On and around the stage since age 7, Phil has been on nearly every side of it, both professional and amateur. He has been involved in over 100 productions, from major corporate and government events to playing an on-stage prop in a walk-on role.
Consensus seems to suggest 2016 was a terrible year for the world. A year of transition from an old standard, to a new era. Theatre in the UAE was definitely in transition this year, but terrible? No… it was quite a good year.
The landscape for theatre and the level of theatre and performances in this country have vastly and dramatically improved in quality (quantity too, but that’s another story for later.) We can no longer talk about the lack of “culture” in this country – it’s not always easy to find because of publicity, but there is plenty of it.
Here are six of the biggest ways theatre and stage changed in the UAE in 2016:
1. The Opera
Let’s address the elephant in the room first. The Dubai Opera is easily the biggest thing in theatre this year. Hands down. No argument. (Argue with us on this point and we’ll just smile at you with pity.)
The Dubai Opera has done more for the publicity and recognition of the performing arts in Dubai (and the UAE as a whole) than any other single venue, event or person could have. It’s high profile, impossible to miss and, frankly, it’s a beautiful venue, both technically and architecturally.
The Dubai Opera has brought in world-class, professional productions. Previous attempts by other venues and production companies have seen highly-commercial, but poorly executed plays and musicals from third-tier travelling groups. No longer do we have to listen to the howling voices and fumbling dance moves of a supposedly “Broadway” musical. No, we had Les Miserables come through in spectacularly organized, expert fashion, in a venue built for it.
Yeah. It changed things. But, biggest doesn’t mean best or most important. We wouldn’t have a list otherwise. Like a cruise ship docking in a poor Caribbean island, the Dubai Opera comes with its good and bad. The city was ready for it, but it changes the landscape. More exposure to quality productions is good, but not everyone has unlimited money to spend, and the Dubai Opera brought choice to spending your entertainment budget each month, for better or worse.
2. The Local Theatre Scene – Alserkal Avenue
What the Dubai Opera did for professional and big spectacle theatre, Alserkal Avenue did for smaller scale productions. Chances are, if you’ve seen a live performance this past year, you were somewhere in Alserkal Avenue. As a creative zone and district for the arts, this Al Quoz collection of warehouses shores up the edgy, younger side of the UAE arts scene.
The new expansion opened at the end of 2015 & beginning of 2016. thejamjar, a veteran of the arts scene, shifted there and hosted a wonderful variety of interesting events. The Fridge continued its residence in the older section of the Avenue, and regularly held an eclectic mix of music, performance art, and dance events. Hardly a night went by when one could not pass The Fridge’s shutter door without wading through throngs of music lovers.
But by far the biggest credit for changing the local theatre scene goes to The Junction, located in the same, new strip of Alserkal Avenue as thejamjar. This past November, the 159-seat theatre space celebrated its first full year of operation. And quite the full year it was.
Every major community and amateur theatre group in Dubai has put on a production at The Junction this last year, barring Dubai Drama Group. Except for the slow summer, there was something on every weekend. Quantity does not necessarily mean quality, and we have had our criticisms of some of the productions there, but that doesn’t take away from the venue being a staple holding together the community.
Everything from A Streetcar Named Desire to locally written, full-length pieces (i.e Howzat and Burke & Hare) have been held at The Junction. This past year, the largest Short+Sweet theatre festival yet was produced – an essential piece of the theatre scene –and, what was the venue of choice? The Junction, of course. It noted a remarkable shift in the dynamics (and politics) of venues and facilities for production companies to choose from. And, as compared to DUCTAC’s Kilichand Studio, The Junction is way more comfortable for us audiences.
We should also highlight the Courtyard Playhouse, a hop across the street from Alserkal Avenue. Their well-crafted venue plays host to the best improv gigs you can find in the country. Really. It’s always a fun night there, basically every Monday – Wednesday throughout the year.
[Disclaimer: Phil was employed with The Junction during their opening phase as an Interim Manager.]
3. DUCTAC & Shifting Politics
And on the point of DUCTAC and politics… gosh, they stuck their foot in something this year. Sadly, an arts complex with good facilities, good staff and a phenomenal location, seems to be at a loss of what to do with themselves.
For a brief period in the spring, DUCTAC looked poised to recover from stagnation and live up to its potential. The board brought in Alex Broun, prolific playwright and no stranger to the stage, as their new General Manager. Alex, formerly with Constellation Productions and a known face within the arts community, brought in a new sense of life. The brand bounced back with a great mix of community and professional productions. Sadly, whatever the board was thinking, that relationship didn’t last. It’s a tradition for DUCTAC. GMs last no more than a year or two.
Audiences are still barely aware a theatre exists in Mall of the Emirates (two theatres, really) and despite having “community theatre” in its name, it hardly makes an impression on or a connection with the community its meant to serve. Whatever the politics behind the scenes, a venue in its tenth year shouldn’t be described as having “potential.” For an audience, it’s impossible to walk into DUCTAC and figure out what they want to be. It just feels a bit dead, and it seems like 2016 nailed their coffin.
Despite this, we would be some of the first to rally behind them if they said they were closing. We still have hope for them. They still have wonderful resident groups like Culture Emulsion, Act Too, and Sharmila Dance. They have brought in some good productions. However, with a rejection from the arts community and weak marketing compared to the Dubai Opera, we expect they will see some belt tightening.
