The energy in any green room before an event goes on stage is unlike anything anyone would have experienced — crackling and with a certain exciting buzz, it radiates through the room. But this is especially so in the case of community theatre. Actors rushing around in make-up or various stages of make-up. Props and sets being pushed around. Helpers moving hangers heaving with costumes. Actors facing walls, eyes closed, preparing to go into character…
The backstage of a local production in Dubai was a hotbed of activity recently as a bunch of theatre professionals prepared to showcase their talents on a weekend. Excitement, action, drama, tears and laughter were evident on and off stage as the crew came together to present a play that left the audience wanting more.
Stage theatre is steadily gaining popularity in the city if the number of local productions being showcased and local actors and directors garnering interest and fan bases in their own right is any indication.
Alserkal Avenue, for one, a creative zone for the arts in Dubai’s Al Quoz, is fast becoming the place highlighting the UAE’s art scene. A clutch of theatre venues including The Junction, The JamJar, The Fridge, among others, is offering space for enthusiasts to stage plays, acts and art events.
Gautam Goenka, one of the founders of The Junction, a performing arts space in Alserkal Art Avenue, and of their in-house production company, H72 Productions (formerly Backstage), feels that the scene is changing.
‘The Junction was born out of the need for a space for performing arts that everyone felt the void of; one that was accessible and affordable to everyone. Theatre that was already expensive in Dubai was just getting even more expensive.’ And so, born out of a whimsical wish for an affordable space of one’s own, The Junction took shape.
More than just a theatre where plays are staged, The Junction is a multipurpose venue where stand-up comedy shows, quiz nights and singing contests are conducted.
‘We came from a place of wanting a stage to perform, to actually building one. The entire community pitched in to make it happen, to turn this rundown warehouse into a black box theatre. People began chipping in to help with anything on hand, from sound proofing to lighting. And the rest, as you can see, is a four-year-old history,’ Gautam says, gesturing to the warehouse in Al Quoz that they’ve managed to transform into a theatre hub. The 159-capacity venue has vintage art on the walls and an area for a script library, among other things.
Over the past four years, he too has become a well-known figure. Gautam recalls a time when a stranger walked up to him while standing in line for a movie and exclaimed how much he loved his latest play. ‘I was pleasantly surprised, to say the least,’ he laughs. An actor and director for more than 15 years, Gautam is a veteran of the local theatre scene. There is a certain flair to his words, hands gesticulating and clarifying his intent; it’s impossible to not see the performer in him. This kind of fame is something he could only dream of when he first started out. But with the premise of The Junction and several small production houses scooting ahead, it is starting to take root.
With the likes of Dubai Opera staging international touring productions, how do local shows keep up? Sabiha Majgaonkar, founder and creative head of Orb Theatricals, says it’s a matter of genre and timing. ‘Comedies sell better than darker themes.’
She clearly speaks from experience. Her dark comedy, Carnage, did far better than her critically acclaimed but heavily themed Agnes.
‘It’s also probably not a good idea to [clash the dates] with a Marvel movie release.’ She adds that audiences love going to plays their friends are cast in.
Another factor is the paucity of a large audience who are interested in the performing arts all on their own. ‘It’s a sort of a Catch 22,’ says Sabiha. ‘People want to put up good theatre, explore different themes and motifs, but when you suffer losses you can’t afford to do that.’
Gautam offers another view: ‘Overcoming the fallacy that anything locally produced may not be good is difficult but not impossible. Each week I see people here doing exactly that. Achieving the impossible.’
And what about the costs?
Sabiha says: ‘Most productions in Dubai are funded by people who are producing it themselves, all from their own pockets. Sponsors will come on board only if you have everything planned first, so it’s a very risky affair. If you end up getting no sponsors after you’ve gotten a play ready, then you’ll have to pick up the costs yourself. So marketing, props, costumes, and rentals are all mostly covered by the producers themselves and sponsors, if any.’
A passion for the craft and the keenness to put in their all when working on a project is par for the course to survive in such scenarios.
Arjun Burman, who has a full-time job but who freelances as an actor, asserts how much of perseverance goes into community theatre. ‘Rehearsal schedules often span four months, and they’re mostly on weekends and after working hours. So it’s a lot of hard work, passion and commitment that goes into being a part of a production.’
Has being part of theatre, community theatre in particular, helped him in avenues outside the art scene?
Oh yes, says Arjun, who adds that the community has grown in leaps and bounds since he first started out 11 years ago. ‘Many of the skills I’ve picked up are transferable to jobs and interviews. You learn to be willing to work with people, and with teams. Taking ownership; making sure that you are delivering and being accountable for yourself as an actor and what you need to be working on.’
Thinking on one’s feet is perhaps one of the steepest learning curves, admit many actors.
‘Being in theatre, one of the challenges — as well as one of the best parts of it — is that [the performance] happens in the moment. You have only one shot to get it right with that specific audience unlike when making a movie where you can reshoot or edit or use certain techniques to gloss over imperfections. This is your moment, and if you grab it, it’s magic; if you don’t then it’s [over].’
Apparently, the golden rule of theatre is that, ‘The audience does not know, unless you show them. So in case you forget a line and you visibly show that you indeed have missed a line, then the veil drops, and the audience immediately knows that something’s not right.’
Has he had any such moments on stage?
Arjun nods in affirmation, narrating an incident when once, while performing before a packed audience, his co-actor inadvertently broke a prop, a glass bottle. Shards of glass and water was all over the stage. ‘It was one of those moments when you had to improvise and follow the golden rule — try to convince the audience that it was really part of the scene. So we said ‘I don’t think you should have been so angry enough to break a bottle!’ and while another actor and I cleaned up the broken bits of glass from the stage, we continued to deliver our dialogue and made it seem like it was all part of the scene.’
