Sharjah National Theatre
Sharjah National Theatre Image Credit: Instagram/@shjtourism

A starlit sky hangs over a dark desert where the only light seems to flake out of a Bedouin camp. Huddled around these flames are nomads - tribes that are listening to an old song with a story. Each note carries emotions and action. Scan the dunes again and a ways off in another camp, around another fire, someone else tells a tale. But while these are performances of drama and dialogue, they cannot be termed plays - this is theatre of a different sort. Theatre as we know of it - as the art form first demonstrated in ancient Greece - requires not only an audience and narration but also impersonation and the personification of a role.

Theatre in this respect came to the UAE some years after its formation in 1971 – although there had been some overtures earlier; in 1958, two plays were staged at Al Shaab Club in Sharjah and the other one in Dubai, as per an earlier report in Gulf News.

But the performance art as a UAE staple came from abroad, on the backs of the Europeans who were used to a rich theatre scene back home; it came in the suitcases of the Asians who had brought with them their legacy of literature and production.

It came and it settled.

'Woman and Scarecrow'
'Woman and Scarecrow', the play, showed that there is a healthy appetite for more daring productions and that people want quality, profound pieces as well as the crowd pleasers, says Padraig Downey. Image Credit: Supplied

In 1975, Sharjah started working toward the Sharjah National Theatre, which was inaugurated in 1978. It would go on to host many plays, conferences and cultural forums. A few years after that, in 1981, the National Theatre was opened in Abu Dhabi. But the institutions, which marked the beginning of this sort of entertainment, would remain over decades one of a handful of such locations.

Occasionally of course as the UAE acquired hub status plays would be brought in from West End or Broadway or India or Pakistan; but home-grown productions remained pitifully scarce. “I arrived in Dubai in 2011; theatre performances were few and far between - there were just a few productions each year that were imported from the UK or abroad with a few community theatre groups operating that had a couple of productions each year. The quality was hit or miss,” says Padraig Downey, the Founder of Danu Dubai.

The productions that did run required ingenuity - and a great deal of patience for practices would often happen in a different emirate and the costs involved were great. En_Act founder Rashmi Kotriwala recalls coming to Dubai in 2005 and finding dry land. “I have been in Dubai since 2005. I did my first play in Urdu in 2005 itself. I got the info from a Gulf News classified listing. But the rehearsals used to happen in Sharjah. There was no metro so I used to cab it to Deira and someone would pick me up from there to Sharjah. It would take me nearly one-and-half hours to reach. Rehearsals would not start before 8 because the traffic to Sharjah used to be crazy in those days during rush hour. I would return home at 11/12 most days.

12 Angry Jurors 2013
A photo from one of Kotriwala's earliest plays, '12 Angry Jurors'.

“I was new to Dubai and did not drive and public transport was limited. Those were days when there was no Google search nor Facebook to look up things. I could not find anyone practising theatre in Dubai at that time, leave alone Hindi theatre. I did that one show with the Sharjah group but the logistics were too difficult to manage for more shows.”

Meeting like-minded folks

In the late 2000s there were only two hot spots on the scene, Ductac and The Madinat Theatre. (Both have since closed.) But soon enough as Dubai grew in reputation and more theatre enthusiasts found one another, getting involved in community troupes, newer venues started to open up - and so came opportunities, of discovery, of creation, of evolution of audience.

“These days there seems to be less theatre happening, partly due to COVID, but the local productions that are happening are a much higher quality, companies are also getting more adventurous with their choices such as ‘Betrayal’, ‘Red Rabbit White Rabbit’, ‘The Shape of Things’, ‘Circle Mirror Transformation’, ‘Danny and the Deep Blue Sea’ and ‘Woman and Scarecrow’ – so there are lots of good productions to see,” says theatre veteran Alex Broun, who also established the Short + Sweet festival in the UAE.

Anyone who says there is no theatre in Dubai has got their eyes and ears closed – almost every weekend there is a quality local production worth catching. You just have to look.