This DUCTAC bit isn’t exactly a “good” thing. But it does signal that we are in for a lot more changes in 2017, and that could end up being a good thing to improve plays and productions even more.
4. Non-Traditional & Semi-Professional Theatre
One of the year’s best theatrical events happened in May (at DUCTAC during Alex’s tenure, no less.) Constellation, under the creative leadership of director Liz Hadaway, put on an immersive, promenade production of Shakespeare’s Romeo+Juliet (the “+” being an allusion to their Short+Sweet connection.)
Modern and set in Dubai, this was one of the country’s first tastes with immersive theatre and promenade theatre. There have been many corporate immersive pieces, but nothing like this. Weaving through DUCTAC’s corridors, back stage areas, loading bays, and even the roof of Mall of the Emirates, with a cast compromised of international and locally based-actors, some professional, some semi-professional… this event was not typical or traditional by any measure. It was the rise of the locally produced, semi-pro theatre which we can assure you, will continue.
Constellation will carry forward the “Shakespeare Under the Stars” concept even bigger this year, with Macbeth. They have even garnered the support of the UAE Ministry of Culture and Knowledge Development, and the production is part of the British Council’s UK/UAE 2017 Year of Creative Collaboration.
R+J marked the first late-night theatre production in Dubai, as well. Barely anything has ever started after 9:00pm. The second night of R+J was a 10:30 production and ended well after midnight. The Dubai Opera has a late-night Proms coming up this season. Coincidence? We think not, since R+J proved late night sells – R+J sold out every night.
Alex Broun (yes, the same one), brought one of his older productions, Pick Ups to Dubai. Updated and written to take place in this city, this edgy show (extremely edgy for the region) took place in a club and was about, well, picking up people. Verging more on sketch comedy than traditional theatre, it was another semi-professional piece which was locally produced and very non-traditional.
Having non-traditional theatre is likely to bring in newer crowds. Hell, in a town where clubbing reigns supreme, the traditional theatre setup can be a bit hard to get into or to drag your friends to. At least with these types of events, they keeps one’s interest. Yeah, it’s something to do that isn’t dancing and being dragged home by your friends (but you can do that after.)
Another semi-pro production, Red, was one of only two in the season to be awarded a coveted “hump” by The Camel Stub team. Also directed by Alex Broun, this one was held at The Junction and thejamjar, which married perfectly with a play set in Mark Rothko’s art studio. It was quite traditional theatrically, but performed at a quality rarely seen here.
These three pieces are exemplary of a shift in the “middle-section” of the theatre scene. 2016 proved there isn’t just amateur on one side, professional on the either. Semi-professional productions rose: ones with casts who are trained and/or professional actors (but not necessarily full-time), yet locally developed productions. If the UAE is to have a lasting and thriving creative scene, this “middle section” is what glues it all together and keeps it going.
[Another disclaimer: Phil was production manager for Romeo+Juliet and a cast member in Pick Ups. This is going to keep happening. It’s seriously not self-promotion, it’s just a really small world in the theatre here.]
5. How About not-Dubai?
OK. Admittedly, we’ve been very focused on Dubai in this article. It just tends to dominate the performance landscape of the UAE, but we’ve seen amazing growth in Abu Dhabi, Sharjah and Al Ain in 2016.
The Arts Center at NYU Abu Dhabi, under the creative direction of Bill Bragin, announced a season… a full-year season. No one has done that. Not DUCTAC. Not the Opera House. Though both have come close, the Arts Center’s season, which carries into this year, is a beautiful mix of professional and experimental theatre, dance, workshops, music, and more. If 2016 was the year of the Dubai Opera, we can assure you that 2017 will be the year of the NYUAD Arts Center, especially as they complete the final touches on their new, state-of-the-art facilities.
Sharjah expanded its Arab theatre events in 2016. And while publicity is still an issue, it is good to see more Arab and Arabic-language theatre taking root.
Al Ain saw more theatre, too. With Upstage Entertainment on the scene, it is a start towards a more thriving scene in the oasis city. Though, it still has some way to go, we feel there will be more cultural events to come there.
6. The Critics
Arts criticism has risen and is finally becoming accepted around the country. While it is difficult to show, we have started to see the print media write more analytically about plays and performing arts. Most articles are still just summaries about events, but at least it’s getting there.
Four years ago, Gaith Abdullah wrote a piece for Gulf News entitled “Culture of Critique Critical to Develop UAE Art Scene.” Obviously, we agree. Since then, we have seen this idea pick up more. While he spoke more to the fine arts and visual arts, the same applies to the performing arts, theatre, drama, stage and plays.
And we’re here now. Yes, we just made our last point about us. But we do think it matters. Having criticism, critics, critique or whatever you want to call it on the scene now makes a difference. We hope it helps directors, producers, drama groups, production companies and actors think about their audiences and hone their craft further.
We believe UAE theatre audiences will grow with critics on the scene. It help bring up the level of the art and hold theatre companies to some standard. And, we will emphasize again, it keeps the perspective on the audience. For too long, the groups have looked to self-satisfying acts and have forgotten their audiences. Not any more.
You have a lot to look forward to in 2017 as a UAE playgoer. We all have a lot to be thankful for in 2016 (the rest of the world excluded.)