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Unticking all the boxes

Adam Brimmer speaks to Bettina Cassar, one half of The New Victorians, about the creative process behind Studio 18’s System.

The cast of System.

The cast of System.

How did your collaboration with Studio 18 come about?

When Studio 18 got in touch with us, Philippa was finishing off a Master’s at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in Glasgow, while I was working as a music technician in the studios at Westminster University in London. We loved the idea of devising theatre using the people in the room and their stories, so we were immediately keen to get involved when it was first discussed – we just weren’t sure how it would work out logistically, given we were in different countries. Eventually, we all ended up in Malta and here we are.

How was the concept for System born and what is the aim behind it?

The concept was born with the company. We organised workshops for the cast, where we got to know them, discussed life and what they were going through; we spoke about things they loved and circumstances that bothered them; and we learned what inspired them and what drained them.

We picked some common themes after several exercises. For example, most felt that the pressure put on them by their families, as well as the expectations of society, affected their daily lives. This led to the concept of System, a world in which ticking boxes is vital. Ours is a world in which everyone must play by the rules, in which the ‘system’ controls the lives of the players, whether or not they know it. 

What attracted you to the project?

An enthusiastic group of talented young people; the idea of bringing contemporary electronic music to the stage in the theatre world; and the chance to explore the lives of Maltese youth through art.

Your music and videos have always been very strong and theatrical narrative – has this helped with this project too?

We always strive for our work to be driven by a narrative, and we are always looking for stories and for ways to create them. For this project, I feel we drew upon all our past experiences – our theatrical production Mara, our dabbling in storytelling through a short film through our music video trilogy Silence. It all helps when trying to tell stories by marrying sound, music, songs, ensemble moments and visuals.

Material was gathered during a series of workshops – what happened during these sessions?

The workshops ranged from team-building exercises and games, to viewpoints exercises and writing tasks to song-writing sessions and generally a lot of great, honest and vulnerable discussion and sharing. 

How important is it for young people to challenge the ‘system’?

Very. It’s very important for young people to question and to search and to try things without the fear of failure, without the fear of not being heard and without the fear of being too small to make a change or a difference in their world. For young people to come to their own conclusions after well-informed debate and discussion; for them to learn their own lessons by trial and error; to challenge routine when they believe things could be done better or differently. This should be done not for the sake of arguments and disagreements, but for the sake of using their own brains and becoming aware of the choices they are making on a daily basis. Everyone should be challenging the system.

What was the creative process like?

After a lot of information was collected, we tried to figure out a way to get these stories and lives to the stage without being too… on the nose. We enjoyed the idea of a game, where the company are all players with their own avatar characters. We felt this would be a good metaphor and shine a light on our society in an interesting way.

Once we had that idea sketched out, we began writing songs, figuring out who should sing what and with who, and what the song should sound like. Should it have a funky bass line or a pumpy groove? Should it be synth heavy or acoustic guitar led? Once we had the general arc of the story through the 10 songs we wrote, Philippa continued fleshing out the transitions between the songs, while I worked further on the sound design for the world of the ‘System’.

System is described as having audience interaction – can you elaborate?

All I can say is I hope you’re ready to lose at a game of Jenga and your jeans are not too tight for a game of Twister.

What do you hope the audience takes away from the experience (besides good music, of course)?

We would like them to experience the beauty of a vulnerable cast of young people who were ready and willing to speak up about their lives. We hope this performance will allow the audience to take a step back and question what it is they’re fighting for and to realise they are more than the boxes they tick.

What was the biggest challenge to bring this project together?

Writing songs for other people, and for another world. Stacking up Jenga blocks only to smash them down in front of a microphone and do it all again.

The New Victorians are Bettina and Philippa Cassar. System takes place on September 21, 22 and 23 at 8pm at Spazju Kreattiv, Valletta. Tickets are available online.

www.kreattivita.org

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