Poetry by SMS

Birgu, 1-5 October, 2003

 

 

Go to: A stranger at home, at home in the strange - Adrian Grima interviews Mercedes Kemp

 

In September 2003, the Spanish-born writer and academic based in Cornwall Mercedes Kemp, met writers from Inizjamed during two workshops held in Birgu while she was working on the performance "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings". The workshops led to the partecipation of writers from Inizjamed in the Carnival held during the performance between 1-5 October 2003. Karen Vella (left) of Inizjamed writes about Mercedes, the workshops and Poetry by SMS during "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings".

 

"Earlier this month I had the opportunity to meet the Spanish-born writer and academic based in Cornwall Mercedes Kemp, during two workshops for writers organised by Inizjamed in Birgu. Mercedes was in Malta for some weeks as the script writer behind the magical performance A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings set up within the Vittoriosa harbour-side between the 1st and the 5th of October, 2003. This project was a working collaboration between theatre companies from the UK, Cyprus and Malta and funded by the EU's Culture 2000 programme..


Although she was very busy working on the vast production staged in Birgu, Mercedes still found time to share some of herself with us. She was a real pleasure to meet for she is such an inspiring woman. With her guidance we engaged in some stimulating creative writing exercises that showed us how the most ordinary of pictures or objects can serve as a creative platform.

Mercedes also told us about her various work in different countries, in particular work with communities. What really came across was her ‘curiosity’ in people and their stories. Her interest goes beyond history as we know it in textbooks, for she looks for oral history; the stories about people in the communities passed on from generation to generation but never formally recorded. She silently managed to shame me into thinking how much I overlook or disregard the beauty of our local cultural heritage. She spoke with obvious passion about the locality and people of Birgu which she sought to get to know intimately during her stay.

Mercedes’ enthusiasm rubbed off on us too, and we set up a stall amongst the various food and craft stalls in the Carnival celebrations that were part of the performance of the Three Islands Project. Our ‘merchandise’ was poems, and our task that of enticing the crowd into reading poetry. Quite sadly, poetry often lacks allure and a wide readership; it is misjudged as static, cryptic and boring. We were sure that the poems would have rendered themselves justice; we just needed an interesting way to deliver them to people. And what better way than an sms! The vast majority of us have a mobile and most like to receive and send messages. So we did just that. We roamed the crowd with a mobile phone, and messaged short poems written by both local and foreign authors to anyone who obliged. We did get some funny looks but most people enjoyed the idea and the poems.

 

For our stall we filled big sweet jars with poems in different colours and flavours including love, solitude and life inviting people to choose their pick. We quickly ran out of love, and many came back for more!

Meeting Mercedes and being part of the performance was indeed an experience that has left behind a tingling feeling of creativity, making us eager to move on into new artistic endeavour."

12 October, 2003
 

The website of Kneehigh Theatre Company is at http://www.kneehigh.co.uk/. Read this article about Kneehigh. See also this profile.

 


Mercedes Kemp

 

Mercedes Kemp is a lecturer in education at Cornwall College and a theatre and short story writer. Originally from Spain, she has lived and worked in Cornwall for the past 30 years. She is a  member of Scavel n Gow, a Cornish collective of seven writers united by a strong sense of place and a diversity of styles. Scavel an Gow researches stories through residencies. The stories are then performed within the communities that inspired them.

 

She has collaborated with Kneehigh Theatre as a writer and educator  in a number of projects including 'Island of Dreams' (2001)and 'A Very old Man with Enormous Wings' (2003) in Birgu, Malta. In 2003 she was selected to produce a piece of experimental narrative for the BBC Radio 3 Drama Unit. The piece, 'A Packet of Seeds', an exploration of exile and displacement was broadcast in July 2003. The themes of displacement and otherness are a constant in her work. A stranger at home, she feels at home in the strange.

 



Scavel An Gow write, perform and publish their own Cornish stories of blanket baths and fire-raisers, bizarre fetes and shopping wars, sailors and sexy curators - the wierdest things you've ever heard of and the obvious things you haven't.

Scavel An Gow stories are researched through residencies, then performed within the community that inspired them and farther afield.

This exploration is carried out in performance in their boat shaped story-telling 'bench'. a specially-commissioned art work by artist David Kemp, incorporating its own lights, staging and mysterious objects.
 

