The tick-tock beats of Mamma Mia Here I Go Again emanate from a dance studio in Media City. It’s a sultry weekday afternoon and I am outside the classroom of Hayley’s Comet Theatre Company, Dubai. Stepping inside I am instantly engulfed by a wave of infectious joie de vivre as I see a bunch of kids having the time of their life, singing aloud and dancing to the legendary lyrics of the iconic Abba song. As the song ends the budding performers quickly diverge into groups. Huddled together some of them write strips of dialogues in their notebooks, while a few others rehearse dance moves and practise a tune. They are days away from staging their own improvised version of the hit West End musical Mamma Mia, I am told.

Six-year-old Mila Brom is the youngest in the cast of 25 performers, the oldest being 14. I ask her about her role and pat comes the reply, ‘I am a baker on the island. I put eatable slime on my cupcakes, then rainbow icing, and top it up with some gummy bears and chocolate hearts.’ To that endearing description, 12-year-old Ronan Kerr, one of the lead actors, adds more details about the storyline. ‘I am playing one of three pen pals, who move to an island and accidentally bump into each other at a party. When their mums meet, we have flashback scenes as the mums were once childhood friends who had a bitter fall-out.’

Students of Hayley’s Comet rehearse for Mamma Mia
Aiza Castillo Domingo

Interestingly, this new spin-off to the original Mamma Mia tale of bride-to-be Sophie Sheridan searching for her real dad was conceived in collaboration with the kids themselves. ‘All our musicals are written with inputs by the kids. That means the script is not boring and difficult to understand. Our young actors are encouraged to write stories and scenes that they can relate to,’ says Glenn Lloyd, drama teacher at Hayley’s Comet.

Gone are the days when theatre for kids involved reciting lengthy dialogues from works of classic playwrights. A booming after-school activity, drama classes in Dubai are increasingly tapping into children’s imaginations to create realistic community-specific adaptations. ‘The kids have brilliant ideas and they love the freedom to create something of their own. Most of their ideas come from their daily life – school work, interactions with friends and parents,’ says Glenn.

The first day of class at Hayley’s Comet begins with ice-breaker games, which help the children lose their inhibitions and get to know each other better. There is a rough storyline that the teacher shares with the class. The students then work together to create scenes, incorporate songs and choreograph dance steps. ‘We gather the best ideas from each group, make small plays, build the story script and then in the coming days bind it all together,’ explains Glenn.

With all our musicals written with inputs from the young cast, the script is never boring, says Glenn Lloyd
Aiza Castillo Domingo

Not too far away from Hayley’s Comet, the Courtyard Playhouse in Al Quoz is taking it all a notch higher with improv theatre for kids and teens. Improv, short for improvisation, is acting without a script. In a class that I get to watch, a teenaged aspiring actor plays the role of a king. He sits centre stage, wearing a red robe and a crown on his head. The other actors have to mentally pick a character and enter the king’s castle and perform. A juggler, a portrait maker, the queen and the princess – the students essay their roles with gestures and dialogues, all conceived impromptu. When they fumble and falter, they laugh at each other, and uninhibited they even take suggestions from the audience.

From the dialogues to the plot and characters – everything is created on stage by the artists. So, the performer is not only the actor but also the writer and director of the act. ‘Improv is an implicit part of everyday life, we are required to do it all the time, but it is a skill that goes largely untrained. Improv theatre removes the fear of performing or presenting spontaneously in front of people,’ says Tiffany Schultz, co-owner and marketing director at the Courtyard Playhouse.

The roles and settings are also age and community-specific. Two other improvs that the students showcase on the day involves a high school student breaking up with his girlfriend and two young boys trying to strike a conversation with a girl sitting on a park bench. ‘Through improve theatre these youngsters learn crucial life skills that help them deal with such real life situations. Our goal is to make them very comfortable on stage and to keep them engaged doing acts that they connect to. If we were to stage a Romeo Juliet, then the setting would be the Mall of the Emirates,’ says Kemsley Dickinson, owner and artistic director, Courtyard Playhouse.

When young actors create and develop their own scripts they feel a sense of ownership. In improv theatre, there is no word called failure. Everyone is encouraged to let go of control and to see each other’s perspectives. In a space where young minds are free to imagine without the fear of falling they evolve as better human beings intellectually, emotionally and socially. For one, performing in front of an audience enhances youngsters’ self-confidence and develops their social skills. Most parents agree that these are the first changes they notice in their kids.

