A truly life-changing role for Dubai’s schoolchildren

Duet Productions, which will stage their next children's musical with 34 students from across Dubai schools, are working to make theatre more inclusive.

Schoolchildren representing various characters of Treasure Island during a dress rehearsal in Dubai. Satish Kumar / The National
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For Finley Stevens, letters often appear like squiggles jumping around on a page. So when the 11-year-old – who is dyslexic and also suffers from dyspraxia, a neurological disorder that affects movement and coordination – played a lead role in a stage musical last year, his parents were overjoyed.

A year-six pupil at Kings' School Al Barsha, he was picked by Dubai production company Duo Productions to play Grandpa Joe in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

He has come even further since then. On Friday, Finley will walk onto the stage at Dubai College auditorium wearing an 18th-century-style posh cravat and tailcoat as he stars as The Doctor in Treasure Island, an adaptation of the classic novel by 19th-century Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson, about greedy pirates and a mutinous crew vying for a piece of Isle of Treasure.

Hazel Hiles, who founded Duo Productions two years ago with her husband, Andy, says she began writing for children of all abilities because she wanted theatre to be more inclusive.

Also among the 34 middle-school pupils in the cast are four children with varying degrees of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.

“I’ve always had an interest in making it simpler for young children to pick up theatre,” says Hiles. “If you are writing the script as if you are speaking to them, instead of the way a book is written, they find it much easier because it isn’t like learning lines. “Often children with dyslexia are better at acting than those who are good at reading. They tend to be more natural.”

Hiles uses visual cues to help Finley memorise his lines.

“We associate everything with movement,” she says. “I give him the positioning and a description before asking him to look at the script, and then read his lines while doing the action. That makes it easier for him to learn.”

The directors have also converted the script into a 12-part radio play and made lyrical videos for the songs to make it easier for the students to learn their lines and familiarise them with the pirates’ Cornish accent.

Finley’s mum, Fay Stevens, says that she was worried when he said he wanted to perform.

“I knew it would be hard for him to learn and remember the lines,” she says. “As Finley grows older, his confidence is affected in school because he feels like his peers are moving forward and he cannot catch up in studies. So these productions have come at the right time because they have definitely boosted his self-confidence and he seems a lot happier.”

During an after-school rehearsal, Finley goes off-script a few times but Andy refocuses his attention by feeding him the lines.

“Finley takes acting very seriously,” says Stevens. “We keep going over his lines. He does have trouble remembering sometimes, but I don’t know how he manages. I’m proud.”

Finlay’s younger brother, Max, who is also dyslexic, also has a part in the musical.

Hazel and Andy have written more than 28 children’s plays in the past 20 years, and are involved in every aspect of each production, from the script to the songs. Before moving to Dubai, Hazel set up two youth theatres in the United Kingdom, while Andy built his portfolio at the The Royal Shakespeare Company, and in schools in Kuwait. He now leads the music division at Kings’ ­Dubai.

Treasure Island – The Musical is at the Dubai College Auditorium at 2.15pm and 7.15pm on Friday. Tickets cost Dh50. To book, email emailduet@gmail.com