Interview with Lou Ghirlando

Tell me a little bit about Opening Doors Association. How was the idea started and how did it evolve?

Opening Doors began as a project that was set up by St. James Cavalier as part of Grundtvig, an EU Lifelong Learning partnership.. I was engaged to coordinate and direct the setting up of the theatre group. Between 2007 and 2009, although we worked specifically within the framework of the project, we also worked to create a strong foundation for the project. So much so, that on its completion,  the Theatre wanted to go further!

We subsequently worked for a year through a large Malta Art Funds project which I once again directed and which led to our first public performance in Malta – Jien u Ahna / Moi et Nous. We then continued with such projects building our independent identity along the way. We were always supported by St. James who have provided us with a ‘home’ throughout these years. In 2012, Opening Doors was set up as an NGO.

The idea was and continues to be to open up possibilities in the arts for adults with intellectual disabilities. As an Association, our scope has therefore extended further than the theatre group. In fact, apart from individual projects, we have also launched a dance group this year, following a pilot project last summer which was supported by the President’s Award for Creativity. The dance group is now being directed by Sandra Mifsud and they will be presenting a short demonstration after the theatre performances on the 17thand 18th May.

Also roles have recently changed., I am artistic director of the Association but the theatre group is being led by Anna Formosa and for this performance, entitled ‘It-tifel, is-sahhara, u l-principessa‘ [The Boy, The Witch and the Princess] (16th-18th May), we are collaborating with guest director, Coryse Borg.

The last time I bumped into you after a rehearsal I couldn’t help but notice how proud and satisfied you looked. How has this process shaped you, personally?

I am satisfied that the theatre work has grown so much, with a massive commitment from the performers (10 out of 13) who have been with us from the beginning, that’s six years now. The parents are also very committed as many continue to support those performers . It has been an enormously creative journey, growing with the group members and developing the artistic work. It is a freeing experience that challenges artistic practice and allows for greater experimentation. We work by devising performances, developing creative improvisational skills and building work from that. Because the work is created from the creative impulses of the group, it is felt to be genuine and we hope that because of that, the audience can experience  the creativity of the performers when they watch our performances.

What is your favourite memory from working with these individuals?

At this moment two enriching memories come up – the first was after our first public performance when one of the performers kept repeating to me, ‘I did it myself’, and the satisfaction that came from that was so clearly evident.

The second was when I was in India with two of the performers. Apart from a Nigerian singer, we were the only non-Asian performers at the Sambhav festival in New Delhi. Communication was a challenge as very few individuals could understand each other through language. But after our performance, the popularity of our team soared with other participants who, for the remaining days of the festival, approached us joking about the James Bond reference in our piece and making contact through ‘cool guy’ body gestures.

What do you find difficult or challenging from this experience?

I think one of the challenges I constantly work through is to find the right balance between offering positive support to the work that is created, and challenging the group to grow, move forward and push their boundaries.

Another challenge in talking about the work is that people always assume the work is drama therapy, without acknowledging that people with intellectual disabilities can create work in its own right and not necessarily for therapy, just like anybody else. The intention of therapy is very different to creating a piece of theatre in its own right and for the enjoyment of the audience.

What do you imagine that your audience gains from such experiences? What are some comments you have received that keep you working for this cause?

When people approach me to tell me that they could feel the emotional genuineness of the performance. That really motivates me. But even more than that, it is the level of commitment taken by the performers themselves that inspires all concerned to continue with this work.