x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

My stage debut, 'Make me a sandwich or the donkey gets it'

Memories of school plays, some of which I have blocked out from embarrassment, came back to me when I spent a few days with some Emirati theatre actors.

Wearing an itchy fake black beard, white overalls and an over-sized fedora, I pointed my toy rifle at a classmate clumsily dressed as a donkey and threatened to shoot if "my wife" - another classmate wearing hideous eyeshadow and make-up - didn't make me a sandwich. Well, she refused, and bang went the poor donkey. That was my introduction to theatre at the age of 8, playing an "evil husband". Part of the extracurricular activities in private Saudi schools was to put on plays, recite poems and perform musicals in front of hundreds of students. Often our mothers came too, watching in horror as we sang out of tune and danced out of sync. The schools were, and remain, segregated, so the male roles were played by the more dominant and flamboyant girls.

Memories of school plays, some of which I have blocked out from embarrassment, came back to me when I spent a few days with some Emirati theatre actors. They were staging experimental and classical plays as part of a youth theatre festival aimed at reviving one of the UAE's oldest forms of performing art. The youngest and most shy of my actor friends put on a particularly intense performance as a patriotic soldier; he completely fooled me into thinking it was a side of himself that he'd kept hidden. But that is the beauty of the theatre - to be live on stage, within touching distance of the audience. There is no comparison between school plays and professional ones, of course, but nevertheless there is something to be said for allowing youngsters to explore their inner selves by trying on different hats, playing out different roles and seeing which one strikes a chord with them.

I will never forget the time we staged a performance of that all-time favourite musical, The Sound of Music. We practised, but we didn't really understand what we were singing as our English wasn't great then (Do-Re-Mi? What was that all about?), and the nuns were transformed into strangely dressed "Islamic teachers". We were aged 11 and 12, and never had a singing coach; we just drove our families mad by rehearsing at home.

"Who is slaughtering goats in here?" my friend's father called out from upstairs when he heard a group of us trying to hit the high notes. It was hilarious. It didn't matter if you were the first in class, the daughter of a minister, or even a royal, we were all equal on the stage, where you are judged on your performance and not your social status. Needless to say, the performance was a disaster. To this day my mother loves to remind me that I was "the cutest little mountain goat". This is a reference to the unfortunate incident during one of the dance scenes, when I over-shot a jump - and landed in the arms of some startled mothers in the front row.

And while technically not a play, one of our proudest moments was dancing on stage to Michael Jackson's Smooth Criminal, where we mixed traditional steps with pathetic attempts at some of Jacko's moves. Dressed in black outfits with red berets, we tried our best - but I doubt if it looked as good as it felt. I am sure most people have tried their hand at some form of performing art, but unless there is a system in place that nurtures these attempts, nothing really comes of them except nice memories.

A group of us once tried to make a short film in real time, long before that technique became mainstream. We pretended that a public setting was the "stage". I used to volunteer at a public hospital in Jeddah, and my friend, another volunteer, used a hidden camera to record me at work. I was in the reception area when an elderly man with a newly dyed orange beard came in and told me his wife was having a baby. When I tried to write down information about his family, such as the number of children, the old man couldn't remember how many children he had. But in the middle of our conversation he did remember one very important thing: he had left his pet goat in the back of his pick-up and he was worried that it might be getting overheated. So he excused himself and left to keep the goat company while his wife gave birth.

Seriously, who needs the theatre? All the world's a stage for the best kind of entertainment - and it's free. rghazal@thenational.ae