Three years ago, when the Australian playwright Alex Broun visited Dubai to set up a theatre festival that would be managed wholly by resident-artists, it wasn’t so easy to get support.
Back then, big international productions were the order of the day at the few 2,000-seat venues in the city.
Launching a Dubai edition of the well-established international short-plays festival Short+Sweet, which began in Sydney in 2002, proved to be a challenge for the writer, who is known as the “Shakespeare of short plays”, much more so than he had anticipated.
“Many times it looked like the whole thing would fall over,” says Broun, who was making short trips to the Emirates at the time to teach theatre courses.
“The cost of theatres was very high and the government fees to start something like this were weighing us down.”
Eventually, his hard work hustling to attract sponsors paid off and Short+Sweet found a place in the fledgling local performing arts scene, with the inaugural event in 2013. It has become an annual event, with the third edition successfully staged in February this year.
But even as the sector has expanded and theatregoers are attracted to intimate, locally-produced content, the growth of small theatre groups and independent productions continues to be limited by several factors, including a lack of donors, the cost of government licensing and venue hire, and the lack of acceptance of theatre as a legitimate profession.
Yet Broun believes the country’s emphasis on its identity, while maintaining a multicultural environment, opens up great opportunities to create original shows unlike those in any other country.
He moved to the UAE in November last year to become the artistic director of Constellation Dubai, a company that creates shows and runs the Dubai Playwrights' Studio.
“In the arts, you have to go where your skills are needed,” says Broun, who has written more than 100 10-minute plays, which have been performed in more than 40 countries.
“In Australia, the market is flooded with many talented actors, writers and directors, but performing arts still works on the fringes and most of it is run by professional companies. It is a tough market and well catered for. Whereas in Dubai, there is a tremendous need for the particular skill that I have.”
Broun’s vision is designed around that of English theatre and film director Peter Brook, who promoted the idea of “interculturalism”, where actors from different cultures make theatre for the community.
“If there is one place to create a cultural understanding, it is the UAE,” says Broun. “And approaching the Expo 2020 we certainly want to create a style of theatre that is indigenous to this place.
“There is very little work in film or theatre where the Arabic work is translated into English and vice versa. The Middle East is the hot spot of the world and we can create more cultural understanding between the Arabic world and western world through the arts.”
That ambition can only take flight in an environment conducive to supporting theatre groups working on a shoestring budget. But the government and venue fees, and getting permissions, are daunting.
“There are certain checks and balances by Dubai Culture and Dubai Tourism, that understandably need to be there to weed out illegitimate operations, but they can hurt the progress of small, honest theatre companies.”
What hurts most start-ups and amateur theatre groups are the daily fees for hiring a space such as Ductac or Madinat Theatre, which can start from Dh800, in addition to a 10 per cent performance fee.
“If there was a way that locally based companies and events that enrich the culture of Dubai could be given a waiver of those fees, that would be helpful,” says Broun.
He says there also needs to be an initiative to set up more theatres for rehearsals, workshops and cost-efficient productions, much like Courtyard Playhouse in Al Quoz. Al Serkal Avenue has announced plans to set up The Junction, a space for performing arts in the industrial area.
Broun has a clear idea of how he wants performing arts to develop, beginning with recognition of theatre as a profession supported by a national theatre company.
“Right now, you cannot have an actor, writer or director visa,” he says. “It would be wonderful if we can have a professional theatre company in Dubai where actors are paid and we start producing local bilingual plays. It would be a company where shows would be translated and would have a strong Emirati tradition. We would create shows from scratch and tour them around the world.
“It’s not about building another building but funding a company of 15-20 people to create modern western theatre in fusion with Emirati stories.
“We have the Dubai International Film Festival for film, the Literature festival for writing, Sikka for art. It’s a matter of theatre establishing that place and the Government getting excited about it.”