Teatru Manoel is back
Teatru Manoel is back
October 9, 2021|
11 min read
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From left: Marthese Zammit, Massimo Zammit and Kate Fenech Field. Photos: Matthew Mirabelli
Teatru Manoel is finally reopening its doors on October 29 after the pandemic-enforced hiatus with one mission: to attract as diverse an audience as possible and instil a passion for the arts in the next generation of theatre lovers. ADRIANA BISHOP meets three key players who are driving the 290-year-old theatre into an exciting future, re-establishing it as the “people’s theatre”.
Massimo Zammit is a man with many plans. Appointed CEO of Teatru Manoel in November of that fateful year we all want to forget, he could not have started at a more challenging time within the arts business. Today, just weeks before the theatre reopens its doors, albeit to a restricted audience, his enthusiasm is evident as he lists the numerous projects currently underway. While the curtain was down, the third oldest working theatre in Europe embarked on a full rejuvenation treatment and, if all goes to plan, can look forward to a most dynamic new phase in its history. 
And it doesn’t stop at the expertly restored facade and new doors we can already admire from outside. It doesn’t even stop at the sparkling new Murano glass chandelier to rival the Phantom’s, not to mention the matching sconces. The Manoel, as we affectionately know it, is not only investing in infrastructure but, more crucially, is investing in the next generation of artists and audience who are, after all, the beating heart of the theatre.
A theatre for all
When Grand Master Manoel de Vilhena commissioned and personally paid for the construction of the theatre in 1731, his intention was to have a “teatro publico… for the honest recreation of the people”. All people. Somewhere along the years, a visit to the Manoel became synonymous with a certain class of people. 
Senior executive secretary Marthese Zammit.
When Marthese Zammit, now Senior Executive Secretary, first started working in the booking office 40 years ago, the smart crowd of regulars would be in their furs and fineries. 
Operas, operetti and concerts were the most popular performances in the 1970s as the English, who had been so instrumental in promoting amateur dramatics on the island, were preparing to leave following Malta’s independence. “The calendar was always busy even back then. We were always in full swing. There would be a concert every Tuesday and plays from Wednesdays to Sundays. It was always a busy week.
”The dress code has since been relaxed, but the theatre has had to work hard to reach out to a younger and more diverse audience outside its hugely popular Christmas panto. 
Toi Toi learning and participation programme, now in its tenth year, has worked wonders to attract even the youngest children to the hallowed halls of the theatre, but pandemic restrictions have clipped its wings somewhat forcing programme director Kate Fenech Field to reinvent their current productions as an online experience, since the already limited space does not make it possible for Toi Toi to open its doors at present.
When you consider that Toi Toi is very much a “participation” programme, any limitation on that crucial element makes it very difficult to operate. “We have had to adapt – and creative people are used to that,” says Kate. “But there is only so much adapting we can do. Watching something on your screen cannot compare to live theatre. I can’t wait to have the little ones back live in our theatre space and see their reactions, their giggles. Honestly, it’s worth everything. We have a very long list of things we want to do, but most of these are now forced into 2022, and I’m really hopeful that we will be able to do it. What we can say is that one of our major projects currently in the pipeline has the possibility of reaching every primary school child in Malta.” 
Taking theatre to the children
The day before our Zoom chat, Kate had been auditioning young opera singers to join Toi Toi’s youth programme. They will be spending the next few months working with professional composers to create a musical score that will be performed on the theatre’s main stage next April. A theatre group tutored by Charlotte Grech and a dance group led by Welsh dance tutor Douglas Comley will also be working in parallel, albeit separate, bubbles. All three groups are being offered the opportunity to follow these courses for free and, from May 2022, can further their training through masterclasses and workshops. 
Learning and participation programme manager Kate Fenech Field.
“Toi Toi has had a huge impact on the local artistic scene over the past decade. There is a high demand for such courses. Since Toi Toi’s inception multiple theatre groups have formed. We’ve influenced that, and that can only be good for theatre in Malta. We have some incredible young artists, and we funnel that back into our work for our young audience. Through the Toi Toi Collective we now have a group of artists – who have trained under our own wing – devising and delivering, engaging, sometimes challenging, new productions,” says Kate. 
“When we think about the future of the arts and culture, I don’t think we should do so insularly. We cannot think solely of Malta and our own experiences. We are part of the EU, and this is part of our story. We can benefit from influences, but also, more broadly, this pandemic has had a globally devastating impact on theatre and the culture sector in general. Seeing the back-to-business approach from theatres in London and New York, regarding the relaxation of socially-distanced seating, is what we are wanting to see here. This is not just part of us reflecting on ourselves, but also opening outwards towards global issues. That is what theatre is to me – not just reflecting our own story, but also giving a voice to opposing points of view, encouraging critical thinking and acceptance from a young age.
”While restrictions remain in place, Toi Toi’s season will feature some innovative productions under the title Theatre-On-Film. Is this OK?, for 14 to 21-year-olds, is a theatrical piece produced by artists of the same age group as their intended audience and tackles the delicate issue of consent following the #MeToo movement. The performance has been filmed and will be released for free viewing before the end of the year. The Storm, produced by an all-female cast, is a timely piece delving into how children talk about anxiety and how they cope with emotions. The filmed performance will be released as one of their special events to celebrate Toi Toi’s tenth anniversary and the achievements of their alumni.
Kate also revealed that plans are underway to bring Toi Toi into the community and they are working with local councils and schools to reach out directly to children. 
Interesting times ahead
A survey on theatre attendance commissioned earlier this year by Teatru Manoel showed that individuals from the Northern Harbour and Western regions of Malta were more likely to attend the theatre than those in other regions of Malta. 
