At an art gallery, two strangers  contemplate three blank canvases before their reflections turn into the eternal conundrum: does life imitate art, or art imitate life?

This is the premise of the 10-minute play Blank Slate, which bagged the People’s Choice Award at the Short + Sweet Theatre Festival held in Dubai earlier this year. With a plot that is so profound, one is likely to believe that the playwright is an elderly, much experienced person. But (trumpets and drumrolls, please) meet 17-year-old, Year 13 student of Dubai College, Daliya Habib.

[They chose the road less taken and conquered the world]

[Blooming on stage: why children are never too young for theatre]

Sitting across me in a coffee shop for the interview, the teenager can hardly contain her excitement. And rightly so. Daliya and her two cast members are headed to Hollywood for the Global Round of Short + Sweet, which runs from September 24 to October 28.

‘It is all happening so fast; it’s surreal,’ says the Dubai born British-Pakistani girl. Dressed in her school uniform as she has come directly from school to meet me, Daliya is vivacious and friendly, clearly excited to talk about her journey.

‘Ours is the youngest team to be selected from Dubai for the gala finals, and we are totally excited to be performing in Los Angeles,’ says Daliya, who first walked up on a stage to act in a play when she was 10 years old. ‘It will be a rewarding experience to watch and learn from some of the best artists from across the world, from people who actually do this for a living.’

Daliya’s best friends Kristian and Kasia are the actors in the play, Blank Slate

It was back in 2013 that Daliya joined Drama Scene, a performing arts academy in Dubai. Her mentor, Emma Quintin, introduced her to the Lamda, devising drama exams that are heavily centred on acting, writing and directing as opposed to just performing. ‘During my time at Drama Scene, I fell in love with theatre and all the creativity it offered to express yourself,’ she says. ‘It shaped me as a performer.’

After exploring this passion for the arts, she moved to Dubai College from Jumeirah College in 2016 after watching their school production based on Homer’s The Odyssey. ‘The quality of acting, the quality of production ... it was just amazing,’ she remembers.

Within a week of joining Dubai College, Daliya auditioned for a school play and was cast as Agnes, the lead, in the school’s version of August Strindberg’s A Dream Play. ‘It was a pivotal point in my life; I found people who were as passionate as I was about theatre.’

To extend the range of her theatrical talent, her mother Nadia Habib suggested she audition for the National Youth Theatre of Great Britain. That was in 2017. ‘I was 15 at the time, and had to prepare a monologue in two days,’ she says, admitting that ‘most of it I prepared on the flight there.’

Daliya was aware that the acceptance rate at the national theatre was very low ‘but I just went with my gut instinct and flew to London for the audition’.

Deciding to perform a piece from A Dream Play, she spent a lot of time researching the character. The hard work did not go in vain. ‘I was accepted,’ she says, pride still visible on her smiling face.

The training she underwent in the UK during the summer of 2017 honed her skills in theatre nuances, techniques, character building, channelling energy and maintaining focus. ‘Part of the training included doing an hour of cardio every day to boost energy levels before we stepped on to the stage. It was an intensive programme but being surrounded by young, driven performers kept my focus sharp.’

She is all praise for the creative director Linden Walcott-Burton, who has trained with the Royal Shakespeare Company. ‘He introduced me to Shakespeare in a way I’d never imagined. He would keep us on our toes; he brought a fresh perspective to theatre that I still implement within the work I do.’

It was during this programme that the budding artist discovered that the best way to get into theatre is to throw yourself completely into it. ‘“Step completely out of your comfort zone and do it” became my new motto,’ she says.

A year later, in 2018, Daliya attended a one-month summer programme at NYU Tisch School of the Arts, where she concentrated on dramatic writing. ‘We had exposure to many plays by reading scripts and then watching live theatre in New York City. We were encouraged to write every single day, which was a real test of my ability as an aspiring writer to produce original and engaging material.’

Being vulnerable

As part of the course, she wrote the first draft of Blank Slate. She still remembers feeling for the first time ‘completely vulnerable’ as she prepared to submit her work to her professors there. ‘There’s something truly nerve-racking about opening up a piece of yourself to others,’ says the young girl.

‘I thought having my play reviewed by such experts would hinder my confidence,’ says Daliya. ‘But rather, the programme boosted my confidence by providing me with genuinely insightful commentary from my peers and professors. They examined each and every aspect of the play and asked me to work on the areas that needed fine-tuning.’

Daliya remembers being told to rewrite the play at least 12 times before her professors gave her the go-ahead to perform it.

‘I also had the opportunity to direct the play and I could feel the difference and the refinement in the work after I included the inputs from my teachers,’ she says. ‘That’s also when I realised that I loved directing.’

Returning to Dubai, she and two close friends from her school, Kasia Truscott and Kristian Kolandjian, decided to pool their talents and enter Blank Slate in the Short + Sweet Theatre Festival 2019. ‘They are immensely talented and I couldn’t have asked for any other actors; they made this whole process so enjoyable as I directed my two best friends.’