A melting pot of communities
Dubai is a multi-cultural city teeming with nationalities from around the world and this is reflected in the theatre community too. While many plays are in English, there have been a few in Hindi, French and other languages in the recent past. H72 sticks to English even though they have experimented with other languages. ‘English becomes that one language that unites us all,’ says Gautam.
Does the cast also reflect the diversity of the UAE?
‘The skills of the actor certainly do matter, but I personally believe at H72 that we cast for diversity. So I cast to look and feel like people in Dubai. No matter colour or race, if they’re qualified actors, I’m going to take them,’ says Gautam.
Arjun pitches in: ‘The community theatre scene is very diverse in terms of nationality, ethnicity, age groups and gender. It’s reflective of Dubai in a big way.’ He says that it’s a grassroots movement that took off because people enjoyed it and many were looking for a creative outlet. Plus, it’s a great way to make friends and work with people you don’t really have the opportunity to meet or spend time with.
Sabiha’s Orb Theatricals, on the other hand, focuses on another aspect while casting. ‘Most people tend to focus on diversity as there is an added bonus of a more varied, bigger audience. I don’t prefer doing that, as I focus more on technicality and role requirements. Though talent is certainly a driving factor, I emphasise more on the temperament of the individual, the passion and drive they possess to pursue theatre.’
What about remuneration?
Arjun does not think that is a huge factor. ‘I think for us actors, one of the philosophies we follow is that it doesn’t matter if we don’t get paid but what matters is that audiences are putting in money and they want to watch something that they relate to or that challenges them.’
So, over the years, how has the community theatre scene evolved in Dubai? Sabiha talks about the variety. ‘Projects of different [kinds] are being put up which result in the entry of more diversity and thus enriches our community as a whole. Theatre is more visible now, more accessible and that’s possible because of places like The Junction and of course, community support.’
Gautam is all praise for his art. ‘Community theatre is a great way for people to explore something they’re passionate about outside work. It’s a great place to meet people from different races, nationalities. A great way to showcase your creative side and talent and it’s never too late to start. From as early as six to seven years old to people in their 70s, all can benefit from being part of this. The only thing to keep in mind is that when you come here, you leave your ego at the door, because we’re all a part of a community and everybody’s equal and their experiences are equal. It’s sort of like the great equaliser.’
Community theatre, its arms thrown out, is clearly accepting of any soul with a passion for the stage. Honing their skills, giving them a place where they can flourish, and offering people opportunities to come into their own.
The courtyard playhouse
The Courtyard Playhouse, right across the street from Alserkal Art Avenue, specialises in improv theatre and helps children and adults better their spontaneity, self-confidence and stage presence. ‘While classic theatre is scripted, Improv is non-scripted, so we spontaneously create theatre with no script,’ says Kylie Schultz, from South Africa who has been with the Playhouse for five years and is the general manager at the Courtyard Playhouse.
Sessions such as these, Kylie says, not only encourage actors to be more spontaneous and creative but allow them to think on their feet too. ‘Such workshops help actors to re-train their brains in a better way, build confidence and, most importantly, help in articulating their thoughts better.’
Starting out small by teaching only adults, around 11 years ago, the Courtyard Playhouse has now grown to take in children too, and holds regular acting workshops as well.
As for parents, they are amazed by the transformation they notice in their kids. ‘The response from parents has been great as they can see for themselves how their kids’ confidence levels and creative thinking improves remarkably — qualities and skills that are sure to come in handy in their adult life as well,’ says Kylie.
Such theatre workshops are also perfect for bridging cultural gaps too as they attract enthusiasts from various nationalities. ‘It is Dubai after all,’ she says with a smile.
And what about the kids?
‘Some kids are naturally drawn to performance, and some aren’t, so they have to be coaxed into it. We focus on having a good time, and when you have a good time, you learn more. It’s very reassuring for the kids.
‘Children taking our drama classes are also assessed by an examiner from LAMDA who comes all the way from the UK to evaluate them on their stage presence, delivery, interpretation and a lot more.’
But it isn’t all rainbows for the independent theatre company. ‘The difficulties for small businesses is that it’s a costly proposition. Whether it is the licensing or the setup costs, it is all a huge challenge to stay afloat.’
Trying to get people to understand and appreciate performing arts as something that is more than just entertainment but is educationally valuable is a task that many theatre houses have been working hard on. And the results are slowly but surely visible. The theatre scene has developed a lot in the last 10 years, say many from the fraternity. And for people such as Kylie, The Courtyard Playhouse is a giant step into cultivating the performing arts scene in the region.
Theatre summer camps
Hayley’s Comet Theatre Company is running a Broadway Bonanza Summer Camp from July 7-11 at James and Alex Dance Studios in Media City Dubai. Dh750 per student; call 050 1351 185.
At The Courtyard Playhouse, kids aged 8 to 11 can explore different styles of improv via drama games and a variety of exercises. The course ends with kids performing for family and friends. From 9am-12pm; Dh1,155 per week, sessions from July 7 to August 29; call 050 781 2269.
At The Hive, kids aged five to seven will learn the basics of drama in the Discover Drama for Juniors workshop from 9am-10.30am, and eight to 12-year-olds will brush up their acting chops at the Drama Through Duologues workshop from 10.30am-12pm. July 7-18. Dh630 per child; call 055 992 0718.