Our Man In Malta on His Semi-Annual Theatrical Pilgrimage

Collapse performed in Unifaun Theatre, St. James Cavalier. Photo by Darrin Zammit Lupi

Every two and a half years over the past decade, I’ve had the opportunity to go to Malta and direct a play. After more than 25 years in the business, I rarely direct locally because most local theaters don’t pay; they’re too busy chasing audiences to do anything adventurous, so there isn’t much opportunity to work if you consider what you do a vocation instead of a hobby.

I’ve written about those local theatrical deficits in more detail before in the Weekly, as well as a feature article in American Theatre, so I’ll leave you to Google those two pieces to fill you in on that winter of my discontent, as well replace any gaps you have in your knowledge about Europe’s smallest member of the EU. An island packed with experienced actors and actresses routinely working in TV, stage and film, I’ve only needed to bring U.S. talent with me to Malta once before, and that’s because the producer thought a Maltese actor would get arrested.

Then I was offered Collapse.

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Photo by Darrin Zammit Lupi

Unifaun Malta’s artistic director, Adrian Buckle, gave me a draft of his play to read in 2015. Set in a dystopian future, it was the story of a young woman being the caretaker for her mentally challenged boyfriend. Another woman enters and throws things into chaos.

It was a bit of a mess back then, written by the playwright in a fit of anger at local censorship boards in the country, his rage unfocused and gratuitous, the sex and nudity graphic enough to scare off Maltese actors. They were intrigued, but they passed on work that required them to doff their duds amid such a small community.

It’s that little tidbit that pushed Buckle to ask me to cast and direct the play here in Orange County, instead of directing and opening the play in his home country. I lined up Ashley Elizabeth Allen from Long Beach and Whitney Ellis from Los Angeles, as well as two actors I’d worked with regularly, Jeffrey Kieviet and Bryan Jennings, the latter of whom had gone to the island with me 10 years prior.

After several rewrites, we had a script with an expanded scope and a revitalized feminist viewpoint just in time for #MeToo. We rented space at the Garage Theatre in Long Beach for several weeks (it’s Allen’s home theater). Buckle’s first language isn’t English, so even though he’s writing in a language that he uses regularly, he agreed to let the five of us reshape, cut and suggest new dialogue that would sharpen his work.

During the previous three months, I worked with Maltese and Italian designers over Skype and Facebook direct messages, answering questions about the look of the show. We were basically left alone while we worked out the play’s kinks, ending up cutting six pages of Buckle’s sophomore effort, streamlining some of its fantasy sequences, and tagging the play with a coda that delivered on its promise of redemption.

And then Arts Council Malta paid to fly everyone out.

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Photo by Darrin Zammit Lupi

We were all put up in a three-bedroom flat in the fishing village of Marsaskala.

I had designer and technical meetings immediately. The cast had two days to rest up from jet lag before jumping into rehearsals. In the interest of keeping my cast as healthy as possible, I let them have the bedrooms—with Jennings and Kieviet sharing one—while I slept on the couch. My back didn’t always think it was the best idea, but it allowed the actors a certain level of privacy, as well as a chance to focus solely on the play.

There were no distractions except the glorious vistas of the bay. There was no TV or news from the States in the flat; Wi-Fi kept us in communication with the outside world, but only if we pursued it.

Three weeks later, the show opened, and the two professional critical responses that have been published so far were overwhelmingly positive.

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Photo by Darrin Zammit Lupi

I’m home. The actors have another week, ending their run March 4, and then they’re on their way home with a paycheck in hand and another bullet point on their CV.

I emailed them about their thoughts on the experience of the play, as well as living and performing in Malta.

KIEVIET: In most of the community–theater shows I do, we tend to have a small backstage presence, if any.

ALLEN: One of the best parts that I wasn’t anticipating about the actual experience here in Malta has been both the professionalism and kindness of the crew. It is an astounding experience to act in a show with such a full and committed team backstage.

KIEVIET: The tech and crew of Collapse have been an army holding us up. I have never worked on a show so full of props and costume pieces and food. Every night, the crew has to repaint the set!

ELLIS: The team that Adrian put together exceeded my expectations. Even when we had long days, the morale was higher than most.

OC WEEKLY: Thoughts on the play itself?

ALLEN: The creative process—getting to help shape and craft a new work—has been incredibly collaborative and rewarding. Everybody brought their best critical, artistic mind and contributed so much.

KIEVIET: My favorite part of this experience is how all-consuming it has been. Some of the long days were challenging, but getting to so fully immerse myself in a project has been a dream come true. I’ve never gotten to do this much research for a role or be so involved in the creation of such an expansive show.

JENNINGS: The best and the worst part of this experience was the same for me. It was working with an original piece of writing [that] I found exciting and frustrating, often at the same time.

Bryan, what’s it like being back after a decade?

JENNINGS: It has been really interesting. I can feel that the culture has changed and moved on. People don’t seem to be as religious or uptight as they were in 2008. This probably has to do with the size of the houses we’re playing to; it’s harder to shock and surprise now. [Visually,] there’s building construction all around, and the general infrastructure has improved greatly.

How about the rest of you? What are your thoughts on Malta?

KIEVIET: A favorite part has been sitting in a café with a full English breakfast in my stomach, sipping an Americano and looking out at the Mediterranean.

ELLIS: My least favorite part is having to leave this gorgeous island when the show is done.

Dave Barton has written for the OC Weekly for over twenty years, the last eight as their lead art critic. He has interviewed artists from punk rock photographer Edward Colver to monologist Mike Daisey, playwright Joe Penhall to culture jammer Ron English.

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