In this episode of The Spotlight Podcast, we talk to performer, theatre-maker and creative Edinburgh’s Programme Manager Zoë Alba Farrugia about representation and inclusion in performing arts and the importance of the artistic community
Zoë Alba Farrugia shares her story about moving to the UK as a Maltese performer to follow her acting dream, the challenges she faced and how they inspired her to co-found female-led theatre company Prickly Pear Productions.
if you’re not familiar with Prickly Pear Productions, they are a female-led theatre company that champions underrepresented stories and artists. in the episode, Zoë talks about devising the work they perform and why it’s important to tell stories inspired by different cultures and human experiences.
As well as being an actor and theatre-maker, Zoë also has a day job as Creative Edinburgh’s Programme Manager and does a lot of work to support those in the creative industry. She shares some of the great initiatives she’s involved in, including providing spaces for people to meet others in the creative community and share ideas.
We cover a lot of interesting subjects in this hour-long episode, including:
- Zoë’s experience as an international performer working in the UK.
- The importance of the artistic community.
- Opportunities for creatives in Scotland.
- Creating a theatre company and making work.
- Representation and opportunities for women and migrants in the performing arts industry.
- How the industry can be more inclusive and open itself up to include and represent different nationalities and cultures.
- The similarities and differences of actors’ experiences across the world.
1 hour listen
Kristyn Coutts: Hello. My name’s Kristyn Coutts and this is the Spotlight Podcast. In this episode, we are talking to the amazing Zoë Alba Farrugia, an international performer who is also Creative Edinburgh’s Programme Manager.
Zoe’s also the co-founder and co-artistic director of Prickly Pear Productions, which is a female-led theatre company that champions underrepresented stories and artists.
Amongst other things, we discuss access to the UK performing arts scene if you’re an international artist, any challenges that may raise, as well as opportunities. The representation of women, particularly migrant women, in the arts, and ways that the industry could better open itself up to include and represent different nationalities and cultures. We also discuss starting your own theatre company and the collaborative nature of the creative industry in Scotland.
I found it to be a really interesting chat and I’m excited to share it with you.
Hi, Zoë, and welcome to the Spotlight Podcast.
Zoë Alba Farrugia: Hi, Kristyn, thanks for having me. Thanks for having me here.
Kristyn Coutts: Thank you for being here. So the first thing is, can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your background in the arts?
Zoë Alba Farrugia: Oh, okay. So in 1990… No, I’m joking.
Kristyn Coutts: I mean, you can.
Zoë Alba Farrugia: I’m from Malta originally, but I currently reside in Edinburgh, Scotland, which is lovely. I actually started off in flamenco dancing. I was a dancer for the first 15 years of my life because I was three when I started and then I stopped when I was 18. I did that typical thing of being a teenager, doing my A levels and being like, “I don’t have time for the arts,” and I gave up dancing.
My journey is a zigzag in that I don’t have that moment where I was like, “This is my future!” There’s not that shining, glorious revelation. It was more I stumbled into what I now do.
I went on to study fine art and the history of art, and then I decided to do my major at university in theatre studies. So I did that and learned all the boring things about Stanislavsky and Meyerhold and all the things that they still decide to teach in theatre studies for some reason. I mean, obviously, I know they’re important, but not enough practical work. And then I-
Kristyn Coutts: You’re more practical than theory?
Zoë Alba Farrugia: That’s it. Way more. Yeah, I’m not a very good theorist.
And then from there, I actually spent some time in London working in an English school before I did my last year at uni. I guess maybe that maybe was my opening eyes moment. I had been to London before, but never as an adult. And going to West End shows and affording to take myself out because I was getting paid from the English school was amazing. I’m very privileged to have that experience because I was going to five shows a week. I was a student eating nothing but a baguette for lunch so I could afford to pay for tickets and scrimp out on whatever. I even watched Les Mis at the back standing next to the sound desk because I begged them every day to let me in because they were sold out. And then he was like, “If you pay a fiver you can stand at the back.” That’s what I did.
Kristyn Coutts: There you go, be persistent.
Zoë Alba Farrugia: Be persistent, that’s the lesson from today.
Anyway, from there I decided to move to the UK after I finished university, and I actually went and lived in Yorkshire after living in London before moving up to Scotland. So it’s been a bit of a journey further north every time. I’m like, “Actually, I want to keep going up.”
Kristyn Coutts: A little step more, a little step more. And then do you remember what the first show is that you saw?
Zoë Alba Farrugia: Oh, my God, yes. It was Thriller of Michael Jackson, which, obviously, now in hindsight, this was 2012, we didn’t exactly know the history of that artist, but it was a great show. I had never watched a sort of jukebox musical before, so that was quite interesting. And then that went to Wicked, to Les Mis, the classics from there. I remember sitting in that theatre and just crying a bit. I was like, “Wow, this is powerful,” which was very nice.
Kristyn Coutts: And that was your moment of revelation.
Zoë Alba Farrugia: Maybe. Yeah, maybe that was it, Thriller.
Kristyn Coutts: Putting words in your mouth there, maybe it’s not.
Zoë Alba Farrugia: That’s okay. No, no, yeah.
Kristyn Coutts: So you went on to want to be a performer, and so what was your experience like as an international performer working in the UK?