- Alex Broun, Short + Sweet festival founder

Broun continues: “Anyone who says there is no theatre in Dubai has got their eyes and ears closed – almost every weekend there is a quality local production worth catching. You just have to look. Dubai has some incredibly talented actors already based in the city, up with anything you are going to see at theatres around the world.”

Drama festival
Australian expat Alex Broun recalls the challenges of starting a festival in Dubai.
He says: “The first production I staged here was the reason I came to Dubai – the first-ever Short+Sweet Dubai Theatre Festival at DUCTAC in 2013, which I was the Festival Director and Producer of.

“Back then it was a very complicated process to launch the festival and it took me a long time to get my head around the various permits and permissions required, though that process has become a lot more streamlined in recent years.

“That first-ever Short+Sweet was incredibly important in the history of UAE theatre as it was the first time that the theatre community as a whole came together to present theatre in the city. All the major companies were involved – Backstage (now H72), Dubai Drama Group, Danu Dubai, Theatrewallas and Kemsley Dickinson, the driving force behind the Courtyard Playhouse.

“It saw a major explosion of new talent in Dubai and gave young theatre artists a place to develop their skills, especially in writing and directing, which they had never had before.

“The proof of that is in that first festival I don’t think we had one play by a writer based here in Dubai. At this year’s Short+Sweet Festival at The Junction we had over 50 plays by UAE-based writers – and that is mainly due to Short+Sweet.”

Besides community theatre, Dubai is now also home to the aptly named Dubai Opera, a dhow-shaped building that pays ode to the UAE’s seafaring history while playing host to a number of contemporary works of art including operas such as Puccini’s ‘La bohème’ and the West End version of ‘Mary Poppins’. The building has three modes; it can transform from a theatre into a concert hall, and into a ‘flat floor’ mode becoming a banquet or event hall.

But visitors aside, UAE-based talent has also been on the up and up. Asad Raza Khan, an artist-producer-and-owner of Tall Tales Production says: “When I moved to Dubai 10 years ago the theatre scene was quite small. There used to be 2-3 local productions a year, and 2-3 international ones. Venues were limited and not too many people in the city were aware of it. Since then we have seen it grow perpetually. The community/fraternity is not only stronger, but the awareness in the city is also very high with a lot of people knowing not only about the scene, but also recognising regulars and stars of the circuit. Venues have popped up and now there is a show almost every week! Due to COVID the international productions have halted, but the quality of the local ones are at par now!”

True representation of UAE

Downey adds: “The theatre [scene] is becoming more diverse with so many nationalities represented. There is also more Arab content which is wonderful to see. More and more writers such as Ahmed Masoud, Sulayman Al Bassam and Amir Zuabi who we have produced are realizing that there is a market here for their work now and the talent to carry it through. Irish writers are often shocked that their work is being produced in the UAE. Brian Friel, when he was still alive, sent a message saying he was “tickled” that his work (Dancing at Lughnasa) was being done in the Gulf. It is rare to see a play by Samuel Beckett or Marina Carr done in Ireland these days, never mind Dubai!”

However, there remains a fundamental problem; a nasty ink blot on an otherwise pristine piece of parchment. There are no drama schools here. “We have incredible talent here now with many trained actors but the problem is they can’t really make a living from their craft unless they teach or have another job. That is the next step as well as a third level world-class training institute or third level course in Dubai.

Did you know?
While Dubai doesn’t have a third level course for actor training or theatre, Sharjah does (SPAA and University of Sharjah) as does Abu Dhabi (NYU, Sorbonne).

"Why can’t we have a national theatre? A professional theatre scene and not just one for tourists. A Broadway? An Off Broadway? A West End? A world-class Fringe Festival? Alserkal Avenue is thriving but many of the theatre and cinema art houses struggle to get by. Theatre is not akin to collectable art. Collectable art is an investment and will only grow in value like stocks or property. Theatre however defines an identity and a culture. We have a traditional Gulf Arab culture but we also have a diverse identity of every nationality coming together which is quintessentially what the UAE is about. They are both special,” explains Downy.

