x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Making it up as they go along at the Courtyard Playhouse in Dubai

The artistic team at Courtyard Playhouse spent millions of dirhams renovating an office into a studio space – and turned to crowdfunding to finish off the backstage area.

Kemsley Dickinson leads an improv workshop in the newly opened Courtyard Playhouse in Al Quoz, Dubai. Christopher Pike / The National
Kemsley Dickinson leads an improv workshop in the newly opened Courtyard Playhouse in Al Quoz, Dubai. Christopher Pike / The National

In an Al Quoz warehouse, a small space is gradually being transformed into a theatre for drama enthusiasts.

The Dubai-based husband-and-wife team of Kemsley Dickinson and Tiffany Schultz, who founded Drama Dubai six years ago, have prepped an area winding to the top floor of the Courtyard Arts and Community Centre in Dubai, which they rented out in March – a grassroots initiative that is in need of public support for completion.

Walk past the “spare me the ­drama” sign hanging on the wall at the dimly lit entrance and take the stairs to their unassuming studio, which has come alive with the guffaws and antics of a team rehearsing for a forthcoming show.

The artistic team of Courtyard Playhouse, who’ve spent millions of dirhams renovating an office into a studio, turned to crowdfunding this year to finish off the backstage area and set up professional lights for their community theatre space that aims to support independent artists and amateur talent.

For Dickinson, who had been conducting workshops and rehearsals in his living room, this was an essential step forward for the company. “For a while now, we have been disappointed by the lack of options for affordable performing arts venues for independent directors and artists,” he says.

“There is a growing performing arts community in Dubai, but many newcomers are often deterred by the high costs involved in putting up shows here. We want this to be their option.”

In October, Dickinson and Schultz put up their proposal on Aflamnah, the crowdfunding platform for the Middle East, with the intention of raising Dh66,000 by this month. “When we started out, we had a budget in mind and thought that would be enough to complete the studio,” says Dickinson.

“But as we started doing things we realised that were more financial commitments that we could not meet alone.”

When the duo rented the place earlier this year, they began renovations by building seating to accommodate about 50 audience members. They painted, wallpapered and installed new flooring and changed the air conditioning. At the same time, Schultz found out they were having a baby, so they reached out to the community to help develop the space.

They concluded the fundraiser on Sunday, with support still pouring in. Schultz says they had raised Dh81,367 from almost 100 contributors, but kept it open for two more days because people wanted to associate themselves with the cause.

“It is amazing how people have come together to build this,” says Dickinson. “Not just individuals but other theatre groups in town have been very supportive. People have been volunteering to paint and set up.”

As an incentive, the team promised donors a name on a theatre seat, an improvised play based on their life, private lessons in photography, acting workshops or a styled photo shoot as an actor of their choice with Schultz, who is also a professional photographer.

“The amount we raised was needed for touch-ups,” says Dickinson, pointing towards the unkempt backstage that is strewn with costumes and banners and papers.

“The funds will also go towards professional lighting equipment and to put in a proper changing room,” adds Schultz. “Then the bathrooms are a mess. We have to redo them.”

Schultz expects the studio, licensed as a performing arts training centre, will open its doors for full-fledged shows by February next year. “It will fill that gap for individuals who want to stage something they have written themselves or a contemporary performance for a small crowd of theatre lovers.”

She says they will rent out the space to artists working with restrictive budgets, so that they aren’t at a loss. The playhouse will be used for rehearsals and will screen movies and art films regularly. Dickinson will host improv classes and theatre sports sessions. Schultz will conduct photography workshops at Courtyard Playhouse as well.

“For now, putting up any show means hiring a big theatre or a hall for a large audience. We feel that the creative community in Dubai has been extorted.

“Renting out purpose-built premises can cost more than Dh3,000, even for a small-scale production. We want to create a sustainable model to keep this place.”

Schultz says they have not decided on the cost of renting out the studio yet but will be assessing each proposal individually to come up with an appropriate price. “This will provide them an ­outlet without having to spend a ­fortune,” she says.

• Visit www.courtyardplayhouse.com for more information