Zoë Alba Farrugia: It’s a semi-difficult question to answer because, coming here, I had a lot of performance experience from Malta obviously. But moving here, I naively thought that, “I have my degree, I have years of experience. I’m trained,” that I would genuinely end up working in theatre within the first year of moving here. But that wasn’t the case, and I found it very difficult because a lot of places don’t necessarily take into account your experience abroad.
Kristyn Coutts: Right.
Zoë Alba Farrugia: All the experience I have from Malta, they just didn’t count it. And so it looked like, in their eyes, I was untrained and didn’t have the experience necessary to actually work in the UK. So it was very difficult trying to build up my credentials here, especially because, as you can hear, I don’t have a British accent. I can’t fake one. I’m very bad at impressions, especially regional ones. I could never.
A lot of people think I’m Welsh, which is even funnier because I sound nothing like my Welsh friends have been around me when people have said, “Oh, you sound Welsh.” And they’re like, “I’m Welsh. I’m Welsh, not her.” So maybe I could pretend to be Welsh, but it was very difficult having a different accent, absolutely.
I got into a lot of community theatre, and that is what really built my love for community theatre because the people in the community, especially in Sheffield, the community theatre, they were great and they were so accepting. But at a professional level, it is still very difficult for migrants especially to get any work that’s paid.
Kristyn Coutts: Right.
Zoë Alba Farrugia: Because when it’s community theatre, you’re unpaid. I can act, that’s great. They cast me in a few things, but getting paid work took a lot more effort, and took a lot more time.
And one thing I am grateful for when I did sign up for Spotlight is that all my previous work experience was counted for. So I’m like, “Why is a big industry casting platform like Spotlight accepting my past experience yet it’s overlooked by actual casting people?”
Kristyn Coutts: So is it casting directors and productions where you were having the problems?
Zoë Alba Farrugia: Yeah, and not only. I mean, just going into auditions and…
I’m not the only one, obviously, I speak for myself, but I know this is true with a lot of other migrants here in the UK. Sometimes they don’t even get you in the room because it’s hard to put us in a box, and I feel like the industry has semi-become a bit of a tick box situation, where I am white, but I’m not white British, but I’m also a minority because I’m a migrant. I have been called exotic, which I hate. I hate when people call me that.
Kristyn Coutts: That’s not a word to use.
Zoë Alba Farrugia: No. And if you’re out there using that word for just Mediterranean people, please stop. And this is no hate; I have met a lot of people that have been amazing as well. This is obviously just my lived experience, but there have been casting directors, and I find the casting directors that overlook this are ones that are also foreign so they know that your experience is valid and worthwhile. It’s different to different people, I would say.
Kristyn Coutts: Did you find any opportunities that are open because you were ‘foreign-born’? Were there any opportunities at all or was it mostly challenges?
Zoë Alba Farrugia: Hmm. It’s hard because I have an even harder experience in that I was in Sheffield, Yorkshire. So there are already limited opportunities in Yorkshire. Because if I look at Edinburgh here, I’ve had loads of opportunities come up, and not just because I live here now and have the credentials, but because in Scotland they’re also a lot more open to migrants, especially Edinburgh because it’s a city. Whereas Sheffield, it’s not unfortunately brimming with opportunities already.
So the small opportunities that there were, I couldn’t get because I had my accent; whereas, I was getting opportunities in Leeds and I was getting opportunities in other places. So I’ve never actually had an opportunity come about because I’m foreign.
Kristyn Coutts: Okay.
Zoë Alba Farrugia: I can speak different languages and I’ve never been used to play a role where I speak a different language, for example, or I’ve never been used for a role where my role is a foreigner if that makes sense? So no, actually. Sadly, I’ve not had an opportunity because I am foreign.
Kristyn Coutts: As you say, you’re currently based in Scotland. Well, in Edinburgh specifically. And aside from it being a lovely city, how did you end up there, or why did you choose to settle there, and how long have you been there?
Zoë Alba Farrugia: Oh, good question. So I can say I did have a ‘eyes wide open, deer in the headlights, oh my God’ revelation that I wanted to move here. Because when I came up to Scotland for the first time in 2017, I had been living in the UK for two years, and I came up for my first Fringe. And I came out of Waverley [station] and I was just instantly enamoured with the city. It’s a beautiful place. And I had been coming up for a few years, obviously, since 2017. And during the pandemic, I just spoke with my partner and I was like, “Look, ultimately you knew this is where I wanted to end up because I’ve been wanting to go there every year since. And now that I can’t go there, it dawned on me that I don’t want to live in Sheffield anymore and Sheffield is not the place for me because there aren’t that many opportunities for me here.” So I had a very serious like, “Okay, let’s actually look at this.”
So we moved as soon as we could after the lockdowns were lifted, and that was August 2021. So we’ve been here just over a year. And it is generally because it ticks so many boxes for me. It’s a city. It’s diverse, not only in culture but in the people that live here. The community is amazing. The creative community, especially in Edinburgh is like nothing I’ve ever experienced. Everyone is so nice and so kind and so open to collaboration across sectors; but also in the theatre industry, everyone’s just lovely.
And it’s near the sea, which for me is a huge tick because I just… Oh, being landlocked in Sheffield was, for a Mediterranean person, really hard. Every time I saw the sea I cried, so not if I get to live near the sea.