Kristian plays Dante, a young, enigmatic character, while Kasia plays Samantha, an older businesswoman who is pragmatic and hard-working. As the pair appraise three blank canvases in front of them, through their perception of art, a conflict develops between them. ‘As the play progresses, you learn why Samantha can’t quite grasp the meaning of the art… she is self-made and independent but in the process, has lost her joy for life. She was a character many people said they resonated with and saw parts of themselves in,’ says Daliya.

Kasia Truscott (standing left) and Kristian Kolandjian are immensely talented and I couldn’t have asked for any other actors, says Daliya (seated)
Anas Thacharpadikkal

For portraying this strong character, Kasia walked away with the second runner-up best actress at the festival that saw around 200 entries.

Daliya’s team was also nominated for a number of other awards While Kristian was nominated for ‘Best Actor’, Daliya was nominated for ‘Best Director’, ‘Best Script’, and ‘New Talent’.

How did this teenager come up with the plot for this play?

‘I love philosophy. I researched techniques of playwrights I admire like Jean Paul Sartre and Edward Albee, while tackling older texts like Poetics by Aristotle, an essential book for any budding writer. In particular, I loved the character dynamics these writers used and so tried to mirror this in Blank Slate.

‘I wanted to put Samantha, who has a very rigid mindset, in an unfamiliar, somewhat confrontational setting,’ she explains.

In the course of developing the play, Daliya also drew inspiration from ‘my favourite book, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, by [Pakistani author] Mohsin Hamid. I love the way he explores his characters. I am drawn to pieces of work that resonate with your culture and upbringing’.

Community initiative

Apart from acting, writing and studying, Daliya is also spearheading a project called Action DXB, which is her spin on community theatre. For the past year, she has been teaching drama and movement classes to female workers at their accommodation in Dubai’s Al Quoz. ‘There are around 15 women in the group but the numbers vary depending on their shift timings.’

Daliya teaches them techniques that she picked up from the National Youth Theatre on how to focus, how to conserve and use energy... She uses real-life incidents and situations they experienced in their lives to illustrate and explain techniques.

One technique she used was called Flocking and Shoaling, based on the movements of birds and schools of fish. One person would lead while the other participants are expected to move in a group mimicking their leader’s movements. ‘It’s all about connecting with the energy of the group. I had done this at the NYT with professional actors, but these wonderful women got the concept easily and quickly. That’s the power of theatre,’ she says, with a smile.

‘Within the first few weeks itself, I could already see a transformation in their confidence and they blossomed.’

Language is not a barrier for these workshops. ‘I speak to them in English and the women who know English translate my words into languages other women are familiar with. I also throw in the little bits of Urdu I know.’

For Daliya, this experience has served as a huge eye-opener. ‘It showed me how genuinely accessible theatre is to anyone. With any career path, it is common to find individuals who have this goal to make it to the top. I think it goes beyond that. Ultimately, it is about human connection, understanding the people around you, and adapting that to your work. I have learned so much from these women; more than I could ever teach them. Most of them have experienced so much in life yet they have managed the upkeep of their optimism. They are also very creative and quick thinking. They have helped me a lot with character development in the short skits we do,’ she says.

Her younger twin sisters Eman and Amara, aged 15, share her passion for acting and  often accompany her to these workshops. The trio are now working on a production based on the lives of these women, which they plan to present to the 500-plus women at their accommodation. (Daliya also has a four-year-old sister Liyana.)

Daliya insists that she couldn’t have achieved these feats without the support of her mother and the guidance of her father, Aun. ‘My mum always says, if you will something to happen, it will happen for you.’

Daliya’s first set of critics is her sisters. ‘I usually run my ideas for new scripts by them. They are happy to offer their advice and suggestions about my plays.’

Gender divide

Asked about her view of the world of theatre and cinema and the role of the director, Daliya says that a documentary called Half The Picture made her realise the shocking disparity between the ratio of male to female directors when it came to bagging awards. ‘I found that there are only five female directors who have been nominated for Academy Awards, with only one win in the history of the Oscars. I was surprised at just how large the gender divide is and I definitely think it needs to be rectified, especially with the emergence of more young female directors. This is something we should be encouraging,’ she says.

The entry into Hollywood has inculcated a professional mindset in Daliya and she knows that refining her talents is an ongoing goal. To further her education, she plans to go to university in the US, intending to major in theatre, philosophy or film.

‘I’m grateful to Hale Education Group, which provided me with invaluable mentoring and preparation for college. I want to devise theatre and film with an accent on technology.

‘I participated in another workshop with NYT that was on filmmaking in virtual reality. It was quite a challenge, because if you want to shoot a film, the director cannot be in the room since there’s a 360 degree camera.

‘I also want to experiment with different genres of films and theatre. The challenge is to throw yourself into something that you are uncomfortable with and be generous with your creativity.’

Ten years down the line, she envisions herself as a director, experimenting with existential film-making. But right now, she is focused on the performance in Hollywood, representing the UAE, and paving the way as a newly emerging theatrical talent.

You can follow the team’s progress on Instagram @blankslate.dxb.