The members of the collective are (in alphabetical order): Paul Farmer, Stephen Hall, Amanda Harris, Mercedes Kemp, AnnaMaria Murphy, Simon Parker and Pauline Sheppard.

 

Scavel an Gow have produced a book of short stories heard on BBC Radio 4 in 2002. Dream Atlas is the fruit of a commission from BBC Radio 4 and the inspiration that is Cornwall.

 


From http://www.britishcouncil.org/malta/

Kneehigh Return! 3rd - 5th October 2003
www.kneehigh.co.uk

The Three Islands Project is an ambitious spectacular event led by the internationally renowned Kneehigh theatre company (Cornwall, UK), created in collaboration with St James Cavalier and the prestigious Cyprus Theatre Organisation. After an invitation from the Birgu Local Council, the production is also suported by the European Union Culture 2000 programme and the British Council, Malta.

This magical production is an amazing tour de force of physical theatre, breath-taking images and dare-devil circus-like stunts. Accompanied by the music of Etnika and with actors and working crafts-persons from Cornwall, Cyprus and Malta, this promises to be an experience you will never forget.

Wonder at the sight of an old man with enormous wings [from a story by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, in picture], enjoy the food and craft product of three different countries, participate in a spectacle which takes place on land, sea and in the air! This is bound to be a popular show so get your tickets early from St James Cavalier, Valletta, Birgu Local Council or on the night Malta Tourism Authority BirguFest information stalls.

 

Theatrical project set for flying start in Vittoriosa

 

Rehearsals for "A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings", a play to be put up in Vittoriosa, underway yesterday. In picture, director Bill Mitchell

Life in a peaceful seaside town will never be the same again after a man with enormous wings crash-lands there next month.

"A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings", a short story by Colombia's famous writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez, has inspired a theatrical performance by the same name which will be enacted along the promenade of Vittoriosa between October 1-5.

The show is the result of the Three Islands Project, a joint effort between the British drama group Kneehigh, Malta's St James Cavalier Creativity Centre and Cyprus' national theatre organisation Thoc.

The three-year project could only have been realised after support was secured from Culture 2000, an EU-funded programme, which is sponsoring 50 per cent of the costs.

Apart from the Vittoriosa show, the Three Islands Project includes another performance in Cyprus next May, with the island's landscape as the backdrop, and a show in Cornwall, the base of the highly acclaimed group Kneehigh.

The company has travelled across the globe with its own productions but first experimented with landscape theatre in Malta two years ago with their show "Landscape of Dreams".

It received such acclaim that Kneehigh decided to return to Malta and this time the British Council got Cyprus interested in forming a partnership and securing funding from the EU.

"We had a profound experience in Vittoriosa and we felt we had to return," Kneehigh's artistic director Bill Mitchell said in between yesterday's rehearsals at it-Toqba in Vittoriosa.

Malta's version of "A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings" showcases talented actors and musicians from Cornwall, Malta and Cyprus.

Malta's folk band Etnika have also been brought on board together with ghana heavyweight il-Budaj, to inject more powerful emotions into the show and get the audience going.

"'A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings' has some wonderfully tragic and poignant moments but is very funny at the same time," Mr Mitchell said.

"This is a piece of theatre for people of all ages who have a sense of adventure. It is a performance where the emphasis is on the visual spectacle and physical theatre - it is not about words but what you see and understand," he said.

The two-hour show is not your typical piece of sit-down theatre and people who wish to see it have to gather at Victory Square, in Vittoriosa and move on with the performers from there.

All performances start at 6 p.m. "on the dot" and booking is now open. Tickets at Lm4 are available from St James Cavalier, in Valletta and people are advised to book early since space is limited to just 400 people each night.

Tickets for senior citizens, students and children cost Lm1.

The show is being supported by the British Council, the Malta Tourism Authority, the Vittoriosa local council and Maltacom.

Ariadne Massa

Monday, September 22, 2003

 

Three Islands Project comes up with

A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings

Theatre in Malta is reaching new heights... Actor Paul Portelli soars above Kalkara creek as he prepares for a totally innovative production which starts tomorrow.

The life in a peaceful fishing village will never be the same again when a man with enormous wings crash-lands in their community.

