Art For All founder Rania Kuzbari Ashur on what inspired her and the efforts it took to establish the emirates as a hub for performance arts.
Nowadays, audiences in the UAE seem to be spoilt for choice when it comes to live performance arts, whether it is a theatre production, a ballet performance or musical concerts. These may be exclusively for babies and young children, pupils, adults, or may be something that appeals to a spectrum of the Emirati and expatriate communities.
These high-quality local and international performances are offered by various organisations, such as the Abu Dhabi Music and Arts Foundation in the capital, and Art For All — which recently brought in the award-winning ‘The Play That Goes Wrong’ (which is exactly what the title suggests) — to the Madinat Theatre in the Souk Madinat Jumeirah and Abu Dhabi Theatre from June 5 to June 9.
Even though it is known more for child-friendly performances such as the “Horrible Histories” series and “Hetty Feather” — the critically acclaimed children’s musical — the prospect of bringing something different was too tempting to resist for its founder, Rania Kuzbari Ashur.
“I’ve always enjoyed seeing children’s expressions during any of the shows we bring, but as a lifetime theatre lover, I also wanted to include fellow adult theatre lovers. I’m quite pleased that audiences had such a great time while watching ‘The Play That Goes Wrong’. In fact, I have been told that drama students watched it as a sort of case study!” said Ashur, a British citizen of Syrian origin.
She noted that, compared to when Art for All was established in 2004, many international companies were more willing to come and perform in the UAE as the country’s reputation continued to grow over the years.
“It was one of our biggest challenges. For many of the groups we approached, the region was still not very well known from a performance perspective … not like today at all. In those days, Dubai was quite an exotic location … we were so pleased that the Birmingham Stage Company agreed to come. Since then, we’ve enjoyed a great relationship that grows stronger each year. We’re also proud to be partnered with the Globe Education, which stages Shakespeare’s plays in a unique way,” Ashur said
That sentiment was echoed by Henry Lewis, one of the writers of “The Play That Goes Wrong”, and an ensemble member of its comedy production group, Mischief Theatre.
“It was our first trip … and it was a really great trip, quite a different culture and way of working, really fascinating to experience. I very much hope we get the chance again,” he said.
Lewis added: “It was the first time we have worked together. We met them through our producer Kenny Wax who has brought lots of other shows over to the UAE with Art for All before. It all ran very smoothly and it’s great to see a company bringing theatre over to the Middle East as there doesn’t seem to be much of it around.”
Ashur noted that for theatre-based organisations and promoters, some of the main challenges they continue to face are the lack of adequate places to stage productions, especially large scale international ones.
“I hope that more professional theatres will be established … but it’s much better than before. I remember when I brought my first show by the Birmingham Stage Company — it had to be staged in Knowledge Village,” she said.
Ashur said her decision to establish Art for All came about from her desire to provide her daughter — then a young child — and her friends with avenues that entertained and educated them.
“Coming from London, which has a lot of child-friendly places and events that I could take my two sons to, I didn’t want my daughter and her friends to miss out on such wonderful experiences. Back then, children’s entertainment was mostly limited to what was available in shopping malls,” she said.
“Now, I’m so pleased that we are able to continue attracting large audiences to the shows we bring, which encourages them to return and attracts similar shows to the UAE. So many parents have come up to me asking for more shows, including those for teenagers, which motivates them to step away for a bit from their technological addictions,” she added.
Lewis noted that to first generate interest and then sustain it, production groups are always striving to capture audiences’ attention through various means. These include great scripts, sets, performances and directions, in addition to constantly tweaking or updating shows in one way or another.
“There are always new surprises in every show, reactions differ slightly wherever we go and different places find different things funny. Some places like the wordier bits, some the more physical bits, but its always a joy to come to a new place and present the show for a new audience,” he said.
Ashur also pointed out that the country is exploring its cultural potential more deeply, which is evident from the successful exhibitions and events being organised across the UAE, which is driving interest into such avenues.
“Culture is very important. Nowadays everyone is interested in organising or attending arts and cultural events and I feel this is somewhat reinforced through all the interest in the museums being developed on Saadiyat. However, it feels like it’s mostly for art pieces and artefacts, or for major shows such as ballet or opera. I hope that one day all of the different genres and niches within the performance arts world gets the same recognition,” she said.
Ashur observed that while great attention was being given to bringing international tours and performances, more should be done to encourage and foster local talent. However, this should be done in a harmonious manner that would benefit everyone involved.
“There are many local theatre groups that are staging performances here. Several are well-established so are able to bring in audiences but for others, including fledgling ones, it can be a bit tricky to raise awareness. That’s what I think is mainly missing here, especially from the media’s side. But it shouldn’t just be to inform the public, the media should also review shows, whether local or international, so that we know if we’re doing fine or if anything should change,” she said.
When asked by Weekend Review whether organisations such as Art for All should join forces with local groups to bolster awareness, Ashur said: “That hasn’t really been explored. We each have our niches that we tend to focus on. We don’t step on each other’s territories, so to speak.”
In addition, while there is a constant influx of Arabic stars heading to the UAE to entertain their fans, Ashur noted that there aren’t a lot of Arabic productions being staged. To address that, she is at present searching for a play that Art for All could bring to the country, whether specifically for children, adults or for all ages.
“As someone with an Arabian heritage, I really want to re-connect to that part of me while also meeting the expectations of those who’ve already seen the English plays we’ve brought over. I’m searching for a play that I think will be successful here, which is a bit tricky, mainly given that I want to stage a children’s play,” she said.
“Along with the shows, we have started branching out a bit with things like activities and workshops, one of which is Baby Mozart, which we are bringing in collaboration with Sydney Opera House. It should be great fun. We’re also bring more adult plays, such as ‘Les Eaux Profondes’, a French play about breast cancer that will run in October,” she added.
Ashur noted that while small promoters such as Art for All — which is made up of Ashur, three other members and a technical director now based in London — can offset the cost of bringing international troupes to Dubai as a result of government subsidies, she hopes one day to be able to bring some of the larger West End shows.
“It’s a dream for me to bring shows such as ‘War Horse’ and ‘Matilda’ to the UAE. They are such amazing plays that have captured the hearts of everyone who has seen them. I am sure that people here will also enjoy them immensely. I really hope that we will be able to do that in the next few years,” she said.
Until then, UAE residents can continue enjoying the array of art, cultural and entertainment events that take place around the year, including the those that go on through the summer months. But even as people flock to such events, theatre groups and promoters are hard at work, planning shows and ensuring that everything is ready to guarantee their overall success.
“Technically, we don’t really take breaks as there’s always something to do — whether it’s scheduling shows or finalising details ahead of our new schedule, which kicks off in October. But it’s still nice that we can enjoy this time, before everything grows hectic again,” Ashur said.