Dubai resident Saima Riaz’s 16-year-old daughter Anusha was good at storytelling, debating and had strong opinions. But when it came to speaking in front of an audience she was a bundle of nerves. A few months ago when she enrolled Anusha for an improv class at the Courtyard Playhouse, so nervous was the teenager that Saima had to rope in a friend to accompany Anusha for the first few classes. ‘Today I see a dramatic change in her. She can perform a wide range of acts in front of a large audience. Her social skills too have improved significantly. From a shy awkward teenager who stayed mostly in her room at home, she can now strike a conversation with just about anyone.’

From Anusha’s perspective it helped that the drama school treated her like an adult and valued her opinion. ‘I saw that everyone was fumbling at times. We would laugh together and support each other. There was no room for judgment and this boosted my self-confidence.’

Centre Stage Arts holds classes tailormade to suit three age groups

Understanding personality traits of the characters they enact engenders a sense of empathy in drama students as they relive real-life emotions. They become tolerant and develop compassion. ‘Watching a character on stage and learning about empathy or friendship, for example, is a wonderful way to increase children’s emotional intelligence,’ says Helena Panayis, Director, Centre Stage Arts, Dubai.

Role-play is yet another powerful tool that helps students to cope with real-life problems they might be facing. The founder of Drama Scene performing arts centre in Dubai, Ferne Reynolds, says she has tapped into role-play to help her students cope with bullying, for instance. ‘A role-play exercise I do is to create a relevant scenario such as an argument over a lunch box on the school playground. One person plays the bully and the other being the one bullied. Then we swap roles so that both players experience being the bully and the victim. Later we discuss how it felt to be the bully and the victim. We also try to find ways to handle the same situation differently.’

Further, in an ensemble performance through discussions, rehearsals and improvisations drama students learn to work in a team. One of the ways Glenn ensures team work and participation from all his students at the Hayley’s Comet is to group them as buddies. ‘Some of the kids are painfully shy when they come to class; I group them with kids who are more confident or experienced. They become buddies who help each other. The older kids also look out for the younger ones. Drama cannot be successful without effective collaborations.’

Drama Scene started with only 30 students. Ten years later the numbers have increased to 600

With so many positives through learning drama, it’s no wonder several parents are opting to enroll their kids in such classes. When Ferne founded Drama Scene in 2008 she had a group of only 30 students. Ten years later the numbers have increased to 600. Her school offers classes in acting, musical theatre and public speaking.

The schools cater to students as young as five to as old as 16 to 18. At Centre Stage Arts, classes are tailormade to suit three age-groups – Act 1 for five- to seven-year-olds, Act 2 for ages 8 to 11 and Act 3 for ages 12 to 16.

‘The class content for each age group is different and this automatically means that a varied teaching approach is needed by our teachers,’ says Helena from Centre Stage Arts. In Act 1 classes with the help of storytelling, props, costumes, improvisation games, mime, songs and mask work drama teachers develop creativity and confidence in little artists. In Act 2 and Act 3 classes the focus is on widening specific drama and acting techniques. ‘In these classes, our teachers are often facilitators as the older students are free to explore the acting and performance styles during their own creative process,’ says Helena.

Courtyard Playhouse is taking kiddie and teen acting a notch higher with improv theatre
Anas Thacharpadikkal

The institutes also offer students a chance to take internationally accredited drama exams such as the Lamda (The London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art). Founded in 1861 Lamda is one of the oldest drama schools based in the UK. At the Courtyard Playhouse students can take Lamda drama exams. The Centre Stage Arts offers training in the Lamda Communications exams and Performance exams. ‘The Lamda ‘Acting’ exams are practical performance exams. Students work on interpreting monologues and acting scenes they have to perform in front of the examiner,’ says Helena. The younger students at Centre Stage can participate in ‘Introductory’ exams that explore poetry and develop their conversation and communication skills.

While some of the drama students aspire to be professional actors and directors, many of them are just happy to learn a few good life skills. Fifteen-year-old James McClean, a student of improv theatre at the Courtyard Playhouse, hopes to study drama at a reputed institute in the UK after finishing his schooling. But most importantly he and his family are content seeing him give school presentations with a new-found confidence and be a friendly easy-going youngster. ‘Even if he does not pursue a course in acting I am thrilled to just see him evolve as a good human being, who is confident, a team player and not afraid of failure,’ says Kim, his mum.

Eventually all drama enthusiasts will agree with comedienne Joan Rivers who said, ‘The thing is, I am happiest when I am on stage.’