“Everyone, take 10 minutes,” Carlos Díaz León says, as the group of New York University Abu Dhabi drama students break from rehearsals inside the Black Box at the university’s Arts Center.
The huge performance space has been transformed to evoke the world of the early 20th-century Spanish playwright Federico García Lorca.
Stucco walls provide both a backdrop and a screen for an ever-changing video projection, music will provide a cinematic soundtrack to the enfolding action and there are numerous trap doors and outsized stage props to enable the cast to slip between juxtaposing scenes of three of Lorca’s best-known and most powerful plays.
In the pause from Mujeres Cabalgando en la Arena/Women Riding in the Sand, an original work inspired by Lorca's Blood Wedding, Yerma, and The House of Bernarda Alba, the cast sit cross-legged, laptops open, chatting about their task as Aysan Celik, an assistant professor of theatre at NYUAD and performer, noisily practises voice exercises with a student.
Adequate voice projection in the cavernous Black Box is just one of the skills to be mastered as the students start to inhabit the stage and make it their own.
There’s a tremendous buzz and energy, even late into the evening, as the students prepare to do a full run-through of the hour-long play in front of the stage, where the chairs will eventually line up in rows, waiting for the audience in just over a week’s time.
As well as the cast of 22 students appearing on stage, there are nine student apprentices working with professional theatre-makers on production, set design, dramaturgy, directing, costume design and stage management.
Beyond the theatre programme itself, the production has tested the skills of NYUAD students in the music programme to design a soundscape, film students to produce a documentary on the production, and students in the visual arts programme to design the bill posters.
Speaking to me earlier, León, a professor at Duoc UC in Santiago, Chile, an experienced actor and theatre director, who is currently in a seven-week residence at NYUAD, explained the genesis of the production. He describes the performance as an “experimental laboratory” based on Lorca’s original texts and the result of workshops with the NYUAD drama students.
"We started to work on these scenes from Yerma, Blood Wedding and The House of Bernarda Alba that all have things in common," he tells me.
“We get into this mixing machine and we talk about the concepts and we create with the scenes, and the connections and transitions between them, something new.
“For example, we have four Yermas saying the same lines [but] in different ways, we also have four Juans, so those scenes are almost the same, but each one of them has a new point of view and a new emotional range.”
The themes within the text as Lorca’s men and women struggle to reconcile their personal desires with traditional social roles are universal, and that is entirely appropriate, León says, given the extraordinarily diverse backgrounds of the NYUAD students, who originate from Costa Rica to Oman, Japan to Chile, Finland to India, Hungary to Jordan, and almost everywhere in between. To have delivered a conventional stage interpretation of a Spanish play from the 1920s would have seemed out of step, certainly.
The plays’ subject matter is testing for any actor: jealousy, frustration and longing are but a few of the emotions on display. So how did the students prepare for their roles? Discussion played no small part, León tells me.
At the rehearsal, León is tireless in his directing and in helping the students to use their bodies as well as voices, and taking the words off the page to convey meaning. “My goal is to get the students into this world of tensions on stage, and to be aware of your body and how your body is telling us a lot of things.”
León hopes that the audience will be touched by what they see and be moved to discuss it. “I am not promising anything,” he says, “but I think that the audience will get into this world.”
• Mujeres Cabalgando en la Arena/Women Riding in the Sand is performed at the Black Box, NYUAD Arts Center, from March 10-12, at 7pm, plus a matinee on March 12. Visit www.nyuad-artscenter.org. Free entrance but booking is essential.
Clare Dight is the editor of The Review.