It's late afternoon and the place is beginning to buzz. Children and teenagers are hurrying to their dance classes, a woman is dabbing away at a canvas in one studio and a group of potters are preparing to turn lumps of clay into pretty pots and bowls in another. In the main theatre a director is going through a script for a forthcoming production. Dubai Community Theatre and Arts Centre is living up to its name as a thriving hub for the performing arts and beginning to fulfil its promise as "the first modern, non-profit, cross community creative centre in the Gulf".
It hasn't always been an easy ride throughout the conception, building and establishment of what is commonly known as Ductac, situated on the second floor of the Mall of the Emirates. Now, however, the new general manager Millie Tsai is quietly taking it into a new phase of its four-year existence. She is determined to establish it as a serious hub for both performing and creative arts that brings together local talent from all the artistic disciplines under one roof as well as showcasing interesting and unusual Middle Eastern and international performers.
"Performing arts here are quite new. There are several music schools putting on concerts along with amateur theatre groups. We also have a group of local actors who put on whole productions but they are mainly in Sharjah. There are a couple of groups in Dubai but the majority are Arab theatre groups participating in Sharjah Theatre week. As far as dance is concerned it is rare. There are kids taking ballet lessons and street dance but most of them are doing it for a hobby. So this is a new concept.
"One of the most important things that Ductac is trying to do is to educate the kids in terms of loving to participate and wanting to produce and put shows on themselves." Tsai, who was born in Taiwan and arrived in Dubai in 2005 with her American husband and their two children, worked at the Academy of Performing Arts in Hong Kong, where she was responsible for programming. With her impeccable credentials - Tsai has a degree in cinema and drama from Chinese Culture University in Taipei and a master's in East/West theatre from Middlesex University in London, plus a diploma in stage and production management from Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts - she was a perfect fit for Ductac, except for the fact that it didn't exist when she first came here.
"I came to Dubai because my husband had a job offer, before Ductac was in existence. I joined when it opened but had been talking to them before it started. There wasn't a position for a programmer at the time because the general manager was doing the programming, but she asked me if I would like to do other work back of house. It was such a big complex so I thought there had to be something I could do.
Her first role was running the back of house where she set up the systems and processes for the technical and stage-management teams. She then moved into programming as director of programming and productions, before taking on the role of general manager in July 2009. "We started with a very small team. One person ran the arts centre, another was running the two theatres, we had two technical production staff, a part-timer doing marketing and an usher, plus the general manager and a fund raiser. In the early days we didn't have that many shows, perhaps one or two per month plus one exhibition because everybody was still figuring out what to do.
"The first general manager's job was to get the place up and running. When she left, a new one came in who had great strength in marketing so she needed someone to do the programming as well as the production and I took that over then. "The second was concentrating on positioning Ductac in the community and working out in what direction to take it. There were artistic differences between her and the board and when she decided to leave last summer, I took over. I had been with them for so long and I know this place like the back of my hand. I had also been living in Dubai long enough to know what's going on and how things work here."
At the beginning of her career Tsai worked with the New Aspect Arts Promotion Corporation, one of Taiwan's most prestigious art agencies, presenting more than 100 internationally renowned artists including the ballet superstar Mikhail Baryshnikov, the sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar, the late Russian cellist and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich, and the New York Symphony orchestra. She also spent time touring with the Great Moscow Circus, where her role involved managing the tour and dealing with the day-to-day running of the show, which included everything from dealing with legal issues to taking monkeys to the vet.
Her focus has always been a mixture of exposing her audiences to overseas productions at the same time as producing and encouraging local drama. The accent is on inter-culturalism and encouraging young people to take an interest in the performing arts. Tsai's friendly and open manner, formidable work ethic and energy has produced a rich supply of international contacts in her field and already they are lining up to bring acts to Ductac.
Tsai's biggest worry, however, is money. She simply can't afford to do half of the things she would like to do. Right now she is concentrating on making the centre pay for itself. "My biggest mission is to get enough funding to keep this place going. I want to be able to bring Ductac to a higher level. "In the current financial climate we can't look too far ahead. My first objective is to make sure that the centre is running properly. I would like to see the Government giving us a third of our running costs, the private sector another third and we do the rest. That's pretty much how most not-for-profit organisations all over the world function."
With all the creative ideas bubbling around in her head, it is understandable that the lack of funding should be frustrating for Tsai, but she is patiently working through the problems and using her considerable networking skills to find patrons to support her efforts, often drawing on her experience in Hong Kong. "The Hong Kong Arts Centre generates a lot of money by renting space for arts festivals and they have one sole sponsor who is probably the richest man in Hong Kong," Tsai explains.
Since it opened, Ductac has built a reputation for catering to families, with its 18 art studios, workshops and classrooms including a pottery and mosaic workshop, plus three rehearsal rooms for dance, a fully equipped studio theatre for smaller performances and a state-of-the-art 543 seat theatre. There is also an art gallery, a cafe in the main foyer, a shop selling artists' materials and a library. An impressive list of donors in the foyer is evidence of the affection and enthusiasm of local businesses and individuals.
