As I sneak into Ductac’s Kilachand studio to spy on the rehearsal of the Dubai production of Sweeney Todd, I’m met with a scene reminiscent of my high-school days. A sea of teens stare back at me with varying degrees of enthusiasm, their expressions veering between distracted and intensely focused. ‘At the moment it looks a bit like Michael Jackson’s Thriller,’ shouts the man running the show, Joseph Fowler, aka Ductac’s general manager and the show’s director. ‘There’s no need to look dead – you need to look like real people, not zombies.’ I’ve popped in to watch the locally based cast rehearse before the arrival of the West End performers who will take the starring roles. At the moment, tension is high as Fowler and his crew work to whip the 45-person ensemble into shape. Each performer has paid Dhs1,750 to take part in the show: the cost includes a 28-day intensive theatrical course and plenty of rehearsals to make sure everyone is note- and word-perfect.
I take a seat at the front of the room alongside assistant director Edward Prophet, and within moments I notice the cast slyly looking at me. The glimmer of hope that they might be ‘discovered’ – a dream ingrained in most amateur performing artists – is written over their faces, and it’s making me slightly uncomfortable.
I can see their brains ticking over, wondering whether I’m a talent scout looking for the next Broadway megastar. But between shouted orders from Fowler and signals from Prophet, the cast once again relax into the task at hand.
It’s apparent that Fowler, a Brit who spent ten years as the resident director at Paris’s Theatre du Chatelet, has a knack for this business. ‘You’re not weirdos, you’re normal people!’ he proclaims with a coach’s demeanour. Fowler rattles off each of the cast’s names without missing a beat, and his playful yet stern style of directing sits well: when he speaks, they listen. But this is not a one-man show. Prophet is holding a threateningly large folder of notes and what look like floor plans, scribbling the names of cast members on the page as Fowler positions each.
‘The tendency was to bring people from abroad to take the main roles in Dubai projects,’ Fowler explains. ‘I’ve tried very hard to introduce more locally based talent. Our ensemble live here and range in age from 12 years upwards. This time, four of our lead performers also live in Dubai, which is something I’m particularly proud of.’
Backstage, 30-year-old Dubai-based Scot Pauline Milroy, who plays the part of Joanna, is getting fitted for her costume. Earlier in the rehearsal she arrives on set comparatively dolled up, as only a starlet would. Fowler has brought in some top-tier dressmakers in the form of French ateliers Emma Perreaux (Bel Ami, Coco Before Chanel) and wigmaker Bruno Fuscien-Trasan. ‘What I’ve set up for Sweeney Todd is to have, for the first time, our own costume atelier actually in the building working in close collaboration with Esmod [the French Fashion Institute]. Our whole production is dressed as it would be in an opera house,’ he says.
Back in the studio, the all-Filipino Dubai Vocal Ensemble choir has joined the cast and is singing the lyrics to ‘God, that’s Good’ from songsheets on iPads and tablets as the cast leap around a table singing ‘more hot pies’. By the end of the rehearsal I’m impressed, though Fowler is not yet convinced. ‘Don’t clap yourselves – it wasn’t that good,’ he smiles. Sweeney Todd is on April 10-13 at 8pm at Ductac, Mall of the Emirates. Tickets Dhs130-Dhs175 at www.ductac.org (04 341 4777).
Local theatre: What’s going on backstage?
Three insiders from Dubai’s amateur and professional theatre scene share the challenges they face, and reveal what it takes to produce a show.
Late last month, British actor Jude Law appeared at the opening of Dubai’s newest modern theatre and nightspot The Act Dubai. While the venue itself is not exclusive to our city (it’s already established on the international circuit with an outlet in Las Vegas, and spin-off venue The Box in both London and New York), the revelation that local performers will be part of the regular weekly line-up is further proof that Dubai’s own theatre scene is gaining momentum.
‘The local scene has really grown in the past few years,’ says Gautam Goenka, president of Dubai-based community theatre group Backstage, whose production of A Few Good Men was shortlisted for a Time Out Music and Nightlife Award this year. ‘Until three years ago, I used to struggle to get 20 actors to audition over a weekend. Now we get more than 70 per audition and the competition is tough.’
While in the past the trend has been to import talent from abroad, Goenka says there has been a push to localise productions. Last month, Ductac hosted the Short+Sweet Dubai 2013 festival of 10-minute plays, an event originally founded in Australia in 2002 and now an international brand. The creative festival brought together more than 50 local directors and 200 local actors. ‘This event alone was a reflection of how much theatre has grown in Dubai,’ says Goenka. ‘The past two years have been a treat in terms of the quantity and quality of local productions.’
At present, the majority of Dubai’s professional theatre productions are held at one of two major venues: the Madinat Theatre or Ductac at Mall of the Emirates. In the past year alone, they have staged productions including Cats, Under African Skies, Whose Line Is It Anyway? and Swan Lake. Yet insiders agree that more attention on the arts is needed to boost amateur theatre companies and take Dubai-based productions to the world stage. ‘The message I’m constantly trying to get across is the importance of funding the arts,’ says Ductac general manager Joseph Fowler. ‘The arts is a huge tourist attraction, it’s an incredible asset for a destination such as Dubai. My dream would be to create the Dubai National Theatre and have a resident dance company, because then those companies would talk to each other and go elsewhere and they the flag.’
Madinat Theatre manager Bernadette Scott believes the answer lies in the development of arts and culture schools, where artists can specialise in a range of performing arts.
‘The talent in Dubai is very good, but there is a limited amount of experience in the theatre production industry to stage and direct local productions,’ she explains. ‘There is a large base of talented youths and adults in the community with a lack of any outlet.’
Goenka agrees. ‘I think the first thing local theatre in Dubai requires is a home. There is a serious shortage of venues where groups can perform, and when certain places are available, they are just too expensive. Several venues claim to be supportive of community theatre, but in reality this is not always the case. I know that most groups struggle with getting a proper venue.’
When those companies do find the right venue, many months are spent working towards the final product. ‘What you see on stage is the tip of the iceberg,’ says Goenka. ‘The larger body of the production team remains unseen. A simple equation I use is to consider the production team as double the number of actors. This means that the overall team can be anywhere upwards of 25 or 30 people. A good full-length production, in my experience, should take at least four to five months from the point of auditions. There is a lot of planning involved and this requires time.’
Meanwhile, Ductac has its own local success story. ‘We had an Emirati national from last year who is now in Canada on a full-time theatre course as a result of being part of our local production of Cats, working and building the set,’ says Fowler. ‘There is a lot of very good locally based talent. It’s just a question of tapping into it.’
Dubai’s theatre directors reveal which three productions they’d like to stage here Gautam Goenka, Backstage Les Misérables The King’s Speech Jersey Boys
Bernadette Scott, Madinat Theatre Phantom of the Opera Beauty and the Beast Dirty Dancing
Joseph Fowler, Ductac Phantom of the Opera Agatha Christie A bilingual Shakespeare