Kristyn Coutts: You needed to go.
Zoë Alba Farrugia: I needed to go. And it’s also really great because it’s near the Pentlands and the Highlands and the Scottish countryside, which is also magic. And my partner, Declan, he’s a big hiker. He used to go into the Peak District every weekend to hike and stuff. So it just ticked every… I know, we’re talking about ticking boxes a lot, right? I’d never used this language in everyday life as much as I’ve used it here I think.
It was just the city that won me over instantly and I’m very happy we managed to make the dream a reality.
Kristyn Coutts: You did a good job of selling it.
Zoë Alba Farrugia: Oh, thanks. Everyone, move to Edinburgh.
Kristyn Coutts: I know that you work for Creative Edinburgh, is that the job that you got as soon as you moved to the city or is it something that came along for you?
Zoë Alba Farrugia: It did come along after I moved. So my job at the height of the pandemic, let’s call it, was remote. So then I just got that job with me from Sheffield to Edinburgh. My partner’s the one who found the job first here, and that’s how we moved. Because we didn’t want to move without job security obviously, because we’re in this economic situation and so we couldn’t afford to live without it. And then maybe four or five months later I got my job at Creative Edinburgh. So it was quite quick, which I’m very grateful for because they’re a great team.
Kristyn Coutts: Well, can you tell us a little bit about Creative Edinburgh, like what you all do, how many of you there are, and what your role is specifically as well?
Zoë Alba Farrugia: Sure, yeah. So we’re a team of five core staff. We’re all ladies, which is really nice. It wasn’t designed to be that way, it just ended up being that way, and it’s just really lovely. We’re all from different countries, which is even nicer, so we really understand each other when there’s a situation where we’re homesick or we have family visiting. So we’re a very empathetic team in that sense.
And I am the programme manager, so I take care of all the programme and the strategy, which means things like all our events, but also all our consultations and all our member support sessions that we would organise to do one-to-ones with our members. And we are the biggest membership creative organisation in the UK in terms of what we do in serving all of the creative community, not just one niche. So we have about 5,500 members, which is a lot for five people to tackle.
But again, it’s a really amazing community. And when we are stuck, we have a great support network within our membership to help us find those connections that we need to make for people to really thrive and work and continue to work within the city.
That’s us in essence, but we do a lot more. So we do things like mentoring, but we also do advocacy. So we meet up with the government as many times as humanly possible, or as many times as they’ll listen to us, to advocate for freelancers and advocate for creatives within the industry.
We’re constantly trying to further funding opportunities. We are barely funded, but when we can find funding pots that we can then distribute to others, we do that as well. So we usually do that through the city council. They would give us a pot and then we would help distribute that amongst creatives who apply to it, and that happens about once a year.
We basically just try to support them as much as humanly possible the creative industry. And at the moment, as everyone knows, it’s very difficult in this climate. We’ve just had the Filmhouse close and Edinburgh International Film Festival.
Kristyn Coutts: Yeah, we just saw the news about that as well. It’s such a shame.
Zoë Alba Farrugia: Yeah. Yeah, so that was difficult. Such a shame. So difficult for the city. We have museums that are closing their doors for the winter because they can’t afford to light the building. So it’s obviously a challenge for everyone, and we’re just trying our best to keep our heads above water but also support people to help them keep their heads above water as well. But that’s us in a nutshell.
Kristyn Coutts: I think one of the things that I like that you guys do is the Creative Circles. Because I think, especially when there are difficult situations going on, but just generally, I think that finding your community is important and networking with like-minded people is important, especially for creatives, especially, I think, for performers. And so I love the sound of those. I wonder if you can just talk a little bit about those, just so people know what I’m talking about?
Zoë Alba Farrugia: Of course. Yes, yes. I should have said that because it’s our flagship event. So Creative Circles is a monthly networking event that we run in different parts of the city. So we try to make sure we go out to community buildings and different places so that we can attract as many people from the creative community around the city as possible.
Each one has a bit of a theme. So we have had one about theatre, one about dance, but we’ve also had one about images and the power of images. We’ve also spoken about things like mental health and focusing on our mental well-being. So it’s not just niche topics every time; they can be very sort of… Well, not general, but they can be just talking about rather than one industry, but about the importance of connecting different industries together through images, for example. And I organise those.
I am a big advocate of hating networking. And I tell you why, because networking can feel very rigid. So my aim for these is to actually create connections and go into it wanting, not for people to feel nervous about coming in and having to network, but coming in and just having a conversation and looking at it like that. Because I think networking… I mean, it is our networking event I guess, but networking is such a…
Kristyn Coutts: I’ve said this before in previous podcasts, where it’s such an off-putting word. I don’t know if it’s something that gets drilled into us at school or what, but the word just immediately puts shivers down my spine.
Zoë Alba Farrugia: I know. I generally hate networking. I find it really like… Yeah, just I’m not good at it in that you have to make small talk and whatever. So that’s why each of the Creative Circles, they have a theme and a speaker. So then you go off and you can speak to people about what was said in the room and then you can sell yourself at the end if you need to.
Kristyn Coutts: Perfect, yeah.
Zoë Alba Farrugia: We give space for people to make announcements either through voice, so they can come up to the front and speak about projects that they have going on and if they need collaborations or are looking for particular people. We always take a big corkboard on an easel and people can stick stuff up so if you are neurodivergent and it’s not your thing or if you just are introverted and you hate speaking in front of people, you can have your poster or something on that as well.
