Even with the best will in the world, stereotyping is easy to do. Whether it is the assumption that the waiter at a restaurant is of a certain nationality or that the owner of a particular make of car is arrogant, we are all sometimes guilty of rushing to a judgement.
Eat Dubai, a dinner party at the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding, aims to expose and challenge those prejudices in a unique way.
The meal incorporates an hour-long immersive play created by the London-based theatre company Angry Bairds, with the audience becoming a part of the cast as they sit down to enjoy Emirati fare with actors who will, in character, perform a story that explores the pigeonholing of different people and cultures.
All the world’s a stage
The immersive theatre piece, by Nazish Khan and Sophie Foster, the founders of London-based arts group Angry Bairds, follows their successful Eat London production that was performed at The Camden Fringe last year.
Eat Dubai has been developed with a local team that includes the writer Farheen Khan, Emirati director Thabit Al Mawaly and theatre director and choreographer Nina Hein.
“The concept of sitting around a dinner table is one that we all know,” says Nazish. “We have all been at a dinner where somebody talks about something awkward, which is also quite entertaining.”
Eat London revolved around the characters’ relationships with food, exploring issues such as bulimia, eating fads, unhealthy dieting and waste.
Nazish says they considered cultural differences a better topic to tackle in Dubai.
“Dubai hosts so many cultures and different variants among them, so it was ideal,” she says.
The group decided to weave the theme of prejudices commonly held in society to that familiar dinner-party chat concept.
“The play is about testing our stereotypes – things like a Filipino helper or a woman always on the lookout for a husband in Dubai,” she says.
Setting the table
The play’s setting is an Emirati dinner hosted by a British expatriate, Emma, and her husband, Dave, with an open invitation to people from different walks of life.
Emma has adopted the local culture and is determined to spread it at the gathering, much to the chagrin of her husband who thinks she has strayed too far from her British roots.
The cast of guests includes Kim, an outspoken Lebanese woman in search of a wealthy husband in Dubai, Bruce, a jovial waiter with a melodious voice, and Ali, an Emirati who wants to build a career in stand-up comedy.
“As the play unfolds you realise everyone has a story,” says Nazish. “Why is this Lebanese woman obsessed with finding a husband who has a Ferrari? Is she a gold-digger or is it something else? You start with a stereotype and then you peel them away.”
The audience will be seated with the actors for an intimate dinner on the floor and will be encouraged to join in their partly-improvised conversation.
“The actors will be in character the whole time, but the audience can chip in,” says Nazish.
She says they chose this form of immersive theatre to take the audience out of their comfort zone.
“The show starts the minute you sit down for dinner,” she says. “It can be awkward for the audience, but we want them to play a part and understand the culture by experiencing it.”
Angry Bairds held auditions for Eat Dubai in November, and the choice of actors influenced the final script.
“We hadn’t written the play until we got the cast because unlike London, where you are inundated with actors, it’s hard to find a match here,” says Nazish. “We had three fixed characters and then thought we’ll just see who is interested and develop it from there.”
The Filipino character wasn’t part of the first draft, but Dubai-based actor Ken Bruce convinced them to create the role.
“He was so brilliant during the audition that we had to include him and it all fell into place quite well.”
Nazish says Bruce’s character was the most fun to write.
“We had to research about the Philippines,” she says. “We didn’t know Enrique Iglesias is half Filipino. Living in Dubai, you tend to forget that the Philippines is a country that has contributed to the international music scene and pop culture.”
Emirati actor Hussein Al Srehae, who plays Ali, is an aspiring comedian, which the writers wrote into the play as well.
“He is interesting because he is an Emirati who wants to break into an industry that is quite unconventional in his society,” says Nazish.
The actors were trained by Hein to be able to hold their own during unpredictable audience interactions.
“They needed to know everything about their character,” says Nazish. “So they had to create an elaborate background for themselves, like their favourite colour, where they met, why the husband and wife are always bickering, where they were born. You can’t script that in.”
• Eat Dubai has space for 25 audience members each night from Wednesday, January 14, until January 22 at Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding, House 26. Tickets, including dinner, cost Dh277 at eventbrite.co.uk. Visit www.angrybairds.com for more details