Measure for Measure – Sean Buhagiar

First of all, I believe we should be proud of our country’s medical reaction to the Covid-19 Pandemic. As it is, I feel we are considerably lucky when it comes to the health repercussions this pandemic could have had on our island. In fact, we are currently already seeing the country defibrillate its economy. A lot of sectors are slowly re-starting with the hope that the new normal summons a better version of ourselves; a better relationship with this earth. 

Will the arts be allowed to be better too? I have been working professionally in the arts for the last 15 years and I can safely say that Covid-19 has surely been the most violent storm in our wuthering heights. Nonetheless, I am one that believes that the performing arts, and all the arts for that matter, will pull through; they always have, because of the savage necessity for artists to make art. I have no doubt that theatre will survive because it has survived many a pandemic, religious and political repression and much worse. However, it is the industry which is at stake here, or industries even. Years and years of work by people who have tried to bring our cultural sphere to the fore of economic policy. Years of risks and sweat by artists who have taken the leap to have their ethic meet their aesthetic and live off their art. According to the 2016 creative economy report update, the arts registered an average employment growth of 6% per annum between 2010 and 2015, and I believe that newer research will show further growth in the sector up until Covid-19.

The current situation in the performing arts reminds me of the first pages of Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse. The mother says that the weather will be fine tomorrow, not the likeliest of presumptions in the Scottish Hebrides; so James, the youngest is doing handsprings because he will get to visit the lighthouse until, Woolf writes: “But,” said his father, stopping in front of the drawing-room window, “it won’t be fine.” To me, the mother here is the positive attitude of the government, James is our industry, and the current regulations are the father.

I’ll explain. Local and international research has shown that the performing arts have taken a huge hit. This hit has been significantly mitigated by the fact that government, as advocated by Arts Council Malta, has treated artists on par with other employers and employees that have been similarly hit and provided an emergency wage for freelancers and employees in the arts sector. That was wonderful news. As things developed, both restrictions and wages were lessened and major industries such as tourism have been given boosts and guided to restart with our airport scheduled to reopen. The arts however were given a hedged promise. As we are seeing, it is extremely difficult for publicly funded theatres and cultural entities to create quality work because the process of making such work now has significant complications. Moreover, I believe the current regulations make it practically impossible for the private sector to get back to make theatre on their own steam. Now, this can create a dangerous environment if those who work in or for the public sector decide that the way forward is to use existing funding to fill that hole. It will be the nail in the coffin for our independent and alternative sector. As Artistic Directors of National Cultural entities, we want to choose from the best, we don’t want to decide who is the best. There is a big difference.  

The arts are a young industry on the island, and the live arts have been slowly growing into a strong community where the independent and alternative sector constantly strives for audiences and income. Entities such as ours, Teatru Malta, have made audience development their primary priority because we believe it is the current way forward for the industry’s sustainable growth. However, we have done so in collaboration with many freelancers and professionals, not alone.  The centre is only as strong as the periphery; if that dies we are all bound to suffer in the quality of the work we produce. 

We’ve been hearing that this pandemic is now an opportunity. It is, it must be. For local theatre, this can be an opportunity to focus on newer local work, to create smaller tourable projects, to decentralize better and give our larger venues time to re-structure and refurbish. The opportunities are there, that is why we need to urgently sit down together with the decision makers to make these opportunities possible. What I am proposing as a first step is that the people behind the restrictions meet us and make us part of these conversations. I’m sure these restrictions are written with the noblest of intentions, however we need some explanations. 

We need to sensitise the powers-that-be to the importance of closer consultation and collaboration with authorised spokespersons for the cultural sector: for ease of communication, the ideal entity with whom to consult is the Arts Council Malta that acts as an umbrella for no less that eleven Public Cultural Organisations besides funding independent artists and organisations. It is glaring that arts organisations were not part of these conversations. In fact, I sense that the whole sector feels that the current conditions do not really make sense. Do we really need to be practically 25 people in a 100-seat theatre, whilst seeing over a hundred people dancing in a club? Why can a 65-year-old person go to work in an office, but can’t share a stage with a fellow actor? Why is staff allowed to work together in a kitchen but our backstage staff needs to be 2 metres apart? It has just been announced that the 75 person limit on mass gatherings will also be lifted. Will this apply to theatres? Did it ever apply? These situations are heart-breaking for most of our theatre makers. At least, explain to us why these regulations are in place and how experts came up with them. Most of us experience risk assessments every week, we do this for a living. Directors dance around spatial restrictions, budgetary restrictions and all sorts of other restrictions. We know what we are doing and we will understand. Let us be part of the discussion so that we can do our best to make this work together. Just like bars and restaurants have their clientele, we have our audiences. We really want to bring back those who came to watch us and keep working to bring those who didn’t.