Kristyn Coutts: That’s such a nice idea.
Zoë Alba Farrugia: Yeah, we try to make it open to everyone. Because for me, I don’t mind going up to the front, but then I have friends who are really introverted and I know would hate that. So that’s where the corkboard came from. So we love that, and that’s going to remain a core offering as part of Creative Edinburgh forever. Because we see people meet there for the first time, and then a few events later we hear that they’re working on a project together or a funding application, and it’s just so rewarding to be able to facilitate that.
Kristyn Coutts: Amazing. And how can people get involved if they wanted to join?
Zoë Alba Farrugia: Oh, so, yeah, absolutely. So if you are in Edinburgh or work predominantly in Edinburgh, it is free to join. We are launching membership packages early in 2023. Hopefully, by January it will be on the [Creative Edinburgh] website, but one of our packages will always be free because we want to make sure that our core offerings, like Creative Circles, our events and our workshops where we teach funding application skills and all that, are still free. If you want to pay and support Creative Edinburgh, you obviously get more benefits.
So you can just go on the Creative Edinburgh website or find us on all social media platforms, and the signup form is really easy to fill out. And if you can’t afford to pay for the membership packages, then you can still get all the good stuff on a free package.
Kristyn Coutts: Perfect. Well, talking about Edinburgh and Scotland generally, what sort of opportunities are there for creatives there that maybe are not as prevalent in the rest of the UK? Why specifically Scotland?
Zoë Alba Farrugia: There are many, to be honest. There are many. And what’s good about Scotland is that the creative industry is still small enough that you can know a lot of people and get work through word of mouth, but it’s still very open in that I’ve seen a lot of opportunities advertised.
So gaming, as you say, is really prevalent here and it’s growing faster than I think they even know it because they just had a big gaming week, the industry sort of came together and organised that here. So that means that, for example, actors here are more likely to get more voiceover work. I know it’s not like the sexiest, because you’re not on stage or film, but you could be doing a lot of the sort of like… I forgot was it’s called, but where they put dots on your face and you’re acting and then you’re in a video game.
Kristyn Coutts: Oh, like the motion capture type stuff.
Zoë Alba Farrugia: That’s it, thank you. So there’s motion capture. So for actors, there’s that. And what’s great with Scotland is that every sort of major-ish city has a creative network like Creative Edinburgh, so there’s Creative Dundee, Creative Aberdeen, there’s Glasgow CAN. There are big networks within Scotland that support you and want to see you grow.
Even for acting, there are some amazing theatres in Glasgow. Glasgow is hugely cultural and in my opinion, has some of the best theatre at the moment, and also Edinburgh. Well, I live here so I’m a bit biased, but you’ve got the Tron in Glasgow, but also the Traverse and the Lyceum dishing out some great shows and good programming.
Culturally, I feel like Scotland is brimming at the moment. It’s doing so well.
Obviously, there are funding cuts across the whole UK, which is another story, but in terms of the creative community, I think what’s nice about Scotland is there’s a lot more cross-pollination that happens within the sectors. Because it’s such a small creative industry, people collaborate across sectors a lot more than I’ve seen happen in England. With England, it’s spread out so far, so it’s not as easy. So it’s no one’s fault, it’s just harder.
Kristyn Coutts: Okay, interesting. Thank you for that.
You co-founded Prickly Pear Productions. So I wonder if you can tell us a little bit about how that came about, where the idea came from, what Prickly Pear Productions is, and your vision and all the grand stuff.
Zoë Alba Farrugia: All the grand ideas. Yeah, thank you. Oh, God. Okay. So I guess the story of how we started is a weird one. I was in a play at a prominent theatre in Sheffield and my best friend was also in a play in the Peak District, and we were both miscast quite badly. They asked her to play an Indian actor and she’s Maltese, so not Indian heritage, so she felt very uncomfortable with that. And then the play I was in, refugees were cast as white British people, so I was very uncomfortable with that as well.
So it was a situation where we were both just in plays and really unhappy with the plays we were in, but at that point in our career where we couldn’t say no because we wanted the experience, because we’re both Maltese and we needed to build up our repertoire, and all that jazz. The ‘nice’ dilemma of, “I’m uncomfortable, but I don’t know what to do. If I move away from this, can I get an opportunity like this again?”
We were at my house and I was sitting on the floor. I still remember it’s clear as day, having a meltdown and banging my fists on the ground being like, “I’ve had enough. I don’t know what to do. And I want to make a real change, but I don’t know how to make it myself. And that’s it, I’m just going to do it. I’m going to start a theatre company, and that’s that.” She was like… This is Chantelle. She was like, “Cool, I’ll join you. Let’s do it,” and that’s it. That’s generally the start of the company.
From there, we started our first show and we scratched it, which was called Immigration Crisis: The Musical. And that was quite literally what you can imagine about five women, wanting it to be a feminist piece about migration. And it was at the time of Brexit, so that was obviously quite difficult for us because we had just moved. And from there we-
Kristyn Coutts: I’m sure there was a lot to say.
