Shakespeare in the sands: Dubai’s desert drama

As a playwright whose work was once used to lift the spirits of trapped Chilean miners, the power of the spoken word certainly isn’t lost on Alex Broun.

Now the man recognized as probably the world’s most prolific writer of 10-minute plays is looking to get his adopted home more acquainted with the magic of professional theater.

The versatile Australian, once described as the “Shakespeare of short plays,” is in confident form having recently concluded the third and most successful edition of the Short+Sweet theater festival in Dubai.

Broun imported the initiative from Sydney where he helped to establish what has evolved into the world’s largest 10-minute theater festival.

He also has significant plans for performing arts in the Middle East metropolis where acting, script writing and theater direction aren’t currently recognized as professions for which an expat can secure a visa.

Not surprisingly, that means much frustrated talent in a cosmopolitan city graced with its share of would-be thespians and an audience chiefly serviced by international touring productions of varying quality.

Broun is busy planning something of a revolution on both sides of the curtain.

“We have this obsession in Dubai with bringing in things from outside,” says Broun, who is a big critic of the standard of some international touring productions offered to audiences.

“Economically and artistically it doesn’t make sense.

“There are not a lot of professional actors, writers or directors in Dubai, but we need to try to get producers to understand that there is a lot of local talent and try to use that.”

Culture and talent

The man whose “10,000 Cigarettes” play is said to have been used to entertain the Chilean miners trapped underground for several weeks in 2010, believes stronger theater could burnish Dubai’s appeal to visitors.

“If a tourist is coming to Dubai, why sit in a theater and watch a second rate something which they can see in New York or London? Is that the best option, to have re-runs of overseas productions?

“We have a culture in the theater of importing. Wouldn’t it be absolutely extraordinary if something created here could be exported?

“I believe Dubai has the culture and the talent to do that.”

To facilitate his aims, Broun has formed a new company, Constellation, that seeks to nurture Dubai’s professional side while working with the authorities to have crucial theater skills officially recognized.

Topping the agenda is the staging of a lavish open-air opera production in the desert, possibly this fall or early 2016, and producing open-air Shakespeare in the emirate.

All with a majority locally harvested cast.

“For Shakespeare we may bring a couple of headline stars in,” says the 49-year-old, whose own early acting experience was in Australian youth theater alongside a young Nicole Kidman.

‘Raw theater’

Prolific playwright: Alex Broun.

“For opera we might bring in one or two singers and maybe a conductor, but we’re going to try going 95% with local people; local designers, lighting, technicians.

“One thing Dubai has is extraordinary weather and outdoor Shakespeare is one of the most popular forms of theater in the world. Tourists and local people would enjoy it.

“The questions now are economic ones.

“We have to put on something extraordinary. We have to prove we can do something, using people based in Dubai, that is just as good as something you’ll see at Singapore Repertory Theatre or a touring company in the UK.”

Coming after the most successful Dubai edition of Short+Sweet, in which playwrights, directors and producers submit and have their work performed to paying audiences, Broun is filled with belief.

This year the festival featured 70 plays, showcasing 250 writers, actors and directors from 50 nationalities, submitted from Dubai and beyond.

“Ten-minute theater captures the imagination of a younger theater-going crowd,” explains Broun.

“The challenge is you’ve got to jump straight into the middle of it. Grab the attention in the first one or two minutes and you need to take an audience on a journey, an escalation, and move toward a climax.

“It’s a great format to learn your craft. It’s raw theater.

“When I started Short+Sweet here someone told me I wouldn’t get 10 plays, but in the first year I put on 50, the second year 60; next year we’ll have to go to 80.”

As a globally celebrated master of the 10-minute play — Broun says that at any one time someone somewhere in the world is rehearsing or performing one of his plays — he knows where that can lead.

Venue shortage

“Dubai, after all, is a place where people get a new chance and the same philosophy should follow in theater,” says the restless writer, who wants to involve both Emirati and expat talent in future shows.

As artistic director of Constellation, Broun intends to use major outdoor productions as a banner initiative that will lay a “pathway” to those aspiring a theater industry career.

If Short+Sweet is a hint of future success, Broun could be on to something.

He helped shape the festival created in Sydney in 2002, initially as a writer and director, later as artistic coordinator, and has seen it expand to 20 cities, in six countries.

It’s now arguably the largest producer of playwrights in the world.

Broun took Short+Sweet to Dubai following a city break from running a version in Bangalore, India.

“Putting on that first festival here was the toughest thing I’ve ever done. The costs make it extremely challenging.

“I’ve done theater festivals all over the world and Dubai is the most expensive place in the world to put on theater due to the massive shortage of venues.

“Hopefully that is something that can change.”

Broun says there’s some official support for this, particularly from the emirate’s arts and entertainment body, Dubai Culture.

“Look at what the Emirates Literary Festival has done for literature; what Dubai International Film Festival has done for film, the visual arts are very strong.

“There’s awareness that something needs to happen with theater and there is passion for it.

“The plan is a big one and some will say it can’t be done. But I’ve been in the industry for over 20 years and I’m not interested in pipe dreams, I’m interested in what can be reality.”

David Dunn is a freelance writer and photographer currently based in Dubai from where he covers travel and the arts. He was born in the UK where he worked for regional titles in news and features roles, including writing extensively about music, theater and travel.

A poster created by graphic artist Clare Napper.Skydiver Jarrett Martin

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