Eventnewsdxb recently caught up with Art For All founder and director Rania Ashur, for a quick one on one about all things theatre in Dubai.
When Rania Ashur moved to Dubai in 1998, family theatre was virtually non-existent. Now, 15 years on from the start of Art For All and countless performances, those initial efforts have reached tens of thousands of children and students throughout the Middle East. Most recently Rania and her team were responsible for bringing ‘Horrible Histories’ back to Dubai and which played for 2 sell-out nights at the Madinat Theatre.
We asked her a few questions about Art For All as well as the current theatre scene here in the UAE…
How did Art For All begin life?
So how did we begin? Well, it was in 2002 that I first envisionedÂ Art for All as a way to fill the â€˜artistic and culturalâ€™ void for children living in Dubai. As a mother, Iâ€™d found live theatre a particularly effective medium in engaging my own children and their friends â€“ so decided it was high time the UAE was able to offer itâ€™s younger generation the joys and excitement that only a trip to a live stage show can bring. And so,Â Art For AllÂ was born.
Why do you think live theatre is so important for children?
Children need to be able to sit, focus and appreciate traditional storytelling, and thatâ€™s becoming more of a challenge as they rely more on video games and devices for entertainment. Art for All is trying to address that, and most of our shows are based on books or well-known plays, helping the children understand the plots from literary classics by Shakespeare or Roald Dahl. Children can also remember facts and relate better to certain subjects because of shows such as Ministry of Science Live or Horrible Histories, and enjoying the show encourages children to read. In todayâ€™s crazy and violent environment, performing art can inspire and engage children in such a positive manner.
How much planning goes into putting on a show of this nature?
It takes months of planning to host an international theatrical show here in the UAE. So much depends on the tour dates the company has available and which openings the theatres have in the UAE. All our shows are brought with schools and the curriculum in mind too â€“ so that limits our options as we are guided by the semesters and breaks. It takes a lot of coordination every time to fly out cast and crew. Sometimes the sets are too elaborate to transport to the UAE, so we have them built here. We did this for the set of Fantastic Mr Fox in 2017.
How do you decide which shows to put on?
We bring shows that are page-to-stage adaptations of bestselling childrenâ€™s books. We do this because our motivating philosophy is about education and literacy. Children spend so much time in front of electronics and it gets harder and harder to help them appreciate the joys of sitting quietly and reading. Our shows bring those â€˜first reader favouritesâ€™ to life on stage. This really helps teachers because they are using those books to encourage kids to take an interest in reading. The most crucial age for encouraging reading practice and literacy is three to eight years. If children develop a love of reading by the time they are eight, they will never ever lose it and it will help them so much in life.
How important is sponsorship in being able to stage these shows?
Sponsorship is very important because we are not in the business of huge profits. We bring these shows because we really believe they help childrenâ€™s education and make teacherâ€™s jobs that little bit easier. Sponsorship (if we manage to get it) helps to promote our public shows, which we put on the weekend following a number of performances for schools. This allows us to sell the tickets to schools at a much more reduced rate so that more children can come to the theatre. Unfortunately, it is very difficult to get sponsors for our shows. It would be very helpful to get either subsidies or sponsors as that will help us to bring bigger productions. It is difficult to bring the very big shows as the audience is quite limited and usually big shows will run for weeks. We will bring a production to the UAE for a week only.
Whatâ€™s the hardest element in staging these shows?
Timing is challenging â€“ and so is picking the right show. There are some brilliant productions available, but they are not always suited to the very multicultural audiences in the UAE. Thatâ€™s why we work closely with the schools, so that we are aware of the books they are using in the classroom. We do our best to match the shows with those.
Whatâ€™s your favourite part about putting on these shows?
The sheer joy live theatre brings to children who have never experienced it before. They absolutely immerse themselves in the drama on stage. As the productions we bring are always highly interactive, the audience becomes part of that show. Children are very willing to suspend their disbelief and enter into the spirit of the performances. Children are also incredibly honest. They donâ€™t hold back when they love a show. Equally â€“ you definitely know when they donâ€™t like it too! Thankfully weâ€™ve very rarely had negative reactions about our shows.
Why donâ€™t we see more (overseas) theatre performances in Dubai?
We do see quite a lot of international shows these days â€“ especially now we have Dubai Opera. But the theatrical industry in the UAE is immature. Art For All started bringing shows 13 years ago â€“ and we were the very first company to do so. There were no official public theatres back then. Our first show was held in an auditorium at Knowledge Village and all the children had to sit on the floor. They had never experienced live theatre before â€“ the show was a big hit.
Ductac closed last year, Madinat is scheduled to close this year – how do you see the future of theatre here in Dubai?
None of us really knows what is happening with the future of theatre in the UAE. But this is a very optimistic place where new opportunities open all the time â€“ just when you least expect them to. We also have Dubai Opera which is going from strength to strength. And we have lots of schools filled with enthusiastic teachers and children who love going to see our live shows. I think we can be positive about the future. There is a huge progress in the performing art scene. Look at the number of drama schools springing up. The problem now is to make sure there are smaller theatres that can cater for the community and small to medium shows. Time will tell.
Keep up to date with all upcoming Art For All performances.