Zoë Alba Farrugia: There was a lot to say, and it was mainly focusing around actually the humour in what is said by the far right and conservative newspapers around migrants and how we’re invading and taking over, and actually, no, that’s not the case. You know what I mean? There’s no invasion. This is not what’s really happening.
Kristyn Coutts: Yes.
Zoë Alba Farrugia: So it was tongue in cheek, and we like to take really serious topics and just make fun of them in the sense of showing people that there is humour but also try to teach a lesson through that. I know that sounds very contradictory, but I guess that’s what we try to do.
Prickly Pear has a lot of meaning because it’s an ode to our home, Malta, but we also ike to take really serious topics, like migration, like racism, like microaggressions, and so they’re “prickly topics” we call them. For example, we’re doing a show about sexual assault against women now.
None of our shows, unfortunately, are super funny. They all have quite a serious theme behind them because our mission is to bring really serious topics, like racism, like microaggressions in the workplace, like sexual assault against women, like xenophobia against migrants, to the forefront of theatre, but we also want to make it a conversation so you’re not leaving feeling really deflated as I do at a lot of plays sometimes.
I mean, they’re great and it’s good to feel that sadness, but I also want people to feel empowered to create change, and to have these conversations with their loved ones, and share that people go through these experiences. And some of us are privileged enough not to have ever gone through any of these, so how can we help the people going through them? So I feel like I don’t even know what the question was anymore, but it’s just a long-winded way to say we’re trying our best.
Kristyn Coutts: Yeah, you covered it. It was kind of where it came from and what you were about, and I think you covered that perfectly.
I guess the whole thing for you is telling stories inspired by different cultures. So how do you select the stories that you’re going to tell? Who writes them, or how do you select them?
Zoë Alba Farrugia: That’s a really great question. I don’t think we even know the answer to that. We’ve worked on a lot of different things and in an ideal world, we were paid a wage to do Prickly work and we actually get to curate how we moved forward. But as is with probably [common with] most companies our size, we kind of just go off whatever opportunity and commissions we can find and it depends on what the project is.
We always say our ethos is that we let the story tell us how it wants to be told. So with Immigration Crisis, it was a musical because we always feel that musicals sort of come from a place of needing to express a bigger emotion through song. We have a show called Nanna’s Bolognese, which we wanted to tackle the question of, what is success. Especially as a migrant, what does success mean if you move back home after living abroad? Like that stigma of sometimes people see people who have moved away come back and be like, “Oh, they didn’t succeed because now they’re back.”
And also women in STEM. So we sort of took an approach of that, and that was a children’s show, for example.
But we’ve also done things like refugee stories, where we’ve done them through shadow puppetry. Through puppetry, because we feel that we want there to be a place for these stories to exist, but we always find that… How do I word this? It’s really hard to tell these stories. So it’s a really, really difficult topic. And we chose shadow puppetry because, one, we wanted to avoid the emotional turmoil that actors would have to go through to tell these stories, but also we wanted people to hear more than see. So obviously, with shadow puppetry, you are more enveloped in the storytelling because there aren’t actors to get distracted by on stage, and we wanted people to really be enveloped in the stories of these refugees and also migrants.
We did two shows shadow puppetry. One was Bahar, which was stories about the sea and missing the sea if you’re a migrant, but also what stories refugees have around the sea. And then the second one was called Displaced, which was entirely about refugee stories.
We wanted the audiences to be enveloped in those stories way more than paying attention to what was on stage if that makes sense? And we thought we felt shadow puppetry was the best way to tell that.
So it kind of depends on the commission, but we always try our best to make sure that the stories are written authentically through people who have these lived experiences. All our shows are either devised with people in the room and then through research and interviews, or they are verbatim shows.
Nanna’s Bolognese is the only one where Chantelle actually sat down and wrote it and just wrote whatever she wanted to write because that’s a fantasy and it’s a children’s play so it was easier.
But when we tackle things like racism, like refugee stories, like migrant stories and problems and obstacles they face, it’s always through very long periods of research and then devising. Because I’m not a writer; I suck at writing.
For anyone out there that wants to start a theatre company and doesn’t because of the writing part, devise. You’ve got this. There is a way around writing.
Kristyn Coutts: Do you ever perform in any of the works that you put on?
Zoë Alba Farrugia: See, this was another aim of the company was to give ourselves more work. We’re like, “Well, we’re not getting enough work as actors and we moved here to act. Let’s start our own theatre company,” and then we ended up just doing all the admin and the producing and the funding applications.
I do some acting, but not in every single show, no, because it’s a small theatre company, it’s really hard to wear all the hats, and sometimes you just need to wear the hat that gives others the space to take on that opportunity. So a big goal of ours now, as we’ve evolved over the past four years, is to actually create opportunities for people who aren’t getting those opportunities like we were. Because acting is great, and I love it, and I would love to be a full-time actor, but I also realise that I am a white female from a privileged background, having a very ‘straightforward career’.
Obviously, I had my obstacles as a migrant when I moved here and I faced many challenges. But there are many other people that face way more challenges than me, so why not use my position of privilege to help others come up the ladder as well? At least we try.
Kristyn Coutts: Well, I mean, you’ve put on quite a few shows, so I think you’re succeeding, which is great.
Zoë Alba Farrugia: Oh, thank you. Thanks.
Kristyn Coutts: What are your thoughts on representation and opportunities for women in the industry, particularly when it comes to being an immigrant?
