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Dead Playwrights Revisited

      

 

I anticipate that very soon we will see, once again, a flare up of the debate about the state of theatre in Malta – a debate, it bears repeating, which is not concerned with theatrical activity in general in Malta, (which by and large has shown great consistent vibrancy and activity) – but about the production, or lack thereof, of new local drama written in Maltese. The immediate state of expectancy centres mainly on the convergence of three major contributions which loom on the horizon and their possible effect on the future of this particular art. The three contributions are expected to come, firstly from the publication of the report of the European Union investigative team on the Arts in Malta, secondly, the implementation of the programs of the new Arts Council and, thirdly, a possible shift in the Manoel theatre’s erstwhile lackadaisical approach towards actively promoting new plays at the national theatre, combined with the equally spasmodic output of the bi-annual playwrighting competition.

European Delegation Steering Committee

I had the opportunity to participate in the session in which the European Delegation Steering Committee for the Arts discussed and investigated the section dedicated to drama in Malta and I am sure that their report will pinpoint a few approaches which require immediate attention. Topping the list, in fact, will probably be what must finally be done, with some urgency, to provide local playwrights the opportunity to reach their audience on a national level. Logic tells you that this very topic will also top the agenda of the new Arts Council. If nothing else, I believe the tide of protests has by now established the fact that allowing Maltese theatre the debilitating see-saw between the asthmatic output of the playwriting competition and the equally reluctant support of the Manoel Theatre, cannot continue to stagnate, stall and ultimately, stigmatise, such a vital contribution by our artists – the very writers who ideally should be the portrayers, the voice of the identity of our people. The perceptiveness of the European commentators will, I hope, have avoided the trap of listening only to the same old voices who have run the show for the past decade or so, with the poor showing which has resulted to date. 

The National Arts Council, will, I hope, also steer clear from following the age-old ruts of the predecessors in similar positions. The sometimes lukewarm reception received by the floating of the idea of a National Theatre Project (alternatively equated, wrongly, with a National Theatre Company) as well as the hostile opposition by a few, or the total silence of others who should have spoken up in time, bear all the symptoms of the malady which has stymied the arts in Malta, the clique syndrome that is at the root of all evil. Our small closed society needs opening up. We need to speak up when it matters, not when we fancy we can sneak a prime share of the pie, not when it is politically opportune to appear on prime time. Nor should we speak up merely to camouflage our activities.

Hopefully the authorities that be have learnt their lesson. It is not the publishing of a National Policy for Culture that will solve the problem by itself. The policy statement is admirable – a jewel of perception and the people who worked for it deserve our thanks for this gift to the nation. Let us now make sure that it does not get shanghaied by the very crew that sunk previous expeditions.

The Manoel Theatre will hopefully realise that they should be on the same side of the issue and not simply adopt a knee-jerk reaction to new initiatives because they feel that the have to defend their past performance. The top-notch productions of Maltese plays is a vision that they too must share. The top of the bill of a Manoel drama season is reserved by right, I hope, to new Maltese drama. If it hasn’t been to date, urgent immediate remedy must be provided.

The play-readings, worthwhile and useful as they might turn out to be, are not the answer. They should be an adjunct, an outlet to works in progress, but works which are already available must be put on. Now. Speaking as a playwright, I need all the help I can get to develop a work which is currently in progress. But more than that, I need that plays that are now available be given the chance to reach a national audience, in our national theatre. I do not accept the excuse that there are no playwrights, there are no plays… and that there isn’t an audience. How can I believe that putting play through a playreading so that I can write yet another play is going to help, when I already have plays ready to face an audience? Play readings must not turn out to be a stalling game, a stop gap measure, worse still, an excuse NOT to put on a play in Maltese. I speak of my case because I believe it represents that of most playwrights .

The playwrighting competition failures deserve a separate treatment to do it justice. Suffice to say it has not turned out to be more than a sporadic, unreliable, but above all, frustrating bi-annual venture that sneaks in and out of the national cultural scene, unnoticed, ineffectual and unproductive… but extremely costly! How come the all-important work of cultivating the new plays that entered the competition, never takes place? This is a major failure. It also fails mainly because, apart from handing out the prize money (sometimes it doesn’t even do that!) all that comes out of the competition is a play which, more or else, sticks out in the cultural scene like prostitute in a coming out party… Worse still, the amount of money spent on the production of such a play, away from the limelight of the Manoel theatre, can still add up to thousands of liri. It would be interesting to know how much money it has totaled to organize this year’s competition and to put on the one winning play… at Ta’ Qali! At the people’s expense. 

These two main stays of Maltese drama, the Manoel and the Playwrighting Competition need scrutiny. More than that, they need a shake up. The status quo is a recipe for inertia. An alibi for the indifferent. Worse, a tool in the hands of those who think they have all the bases covered.

The Ministry for Culture has set the vision and is providing the tools and support. It is the human element that has been known to be lacking. The Arts Council has its work cut out for it. It will, I hope, be firm and consistent. Above all, it has to make sure that proactivity is not just a by word. Gleaning any assistance it can get from the EU culture report on Malta will, I hope, give it the insight and the strenght to do what must be done - what we must do. Our artists deserve it. Our audiences too.
 

 
   

Published in the SUNDAY TIMES OF MALTA,
August 11, 200

 

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