The man does it all, from directing to acting, to chairman and festival director, not forgetting to add the title of creative economy adviser to his seemingly endless portfolio. Toni Attard has a calm demeanour but an infectious smile and when he bursts into the studio shop at St James Cavalier Centre for Creativity, the air in the room fizzes with positive energy.
I am meeting him to discuss last year's edition of the ZiguZajg International Arts Festival for Young People... the conversation led us to also discussing the effect of extra-curricular activities in a child's lifestyle, the issue of local cultural participation and the correlation between the two, if any.
In reply to a question concerning audience attendance and participation, he explains that last year, there were over 1,500 tickets amongst those collected that saw their holders not turning up at the actual festival shows.
“The festival is aimed at two different audiences, determined by age – the under 10-year-olds and the over 10-year-olds. With regards to audience participation, 65-70 per cent attended the 'under 10 age group' shows, although the shows were considered to be fully booked as all tickets had been collected. The shows aimed at young people (the over 10 age group) presented an attendance result of 45-50 per cent, which is when things can become problematic,” Attard laments.
“Not turning up is an issue which can be explained in a variety of ways, binge buying probably being the most popular. People tend to buy 20 tickets as opposed to 10 ‘just in case’”, he explains in his light, calm tone.
One of the aims of the festival is to attract the youth side of the audience, which also depends on young people's involvement in the arts. This stirs up the question: Are young people exposed to related artistic events often enough?
Attard aims to address this head on in the upcoming fourth edition of the festival. Two of the major changes he intends to make are linked to the youth side of things. Attard feels that by extending and extrapolating shows more driven towards young people whilst still retaining them as a thread part of the festival, should be of benefit to both the young people and the festival itself.
“In terms of identifying the meaning and amount of local cultural participation, even the term is very broad in itself,” Attard goes on.
He points out that by participating in local village feasts or passion plays, or forming part of the school or church choir is in fact a form of cultural participation. But when it comes to accessing the arts, he believes, one may find different groups of people who are not engaged, and such disengagement lies primarily in the family, as the children are not informed of artistic possibilities. On the other hand, one may find families who view involvement in the arts as part and parcel of the development of the young members of the family, which eventually might lead them into them gaining a certificate in some form of performance art.
“Then there are the actively engaged groups and it’s the norm for them to attend the theatre or perform in front of an audience,” he says.
“It’s also a known fact that there is a direct correlation between the level of education and cultural participation,” Attard claims. “Social barriers are highly influential when studying attendances, but having said that, the festival is very careful with its ticket prices – indeed some things are free – thus minimising issues related to financial barriers. If this changes, ticket prices rarely exceed the price of a burger,” he jokes.
Audience profiling is relatively the same for this festival as it is for any other type of artistic activity. “This year we had a total of 53 schools participating in the festival, an increase from last year. As the government schools fill up most morning and afternoon shows, the evening shows are occupied by families with children attending private or church schools,” Attard explains.
Attard is looking forward to the 2014 edition, the fourth, of ZiguZajg later this year. “Every year has been a learning experience and the numbers are good and continuously on the increase,” he states. “This is an experience where all families can enjoy an incredible local or foreign piece of theatre for the equivalent price of an everyday coffee. It is a truly spectacular experience that happens right in the heart of Malta and not to be missed,” he concludes.