Zoë Alba Farrugia: It’s really hard to be a woman in the industry because there are more women in this industry, which means that our competition is way bigger than those of men. So if you’re a man, then you’re going to get way more. And being a migrant, that adds another layer. Being a migrant, being a Black actress, being an Asian actress adds that layer of being niche cast and never being able to actually grow in any role outside of that niche sort of casting. So that’s a nutshell.
Kristyn Coutts: So can you tell us about any projects you’re currently working on and how you’re getting the group together to be part of that?
Zoë Alba Farrugia: Yeah. Well, at the moment we actually got commissioned to do, next week… Just to add stress to my life, next week we’re doing a children’s festival in Malta. And one of the shows is in Maltese. It’s called Vjagg Bil-Ballun, which means The Journey With the Ball, that’s how it’s exactly translated so it doesn’t make sense in English. In Maltese, I can assure you, it makes sense.
it’s about a refugee boy who comes to Malta after fleeing war, and how he integrates and makes friends through football. Because he doesn’t know the language yet, he makes friends through the power of the sport. And that’s really great, and it’s a puppetry show, and we love that show a lot. We are adapting children’s books into plays basically.
And then the second show is called Write the Feelings. And it’s about embracing your feelings and making sure you understand that when you’re angry you can share that, and when you’re sad you can share that. So it’s a bit around, basically, introducing quite a young audience to mental health, so it’s great as well.
Kristyn Coutts: Very important.
Zoë Alba Farrugia: Yeah, so important. And we’re really honoured to have been asked to come in and do those two shows because they’re really aligned super well with what we want to do. And even introducing mental health to young kids at such a young age is so incredibly… It’s a privilege and an honour for sure.
In the new year  we start working on a show, which for now the working title is Walking Home, and that’s a show about sexual assault against women. And we’re super-scared, I’m not going to lie, to start this because it’s huge… I mean, we’ve been trying to get funding for it for about three years now. It finally got funded and I feel like, obviously, with everything that’s happened around the world, maybe that’s why it finally got funded this year  to develop for next year. I’m not going to sit here and complain that we finally managed to get funding. Obviously, the circumstances around why are more of an important issue, it’s quite sad, with more women coming forward and coming to light and more murders happening, which is really scary.
So yeah, that show terrifies me and excites me at the same time, because I really want us to tell the story well, but I also want to honour all the women, myself included, who have been victims of either assault or inappropriate comments or a touch here and there. That’s probably the scariest show we’ve ever put on in that sense because it’s quite hard.
We want that show also to be a bit of a… Not a debate, but we want especially men to walk away feeling like they learned something and questioning what they can do to be better, and unpicking the patriarchal toxic masculinity embedded into them. Especially in Malta, because it’s such an insular small island that a lot of men still have quite, I would say, rigid… I wouldn’t say they have a problem. Not all men commit assault, obviously, but they still might ask the question, what was she wearing? Do you know what I mean? So there’s that embedded programme in Malta.
Kristyn Coutts: Right. Yeah. I mean, that still gets asked here, doesn’t it? Which is ridiculous.
Zoë Alba Farrugia: Yeah. And we want to put on the show because it’s universal, isn’t it? It’s a universal thing.
Kristyn Coutts: Yeah. So you’ll be putting that on in the UK and in Malta?
Zoë Alba Farrugia: Yes. So we’ve got funding from Arts Council Malta, we’re very grateful, and we are applying for funding here as well, so hopefully, we can get that as well. The aim is the research, the R&D phase is in Malta in February, and then we are hoping to perform in May and July across parts of Malta and take it to schools potentially, depending on the age limit we put on it. And then bring it and debut it at the Fringe. Because it’ll be an hour, it fits with the Fringe. And hopefully, obviously, like everyone else, see from there, see where it goes and hope it can have a life outside of that.
The other freelance hat that I wear, I’m working on a show about young people voting and the importance [of it], because I’ve been fascinated by voting and voting trends in the UK since I moved. Because in Malta, voting is super prevalent and you go out to vote no matter what. But when I moved here, I had people who were British asking me… One person asked me, “What is a Tory?” One person asked me what a hung Parliament was. And these were young people, like in their 20s, and I was like, “Oh, wow. How do I know more about your government than you do?”
Kristyn Coutts: Oh, wow.
Zoë Alba Farrugia: So I’ve really been fascinated by that. So I’m devising a show, hopefully, as part of youth theatre art, Scotland’s Directors’ Development Programme, and it’s going to be a debate, hopefully. It’s going to be a show that is around a debate club in a school where they’re debating the topic of anonymity versus very public life on social media. Then it descends into chaos and becomes actually a political piece about young people and their voting and how important it is for them to recognise the impact of their vote. Because young people vote loads when it comes to reality TV. And they can understand the effects, what their vote means, with reality TV or their favourite celebrity and getting them an award, but not a lot of them translate that into their voting rights in politics because, and not to anyone’s fault, they’re so disenfranchised from politicians.
Kristyn Coutts: It’s interesting in light of the US elections recently, where the analysis is coming out in that the young people actually swung quite a lot of that. An interesting time.
Zoë Alba Farrugia: Yes, so important. Yeah.
