Dubai’s Ductac: a cultural oasis in the Middle East
British companies are highly visible across the globe for their contribution to creating today’s rapidly expanding international touring circuit, where not only a high proportion of productions but also the venues that put them on are British-made. One such stopping-off point on the circuit is Ductac – the Dubai Community Theatre and Arts Centre. Founded in 2006 in the United Arab Emirates, it has rapidly established its place as the final piece in the jigsaw that allows UK theatre to travel smoothly through Europe on to India, Singapore, Hong Kong, Australia and New Zealand.
The arts landscape in the region reflects its economics, says Ductac’s programme director Elizabeth Crowder: “Dubai has changed massively over the past decade and theatre is part of that change. Before almost anything went but now people will not accept less than quality theatre. This can take many shapes because there isn’t so much investment in local actors and productions, so theatre is almost all brought in. That makes Dubai in particular and the United Arab Emirates in general such a key stop-off for touring, and it’s the UK that dominates with productions like Potted Potter, Hettie Feather, Happy Birthday Sunita and The Tiger Who Came to Tea.”
Ductac is the Middle East’s first not-for-profit theatre and arts centre, founded on a British model, and operates as a receiving house, with a programming team working with promoters to bring theatre and art events from across the region and the world. It is sustained on ticket sales, facility hires and sponsorship support. Although it is an independent entity, it is sited in Dubai’s Mall of the Emirates, a massive shopping centre that houses other Brit favourites such as Debenhams and Harvey Nichols.
Ductac’s beginnings as a community centre have remained core to its organisation and ideals, enabling it to programme quality theatre for an unusual and constantly shifting demographic. Its spaces are the main house 543-seater Centrepoint and the Kilachand studio, which features moveable raked seating of 150 seats. There are three dance studios, a balcony lounge, and an arts centre comprising the Gallery of Light and 14 craft studios. The venue also hosts organisations such as Francophone promoter Culture Emulsion, Kids’ Theatre Works! and Drama Scene which offers classes to young children and teenagers.
This concentration of facilities creates a useful, broad revenue base and is unique not only in the Emirates but also the wider region. Theatre-wise, the larger, glitzy shows tend to go to the other big venue in this part of the Emirates, the Madinat Theatre, which forms part of the huge Madinat Jumeirah resort complex and boasts an indoor theatre, outdoor amphitheatre and arena/conference centre.
Working out that sort of balance is crucial to Dubai’s success, says Crowder: “One of the biggest things that I learned here is that long-running shows can’t work. Big budget blockbusters are certainly too expensive to ship for a Ductac performance, while the shorter runs need to be based on variety, especially because we’re tapping into different nationalities. In many ways, what is needed is variety from the same quality companies.”
The majority of the shows at Ductac are brought in from outside promoters, although for the 2015/16 season, the venue will turn promoter, bringing in its first show Arabian Nights from the UK’s Story Pocket Theatre. The venue also works closely with promoter Art for All, which brings productions from the UK and globally, while Culture Emulsion recently put on a week of French events that included comedy and theatre.
The annual programme actively responds to Dubai’s diversity. With all the different nationalities and languages, Ductac puts on Indian and Sri Lankan acts, Palestinian dramas, along with shows for the Chinese, Persian and French-speaking communities. Ductac is also part of the Short and Sweet global festival network and hosts a lot of community theatre throughout the year.
Tribute acts, however, are firmly not on the agenda, says Crowder, who explains she is looking for “anything with a twist”, with recent successes including Othello: The Remix from the Q Brothers, and comic Trevor Noah, who did one of his last stand-up gigs at Ductac before taking on The Daily Show.
As is the case for many Anglo-focused international theatres, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe is an important resource for Ductac, which is where Crowder spotted Story Pocket Theatre’s Arabian Nights last year. “That’s a no-brainer. We have a large number of children’s shows – there’s no established drama education in Dubai and so for kids to come to the shows is a great way of learning too. We want something a little bit light-hearted, something a little bit educational, and the UK does this sort of show really very well.”
The theatre season runs from September to around May – it changes yearly due to the shifting month of Ramadan, which for 2015 falls in mid-June. During Ramadan there are no live performances across the Emirates, and Ductac concentrates on holding summer camps in the venue with the stages pretty much shut. Between June, July and August the summer heat intensifies to such a level that “people just disappear”, says Crowder. Things also grow quiet around December and January when many expats go home for the holidays.
Ductac’s growth reflects the increasing focus on the arts across the Emirates. In Sharjah the Kevin Spacey Foundation recently put on Home Grown, a joint project with the Middle East Theatre Academy for actors from the Arabic-speaking world. Meanwhile, the biennial Fujairah International Monodrama Festival has made its own impact on the world festival map. And 2016 sees the opening of a new venue, the Dubai Opera, whose planned 2,000-seat auditorium is guaranteed to up the culture stakes.
The big thing this year is ticketing. The government implemented a new strategy throughout the Emirates by introducing laws to ensure that transactions go online and that tickets are only offered through specified channels. Tickets previously could be sold through any outlet and were hard to track, particularly from a tax point of view, and the new system is not only well regulated but also well received.
This has proved a catalyst for Ductac, says Crowder. “Dubai has quickly caught up in terms of the internet. We’ve concentrated on going online and, aside from the revenue benefit for us, our presence has hugely increased. The government brought in the Softix platform, from Australia, to work with e-ticketing, and set up the portal, and the equipment we bought to make it work has proved to be a worthwhile investment. Another area where things have radically changed is the system of applying for government permissions to put on shows. This has all gone online now and saves a huge amount of time since we can do it all in house.
“The government here is very on-board and is seen to be investing in the performing arts. This obviously helps our vision to attract companies to come over here and to have a good experience. Dubai is great for stop-offs, especially world tours, but it’s also a great place for any small company wanting to make their name. Remember, there’s far more visibility here than in London where there’s a theatre on every corner.”