Almost, Maine
The play, Almost Maine, directed by Gautam Goenka, performed in 2023, at Dubai's Junction, a performing arts space. Image Credit: Supplied

The curtain rises. The pilot, researcher, or life coach in them steps aside and the actor takes over.

Sometimes, they’re playing a blisteringly tragic role in a Shakespearean play. Perhaps, even a talking tree for a ten-minute competition, or just a quiet observer, watching a pivotal scene unfold. That’s the magic and allure of the stage for these busy professionals: It allows them to become someone else, just for a while.

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It’s a way of taking a quiet break from your life.

As the UAE residents describe, acting is meditative, a catharsis, and a refreshing break from their daily routine. Image Credit: Supplied

This is common sentiment that resonates among UAE-based residents, who rush to act after a busy workday. It’s a passion that refreshes, revitalises them, rather than draining them out. It doesn’t matter if you’re a seasoned stage actor or someone who has been out of touch for a while; there’s always something for everyone. “This is my third ‘restart’ at acting,” explains Harry Apostoleris, a senior researcher a Dubai Electricity and Water Authority (DEWA). After acting in school and college with intervals, he “started noting” chances again in Dubai and starred in the Short And Sweet Festival, where people performed in 10-minute plays. And now, he’s ready to perform in Shakespeare’s Othello, which will be on later this month in Dubai.

A full work day and performing Shakespearan lines is not a gruelling task for him; it’s almost a catharsis. If you love what you do, then that’s what matters says Apostoleris, explaining that he finishes work at four in the evening, and rushes to rehearsals.

If you love theatre, you get energy from it, rather than be sapped by it. For me, it’s de-stressing. It takes my mind off troubles, and after rehearsals, I can look at problems with a fresh perspective...

- Kirin Hilliar, professor in psychology at the Heriot-Watt University

It’s this exhilaration and joy in losing yourself in a scripted or improvised moment that keeps them going.“There’s just so much spontaneity and immediacy in theatre,” says Kirin Hilliar, a professor in psychology at the Heriot-Watt University and a stage actor too. “If you do something wrong, you get to improvise and get back on track. I really enjoy the challenge of it. And, the feedback comes from the audience, whether a line lands or not,” she says.

It’s, indeed, the reverberating energy from the audience that is fulfilling. The applause, the laughter, the shocked gasps. “So, there’s no question of ‘finding time’ for the stage,” says Hilliar. “If you love it, you get energy from it, rather than be sapped by it. For me, it’s de-stressing. It takes my mind off troubles, and after rehearsals, I can look at problems with a fresh perspective,” she says.

I work till four in the evening and then go for rehearsals in the evening. Acting is like a catharsis for me. And if you love the stage, you'll just make time for it...

- Harry Apostoleris, a senior researcher a Dubai Electricity and Water Authority (DEWA)

Yet, as they all maintain there’s more to theatre than just acting on stage, the spotlights, and costumes. It’s the community and family they find.

Building a community from scratch

James Mitchinson's group
James Mitchinson and Bethanie Mitchinson founded the Musical Theatre Dubai (MTDXB). Image Credit: Supplied

For James and Bethanie Mitchinson, the co-founders and chairman of Musical Theatre Dubai (MTDXB), creating their own theatre community from scratch in a new city was almost like a new lease of life. After moving from Newcastle, England, during Covid-19, the couple, who loved the stage, found themselves in an unfamiliar location with restrictions as it was the pandemic. “For personalities like ours who thrive off interaction, we weren’t prepared for that,” recalls Mitchinson.

The key to dispelling this loneliness was theatre. “We missed what we loved doing most, so we started looking for musical theatre groups to join in Dubai,” recalls Mitchinson. Unable to find many, they started their own in 2021. “We put out messages on ‘Brits in Dubai’ and other groups on Facebook and asked other like-minded people if they would like to meet and have a sing. About 30 people turned up and we took it from there,” he recalls.

James and Bethanie Mitchinson, with their child Ralph. Image Credit: Supplied

Since then, this little community has expanded. After small-scale performances, they managed to save enough money to put on a full-scale musical, The Addams Family, in June 2023.