Kristyn Coutts: Yeah. Gosh, it sounds like you’ve got a lot going on. I say this to all my guests because everyone just seems like they’re just wearing all the hats, doing all the things, and it’s so wildly impressive.
Zoë Alba Farrugia: No. No, let’s demystify it. I’m drowning. I’m so overwhelmed. But it’s okay, it’s good.
Kristyn Coutts: How are you taking care of yourself? Let’s talk about that.
Zoë Alba Farrugia: Oh, that’s a good question.
Kristyn Coutts: Please tell me you are taking care of yourself.
Zoë Alba Farrugia: I’m trying. It’s a face mask and a video game usually. I’m just usually a really aggressive video game… Not aggressive, but it’s like one that I can just go and smash things and shoot at people.
Kristyn Coutts: Bash buttons.
Zoë Alba Farrugia: Bash buttons. Yeah, that’s it.
Kristyn Coutts: In light of all the work that you’re doing and your experiences, the negative ones that have unfortunately happened, how do you feel that productions or casting professionals could actively address diversity issues, rather than it feeling like a box-ticking exercise for performers? So what do you think could be done in the industry? If you don’t know it, that’s fine, because it’s a big question, but maybe you have some ideas.
Zoë Alba Farrugia: I do have ideas. And obviously, again, I reiterate, this is from my lived experience and it’s really important to know that there are some places across the UK that are doing great work. So I don’t want to discredit anyone, but there are places that are still, like you say, doing the tick box, the Arts Council England, Creative Scotland, necessary funding sort of criteria, tick boxing.
I think it has to come from the top down. If your creative team, if your production team, if your managerial team, if your operations team look and sound exactly the same all the time, then no one is going to be in the room to challenge you. No one is going to be in the room where decisions are made and be able to challenge them and challenge casting white people as refugees. If you don’t have decision makers that can challenge that, then that’s never going to trickle down and it’s always going to remain a tick-box exercise within these organisations.
I do think that it’s creating the environment. So you can have, for example, migrants or Black people or Asian heritage, depending on who you employ, you can have them in the room potentially. But if there’s just one of them against 10 of you, for example, then, again, you’re not creating an environment that facilitates them being able to challenge that. Personally, I have no issue with calling out people because I’m a loud Mediterranean, but I appreciate that not everyone’s like me. So in every situation, you always need to make sure that you’re creating a safe and open space for your employees to be able to challenge that.
And also having them at the top level means that at a lower level, at a junior level, they see themselves represented. It’s all about representation, isn’t it, at the end of the day? If I work for an organisation where I can’t see myself, or hear myself, then how am I ever going to know I can move up? How am I ever going to get the support I need to actually move forward in my career? It’s so vital. It’s so vital that organisations realise that it’s not just about hiring.
And I’ve seen them advertise loads, and it’s an absolute disgrace in my opinion, when it’s specified BAME internship, for example. I’m like, “Why do you have to specify this is a BAME person?” Why are we using BAME anyway? It’s quite an outdated language and grouping. Because I’m technically BAME because I’m a minority ethnic because I’m a migrant. But then, I’m so different and my experience and my worldview is so much different to a Black British person or an Asian British person, Indian Asian, or Chinese Asian. You are grouping quite a huge amount of communities together that actually have very different lives and very different needs and very different viewpoints.
So also make sure that your jobs and your job applications are open to all and you’re not just hiring one person and their title is literally BAME producer internship, for example. Just because that’s the one I’ve seen the most, BAME producer intern, and I’m like, “Wow”
Kristyn Coutts: Oh, that’s the actual job title?
Zoë Alba Farrugia: Yeah. Yeah, the job title has BAME in it.
Kristyn Coutts: Oh, wow.
Zoë Alba Farrugia: You know what I mean? I’ve seen that so much, especially in the north maybe, where the language is different to what you see in London. It’s problematic, let’s say when you’re singling out that employee to have their heritage within their job title. Because you don’t go and say the white British artistic director or the white British programming person, so why say BAME producer? It’s silly. And again, it’s not creating an environment within your culture that is acceptant of all.
I also think that having either a steering group or a board that is diverse can help make these decisions easier. Because if you don’t have those voices within the steering of an organisation, then you’re not going to have those voices in the recruitment of an organisation. And recruitment is key. It’s key. Because if you’re not recruiting the right people, or if you’re just recruiting the friends or the people or the people you’ve worked with a lot, then you’re never going to open the doors for the community that you’re not serving.
A lot of people, I find it funny, in the theatre industry are like, “Oh, but we can’t seem to diversify our audiences.” Well, there’s a reason for that. They’re not seeing themselves within your organisation, so why would they pay money to fund it? Why would they pay money to come in if they can’t see themselves represented within your institution? So yeah, many ideas. I can probably keep going forever.
Kristyn Coutts: This could be a podcast in itself, couldn’t it? I should have asked you that first.
Zoë Alba Farrugia: Sorry.
Kristyn Coutts: No, don’t apologise.
You co-host a podcast, The Actors’ Atlas, as part of Prickly Pear Productions – I’ve been speaking to lots of podcasters at the moment – you also have a podcast, and as part of that, you interview artists across the world. So I’m wondering, you’ve spoken to people everywhere, Mexico, Malta, everywhere, so what cultural differences and similarities have you noticed between all the performers you’ve spoken to? I’m curious if there’s a thread of similar things.
