it's the day after the opening ceremony.
jet lag is wicked. couldn't sleep until 7am. got up at noon. at breakfast i chat with my server - Moses from western uganda. i tell him i have a couple of good friends in Uganda, and like the country a lot. so does Moses. he loves his country ("it's too hot here in UAE"). we chat ugandan politics a little - which can be a dangerous topic - but we soon discover a shared opinion. he is from the same ethnic background as president museveni - which, he says, unfortunately makes him a target these days for other ugandans who are fed up with this president.
our conversation then moves on to his job in the UAE. moses speaks of the staff at the hotel: "most are from the phillipines. there are only two of us (ugandans). there are others from nigeria, zimbabwe, ethiopia, one rwandan."
Moses has lived here 1 year 9 months. he moved from dubai to fujairah after a year "to hide out". he was spending too much money in dubai, and dancing too much. "here, it's quieter". he lives away from the hotel complex: "too many CCTV cameras". life is better farther away. he likes the job, though. he speaks of how you need to smile in the hospitality business, and that smiling is good for you. so if you like to smile anyway - which he does - it's a good job. if you don't, he suggests boxing (!). Moses also speaks of the many CID (undercover police) in the UAE - "always checking for your labour card". it's easy to get a visa through the hotel, though, he says - "you just have to pass the medical. as an individual it's much harder. unless you are arab."
Off to the Theatre:
later, on the bus to the first show of the festival, i sit beside an actress from Dubai. this is actually the first arab theatre artist i've been able to chat with. she speaks about a recent show she did in Dibba - which is the town we are now driving to. i ask her about funding in the UAE. she says a sponsor is essential. there is government funding, but the government only really kicks in if you already have a sponsor: a philanthropist, a sheik, or any a rich person who is interested in theatre. in her case, the sponsor was the same man who directs the Monodrama Festival i'm here for.
we get off the bus, and go to the "lobby" - which is an outdoor area with tables and couches and carpets and water pipes, under a setting sun beside the mosque. there are stacks of fruit on plates. i taste an entirely new-to-me fruit offered by a bulgarian woman (who works for the International Theatre Institute in Paris). i've never seen anything like it, and have no idea what it's called. a thick brown/red skin with white, watery segments inside. it's delicious.
Show Number One:
the show isn't quite up to the level of the fruit. we see "Finding Aziza Suleiman", from UAE. i've skimmed through the script in english, so i know what's happening (there is no simultaneous translation). it's a decent script: an old woman who was a film/theatre star is ending her life alone, in a residence, after an accident. her birth name was Aziza Suleiman, and she gave up that name for a career in show biz. the play examines the trap of fame, and the potential loss of self.
but the production is bizarre. the actress (a TV star) is far too young for the part, and her performance is not remotely embodied: sometimes she limps, sometimes not, and there is much hand waving. the set is at a high school level. the direction is very pedestrian. most amazing to me is the audience. they are present, to say the least: cell phones ring constantly (at least three of the ring tones are calls to prayer), and the calls are answered (by men - i hear no women's voices). many cameras go off - complete with flashes. many other people shush the noise makers. it's chaotic, and the show doesn't seem to hold this group. but then - there is an instant standing ovation.
The Haley McGee Effect:
after the show, i chat with a theatre artist from Tunisia: Meher Awachri. it's a far ranging talk about politics in Tunisia, and the difficulty for young Tunisian artists to intersect with the Euro/American theatre complex - whose methods for finding shows favour older, less-interesting, more-established groups (such as we've just seen, for example). but then we discover we both know Canadian performer Haley McGee. he LOVES Haley (i'm working with her on a show back in Toronto, and i do too). they both won prizes at a festival in Kiel, Germany. And then, i discover, more and more people seem to know Haley here: some theatre people from Kosovo, some theatre people from London: "We LOVE Haley".
Haley McGee is now Global (seen above with Paul Braunstein in rehearsal for Infinity, by Hannah Moscovitch, for Volcano, in Toronto).
Haley McGee - Canada's best ambassador to the world.
Haley McGee - Canada's best ambassador to the world.
Show Number Two:
the second show of the evening is a complete contrast. the show is "Maya", from Mosaic Theatre in Algeria. the performer is fantastic - Janati Suad - she is able to bend the unsettled audience to her will. the cell phone use declines (somewhat), although there is still flash photography. but now - there is the sense of an entire audience paying attention: laughter, bursts of applause, people voicing appreciation. from what i can gather, the show is the story of an Algerian woman who goes to Spain to learn to dance flamenco, holds a series of jobs, and faces all kinds of hardship and discrimination. the performer is virtuosic - she can dance, sing and slides in and out of many characters, many voices, many bodies. the tech side is still not good - light cues are on zero counts, and the sound levels are all over the place - often drowning out the performer. in spite of this, though, the performer remains effortlessly in charge. and there is another standing ovation.
i spoke with one of the team for "Maya" afterwards, her producer, i think. they are looking for ways to get the show into the wider world, outside of the arab world. but they have no contacts. she wondered if i knew any translators. "from Arabic?" i said. "I have absolutely no idea". they are desperate to make some surtitles. i hope they succeed. we exchange information, and she asks me to talk about the show to others. voila.
a few minutes later, i have a long chat in the parking lot with a man named Mohammed. he is hilarious. very diplomatically, and with great humour, he states his opinion of the two shows: first one thumbs down, second one thumbs up. Mohammed was an actor himself. he is now 28 and a policeman (although he is taking time off to see the festival). he has a very dry delivery, and a twinkle in his eye. i ask him how one goes from actor to policeman in the UAE. he says it's a long story. i say i have the time.
essentially, we was an actor in his teen years and loved it. he toured the region, won awards, and discovered a calling. his family said no. here (as in so many places among so many parents), the theatre is not an approved career. his choices were business, law, or the police. he didn't really want to do any of these, but obeyed his family. he went off to London for a degree in management, then to Dubai for a masters. he could find no work ("they all said: you have no experience!"). the police force, however, took one look at his masters degree and offered him a job ("with two stars" , he said, pointing at his shoulder). i asked if he liked being a policeman. he instantly shrugged, "no". "why not?", i asked. he said, "they're all so tough. me, i'm not tough". then he added, "well. i'm tough now". but he says the police are a very good employer - they look after their workers well. i said he should write a TV show for himself, and play a policeman. given his humour, i said it should be a comedy. he laughed. "a comedy?!", he said. "that wouldn't go over well with the police".