Canadian University in Dubai student Neha Khandwani speaks to Rania Moussly about her professional acting debut in Annie.

Most of us wish to perform onstage and be adored by an audience, but do not have the confidence to give it a go. University student Neha Khandwani has given professional acting a go and makes her debut in the musical Annie.

It hit cinemas and Broadway in 1982 and now the classical show Annie has opened in Dubai. It was staged last week at the Madinat Jumeirah Theatre and will run until April 18.

It tells the story of loveable orphaned Annie's quest to escape the evil clutches of Miss Hannigan and find her real parents. It is set in the Great Depression of the 1930s. Brought to the UAE by Popular Productions from the UK, it treats fans and first-timers to a story which has lived on for 27 years.

Auditions were held early last month in Dubai to find local talent not only for the role of Annie but for the whole cast. Young and old flocked by the hundreds to sing and dance in front of a judging panel, hoping to make the cut. Some did and others did not.

Among those who did is Canadian University in Dubai student Neha Riyaz Khandwani. Notes visited Neha during dress rehearsals the day before opening night to hear her impressions of her first professional performing experience.

"Where's Annie? Who's dressed for Annie at the moment?" could be heard backstage at the Madinat Theatre. Perched in semi-darkness on the steps of a windy black metal staircase leading above the stage to the dressing rooms, a flu-ish Neha spoke of her demanding but rewarding ordeal.

Barely audible over the music and lyrics of It's a Hard Knock Life, the 21-year-old marketing student told Notes how she was cast as one of the Boylan sisters, a maid in millionaire Warbuck's mansion and as part of the singing and dancing ensemble.

Neha and the rest of the cast had just two weeks to prepare. Rehearsals started with 20 hours in the first three days and went on to eight hours daily. As opening night drew near, rehearsals went on 12 hours and more.

"If you've never done this professionally it's tough," and Neha has not. Although she has performed in high school, her roles were nothing on this scale "where people are actually paying to come and watch," she said. "I'm excited, we've run through it so many times, honestly, I just can't wait to perform and see what people think. I want to see what the set looks like."

Annie will be performed in 15 shows in 10 days, sometimes twice daily. "I've been fine this whole time and now the night before we perform I'm sick... it sucks!"

But it is no wonder. She finished her mid-terms a week before rehearsals and has had to write some exams while preparing for the show.

"My grades are pretty good so I don't have anything to worry about; as long as I hand in everything, I'm fine." Her professors have been pretty lenient with her, maybe because "most of them are coming to watch," said Neha.

A week after closing night she has to face her final exams, but for Neha it is all worth it and anyone with a creative flair who loves the arts could see how.

"It's great; I'm having so much fun. This is my hobby, I love doing it. Being onstage is such a rush it's amazing."

Neha is admittedly slightly reserved during rehearsals but the minute she goes on stage her shyness fades.

"You become someone else and you can be whoever you want."

Neha has friends coming specifically to laugh at her playing the part of "this ditzy little pink dress girly girl which is not me at all," but she does not care. "I get to be someone I'm not. Who gets to do that ever? For me, that's great," she said.

It is not all about the show though, because Neha will walk away from this experience with a whole group of new mates. With a friendly and approachable production team the atmosphere is one of camaraderie and friendship. "The cast is so cool; everyone calls each other by their first names. I've made so many friends!"