Dubai Opera House
Dubai Opera House, the skyline-dominating performance and arts centre. Image Credit: GN Archives

Kotriwala speaks of the diversity now available for audiences. “I am already seeing a huge growth in theatre [which comes through] in different languages and in different styles. Earlier, we did just created plays based on well-known scripts but now there are fresh scripts being written locally and produced locally in various languages, Hindi, French, Italian, Urdu, Indian regional languages like Kannada, Gujarati, Malayalam and, of course, Arabic. While we as a society have a long way to go in terms of theatre culture and the pandemic has been a big dampener, we are getting there slowly and surely. It's only a matter of time that we may see some private funding into arts and culture and our quality products can be part of International theatre festivals.

Move to keep talent

The UAE, which always aims to be at the forefront of progress, has been investing in the performing arts. For one thing, it has begun to hand out Golden Visas - i.e. 10-year-visas for people with exceptional talent in certain fields, including this one.

“The Golden Visa (Culture) has been a huge help for people like me and I am honored to have been one of the first artists to be granted one in 2019 but we must keep talented people here. Again, I look to the students especially the Emirati students who I have taught and who have advanced degrees and training from world-class institutions to lead the future. I will keep grafting and doing my bit but I hope my work will pave the foundations for something truly unique and spectacular to be built that is both sustainable profitable as well as putting Dubai on the map for theatre and the arts with its own distinct voice,” says Downey, while Kotriwala calls the initiative commendable.

Dana Dajni and Assem Kroma in ‘Yeki Bood Yeki Book Na Bood’. UAE audiences' tastes are evolving in the UAE, say thespians.

Audience has grown

Minali Patel, an actor and Operations Manager at The Junction, says: “The scene has definitely evolved in terms of the mix we see now. The quality of art has grown because everyone is exposed to the way theatre is put up. Even the content of theatre – of course we don’t have profanity or any kind of sexual content – but the audiences are more receptive to [unusual content]. There’s also a mix of different languages. People are now hungry to watch more theatre, more regional content. Dubai Tourism, Dubai Culture – and other emirates are really supporting theatre so I definitely see it growing rapidly.”

However most thespians call for greater support. “But for theatre in the UAE to really mature we need a fully funded professional theatre company that produces English and Arabic productions to tour throughout the UAE and the MENA Region. This is what we are really missing,” explains Broun.

“With the arrival of the innovative golden visa, theatre professionals like myself, Gautam Goenka and Padraig Downey now have 10-year visas and have committed our futures to the UAE. But to hold on to quality artists and theatre professionals like that we need more professional opportunities, so creating theatre in the UAE can be a full-time occupation, as it is in the rest of the world, not just a hobby people do in their spare time. The artists, the venues, the audiences are all ready for that next step – all that is required is the vision and funding to make it happen!”

Message behind the Golden Visa
Gautam Goenka, Artistic Director and Co-Founder of The Junction, has been a part of the UAE theatre scene for 21 years and has directed over 50+ plays. He says the Golden Visa he was recently awarded meant a great deal to him. “It’s a great indication by the government and their vision on how they are planning to jumpstart this creative economy. So we are seeing the investment in the creative economy right now. We see people making tangible movements towards sustaining this place for the arts and that’s very heartening to see. In 2020, we saw lots of gestures, relief from the government as the arts industry went through tough times. And this place has responded to the COVID crisis better than most of the places in the world and it’s been good to see. So continuing forward, what this visa meant was [the government was saying,] 'we want you to stay, we want you to keep creating, we want you to keep delivering local theatre and performing arts to grow.' And I think that’s great."

Where there are people there will always be theatre - stories, young and old, are there to be told, around a fire in the desert or in hallways and giant stages. The quality may change, the legacy may mature. But the play will always live on.