MaltaToday interview: Tony Cassar Darien
INTERVIEW | Sunday, 13 January 2008

Frustrations of a Maltese arts connoisseur

For Tony Cassar Darien, 2008 marks the 50th anniversary of a gruelling career in performing arts. Now one of Malta’s foremost arts commentators, he still offers an unconventional perspective on censorship, patronage and our national propensity to fragmentation

Although still active at various levels in the performing arts, Tony Cassar Darien has now retired from his post at the Manoel Theatre – where has often been credited with “opening the theatre doors.”
“I started out at Deporres Theatre as a child actor in the 1950s. I was only 11,” he recalls of his distant stage debut. Since then, Cassar Darien has made a name for himself for a wide array of activities aimed at promoting the arts: acting, scriptwriting, artistic direction and production, cultural management, events organisation, comedy, as well as TV and radio hosting. His two major career breakthroughs occurred in 1981 and 1993, when he first joined the Manoel Theatre Acadamy of Dramatic Arts (now the Drama Centre) as Principal, and eventually resigned to become the first ever Artistic Director of the National Theatre of Malta.
“In my time at the National Theatre we had created different incentives to attract new faces. Teatru Unplugged, a show consisting of Malta’s foremost musicians playing acoustic sets, was perhaps the most successful initiative. We had also worked on niche activities – thus giving space to artists to hold activities for select groups within the theatre walls. Such activities included Loġġja Palk, Poeżija Plus and Lunchtime Concerts. To my knowledge, none of these events have been continued.”
And still, popular events are few and far between and are unlikely to attract crowds that will eventually become regular at the theatre. Malta’s theatre attendance is known to be low. Why is this? Should this be improved and if so, how?
“A few years ago I had been asked to conduct a study on how different countries around the world compare in terms of theatre attendance. Theatre is most popular in Scandinavia and attendance goes down as you move South. In this case it is not attendance that counts but the percentage of nationals that identify theatre as a means of entertainment. To my knowledge there is no proper statistic that reflects this.”
Seemingly, then, increasing ticket sales does not necessarily mean that a higher percentage of locals will be going to the theatre. It could mean that the same few people go more often. So how are we to increase theatre attendance at large?
“Working on children is key. We need to look into promoting children’s theatre at its maximum. Also of course, product is a very important element. If we keep recycling what we see on American sitcoms onto the stage how are we to expect that audiences will be convinced to get dressed, pay money and look for parking when they can see the same product in the comfort of their own home? We must learn to make good use of the perks of a live performance, we need to look at what’s been done in the past and learn.”
There has been much criticism over the fact that we lack the use of Maltese language in our theatres. Is this habit of recycling foreign ideas to blame?
“The artist should be in touch with what is around him or her. Before, the muse revolved around natural elements and local issues, whereas now all you can see in Malta’s artistic product is foreign influence and sheer duplication. Unfortunately, this goes to show that we are no longer in touch and inspired by what is happening around us. Why doesn’t anyone ever perform on local issues and current hot subjects? All we are doing is opening ourselves to inherit a style that does not belong to us. Some of my peers who studied theatre in the UK in the 1950s are obsessed with what we call Literary Theatre, made up of perfect diction and glamorous stage poses. This may have been a style that belonged to a different era in a different country. It was never ours, but sadly, somehow, that is what it has become. I am in full agreement with Mario Azzopardi who, when interviewed by Maltatoday, complained about the lack of use of Maltese language in theatre. The main problem is that we prefer using such a powerful tool as art in the safest way possible. The end result is appeasing satire, mimicry and apathy in addressing the fact that artistically, we live in a fantasy world.”
But wouldn’t sticking to local roots imply discarding important foreign influences and timeless theatrical masterpieces written by foreign artists who had nothing to do with Malta?
“Let’s say I’m commissioned to direct Hamlet. I could adopt one of two approaches before taking the script up on stage. The most popular one would be to rent DVDs of Hamlet performances in England and mimic them. This would be the best approach to create an instantly forgettable Hamlet. What I would much rather do is own the story and place it in a Maltese context. Instead of thinking in terms of the relationship Hamlet should have had with his father, I would think about what relationship I had with my father and impersonate it through Hamlet. The reason why Shakespeare is still great is because people interpreted him in so many different ways. My point is that we need to respect the fact that an audience is not just bums on seats. I am not saying that we should completely eradicate foreign influence. Similarly, I am not against catering outlets in Buġibba serving Fish and Chips, but I will never let that be passed off as Maltese cuisine.”
