work and attract audiences. We’re not hindering that in any way, although it’s up to the artist to see how relevant they are to their audience. Not producing the same work is a way of not hindering them.
I don’t want Teatru Malta to produce one particular style; I don’t want to just produce new scripts in Maltese, or adaptations of classics, or site-specific, or new media – I want to produce everything for different audiences, which is why I insist on this artist-led approach.
As a national theatre company, you’re presumably going to be trying to produce work which speaks to or about Malta. What does that mean for Teatru Malta?
I agree that as a national theatre it has to have a Maltese soul. But if it’s a Maltese artist, isn’t it Maltese? What is Maltese, after all? So while I’m very interested in rediscovering Maltese voices and texts – we have a very short memory in terms of theatre here, and we need to inspire new artists to use this work creatively – it should not just be that. The national theatre of Malta could produce a Goldoni play, for example.
Does that extend to language?
Definitely. I believe theatre transcends language. This is not a council promoting Malta. We could produce in no language or we could produce in Syrian, if we’re doing something with refugees.
A large part of your directing experience was with Staġun Teatru Malti, which seemed to have a similar brief – producing contemporary works in Maltese about Malta. To what extent should we expect more of the same?
I disagree completely that it had a similar brief. I think Staġun Teatru Malti was a novel concept in creating text-based theatre in Maltese for Maltese audiences, with a particular flavour. It succeeded in getting larger audiences to texts in Maltese.
I see Teatru Malta as completely different. Obviously one is a private company which produces work for the masses; it was a reaction to years where theatre in Maltese had hiccups. But Teatru Malta should be much more: the programme can’t be just text in Maltese, it can’t be just for majority audiences, and it can’t just be at the Manoel Theatre.
Coming to this role after a number of other positions in the public cultural sphere, do you feel well equipped to bring in an outside voice, or is there a risk that by appointing you we’re just perpetuating an echo chamber?
I wouldn’t have applied if I thought I wasn’t the right man for the job. I’ve worked with a lot of the artists and I’ve lived off the arts for a number of years. If that means working with the public and private sector, creating funded projects... it’s about creating a lot of work to be able to live.
I honestly believe we can bring a change. I don’t want to build an empire. We suffer a lot from empire-building. I want to listen to people who disagree with what I’ve done and create new work together. This is the biggest opportunity I’ve had to change things on a bigger scale.
The question is whether everything is going to change into the same thing. You’re head of Notte Bianca, Teatru Malta and, until recently, the V18 deputy artistic director. That’s three major cultural institutions being led by the same person. Isn’t that putting a very limited set of ideas on the forefront?
I don’t see Teatru Malta as being subject to one artistic director’s idea of what should be produced. I take the responsibility of choosing what we create together, but the vision I presented is of creating the right environment for people to work together. That already challenges the idea of an echo chamber.
You resigned from V18 over a dispute with the V18 artistic director Mario Philip Azzopardi. Given that Teatru Malta will launch its first artistic programme in 2018, should we be worried?
No. I’ve worked with V18 since then on Notte Bianca and I’ll continue to work with V18. It would be a missed opportunity not to. For me, the dispute is in the past. It was a clash which is over. I disagreed with an individual not an entity.
Theatre in Malta has aspirations at professionaliaation but, in terms of working hours, payment and contracts, it remains far behind. Do you think there’s scope for Teatru Malta to offer better?
Definitely. Professionalisation is already one of the most important areas of the Arts Council strategy, but Teatru Malta can help tangibly. We need to speak out and be advocates for theatre.
In the past 10 years there’s been a consistent improvement in the scene, and we could help in achieving an even higher level. But there are still very rudimentary problems.
In education, there’s no accreditation; it’s not clear for people who want to become professionals what path they should take.
It’s crazy: if you want to be an actor, where do you go? Do you go to Drama Centre, School of Performing Arts, private schools, Mcast? The state should make it clearer which path to take to be an actor or a critic.
It needs to be worked out for people who want to be professionals. Teatru Malta needs professionals, because if the best people go abroad or have to take safer jobs, we risk having our projects fall below what they could be.
Professionalisation is a huge task and we can’t solve it on our own, but we have to be a big part of the process.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
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