Launched on Monday, Gulf Stage is a British Council-backed project that aims to bring Arabic performances to the world.
UK website takes Arab plays to the world
Blame language barriers or conservative western programming, but the fact remains that Arabic theatre doesn't travel as far as it clearly should. New work is often well regarded, but not widely appreciated outside the region. Launched on Monday, Gulf Stage is a British Council-backed project which hopes to change all that, and bring Arabic performances to the world.
It's an ambitious but perfectly viable idea, because the productions don't require actors to be flown across the planet, venues to be booked and audiences to be found. Instead, the plays have all been filmed by the London-based Digital Theatre company, which edits them, adds English subtitles and then streams the plays via its website. Best of all, it's free.
Six theatre companies from Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE are involved and filming took place during the Gulf Co-operation Countries Youth Theatre Festival in Qatar last October. There are black comedies, modern takes on folk tales and serious dramas. The Play, which is the UAE's award-winning entry by Talal Mahmoud, sums up the high quality of the submissions, but also the ethos behind them all.
It's a production asking big questions. A young actor is getting ready to go on stage but becomes embroiled in a conversation with his make-up artist. They end up questioning the nature and usefulness of art and theatre in the Arab world - as well as the role of women.
Deborah Dignam, the British Council's digital adviser who worked closely on the project, is delighted with the results.
"The work is quite poetic and it seems to be resonating already," she says. "One thing I think I've learnt through this is that, unlike some contemporary theatre in the UK, there is a strength of message here. Theatre, for all the people involved in Gulf Stage, is an expressive art form and a powerful medium where you can communicate. So it's great to be able to share this cultural work with the world."
British Council projects often send theatre from the UK to far-flung places across the globe, so it's interesting that a two-way relationship is being encouraged here. And Gulf Stage is not just about reaching new audiences. Fahed AlBaker, who directed the Qatari play Me... You... the Human, is hopeful that, via these six works, stereotypes about the Gulf can be changed.
"Anyone who watches the plays will be able to see that the issues are actually global," he says. "Of course, it's about reaching international audiences, but it's also about opening a cultural dialogue with other parts of the world - we are fully aware of and inspired by their work, but we hope that this project can make that feeling mutual."
Best of all, there's the real sense that the Gulf Stage work really does deserve to be on the Digital Theatre website alongside more high-profile productions from famous London theatres such as the Almeida. This is no patronising pat on the head from the British Council but a genuine spotlight on the theatre scene in the Middle East. For AlBaker it underlines just how vibrant the scene is.
"I think it's important that the performances came from the GCC Youth Theatre Festival," he says. "Youth are by nature revolutionary and you can see from their work how serious they are about putting the spotlight on real issues that concern not only them but young people everywhere. It all helps to enrich this sense of a theatre movement in the Middle East."
"The most important thing for us isn't just that it's there for people to see when they want, for free, online," adds Dignam. "It's that people can have conversations about the work. The British Council is in 110 countries, so via our networks we need to get across the idea that people in Nigeria and Brazil can watch this and it will still have a relevance. The driving force behind this is sharing theatre around the world, and what can we learn from each other when we do. It's about encouraging people to think."
In a sense, these six participating productions are innovators in a project that could easily become the YouTube of young, cutting-edge theatre around the world. The main issue most arts organisations struggle with is finding audiences. Nothing can ever replace the thrill of live theatre, but Gulf Stage is likely to be experienced by far more people than, say, a one-off show in a 250-capacity auditorium.
"It is truly exciting," says AlBaker. "The internet has played a great part in getting people closer together and I think theatre can play a part in that. It's about using technology to open the channels of creative and artistic communication."