An American In Malta

I'm sitting at a diner eating borscht. The owner is Latvian, married to the Libyan pizza maker a few shops down. The music playing in the background is by Joel Beers' spirit animal, Bruce Springsteen; as I hear the dulcet sounds of “Born to Run,” I make script notes on British playwright Martin Crimp's Attempts on Her Life while chatting about the pros and cons of U.S. drone policy with another diner. A teenager with a Mohawk and a sleeveless Bob Marley T-shirt walks by; we make brief eye contact.

Welcome to Malta.

I'm directing the Crimp play for the adventurous Unifaun Theatre Productions, a combative stage company that has successfully challenged and demolished the country's age-old censorship laws with its work. Located in the middle of the Mediterranean, the population of Malta, a little island south of Sicily, is twice that of Irvine and packed into a country the size of San Francisco.

If you're working in theater in Orange County, chances are you don't get paid. If you do, it's usually just a stipend that won't cover the tanks of gas to get you to rehearsal. Theaters count on you subsidizing their business with your time and labor, crocodile-tearing the fact they can't pay you a wage worthy of that effort. You're easily replaceable, after all, and not really part of the process of where the money goes.

This is the third time I've been to Malta in seven years. I was flown over at the company's expense and live in a flat with WiFi that overlooks the bay in a scenic fishing village called Marsaskala. I'm driven around wherever I need to go, taken to cultural events, wined, dined and able to pay my rent in California for a month—all with what the company is paying me. The theater is not subsidized by government funds, and everyone gets a decent paycheck.

I don't say any of that by way of bragging, but clearly, somebody is doing something right here and something terribly wrong in Southern California.

Actors and technicians in Malta move between stage, TV, film and back to the stage fluidly enough to make Southern California actors envious. My stage manager worked as a crew member on World War Z, my assistant is a television director, a former actor in a previous show was in Game of Thrones, one of my actresses had to miss rehearsals for a television gig, and one of my actors just finished a stint on Assassin's Creed with Michael Fassbender.

Then again, polls reveal that the majority of the Maltese population would rather watch soccer than go to a theater production, so the island and OC (where people would rather watch TV) aren't altogether different in that sense.

Call it the avant-garde play we're doing, or the unusual way we're putting together the show, but there's investment in the work here that I've rarely seen in the States, where the norm seems an assembly line of roles shoehorned into people's schedules, the work ending up half-assed and under-rehearsed, more an addiction than a testament to considered work. I have to believe the ethic is strong here not only because people are compensated instead of taken advantage of, but also because the work is looked upon as something noble, not just “entertainment.” There are several theater companies on the island, with varying degrees of professionalism, but only a few fall back on old reliables such as musicals and brainless comedies.

There aren't a large number of playwrights on the island, and two of the best regularly write only in Maltese—a lyrical cross (to my ears) of Arabic and Italian—considering it a mission to write in their native tongue, given that English is universal and the accepted language of business communication. In OC, everyone thinks they're a playwright, but few engage with the culture around them, and most of the work is too insular and unambitious (in structure, form or language), focused on 10-minute sketches instead of anything with real depth.

Post-rehearsal, one night, I'm sitting at a table at the restaurant StrEat, with my cast of 10 and producer Adrian Buckle. I'm drinking ale and quietly suffering everyone's cancer sticks, the gamboling conversation lively and political. One of my actors is a journalist, and we talk about the similarities between the anti-immigrant stance of Tea Party Republicans in the U.S. and of various nationalist anti-immigrant groups he has covered locally. Another actor, a Macedonian immigrant who has worked in New York, talks about Tito and Communism and the debatable Christianity of his home country, which refuses to deal with its Muslim population. Adrian's answer to the EU's refugee crisis, as well as his country's hostility, is to program a play that addresses it directly—British playwright Anders Lustgarten's Lampedusa—since things are unlikely to change in the near future.

At home, a few hours later, I look over the recent and upcoming schedules for theater in Orange County and Long Beach, and I see that Cabaret just closed, and yet another production of Rent opened. Someone is doing The 39 Steps again, and two theaters are doing Psycho Beach Party at the same time.

“Good job, OC,” I say, under my breath. “I can't wait to get back.”

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