A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings, a short story by Colombia's famous writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez, inspired a performance, by the same name, which will be enacted in Vittoriosa.

This show, being held between tomorrow and Sunday is the result of a joint effort between the British drama group Kneehigh, Malta's St James Cavalier and Cyprus' national theatre organisation Thoc, to set up the Three Islands Project.

This three-year project was supported by Culture 2000, an EU-funded programme, which is sponsoring 50 per cent of this initiative.

The Three Islands Project includes this week's show in Vittoriosa, another individual performance in Cyprus using the island's landscape next May and ending with a show in Cornwall, the base of the highly acclaimed group Kneehigh.

Malta's version of A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings showcases talented actors and musicians from Cornwall, Malta and Cyprus.

Malta's folk band Etnika have also been brought on board together with ghana heavyweight il-Budaj, to inject more powerful emotions into the show and get the audience going.

During the two-hour show, the audience follow the performers, starting from Victory Square in Vittoriosa.

All performances start at 6 p.m. "on the dot" and booking is now open. Tickets at Lm4 are available from St James Cavalier in Valletta.

Tickets for senior citizens, students and children cost just Lm1.

This show is being supported by the British Council, the Malta Tourism Authority, the Vittoriosa local council and Maltacom.

Tuesday, September 30, 2003


A stranger at home, at home in the strange

Adrian Grima interviews Mercedes Kemp

 

The Three Islands Project is an initiative bringing together artists from the UK, Cyprus and Malta. The project is led by the internationally renowned Kneehigh theatre company (Cornwall, UK), and was created in collaboration with St James Cavalier and the prestigious Cyprus Theatre Organisation. Another important partner in Malta is the Local Council of the historical maritime city of Birgu. The project is supported by the Culture 2000 programme of the European Union and the British Council, Malta.

 

In October 2003, the project produced “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings”, a theatrical performance inspired by a short story by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, in Birgu (also known as Vittoriosa). This production was an amazing tour de force of physical theatre, breath-taking images and dare-devil circus-like stunts and also included music by the Maltese folk band Etnika.

 

“A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings”

 

Kneehigh Theatre Company first experimented with landscape theatre in Malta in 2001 with their show “Landscape of Dreams”. It received such acclaim that Kneehigh decided to return to Malta and this time the British Council got Cyprus interested in forming a partnership and securing funding from the EU. Kneehigh's artistic director Bill Mitchell told Ariadne Massa of The Times of Malta that the group has such “a profound experience in Vittoriosa” in 2001 that they decided to return.

 

Mitchell described “A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings” as a production that has “some wonderfully tragic and poignant moments but is very funny at the same time,” Mr Mitchell said. “This is a piece of theatre for people of all ages who have a sense of adventure. It is a performance where the emphasis is on the visual spectacle and physical theatre - it is not about words but what you see and understand.”

 

Reviewing the production in The Sunday Times of Malta (Otober 5, 2003), Paul Xuereb writes that it “is one of those dramatic entertainments that can be described only in Polonius style, using a string of nouns or epithets, so here goes: magical realist, popular-didactic, comical-spectacular, audience-involving and festive.” Further on in his article, he describes the “Birgu setting” as “splendid.” There is “plenty of vigour, both physical and emotional, but I do think that the portrait of the village and its villagers has too many of the stage clichés about unsophisticated Mediterranean societies.”

 

In The Malta Independent on Sunday (November 30, 2003), Peter Skelton, director of The British Council in Cyprus wrote: "I thought the performance was fantastically exciting and wonderfully different and we're greatly looking forward to repeating the experience in Cyprus next year." And journalist Zillah Bugeja “was enthralled by the magical quality of the set, its frailty and intricacy bringing the pages of a fable to life. With the slapstick of Popeye and the Keystone Cops rolled into one, the performance trilled out the panoply of human emotions.” Bugeja she finishes off her brief comments by saying that “the rags, wood and feathers of the Kneehigh experience brought life to Birgu, and Birgu to life.”

 

Mercedes Kemp

 

Mercedes Kemp has collaborated with Kneehigh Theatre as a writer and educator in a number of projects including “Island of Dreams' (2001) and of course “A Very old Man with Enormous Wings” (2003) in Birgu, Malta. She is a senior lecturer in postcompulsory education at Cornwall College and a theatre and short story writer. Originally from Spain, she has lived and worked in Cornwall for the past 30 years. Mercedes is a  member of Scavel an Gow, a Cornish collective of seven writers united by a strong sense of place and a diversity of styles. Scavel an Gow researches stories through residencies. The stories are then performed within the communities that inspired them.