From the grassroots…

The 39 steps
The play, The 39 steps, directed by Gautam Goenka, was performed in May 2022. Image Credit: Supplied

Most of these theatre communities that now host full-scale shows in the UAE, began at the grassroots level at one point, as Gautam Goenka says, a seasoned stage director and global leadership development leader at GE Healthcare Dubai. Goenka, who began directing from his university days 20 years ago in the UAE, with the group ‘Backstage’, recalls the ups and downs of trying to build something through just passion and hard work. “The cost of putting up a play was expensive, and so everyone in the group would just pool a certain amount of money. Any profits would go towards the building the theatrical community. Each step was a milestone,” he remembers.

A full venue was not possible at the time. Yet, this did not deter them, as they looked forward to performing in smaller spaces, art galleries, schools, gradually looking to expanding their reach with investment partnerships. Whoever was part of the community had a role, including finances, accounting, or hunting for venues. Finally, each success contributed to establishing The Junction, a performing arts space in Dubai.

There’s a sense of pride and joy in Goenka’s voice as he looks back at the years it took to bring him and the community this far. “There are so many different theatrical groups in the UAE; French, Marathi, Hindi, German and more,” he says. These theatrical groups comprise busy working professionals, who just make time at the end of busy schedules to unwind with the stage, or even backstage. “There are teachers who come to design the costumes. We’ve worked with pilots and cabin crew members, who have acted in our plays. There are members of the audience who expressed their desire to star in plays, and they’ve joined too. They just jump right in,” he says.

These different personalities with their own lives, find a way to blend seamlessly together, a necessity for the stage.

‘A feeling of trust and safety’

Author, director and actor Purva Grover on stage.
Author, director and actor Purva Grover on stage. Image Credit: Supplied

You can’t cast a spell alone, in theatre.

Maria Dawson, a Dubai-based sales professional, who has starred in several plays in her earlier years, remembers feeling most at home with her fellow actors, directors and the rest of the crew.

“I always felt at home with the people I worked with for productions. You spend so many hours together; you share inside jokes and memories, while learning lines and building chemistry. You begin to feel like a family, and an understanding grows between you. If you mess up a line on stage, you need to trust that the other person will find a way to get you back on your feet. I have experienced this, in both situations. I forgot my line, but my friend on stage found a way to make our performance look seamless, as if nothing had happened. No one in the audience, guessed what had happened,” she recalls. Another time, she remembers how her fellow actor forgot that he had to make an entrance on stage, and so she covered up by jokingly weaving an insult in her dialogue and pretended to go and “fetch” him off stage.

Pink ribbon
The Pink Ribbon (January 2020), directed by Purva Grover. Left to right, Sherry Dang Briet, Purva Grover, Zaynab Naqvi, Mandeep Walia, Ayesha Nauman. Image Credit: Supplied

For Dubai-based Purva Grover, an author, actor and director, theatre is all about trust. You need to build trust with everyone around you: You need to know you’re safe. “I really love the trust aspect of theatre,” she says. “It isn’t for anyone with trust issues. Theatre isn’t just about acting, directing, scripts and lights. It is about strangers, friends, acquaintances, opponents, amateurs, professionals, rivals and friends of friends, trusting one another,” she says. This chemistry, trust, camaraderie, and friendship is what adds flavour to the play.

A little advice for those who want to join theatre…

As Lamya Tawfik, a Dubai-based life coach, actor, and presenter, explains, you just need to keep an eye out.

At shows, you’ll meet different people who will also be able to guide you as well, on what groups to follow. You would also get to know what production is happening and when. You’ll get to network...

- Lamya Tawfik, actor, presenter and storyteller

“Start with attending shows, I would say. You’ll meet different people who will also be able to guide you as well, on what groups to follow. You would also get to know what production is happening and when. You’ll get to network, and sometimes, the person sitting next to you could help you with an audition too,” she says. Look around for workshops, search Facebook groups that feature casting calls and auditions. “You can experiment and dabble with modalities, or even start with something backstage first,” she says. “With theatre, you will always find a way that truly fits your lifestyle.”