Theatres have opened in various countries around the world to varying degrees of restrictions. From Croatia to China, many have clear guidelines documents and funding plans in place for the industry. In Germany the government announced a package of support for the cultural sector worth approximately €1 billion; in the Netherlands the government issued an additional package of €300 million to support the arts and to invest in employment in the sector; and in New Zealand, Creative New Zealand has welcomed the biggest government investment in the arts for two decades following an announcement that the Government will inject an additional €14.4 million into Creative New Zealand’s funding to support artists, creative practitioners and arts organisations across the next two years. As the European Theatre Convention stated in their recent letter to the EU: Culture is not a luxury, but an integral part of our democratic societies; culture has social and economic importance to overcome the crisis and create the future of Europe. We all like to believe we’re generally more useful than an English Breakfast (or a Gin & Tonic) to the country’s wellbeing, that is why we want to be treated on par with these industries when it comes to the relaxation of regulations and the incentives to restart. We want to be aided to get back to making theatre, without fear of breaking the law, or breaking the bank. This is my second point; a further relaxation of the restrictions will not be enough. 

I honestly believe that there is a general anxiety in our sector because theatre makers are not sure whether they are being lazy by not doing anything, or insurgent if they do. It is just not clear if we’re incentivising the arts or whether we are still scared of them. The second step in my opinion is to further incentivise production. There was a strong argument by the government detailing how much money Maltese people spend abroad during a calendar year. The government therefore promised that it will do its best to incentivise the Maltese to spend the same amount in Malta this summer. However, when abroad, I doubt anyone spends their hard cash solely on accommodation and dining out. People watch theatre, musicals, circus shows and visit museums and cultural venues. It would make a lot of sense for these vouchers available for arts and culture too; If it is an issue as to which events should be accepted; I am sure Arts Council can help with that. Alas, I don’t think that will be enough. Following an overproduction of streamed, broadcasted and online projects, we need to go back to the live arts, slowly but surely.  It is up to us to regain the audience’s trust and interest. But it can only happen industrially if the sector is incentivised. With the right incentives and programming, we have seen attendance at bars & restaurants slowly increase, albeit with significant examples of non-conformity with the regulations. It seems that propensity to risk visiting such places increases when seeing others attend. So, even though people will most probably feel safest when a vaccine is available, it is also not true that people will not go to the theatre before there is one. This is why we also need direct funding and tax incentives for producers and freelancers to go back to making live performance right now. 

Besides the audiences, these same producers and freelancers need to train themselves and their staff to adhere to this post Covid-19 era. It is not as simple as disinfecting the space after use. From our front of house staff to our stage managers, there is a whole lot of insecurity and scepticism on how these systems will work in our public theatres, let alone our private theatres. Without the incentives and the opportunity to create at this point, professionals may lose the confidence and scope to create again if these restrictions remain in place. 

I read with great hope that the Ministry for National Heritage, the Arts and Local Government in collaboration with Arts Council Malta (ACM) is setting up a COVID-19 Transition Arts Advisory Group to support the lifting and adaptation of COVID-19 measures. I hope to see a presence of the private and freelance sector involved and that the discussions lead to much needed explanations, guidance, and assistance. These discussions between the public and private sector can also lead to coordinated planning to help avoid future chaotic cultural calendars post COVID-19. I fear we are already probably looking at an oversaturated, exhausting cultural calendar in 2021/2022 if we don’t. Even so, I really believe that the current restrictions for theatre-making should be re-thought as fast as possible:  every day that passes can mean less jobs, less energy, more anxiety for a sector that has been growing up courageously during the past years. They deserve better. Draconian rules and regulations without consultation and guidance processes do not help.

I think many of us feel there are currently too many weights and too many measures. We only want to be treated measure for measure; we need to be given the same security as other sectors, because as the Bard put it in that famous problem play: “Our doubts are traitors, and make us lose the good we oft might win, by fearing to attempt.”