Zoë Alba Farrugia: Oh, definitely. And that’s such a good question. It has been such an insightful project to take on. And the reason we did it, again, is because we wanted to find the culture and similarities and show that actually people becoming actors or becoming directors, no matter where they are in the world, have the same passion and the same drive as each other.
It has been so absolutely amazing to speak to so many people. We’ve spoken to 50 people now, so we’re slowly releasing these episodes.
Kristyn Coutts: Wow.
Zoë Alba Farrugia: So the similarities are that the passion and drive are the same around the world. They are that funding opportunities are the exact same around the world in that they’re abysmal and really hard to get. And everyone’s underpaid and everyone’s overworked, but they keep doing it because they love storytelling and they love the industry. So that’s beautiful to see. Even in places like Singapore, where you think it’s a very rich country, even they don’t have a lot of funding for the arts; it’s not something that’s super well funded. So that’s been a nice consolation, at least for me, to be like, “Oh, everyone’s suffering. Not just us.”
Kristyn Coutts: We’ll suffer together.
Zoë Alba Farrugia: We can all suffer together, guys.
Something that comes up a lot is people who have worked and lived in the UK but now have gone back to their respective home countries, is there’s actually not a Spotlight or anything similar anywhere else, so they actually really struggled. So this is a big kudos to you guys. It comes up so much and we mention you [Spotlight] quite a lot across our episodes.
Kristyn Coutts: Oh, interesting.
Zoë Alba Farrugia: It’s because people go back to Canada, to the States, to Germany… I’m just trying to remember all the countries where we’ve mentioned Spotlight… Italy, Spain, Singapore. They go back and they’re like, “Oh, wow. There’s no one place to see castings. There’s no one place where people can find me.” A lot of actors actually across the world, I guess it’s similar for them but not so similar in the UK, is that they find castings through Facebook most of the time, which obviously adds more stress.
That’s something we were really shocked to find out, that major countries, like Canada, like the States as well, don’t have that one place, or at least places that are a bit more established.
Also how much harder it is to get accredited and unionised in the States, for example. So there have been quite a few shocking revelations of actually how privileged we are in the UK to have things like Spotlight, to have a union, to have Equity, to have artist union rates that are determined. Obviously, it’s not perfect, but there’s that.
And having acting credits means you can get a Spotlight profile, or having a degree means you can get a Spotlight profile, for example. Whereas in the States, you can’t join a union… I can’t remember exactly, but it takes years. And for some people, it takes 15 years of acting to just join a union, which is shocking. I was like, “You should just be able to join a union. One click, you’re in.”
Kristyn Coutts: Isn’t that the purpose of a union?
Zoë Alba Farrugia: Yeah. That’s what the purpose should be, shouldn’t it? But in the States, there are huge loopholes. And even in Canada, if you are part of the union, you get paid Equity rates, like you are here. But if you are in the same production with non-union actors, the non-union get paid a lot less. So being a part of the union then, in Canada, for example, and again, it’s quite hard to join the union in Canada, means that you get paid equity. Whereas if you are not part of the union, and it takes you ages to get there because you have to build up all the acting credits, it means that you get paid a lot less. It means that you have to take up work elsewhere, it means that you don’t end up acting as much. So it just becomes this loop of, this constant circle of, how do I get into the union if I’m not getting paid enough to even act full-time?
So that was all very shocking information because we kind of assumed, I guess, going into it, that a lot of countries in Europe and a lot of places in the States and Canada would have a really similar setup to the UK.
So that was really also nice to realise the privilege we have here and the opportunities we get aren’t exactly… We would struggle more if we moved anywhere else as migrants.
Kristyn Coutts: I’ll have to put a link to your podcast in this so people can listen and see what’s going on in other countries.
Zoë Alba Farrugia: Yeah. Be kind on the editing, guys. I try my best.
Kristyn Coutts: And then my last question for you, which I always end with, is, what are you currently reading or listening to or watching that you would recommend to other people?
Zoë Alba Farrugia: Oh, that’s a great question. Really great questions, well done. This has been really fun.
Kristyn Coutts: Oh, thank you.
Zoë Alba Farrugia: So I’d recommend two things. So I’m listening to Archetypes by Meghan… Oh, my God. Markle? Meghan Markle? Is that her last name? The now-
Kristyn Coutts: Meghan Markle, yes.
Zoë Alba Farrugia: Meghan Markle, yep. So listening to Archetypes, which is about the archetypes that are put on women, especially women from minorities. So for example, her first episode looks at drive and success with Serena Williams and how she was labelled an angry Black woman for doing things that her white male counterparts in tennis would be seen as passion, for example. So she looks at that, which is really interesting. So that’s a podcast as well.
And I’m reading How to Kill Your Family by Bella Mackie, which is really good. I would really recommend it. I’m more than halfway through and I’m hooked. It’s a great book and she’s a great author. Bella Mackie is awesome. I’m a huge fan. Would love to meet her one day. So Bella Mackie, if you’re out there, or if someone knows Bella Mackie, please introduce me.
Kristyn Coutts: Thank you very much, Zoe, for your time. I really appreciate it.
Zoë Alba Farrugia: Thank you for having me. It’s been an absolute pleasure.
Photo credit: Performance of Immigration Crisis: The Musical / Chantelle Micallef Grimaud