x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

In on the act

Dubai Drama Group (DDG) has launched Act Up!, a nationwide competition that calls for amateur playwrights to pen their own piece of theatre.

George Stothard and Eric Dury perform a scene from Dubai Drama Group's production of the Ben Elton play Gasping in May.
George Stothard and Eric Dury perform a scene from Dubai Drama Group's production of the Ben Elton play Gasping in May. "There is such an appetite" for community theatre in the Emirates, Stothard says.

They say everyone has a book inside them. But what about a play? If you have ever fancied putting pen to paper or dreamt of seeing your play performed on stage, the boards could be within your grasp: Dubai Drama Group (DDG) has launched Act Up!, a nationwide competition that calls for amateur playwrights to pen their own piece of theatre.

Writers of all ages can enter a monologue, one-act play or a single scene featuring a maximum of four characters. The winning entry will be directed, produced and performed by DDG in December. The competition comes as the group turns 25 but there's more to it than celebration, says Abishek Reddy, DDG's newly elected chairman. "We're hoping to get people thinking about theatre and about being creative, as well as increase awareness and membership of the DDG," he says.

More members mean more productions, something the DDG has been struggling with of late. In fact, since its golden era several years ago, when the group produced around four shows a year, membership has trailed off, funds have dwindled, they have lost their designated home and charges for theatre space have risen dramatically. The group was at its lowest ebb during the recent production of Ben Elton's Gasping, says George Stothard, the 33-year-old recruitment consultant who played Philip. "We lost money on Gasping for all sorts of reasons," he says. "Historically, the DDG was very successful. But it found itself - before Gasping, really - on its last legs."

Determined to survive and with all the enthusiasm you would expect from am dram fans, a new, improved DDG has emerged, complete with a newly-elected board and a mission to spread news of their work. "The competition aims to raise the profile of the group," says Stothard, "but the reason we want to raise the profile is that we want to continue doing great community theatre. And there is such an appetite for it."

Not only do they hope to stage more productions, says Reddy, but they also plan to introduce regular workshops and guest speakers. Having home-grown theatre should, he says, be part of the fabric of any big city. "I know some shows are brought in for a 10-day run," he says, "but I'd like to see a local theatre scene where we have drama groups who put on shows on a regular basis. People often say: 'I don't really act but I'd love to get involved backstage.' We always need people backstage, so we encourage that too."

In Abu Dhabi, the Abu Dhabi Dramatic Society (ADDS), which turned 40 this year, is thriving, and recently staged an all-female production of Hamlet. Unlike its Dubai counterpart, it receives support from The Club in Meena Port, of which it is a subsection. Crucially, it also has the use of a venue at which to stage their productions. "That's the issue for any theatre company anywhere - that you have a home from which you can run your operation," says Robert Liddington, the chairman of ADDS. The society stages four productions a year and just started rehearsals for Rebecca, which will take place in October. There is also the wildly popular annual pantomime in December, which last year attracted audiences of around 1,000.

Thriving though it may be, there is a catch in that only members of The Club can participate, although they make exceptions if casting requires it. "The reality is that we probably have non-members participating in two out of four productions," says Liddington. "From time to time we have casting issues, so we're allowed to bend the rules and go outside, but we try to not to." This begs the question of a free-for-all alternative. "I'd like to see more performing arts activity in Abu Dhabi," he says. "And certainly more theatre. But unless you've got it in the curriculum in schools and have substantial support for it, it's difficult to see that sort of thing developing. Whatever they're doing in Dubai is great, but there are limitations on what you can do if you don't have the facilities."

Like DDG, ADDS experienced a golden age about 15 years ago, when it was not only staging productions regularly but also ran a school competition and the Gulf Theatre Festival. An increasing variety of entertainment has reduced the demand for activity on such a scale, Liddington says. "Back then, there wasn't half as much in the way of infrastructure here," he says. "There weren't even cinemas, so the local drama society was more important, especially for the European expats to entertain themselves. Now you've got more competition in the entertainment field and the situation is different."

Although ADDS do not intend to open their society to the public, plans are afoot to muster support for a community youth theatre. Maggie Hannan, a professional director and lecturer at the New York Film Academy in Abu Dhabi who adapted and directed ADDS's production of Hamlet, is taking on the project single-handedly. "I think there needs to be a great deal more community theatre in Abu Dhabi," she says. "I would love to start a youth theatre company like they have in the UK. It's just a case of getting the right people on board."

While the city has hosted an increasing number of high-profile film, music and art events, theatre is yet to receive such attention. The acclaimed Sulayman al Bassam production of Richard III: An Arab Tragedy in March was, however, sold out. "It was marvellous," says Hannan. Community theatre is not just about the quality of the production, which, for obvious reasons, is notoriously varied. In a city such as Dubai, where many people are away from home, joining a local drama group is a way of meeting like-minded people, Stothard says. "I got involved as a way of leaving behind everything I did in London for so long and moving to a new country and thinking: 'Right. Here I go again.' It's about building a life, which is what we all try to do, isn't it? And it adds meaning to a life here that, for me, might otherwise be about shopping and sunbathing."

Reddy joined for similar reasons. "I like to act," he says, "but I think it's important, especially if you're moving somewhere completely new, to know that there are ways you can still follow your interests and meet like-minded people." Jaimie Evans, who played Hamlet in the ADDS production, saw it as an opportunity to get back into acting. "We're members of The Club," she says, "but I hadn't really done anything with the dramatic society there. My husband forwarded me a message saying they were looking for women to take part in Hamlet. To take part in a Shakespeare play at all is such a treat. And in one of the male roles - it was just irresistible."

Meeting people she would never normally have encountered was a great fringe benefit. "We had six different nationalities in our play," she says, "and I would never have had anything to do with these girls before. It brings people together in a place where they actually have to talk to each other. I hadn't done it for so long that I had forgotten quite how interactive it is." Participating in something non-traditional has inspired her to do more acting in future. "I would love to, especially if this is the start of something interesting," she says. "I know Maggie is interested in doing some other shows and I told her I would be available for that."

Meanwhile, in Dubai DDG won't go down without a fight, Stothard says. "I think it would be a desperate shame if a really long-standing theatre group died. We need to work harder. The DDG don't have a natural home anymore and it's expensive, so we need to work hard to find sponsors. It's a case of survival. We're doing this because we want to survive." Luckily, the public relations consultancy Impact Porter Novelli have stepped in to sponsor Act Up!

The competition is open to everyone, he says, and they are keen to ensure that it has as broad an appeal as possible. "We are a primarily English-speaking group but that's not to say we wouldn't love pieces in English on Arab life and culture." The make-believe world of theatre may be just what people need right now, says Reddy. "I think in times like these, it's a relief to be involved with something light-hearted and creative," he says. "The competition will draw attention to the fact that we need more initiatives like this. Without it, who's going to even think about starting a play? It's something that people might think about, but they would never carry it through. And I think this will encourage it to happen."

Act Up! entries can be emailed to the Dubai Drama Group at dubaidramagroup@hotmail.com. The competition runs until Aug 28. For further information call 050 509 4211 or go to www.dubaidramagroup.com