Then it would very much be a matter of identifying whose remit it is to handle this issue and decide on a way forward. Cassar Darien believes that policies are to be holistic and approaches collaborative.
“Fragmentation is destroying Maltese culture. Let me explain. When I organised the Baroque festival a few years ago, on one hand I was very proud in terms of its foreign attendance. On the other, I was gutted at the blind eye other governmental institutions turned to what was going on in the cultural scene. If that week, for example’s sake, Radju Malta decided to organise a Baroque themed week instead of a Rock ‘n’ Roll week, we could have achieved a level of consistency that would have increased the quality level of the event itself. We all know that Memphis Tennessee and Baroque cultures don’t necessarily mix. We need to collaborate more.”
But still, one cannot expect to have this type of collaboration occur naturally. Albeit a firm believer of collaboration in implementation, when it comes to leadership Cassar Darien reckons that it should be a one-man-show.
“Maltese culture is run by committees made up of members who, irrespective of their technical background, are all – let’s face it – former canvassers. Committees are already flawed alone, let alone if you choose the wrong people to occupy the wrong positions. We tend to justify committee appointments in culture by means of how cultured a person is. This is also wrong. Driving a racing car and being its mechanic requires different sets of skill. We are appointing retired racing car drivers to take the lead in the pit stops. What is truly required is a board of trustees consisting of not more than four very capable individuals, whose remit would solely consist of the safeguarding of Governmental interest within the institution in question. The trustees would be responsible for the appointment of an artistic director of their choice and in turn the latter appoints his or her own team. In history, artistic vision has always belonged to one person, and this is not expected to change. With more executive freedom to the Artistic Director, the trustees would then be there only to look into the profitability of the project – it’s as simple as that.”
Profitability? Since when should culture be profitable?
“Profit in culture should be measured differently. If a cultural project doesn’t make huge losses as a stand alone it means that it was well managed, and therefore profitable. The opera festival for example, worked at a loss. And yet, with 70% of the tickets being sold to high-end tourists who came to Malta purposely, Malta on the whole made a profit. Thirty years ago we referred to Maltese migrants moving to Australia as the ones leaving Malta to settle in bushes, or in an uncivilised country of sorts. Nowadays culture is one of Australia’s most central pillars of economy. If we are to follow suit it is this mentality is the first that needs to be adopted.”
On events such as Notte Bianca and the Malta Arts Festival, Tony Cassar Darien offers a fresh viewpoint and alternatives to what may be done in the future editions.
“We have taken initiatives in reviving Valletta with Notte Bianca and the like. This is all good. What is disappointing is the way with which we measure our successes. We tend to follow up and analyse the successes of events like Notte Bianca by the number of pastizzi, coffees and ġbejniet sold. There needs to be more of an educational approach in my opinion. First of all, aren’t the Scream Daisy playing at the Opera House at 23:00 the same Scream Daisy playing at any other venue at the same time? How has that improved our cultural knowledge if some of the performers are accessible everywhere and anywhere? You don’t have to go to Notte Bianca to watch Scream Daisy, do you? But let’s say the band helped attract a good crowd that rippled off to less commercial activities within the same event. How difficult could it be to capitalise on the present crowd in order to provide a cultural insight on say, the venue they were in? The street leading to the Opera House’s main staircase is wider than the rest of Republic Street, its façade is unique to the world. It has three main doors of exactly the same size, without a proper focal entrance point. All this hasn’t been designed by mistake. All they had to do was dedicate a few big screens to let this, or any other educational aspect, out to the people. This goes back to my previous point. We don’t add value to our events because we have problems in cultural management. One cannot be expected to teach historical facts if the movers and shakers themselves are not well versed in cultural education.”