 

In 2003 she was selected to produce a piece of experimental narrative for the BBC Radio 3 Drama Unit. The piece, 'A Packet of Seeds', an exploration of exile and displacement was broadcast in July 2003. The themes of displacement and otherness are a constant in her work. A stranger at home, she feels at home in the strange.

 

Together with other writers within the Maltese cultural organization Inizjamed, I attended two creative writing workshops with Mercedes Kemp in Birgu during the time she was working on the production of the Three Islands Project. They were very interesting sessions that have also introduced us to the field of community arts. Much of the interview deals with issues related to the running of artistic projects in particular communities. Her published work includes “Fictioning identities: A course on narrative and fictional approaches to educational practice,” an article published in the journal Reflective Practice in 2001 in which she describes, explores and attempts to demonstrate the value of narrative and fictional approaches within a model of critically reflexive teacher education.

 

I interviewed Mercedes Kemp in December 2003.

 

  1. Apart from being an academic and a successful writer, Mercedes Kemp is involved in many artistic initiatives, especially in the field of community art. How does she manage? Do her different commitments somehow complement each other or follow one cultural vision? Where does the Three Islands Project come in?
     

I think it is a case of resisting specialisation, of wanting to work in an interdisciplinary manner, a blurring of boundaries so that all work becomes a form of cultural work. The common thread is narrative and I have always had an urge to tell and be told stories. Pretty basic, really. Also Cornwall, where I live has a very interconnected arts community where many partnerships are formed. I collaborate with Kneehigh as a writer and educator. Kneehigh company members collaborate with me at College. We all contribute to a variety of community initiatives and so forth. I see a similar pattern of collaborations in Malta. Also my family is grown up now, which means I have very much more time...
 

  1. Your production “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” is based on a short story by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Did you consider using a text that was closer to home, or is Garcia Marquez as close to home as any home text?

 

When I wrote “Island of Dreams”, the 2001 Kneehigh production in Birgu, the script emerged out of the community. The process took nearly a year of forging relationships and gathering the narratives of the city. The people of Birgu who were involved in the production were very active in developing the script and I think they developed a real ownership of the story. This time the Birgu production is part of the “Three Islands Project”, which tours Malta, Cyprus and Cornwall. We needed to find a vehicle that would work in all three locations. “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” is a very simple story that deals with profound issues of communities affected by change, and the metaphor of the sea bringing and taking away. There were a lot of commonalities but also the possibility of adapting the story to the individual locations.
 

  1. I must say from the outset that I really enjoyed your spectacular production. However, I wonder whether the depiction of the villagers unintentionally reinforced our own stereotype of (Maltese) villagers as uneducated and naive. What do you think about that?
     

If it did, it was certainly unintentional. The play was not naturalistic. It is a magical realist text and, in accordance to the genre pays little attention to character. Rather the intention was to represent a community that works, a ready-made world that is self-sustaining, and to explore how an unexpected arrival changes that.
 

  1. I thought the carnival “interval” was an excellent integral part both of the plot and of the production as a whole. Were you satisfied with the way it worked out?

 

Yes, very much so. It was great to bring the element of trade into the production. A kind of extension of the Phoenician trail idea which first inspired the collaboration between Malta, Cyprus and Cornwall. It was also a great opportunity for the children of Birgu to develop their own acts as it was for other Maltese participants. I was specially keen on the Inizjamed stall as it developed some very interesting ways of presenting writing. I thought the format of the carnival allowed for the exploration of ideas within the larger context of the production.
 

  1. In Malta you are working with Malta's most successful folk band Etnika. What have Etnika given to the project and how are they benefiting?
     

I can't stress enough the value of Etnika's contribution to the project. The musical underscoring held the play together. They have done some fantastic work with Maltese music and they were unstintingly generous in allowing it to become such an integral part of the production. For their part, I think they really valued the experience of working in a theatre production with great musicians from Cornwall and Cyprus. Watching them all work together was one of my greatest pleasures. It is extraordinary how quickly musicians get to function together. Perhaps not so extraordinary, as they already share the language of music.
 