Going to the theatre is very much a social event, as 63% of respondents indicated they attend theatre to spend time with family and friends. The age bias seems to persist as middle-aged respondents are more interested in theatre events, while the 16 to 34-year-olds prefer arts festivals and cinema screenings. Teatru Manoel was an overwhelmingly popular choice as 43% said they frequent it most of all theatre venues.
But this is all set to change with the new vision of Teatru Manoel’s jovial CEO.
Massimo Zammit
“I desire a theatre that is more inclusive and attracts a more diverse audience background,” points out Massimo. “That is something that I will strive to achieve. I want a theatre that welcomes everyone. I want Teatru Manoel to be that space that supports and serves the community’s vibrant performing arts productions. An inclusive, innovative theatre that is relevant to every single person – our own employees, producers, artists and audience.”
“It is important to keep to high standards of theatre, but with this diversified upcoming season programme there will be something to everyone’s liking. I find it a bit sad that some people, for example some musicians, never experienced the Manoel stage.” 
“Since my appointment as the CEO of Teatru Manoel, I have been working hard with various stakeholders and producers to ensure that the theatre nurtures creativity, provides various opportunities and is accessible to all. Let us entertain everyone. I want to create a sense where everyone feels at home at the Manoel.”
And he plans to achieve this with an “ambitious and realistic” programme. He cannot wait for the curtain to be raised. In March 2021 the theatre had to close completely and, since partially reopening, could only accommodate an audience of 80 out of a full complement of 500. When it reopens at the end of this month, the audience can increase to 200, still less than 50% capacity. Other national theatres in Europe would not even bother opening with such limited capacity as it is not financially viable. 
“Teatru Manoel is funded by the government and therefore it is imperative that we keep promoting and supporting the arts scene, especially during such unprecedented times,” he says. To increase feasibility, performances will not have an intermission, he said adding that when it came to ticket prices “Teatru Manoel will endeavour to maintain ticket prices that are reasonable to everyone”. 
Time to move on
“I believe that with over 90% of the eligible population being vaccinated, it is time to move on. We take all the necessary precautions and strictly abide by the health regulations issued by the Superintendent of Public Health, but it is now time to give theatre back to the people. It is time to have people back in the seats and for performances to return on stage.”
While the pandemic raged on, behind closed doors the theatre kicked off a €1.8 million project creating new basement lavatories, a new booking office, cafeteria, and the Maria Ghirlando VIP hall – a project originally planned to span over two years, but now expected to be completed in half the time because of the closure. The stage was also renovated for the first time in decades and a bigger wardrobe department is on plan. Next year works are expected to start the transformation of the former School of Music into a concert hall with an estimated capacity of 500. A new website is expected to be launched in the coming months, and will feature the rebranded logo. 
“We are working hard to achieve extraordinary things at Teatru Manoel. We would like to inspire more people of all backgrounds, provide fewer barriers for young and emerging artists, serve as a platform for inclusivity and creativity as well as offer a space where everyone is welcome,” says Massimo. 
“We must be diligent. Everyone is welcome. It’s a teatro publico,” he emphasises.
The Manoel is my second home
Senior Executive Secretary Marthese Zammit was just 18 years old when she answered a job application for a booking clerk at the Teatru Manoel back in 1975.
It was meant to be “just a job” but four decades later she is now the longest serving member of staff and cannot imagine life without the Manoel, although she is going to have to get used to it soon as she retires next March.
Over the years she has worked in almost all aspects of the theatre, from the booking office to administration to leading tours around the theatre, and regularly draws up performing contracts for artists, amongst other things.
Today, the “girl with the blue eye shadow” as she was affectionately known by the theatre regulars, is sitting in a quiet corner of the CEO’s office, as “there are no phones ringing in here”. 
It’s a far cry from those early days of paper tickets with a staff complement of just two in administration. “We used to work very long hours from 7am to 9pm. People used to start queueing for panto tickets from very early in the morning and we would have to be there.
”Today the theatre employs 35 people and computers have simplified procedures, although not made life any less busy for Marthese and her colleagues. 
Perhaps one thing she will not miss from the Manoel are the ghosts. Yes, she has solemnly confirmed, the place is indeed haunted. “Walking through the theatre sometimes I feel a chill, like there is someone walking beside me. On the CCTV cameras I used to see orbs of light going into the lift shaped like a woman. Recently I was in a downstairs office sitting at my desk and I saw a shadow coming in through the door. I turned to my colleague who confirmed she had seen it too. Chairs moving, doors banging. The building is still alive.” In more ways than one, it seems.
A new season, a new beginning
Teatru Manoel’s 2021/22 season kicks off on 29 October with O – Tribut lil Oliver Friggieri, one of two new dramatic works in Maltese.
On October 29 Teatru Manoel will also host events that form part of the European Theatre Convention’s International Theatre Conference held between October 28 and 30. The conference will allow the theatre to position itself as “the first national theatre without boundaries”. 
The programme includes dance productions, music recitals and concerts covering a range of genres from contemporary and modern to classical and baroque. Highlights include the Malta International Arts Festival, the International Spring Orchestra Festival, a major new production of Shakespeare’s Othello, and A Celebration of Opera that includes four concerts in one week, fully produced by Teatru Manoel. 
It will culminate with the Manoel’s first in-house production of a major musical, the much-anticipated Sweeney Todd. 
What will not be included in the season is the traditional Christmas pantomime as current restrictions make it unfeasible and financially impossible to produce. Instead, the theatre promises “an equally thrilling festive theatrical experience for all the family” which sees Roald Dahl’s humorous children’s book The Twits brought to the stage in a funny new production. 
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