Monday 14 June 2021

Sibling artists in a pandemic

Highlights of the past 15 months for The New Victorians

Rewind to March 2020 and Bettina Muchmore and her sister Philippa Cassar (now Naudi) of The New Victorians were working on their latest theatre production Publico, with a cast of local and foreign actors and musicians at the Manoel Theatre.

“Two weeks before the show opened, at the peak of rehearsals, we received a call telling us, ‘You have to go home. The show is cancelled’,” Bettina recalled. This was to be a more exclusive, experiential show in which the audience were being put on the Manoel stage.

“The week before they had cancelled shows of 1,000-people capacity but, since we only had an audience of 200, we thought we might get away with it,” she continued. “You go from working 10- to 12-hour days, with three sessions of rehearsals, to nothing. Actors and musicians, including foreigners, were sent home.”

Earlier in the month, a trip to the United Nations in New York, where The New Victorians were invited to speak at a Maltese event to coincide with Women’s Day, was also cancelled a couple of days before they were due to travel, after they had done all the paperwork, including obtaining their visas.

Bettina cancelled a road trip to America – the last before she was to settle down and start a family – and Philippa went through turmoil of her own with a wedding planned in May that was first postponed to November and then brought back to June.

“Brides differ a lot,” Philippa affirmed. “Some brides take their wedding day extremely seriously and it’s 800 people and all the fireworks – the works. You start seeing brides reacting in different ways: who wants to go ahead just them two; who wants to wait it out. And you are questioning where you sit.”

She had a change of heart: “At that stage, you’re so emotional about everything. At first, I could have cried about anything. Every time another bride called to cancel, it was more confusion of finances and, at the same time, all the confusion of our own wedding. But then, in the end, you know what? The party is not the point. The point is the marriage. So, we went ahead in June.”

Bettina is the first to admit that, initially, the two siblings were not thinking long term. “Some people were saying this could be years but then our restrictions were for just six weeks, so you kept that hope alive. Looking back, you laugh.”

In the midst of cancelled wedding performances, The New Victorians came up with the innovative Chapel Hop at Christmas. Two weeks into the first lockdown, they started doing live performances online. They were asked to take part in the Lockdown Festival.

The two sisters are still amazed at how they managed to pull off the Chapel Hop. “We managed to use the limitations to the strength of having this very intimate experience with small audiences, which was almost spiritual, in a time of the festive season when everyone was mourning what it should be or could be and is not,” Bettina said.

“For us, it was very moving on a personal level and also the feedback from audiences – ‘It was lovely to hear live music and just sit in a church again’.” For Philippa, it was one of the gifts of 2020. “We were just so grateful every day that we even got through – always concerned that, if one of us got sick, we would all have to quarantine and let everyone down. But also, just the idea that it was the Christmas spirit stripped down to what it really is all about.” They have every intention to repeat the Chapel Hop this year.

The New Victorians have also been active internationally, delivering a Master Class over four weeks to 30 student actors and actor musicians of the Leeds Conservatoire via Zoom in October and taking part in the Youth Cultural Innovators Forum organised by the Salzburg Global Seminar online in November.

They were sustained financially by two local initiatives, one that has given rise to the five-song EP titled If I had to tell you the truth, funded by the Malta Arts Council, and the Teatru Deposit, funded by Teatru Malta, to enable them to conduct the research and development of a production that will be presented in 2022.

Philippa said: “There is a lot of groundwork which usually, in regular times, you find really luxurious, in a sense of having budget or capacity to go slow and research. At the same time, in this phase, it’s funny because there is so much uncertainty and it’s so much of this alone time that it feels very different to when you’re doing an R&D amidst a very busy schedule when it’s a moment of nice, creative solitude. Now, it’s all we have.”

The collaborative EP is a project that Bettina and Philippa are glad to have delivered. They chose rapper Lapes for their first song in Maltese, pop singer Michela Pace, alternative band Djun, Hungarian identical twins, the Horváth Brothers, and London-based jazz rap artist, Albert Graver.

While Bettina said they strived to make the content of the EP cohesive, with The New Victorians as the thread of continuity, Philippa concluded: “When you have tighter parameters, you have to find more creative ways to fit within them.”

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