The next stage

Despite governments across the region investing heavily in fostering local arts and culture, some pundits claim the grassroots theatre production scene remains neglected. John Parnell reports.
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The Middle East has successfully attracted some big name feature film productions to the region, most recently The Kingdom, shot on-location in Abu Dhabi. A host of film festivals have also been attracting the stars for several years. Now the region's film industry has begun to address the issue of promoting and assisting local talent. Several schemes and initiatives are in place to provide filmmakers with funding and exposure.

Lately, the theatre industry has been attracting international touring productions with increasing regularity.

Amateur theatre, on the other hand, is still lagging behind.

 

The Dubai Community Theatre and Arts Centre (DuCTAC) was built with the aid of the UAE government in a bid to promote grassroots theatre. DuCTAC's deputy chairman, Brian Wilkie gathered together a host of sponsors among their fellow tenants in the Mall of the Emirates. Support for the project snowballed with more and more businesses signing up to help out.

Theatre is neglected here. There are too many touring shows coming through town to the detriment of [local] productions - Dickinson.

Kemsley Dickinson is a member of the Dubai Drama Group (DDG), which is based at DuCTAC.

"The amount of support when they were raising funds for the theatre was huge. They ended up with a much bigger facility than first envisaged," says Dickinson. "The Centrepoint Theatre is the main venue here. It's a very impressive place. Unfortunately, it's also expensive to maintain. Even simple things like lighting and the AC cost a lot of money. I don't think people initially realised how expensive it would be to service thel infrastructure as well."

Following the initial fundraising drive, DuCTAC's only source of income has been derived from room hire. As a result, providing the use of the theatre on a not-for-profit basis is difficult.

"It's challenging for them to continue justifying the community tag," says Dickinson. "They are prepared to give amateur groups a fair rate and we understand that they need to cover costs. There aren't many amateur groups anywhere in the world that can perform in a professional theatre like this with 540 seats and a large stage area and not bankrupt themselves.

"The government genuinely wants to nurture locally produced arts, but there's no medium available to students who are interested in drama or English or acting, to put their education into practice. As a result many creative people end up leaving for the US or Europe.

"Theatre is neglected here. There are too many touring shows coming through town to the detriment of local community-based productions."
 

With film festivals increasingly offering competitive funding schemes to aspiring movie directors and producers, such as the Dubai International Film Festival's Muhr Awards, regional filmmakers have an incentive to create locally. Dickinson isn't convinced that this is the answer for theatre.

"Prize money isn't the same thing as funding. Prize money only benefits one person - it doesn't encourage the arts across the board. It is community groups that need the money to promote the arts and encourage people to give them a try," says Dickinson. "We also really need to nurture the semi-professional environment for students and newcomers. We need to see more funding at the local production level so people can work here in film or theatre."

The presence of a larger amateur theatre scene throughout the region would have knock on effects for the future of the arts scene and equally, the local live production scene.

Given the funding to pay existing professionals to hand down their knowledge, a base of locally trained lighting and sound technicians with hands-on experience would be in place to fill the production industry's labour market, says Dickinson.

"We would love to have someone come train a member of the group. That way we could have our own technician working the console without having to pay for the theatre to provide a supervising technician. But we would need to have someone come along and volunteer to do so. The technical aspects present quite a challenge."

The options for those interested in a career in the live production industry are limited to formal education. Opportunities for hands-on experience at a lower level is severely limited if the arts scene begins and ends with professional, often international productions.

Dickinson is sceptical of the motives of these productions and is convinced that they offer little benefit to the local arts scene. He also views DuCTAC's Centrepoint Theatre as the only viable alternative venue in Dubai for the local theatre production community.

"There are two hotels in Dubai that have theatres but they are too big and also too expensive for a group like ours to use. Centrepoint is probably too small for the kinds of shows they want to put on. This place should be packed with multicultural shows and amateur groups such as our own.

"What we need is for the government to expand the support it showed for the construction of the facility to fostering a grassroots theatre sector."

Currently, the vast majority of professionals in the industry are European and American expatriates. Grassroots productions such as amateur theatre and small scale local music events could provide exactly the environment Dickinson describes, to keep performers and would-be technical staff in the region.

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