What role will the performing arts play in the social and cultural aspects of contemporary society following the pandemic? Albert Marshall, the Executive Chair of Arts Council Malta, believes that just as it had happened in the past, there will be the “historical pattern of restarting” and the sector in Malta will continue to thrive.
Throughout the ages, the theatre and pandemics have had an ambivalent relationship – seesawing between compulsory closedowns and creative reinvigorated restarts. It has been like this since Sophocles and his pandemic-ridden Thebes which served as a backdrop to his Oedipus Rex. As with pandemics that ravished human artistic activity in the past, COVID-19 has managed to wreak havoc with our existence and stymied all our performing arts. Albert Marshall believes that this time round too, there will be the historical pattern of restarting:
“When we speak of the performing arts during times of pandemics is, perhaps, to speak of an annihilation of the performing arts. Energies that have been bottling up due to closure and suppression, are suddenly released and materialise into a new creative force that gives vent to a flourishing array of possibilities – pent-up emotions are poured into feats of inventiveness. This form of renaissance of the artistic spirit, of a rejuvenated vigour of the collective creative instinct will serve as a post-COVID boom to cultural and social aspects of our society. I think no one can deny the fact that the past year has been difficult for many sectors and have impacted them in many ways which were unexpected, but I do believe that through such a crisis, we have been brought together in a manner where we could be more creative and will flourish in ways that we could create new innovative artistic works.”
Artists and creatives have come together to create and showcase new artistic work both live and online, and also through various media platforms including hybrid events and virtual exhibitions. Albert Marshall says that this is a clear proof that through sheer determination and goodwill, the sector in Malta will continue to thrive.
Through such a crisis, we have been brought together in a manner where we could be more creative and will flourish in ways that we could create new innovative artistic works.
Arts Council Malta understood and recognised the impact that COVID-19 has had on creative and cultural practitioners and organisations and addressed the required immediacy by investing in projects across a wide spectrum of the arts.
Marshall tells us that theatre is an art form which has stood the test of time and has survived many a pandemic. A post-pandemic theatre has reinvented itself and discovered new forms of existence without reneging on its essential existential nature – that of being a human intimate live encounter. At the moment, theatre has taken online forms, or socially distant ones because such are the exigencies of the day. Many argue that this does not radiate the same feeling that is communicated by live theatre. That may be true, but, in turn, the pandemic has created opportunities to express oneself in other ways.
Albert Marshall insists it is the job of Arts Council Malta to ensure that the theatre continues to mould itself in the way that society needs it to do until we return to normalcy when we shall realise that semantics have taken a turn to a wider acceptance of new meanings of what constitutes the theatre act.
Indeed, many different concepts have arisen in the cultural world following COVID-19 which, in Albert Marshall’s words, have given us the opportunity to acknowledge the importance of the arts:
“The pandemic gave us the opportunity to realise the importance of the arts and their relevance to our wellbeing and mental stability, and whilst our artists have adapted, or tried to adapt to a COVID world, I believe that the post-COVID scenario is still being shaped and made sense out of by our artists and the sector at large. However, the reality we are faced with today leaves us no choice but to seek effective and productive ways how to work together to provide the best possible and sustainable outcomes, not only for the sector, but, first and foremost, for our artistic community, including the entire cohort of our cultural practitioners.”
Yet one would argue that the experience of participating in a live play, including the social and interactive elements, are completely different to recorded events watched on a device. Albert Marshall agrees.
“The feel, emotion and the overall general experience and atmosphere generated by live theatre, are completely different. The spit caught against a visor worn by an angry Othello playing live should have landed on the face of a fellow actor or that of a spectator in-the-round. But now hygiene is the order of the day and we have sanitised the raw act of live performance. However, the way we are managing to communicate through the arts during these times is evidence of how much we need and require art in our daily lives, since art is a source of inspiration – a compulsive act of communication – but not only, because the arts provide us with a strong sense of fulfilment as well as the motivation to continue to create and generate beauty, wellbeing, understanding.”
The spit caught against a visor worn by an angry Othello playing live should have landed on the face of a fellow actor or that of a spectator in-the-round. But now hygiene is the order of the day and we have sanitised the raw act of live performance.
When asked if we will ever see a complete shift to digital, Marshall believes that this can never happen as it is a deterministic and mechanistic notion. In his eyes, we will drift into an AI environment sooner or later, but the preservation of arts and culture will continue to flourish.
Albert Marshall reiterates his belief that, since Malta is an essential part of the European spirit, the arts, including the performing arts, are intrinsic elements that shape up our identity, our cultural heritage and our passionate need as Mediterraneans to express ourselves at all costs.
“I see our artistic persona as a bridge builder that firmly links us with the rest of Europe and, even though cultural and ethnic hybridity is a pronounced marker of our place among the ‘herd’, we have proved, throughout the ages, that our resilience has gained us a well-deserved presence among nations. Our ‘arts ticket’ and our artists who carry it have opened up opportunities for us to strive for growth and membership within the artistic community, at least on the European front.”