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A very visionary project – the rebirth of Teatru Salesjan

After 116 years, the Teatru Salesjan in Sliema didn’t just need a facelift, but a thorough and carefully planned makeover to give it a new lease of life for the next 100 years. Architect Chris Briffa talks about how he set out on this one-of-a-kind project.

In the 20 years since he set up his architectural studio, Chris Briffa has worked on countless projects, often earning him accolades. But he had never worked on a community theatre.

So, when he was approached to take charge of the refurbishment of Teatru Salesjan in the heart of Sliema, he relished the challenge.

“This was a very big learning curve. It was the first theatre we designed,” he says. “We understood what the main issues of the current theatre were and what didn’t work.”

“This was a very big learning curve. It was the first theatre we designed… We understood what the main issues of the current theatre were and what didn’t work.”

Architect Chris Briffa

Founded in 1908, Teatru Salesjan is the oldest existing theatre in Sliema and one of the oldest working theatres on the island. It reflects the ethos of the founder of the Salesians, St John Bosco, who dedicated his life to children and young people, especially those in need.

Over the decades, the theatre became a community hub, but time took its toll on the building and a fresh start was necessary to not only ensure the theatre remains relevant today, but also to reinstate it as a focal point for the residents in the area and beyond.

Over the years, various piecemeal attempts at extensions and remodelling had resulted in a somewhat hotchpotch ensemble, and the theatre was lacking in basic infrastructure to meet the demands of modern productions.

Originally, it was a fully detached building and the doors leading into the auditorium were actually its main doors. A few years after it opened, a foyer was belatedly added, extending the façade towards the street.

Around the same time of this extension, a small building was erected in the narrow gap between the theatre and the neighbouring house giving the former the look of a large townhouse rather than a public building. An extension to the balcony had resulted in a reduced line of vision for the audience. 

“This is a very visionary project,” explains Briffa. “The theatre is already established in the minds and hearts of the people of Sliema. It was something very different from what we normally do.”

“For me it was not just a restoration project but also a conservation project, which, if successful, would mean the community of Sliema and young people would have a place tokeep busy and stay away from distractions…”

“For me it was not just a restoration project but also a conservation project, which, if successful, would mean that the community of Sliema and young people would have a place where they would not only keep busy and stay away from distractions but also for the building to become a beacon in the local theatre scene.”

Teatru Salesjan is gearing up for its grand opening on May 31, but so far, it has undergone only the first phase of its refurbishment project as funds have run out. The next phase will include the demolition of the small narrow “sandwich” building adjacent to the theatre, and Briffa confessed that securing the permit for that has been their “biggest challenge”.

“Being in Sliema, which is a conservation area, we had to convince the authorities why you need to demolish a building that, in many people’s minds, had always been there. But we had to prove our story and finally they understood that this had been a later sad addition and that it was impeding the longevity of the theatre,” says Briffa.

The “sandwich” building will be replaced by a new structure that will be pushed further back from the current building to bring much-needed light into the theatre spaces.

From the start, Briffa wanted to ensure that certain historical architectural elements, such as the beautiful pink ceiling and the original Maltese tiles, were preserved.

The Giuseppe Calì fresco was fully restored to reveal its original vibrant colours. The walls, with their web of wire casings and layers of paint on top of each other, were covered by new curtains to improve the acoustics. And the building services were hidden behind a steel mesh at the bottom of the balcony railings, which means they are always easily accessible.

“I wanted to preserve everything in the auditorium. Even the wood on the stage was cleaned and lined up and, in most cases, re-used,” Briffa continues.

But one thing that did not survive the makeover was the original seating, much to Briffa’s dismay. “I wanted to leave the original cinema chairs, which had been brought in from another theatre. They were really beautiful, with wrought-iron sides, but the committee wanted to remove them as they were too heavy to move around. So they reluctantly had to give them away.”

Briffa loved them so much that he bought a few of them himself. “They’re in the garage, in search of a good location.”

The second phase of the project, when funding is available, will include a black box theatre, an open-air cinema-style theatre on top of the auditorium, and eco-friendly measures, such as solar energy, water collection and using second-class water for the bathrooms. A lift will be installed to make the first-floor balcony seats accessible to all, and the theatre will also feature a much-desired hydraulic stage.

Despite the funding issues, Teatru Salesjan has an ambitious programme planned out by its dynamic creative team of volunteers, including artistic consultant Rosetta Debattista and James Spiteri Tanti.

“I believe in the people who are running it,” states Briffa, adding that they have “a lot of energy and ideas” the likes of which have not been seen much in the local community theatre scene.

He is hopeful that over the next 10 years, the theatre will be in a position to complete phase two of the project.

Important lessons have been learnt so far, not least in how a theatre truly functions.

“It is obvious that you need to understand how theatre spaces work, especially when it comes to back of house. What we see as an audience is only 10% of what goes on; the remaining 90% is behind the curtains.

“I learnt a lot about that [in this project] even though, during my university years, I had been involved a bit in theatre myself. I also understood a lot about the community. This is a very beautiful part of Sliema that I hope will remain.”

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