The Importance of Being Earnest – Sean Buhagiar
Saturday 27th March 2021, was possibly the saddest World Theatre Day ever since this was instituted. On that day, we noted some concern with our position to focus on R&D and to this effect we are clarifying and explaining our position.
I will start by saying that in the context of protests all over Europe, I understand the anger, frustration and disappointment out there. Europe has seen many theatre practitioners protesting. And we take criticism and protest in this context. But I will also further explain how we came about this decision.
Last year, I wrote an article about how I feel theatre should be put on the same level of the catering industry when discussing Covid measures. Despite the recurring problems with clarity remain, Teatru Malta’s situation now is very different. First of all, let me clarify that this decision has been taken in the context of the local situation of the pandemic. However, if one has a look internationally right now, we are not the only ones currently not producing. National Theatre London? Closed. Teatro Stabile di Torino, Teatro Nazionle? Closed. National Theatre of Strasbourge? Closed. D. Maria II National Theatre in Lisbon? Closed. The Odeon Theatre de L’Europe in Paris performed two productions since last March and then cancelled or postponed fourteen. When asked when they are reopening, Braunshweig – their artistic director – said “I have no answer for when.” The list could go on. They all have no theatre performances for the time being. The latest article I read in neighbouring Italy on World Theatre Day read “Palcoscenico vuoto, sipario chuso, e poltrone fredde”. There are various reasons why we decided to focus on R&D, which I will try and explain.
- Teatru Malta has a line vote of 450K, out of this around 200K of public funds go directly into our programming. This is less than what is spent on some operas or what most local festivals spend in weeks, let alone the theatres I mentioned above. During the pandemic, our recurring agreement with other entities were not renewed as have most of our ministerial collaborations, either due to ministerial changes, budget priorities or issues related to the pandemic. Considering that between 2018 and 2020 an average of over 50% of our programming funds came from other sources and collaborations, you can say that we had more than a 50% budget cut.
- Yet, right now and with the current plan for R&D, we are investing most in artists in our history. Artists that work in the industry are getting more from us now than ever because we have completely slashed our marketing budget, production budgets and put it all into R&D with artists and their collaborators. We are spending less on venue rentals, equipment, marketing and more on our artists than ever before. Last year, Theatre Depożit took more than 25% of our yearly budget and we are developing projects with the successful applicants…
- As you well know, it is not easy to get audiences to the theatre right now. I read with interest MEIA’s position paper on the MTA Tourism Strategy. It said “MEIA will not accept the position of the state as a direct competitor of private enterprise”. This is another reason for our decision. Right now we believe the independent and private sector needs more space to breathe than ever; be it online events or small scale shows. There is access to over one million euro of Restart Funds via ACM available to the independent and commercial sector. There are also other national entities who were doing good work when it was possible in creating shows for small audiences.
- We are very different to these other public cultural organisations. We do not employ actors, dancers, musicians. We do not own a venue of our own and have doors to open or spaces to use. Teatru Malta was modelled differently to international national theatres, we are a flexible company and we can use this to our advantage. In this case, spending tens of thousands to get around 300 people to the theatre is not our priority. Making online video art, or streaming live theatre is not our priority either. Again, a lot of good work has been done in this regard, however we believe that we can take a different position.
- My position on live streamed theatre is similar to Thomas Ostermeier who said that it is “like methadone for heroine addicts”. The Schaubuhne in Berlin in fact decided to stay shut last summer – even though they could have opened – and will only be opening in May this year. Similarly, we decided to use funds for the aforementioned Theatre Depożit last summer and since the situation here is not the same as Germany’s we are working on reopening later on this year.
- We had a production programmed in April called Nouveau Riche, which would have cost around 50K to produce. It is important to note that Teatru Malta needs to pay for a venue, audiovisual set up and all. This production could have had 80 people per night in the venue we had planned. That means a maximum of 400 people for six nights if they’re all full houses, less than one night at the Manoel Theatre. We are the national theatre and the way we see it, we need to produce shows that are special in one way or another, whether it’s process or product; we can’t produce just for the sake of it. We do not want to go for a cheaper version of a show, so that it makes financial sense to get a small audience. That is a commercial perspective we can leave for the private sector.
- We have read that some people are skeptical when it comes to our decision using this time to preserve and plan, rather than producing. We actually believe it could be a great time for planning the future. Veterans like Eugenio Barba said that he sees this a time to keep silent and let gestation prepare the future that will demand all our imprudence. I tend to agree.
- Whilst both methods and perspectives (opening now at all costs vs R&D and preservation) have their pros and cons, we decided to go for this and I, as the artistic director, take full responsibility for this. This is even harder for our team… We are built as a production company and instead of being in production mode for three performances, we are now working on fourteen projects in R&D besides other initiatives.
- We never said all theatres should take this position, or that all public funded organisations should go into R&D. We look forward to independent initiatives funded by the Covid Restart grant and festivals happening throughout summer and autumn. What we said is that in the context of all of the above we are going to be working differently, for now. We’re still making theatre, rehearsing, writing scripts, developing sets and composing music. We’re not waiting, we’re just not selling tickets right now.
- This will be over. Science and History both agree that it will be over and most of science and history also show us it takes around three years to do. What will be left after? We will come out with a rehearsal space we can use and offer to artists; the publication of our classics and new writing project; 14 developed productions to be programmed in the next three or four years thus trying to avoid a lost generation of artists due to “a production jam” (read here).
- On world theatre day we wanted to acknowledge the fact that we all miss theatre. We also announced that we received a grant and the honour to host the first post-covid conference of the European Theatre convention; we issued calls for a masterclass with world renowned theatre makers Cheek by Jowl. In spite of the scepticism, we promise you there is a lot happening.
We did not rush a decision. We had a lot of plans, discussed it with a lot of local and international colleagues. We thought about this decision, read about this situation day and night. We’re now confident that this is the right way forward for Teatru Malta right now. I am sorry if we have let some of you down.
Finally, what we do want to make crystal clear is that despite any scepticism and disagreement, we are here to listen, discuss and engage. Teatru Malta has worked with artists of all ages, schools, leanings, sexualities, political and religious beliefs. We do not care what you disagree with, we care about your art. We are on social media, on email, and now have initiatives like the AFE, where it’s even nicer to disagree than to agree.
Criticism can feed decisions and we feel we are approachable in that way. So send us an email, comment, post. Feel free to interact, agree or disagree. We can always still work together.
Have a good day.