An Interview with Mercedes Kemp

Babelmed | 02/01/2004

Originally from Spain, Mercedes Kemp lives and works in Cornwall since 30 years. Apart from being an academic and a successful writer, she is involved in many artistic initiatives. In Birgu, Malta, she 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.

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 García 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 (October 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

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.

The Interview
I interviewed Mercedes Kemp in December 2003.

Apart from being an academic and a successful writer, you are involved in many artistic initiatives, especially in the field of community art. How do you manage? Do your 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…

Your production A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings is based on a short story by Gabriel García Márquez. Did you consider using a text that was closer to home, or is García Márquez 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.

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.

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.

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.

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
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.

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.

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.

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?
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.

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.

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

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