And once we’re on the subject, Tony Cassar Darien reveals some inside information about the proposals on the development of the site formerly housing the Royal Opera House.
“The Opera House should not be rebuilt, for two reasons. Firstly, we need to address the Maltese obsession of wanting to plonk a building in every possible open space. Secondly, and more importantly, it simply will not work. I had been asked by former Finance Minister John Dalli to draw up an operational feasibility report on a potential Opera House within the same site. My conclusion was that the project would never be financially sustainable, at least not as an Opera House. Similarly to The Domain in Sydney, what should become of the Opera House is an open-air theatre and a public garden to serve for official functions and of course, the performing arts. Even in its derelict state, the venue proves to be an excellent location to host performances in. Another factor that supports this idea is the low financial outlay it involves. Under the chairmanship of John Lowell, the management committee at the Manoel Theatre was once interested in this project, so we had commissioned the firm Architecture Project to design a draft sketch and project its costings. We had sent all the documentation to the Ministry of Culture, but God knows what happened to those plans.”
Malta is the only country in the world where theatre must still undergo a censorship process. How embarrassing is this?
“This issue takes me back to when I was 17. I had once confronted the Head of Programmes at a radio station I wrote radio plays for, who had answered by pointing at the cross. I clearly remember him telling me ‘If I don’t censor your scripts I’ll end up instead of Him.’ In any case I was always against censorship and due to my previously held positions one can only imagine how much of it I’ve seen. I know the full story of the Duchess of Malfi, I was there when a member of the audience threw a chair on stage at the famous Alan Meadows pantomime. These were all events that stirred controversy and brought up the censorship issue. It is ridiculous to think that the government has every legal right to close your booking office should one fail to submit a script for a performance by the Royal Shakespearean Company, or for Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol – and these examples aren’t made up, the Manoel has witnessed these threats. To think that thespians need to be screened in case acts of paedophilia are shown on stage is an insult to any artist. I once received a call from somebody whose name I won’t mention, ordering me to contact Declan Donevan, The Duchess of Malfi’s acclaimed director, in order to have one of the performance scenes cut off. Luckily, I found the courage to speak my mind, telling the person on the other end that this is not within the Artistic Director’s remit, asking him to refer this issue to his obsolete mechanisms, in other words, the censorship board.”
Doesn’t the Manoel have its own board, aimed at screening scripts of every performance due to take the theatre’s stage?
“Yes but it’s a consultative board, not a censorship board. It may only refuse a script on the rare occasion when its quality would guarantee poor turnouts. This board has no editing powers, and it only looks into the feasibility of a performance, not its alleged morality.”
There have been talks of a merge in the management of the Manoel Theatre, The Mediterranean Conference Centre and St James Cavalier. Cassar Darien doesn’t seem to mind.
“We have spoken of fragmentation. The opposite of this is centralisation, but we rarely use this word in case people are reminded of Mintoff”, he smirks. “As long as there’s a vision behind the centralisation, it’s possible. The problem is that we need to focus on the singer, not the song. We need to seriously address leadership issues and then the policy they should go by. In an ideal world, with a practical vision, centralisation will bring about the channelling of one strategy with a collective leadership. If it is holistic growth that we’re after, this may be an interesting way forward.”

Any comments?
If you wish your comments to be published in our Letters pages please click button below



Go to MaltaToday
recent issues:
10/02/08 | 06/02/08
03/02/08 | 30/01/08
27/01/08 | 23/01/08
20/01/08 | 16/01/08
13/01/08 | 09/01/08
06/01/08 | 02/01/08
30/12/07 | 23/12/07
19/12/07 | 16/12/07
12/12/07 | 09/12/07
05/12/07 | 02/12/07
28/11/07 | 25/11/07
21/11/07 | 18/11/07

14/11/07 | 11/11/07
07/11/07 | 04/11/07

MaltaToday News
13 January 2008

Jailed 13-year-old transferred to Mount Carmel Hospital

Gonzi upbeat on growth despite 2007 slowdown

Unique Gozo medieval chapel collapses after years of neglect

Public figures, private lives

Brussels in crucial review over 19-storey Mistra project

Josie Muscat calls for investigation into propaganda spending

The uncomfortable missionary


Copyright © MediaToday Co. Ltd, Vjal ir-Rihan, San Gwann SGN 9016, Malta, Europe
Managing editor Saviour Balzan | Tel. ++356 21382741 | Fax: ++356 21385075 | Email