  1. With artists from three different countries working together, the Three Islands Project “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” is more than just “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings”. Are you satisfied with the way the different personalities are working together? How does this experience compare with other collaborations you have been involved in?
     

The core members of the international company, Maltese, Cypriot and Cornish have worked extremely well together, although it is important to remember that this has been a long process. Maltese and Cornish worked together in 2001, and then we had a summer school in Cyprus in May 2003 where we worked with the Cypriot members as well. One of the great things about theatre is that it produces temporary communities. The Three Islands Project has become one such community. I think what makes it different from other projects is the fact that it is international, and that it travels. It somehow sets us all in a space where difference is valued. We all start as strangers, nothing is taken for granted.
 

  1. One of the tricky issues tied to the whole project, I suppose, is the choice of venue: Why did you choose the historical maritime city of Birgu? Were you aware that there would be people from other areas of Malta who would paternalistically interpret your choice of venue as an attempt on your part to “educate” people in an “educationally” disadvantaged area of Malta?
     

In the first intance the selection was made for us when, in 2001, we were invited by Mario Azzopardi, St James Cavalier and Birgu City Council to come and work in Birgu. Mario was looking for a project for Birgu and, during a visit to the UK in 2000 he saw a Kneehigh production working with the communities of the Clay district in Cornwall. He thought that Kneehigh's approach would work well in Vittoriosa. More specifically, Ikneegigh's intervention was commissioned at the time when the process of turning Birgu into a tourist attraction (Casino, hotels, marina, etc) was in its early stages. A critical time of change. It was made clear to us that Vittoriosa was an 'underprivileged' community. But I have never bought the idea of 'educating' them. Cornwall, where we live, is also represented as 'underprivileged' and 'uneducated'. I would challenge that representation. But I think we were all 'educated' through the process of working together. And we were educated by the place itself. When we arrived we were told that Birgu was considered a bit of a 'no go area' by other Maltese.  The community felt they were stigmatised by others in Malta. Part of the brief was to attract people into Birgu and to create a situation where the community could present itself at its best. I think sometimes a group of outsiders can act as a catalyst. You bring a different perspective, and you don't carry baggage. I was amazed at the richness of the local culture, the pride of place. But at this stage we did not make a choice, the site was already selected. The choice of Birgu in 2003 was very much more deliberate in our part. We wanted to return to pick up the relationships we had forged, and because we felt so very welcome there.

 

  1. Unlike the first time when you came to Malta to work on a community arts project in Birgu with Kneehigh theatre company this time very few people from Birgu were involved in the production itself. How come?
     

There were a number of factors, but the most important one was that the Kneehigh production was timed to coincide with the Birgu Festa, and, most people were already heavily committed to work on that. However, there were quite a few local people involved in the production side of things, most invaluably councillor Attard who should take a large part of the credit for any success we might have had. As we started work in early September, the schools had not opened, but a number of children from Birgu were involved in performing.
 

  1. You led two fascinating workshops or encounters with writers from Inizjamed despite your busy schedule here in Malta, and they took part in the Carnival held during the performance. One of the participants, writer Karen Vella, described “meeting Mercedes and being part of the performance” as “an experience that has left behind a tingling feeling of creativity, getting us eager to move on into new artistic endeavour.” How important is human interaction in artistic initiatives? (http://www.geocities.com/inizjamedmalta/poetry_kneehigh.htm)
     

For me it is enormously important. The tension between the individual creative needs and the needs of the group, and of the environment is paramount in my work. The spark that flies off the brief encounter, the willingness to open up to others, but also the fascination for the 'other's story.
 

  1. What are the next stages in the Three Islands Project?
     

May 2004 we will be staging an adapted version of “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” in Nicosia. We hope to have many of the members of the Three Islands company with us. The story will have to undergo changes that will develop collaboratively with our Cypriot friends. In 2005 we will bring the production back to Cornwall.
 

  1. Where do you see yourself in five years time?
     

Hopefully writing and travelling, revisiting some old pals and finding some new ones. It would be great to return to Birgu, and I also have an itch to work in Gozo.

                         

Adrian Grima (Malta)

30 December, 2003

 

This interview was done for Babelmed:

http://www.babelmed.net/index.php?menu=1&cont=472&lingua=en


 

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