Schools flock to Ductac to see performances by the centres' regular favourites Shakespeare for Kids, a UK company that puts on performances in a lighthearted child-friendly way, often with music. Says Tsai: "Whenever they come to town all the schools want to come to the Shakespeare for Kids shows. These are our loyal crowd. There are also a lot of people who come to take the classes. You see the same faces coming here for the past three years."
Gary Shelford's one-man version of George Orwell's classic satire Animal Farm was also a huge draw. But right now Tsai is concentrating on attracting young professionals who like something a little more sophisticated and offbeat than is provided by normal cinemas and theatres, in particular art house movies such as In the Mood for Love by the Hong Kong directors Wong Kar-wai and old black and white films like The Innocents, the adaptation of the Henry James novel, starring Deborah Kerr and Michael Redgrave, shown at Ductac in December.
"We were originally trying to do it every Wednesday but the pace of getting copyright approval is very slow. We let people know what's coming up by putting it on the website which has been updated. Out of that sprang the idea of setting up classes about world movies to attract sophisticated young professionals." The establishment of a Ductac Season has been Tsai's prime concern, however, and for the first time Dubai has a four-month arts event bringing performances, exhibitions, installations and events from leading artists and performers from the UAE, the wider Gulf region and much further afield.
Supported by the Dubai Culture & Arts Authority, the British Council, Alliance Française, the Italian Industry & Commerce Office in the UAE, Delwood, Petrochem, Arts for All, and the UAE and American Universities, Tsai and the board have put together a rich programme that began in November and goes through until March 6. "The idea of putting together the season was that everyone is looking for something to call their own," she says. "Originally I'm thinking we have the promoters, the venue and the sponsors but Dubai doesn't have an arts festival. It has a film festival, literary and jazz festivals and an art fair all focusing on one discipline. This is the only one that is venue-based, multi-disciplined and involved with the major art organisations. They don't put any money in, although some do sponsor the performers' fee.
This month Dubai's first youth theatre group, Youth Theatre Works!, stages its first professional production, Almost, Maine by John Cariani in the Kilachand Theatre. Open auditions for the romantic comedy were held in November to choose the cast, 10 young actors from Dubai, UK and the US, aged between 15 and 19. Directing the show is the actress Hayley Doyle who starred in Mamma Mia! in London's West End. Doyle is also running weekly acting classes at the centre.
The tradition of auditioning young local actors has already proved highly successful with the performances of High School Musical 1 and 2 over the past two years. Tsai, who works closely with Ductac's board, headed by Brian Wilkie MBE, says: "The London promoter who brought the training crew and some of the cast from the London production and the kids loved it." Later in the month Ductac will stage Mahim Junction, a vibrant tribute to Bollywood which was first performed to critical acclaim at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2002. Directed by Sohaila Kapur, the sister of the Oscar-nominated film director Shekhar Kapur at the Centrepoint Theatre it will be preceded by a red-carpet event at Ductac's Gallery of Light.
The season has already included a popular performance from the Sharq Orchestra, Essence of Arabia, with western-trained musicians performing Arabic music and paying musical tribute to legendary Middle Eastern divas such as Umm Kulthum and Fairuz. The Emirates Youth Symphony Orchestra will also perform in February. Over in the art gallery a new exhibition, Sense of Sight, held in collaboration with Moorfields Eye Hospital Dubai, is being prepared. Its aim is to raise awareness of the hospital's work and a prize of Dh10,000 is being offered to the winning portfolio.
"The plan is to re-engage with our patrons and involve local talent," says Tsai, who enlisted the help of seven of Ductac's artists to create the bright new mural that runs along the wall leading to the centre's entrance. Most of the facilities are available for rent, another important revenue source. The theatres play host to graduation ceremonies and management-training sessions, as well as town hall meetings and seminars. Ductac also has a variety of ongoing outreach projects visiting schools and universities to take the work of the centre out to the public.
"There is no shortage of ideas, but they all cost money," Tsai says. "Several international festivals including the Shanghai Art Festival have expressed interest in working with us. We would love to do something especially dedicated to Arabic Theatre. We have been talking to directors in Palestine who would love to come, but we can't afford to bring them yet." Clearly there is enormous affection for and interest in Ductac's work. More than 4,000 people attended an open day, held in November. Says Tsai: "Our season is the first programme of its kind in the UAE, with the broadest cultural scope from art to music, dance to drama, and even art-house film. It is truly inclusive, reflecting the cosmopolitan nature of the country, and upholds the spirit of Ductac, which was established to bring art into the everyday lives of our community.
"But we need funding. I can keep the place running but if something breaks down I won't be able to replace it." For more information about Ductac, visit www.ductac.org.