"Pain plus time is comedy, so we know that this struggle will make us stronger comedians and in turn help others laugh....and heal.” — Mina Liccione
“The show must go on”, or so the saying goes. But what happens when the world is overrun by a global pandemic, shuttering businesses and schools as people flock to the safety of their homes leaving the show, quite literally, unable to go on?
The lullaby of Broadway faded into silence as the world-renowned performing hub in New York City closed its doors, leaving actors, musicians, directors, stage crews, ushers, and so many more unemployed overnight. The same closures in London’s famous West End echoed resoundingly through the empty streets, as there was no ‘business’ in ‘show business’ any longer.
And our own national treasures, like the Dubai Opera and La Perle, were also forced to hang up their hats, turn off the lights, and leave their stages barren.
Performing artist, comedian, and Dubai stage icon Mina Liccione, tells Savoir Flair, “At first it was really scary, because literally four months of shows, gigs, and even our European Comedy Tour and run at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival were all cancelled. My husband and I are both comedians, so within a flash, both of our incomes and beloved projects were gone.”
Artists are essential for any culture to thrive and grow. As His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum established when he launched a new long-term resident visa for artists as part of his new ‘cultural vision’ last year, a city’s mark on history is inseparably linked to the arts.
Think about what we cherish in our own diverse cultures from around the world. A painting that can tell an entire story from our past in a moment’s glance. Plays that have been handed down from generation to generation, reminding us of our ancient history and teaching us how we can learn from our predecessors. And music from around the world spanning a multitude of styles that has the power to cross any barriers of space, time, and language to share a human experience with a chromatic scale.
For the performing arts and artists, their role in society is not merely for entertainment, although that is a value in and of itself for the masses. Many artists see their job as a means for themselves and their audiences to process their circumstances, relationships, and lives through interaction or observation of various art forms. Acrobats, such as the performers in Franco Dragone‘s La Perle, while performing gravity-defying stunts and tricks, remind us mere mortals that the human body can do amazing things and that our imagination is limitless.
Others see the importance of their performances as a way of creating a safe space where audiences can escape from the rigors of reality and release themselves to experience a dance, a song, a moment free from worry or stress.
Padraig Downey, founder of the award-winning local theater group Danú Dubai, tells Savoir Flair in an interview, “I think we have to be extra cognizant that people are living with extreme stress, jobs, and livelihoods gone or on the line, fear, isolation, depression. We need to be there for each other more than ever.” He went on to say, “Projects are all about timing; how I am feeling, what I am feeling, and how people are feeling. I have a lot of despair these days; projects with hope are needed. Human connection is needed.”
But even as things begin to open up here in Dubai, the performing artists and venues face a whole new set of obstacles that is unique to their profession.
“What keeps me awake is how comfortable audience members will be when coming back to live events. The pandemic and lockdown are still fresh in the minds of people. We have had several shows where performers have pulled out and raised concerns about not wanting to perform to live audiences any longer. Similar concerns lie on the audience side. It will take a while, in my opinion, even post-lockdown restrictions being lifted, for people to be comfortable going to live events.” says Gautam Goenka, one of the founders of The Junction, the only theater located in the heart of Dubai’s artistic center Al Serkal. And he is not alone in his thoughts.
“It will be difficult for the audiences to have complete confidence to return,” Downey confides. “Acting in a venue that is 30 percent full will not be the same. Theater is all about the ‘live.’ Being close to the actors and the audience. With COVID, that will eliminate much of what is special about theater, but we have to soldier on. We can only move forward, step by step. If there are repeat outbreaks or pockets of infections, that will be a challenge. The health of our performers, team, and audiences is paramount.”
Nevertheless, venues and performers are slowly beginning to open up to bring live shows back to Dubai, despite the many obstacles. Dubai Summer Surprises weighed in heavily to push permissions forward for live events in August, and because of that, venues like Dubai Opera, La Perle, and The Junction were able to reopen, and as of yet, stay open.
Kent Cooper, Executive Commercial Director of La Perle says, “After a temporary closure due to the onset of the coronavirus outbreak, La Perle is partnering closely with DTCM and Dubai Health Authority to follow government health regulations in perfect adherence to the current public health protocols. A number of safety and precautionary measures, as well as changes to theater and seating arrangements, have been made to ensure community health. We look forward to welcoming everyone with renewed energy and see them have the time of their lives at our theatrical extravaganza.”
La Perle reopened on July 30th, excitedly welcoming guests back to its tailor-made aqua theater in the heart of Al Habtoor City to present a one-of-a-kind production fusing acrobatics, dance, music, technology, and waterfalls. The acrobats, who had been out of work for months, were rumored to be hanging around in the parks post-lockdown, working out, rehearsing tricks, and keeping their bodies limber and ready for the day they could hit the stage again. And now that that day has finally come, their commitment to their performance has proven invaluable as they once again awe audiences with their logic-defying tricks.
Dubai Opera also held a series of successful concerts earlier in the month which spurred them on to bringing two more nights of live entertainment to the people of Dubai. Thursday, August 20th, Arab Idol, Mohammed Assaf, and sensational star Seif Nabil, delighted audiences with their much anticipated pop concert. And on Friday, August 21st, stand-up comedians Mina Liccione and her husband, Ali Al Sayed, made history by being the first homegrown comedians to headline at the acclaimed venue.
‘I’m so excited to take the Dubai Opera stage,” gushed Liccione a mere two days before the big performance. “It’s a chance to get out of the house, put on lip stick (and a bra) and make others laugh! This will be like going home. I think we all need some levity, and it’s truly an honor to be able to help people laugh through the struggle.”
And laugh they did. Dubai Opera promised that “audiences [could] expect to be howling with laughter thanks to the acclaimed UAE stand-up comedians,” and all who attended got their ab workout for the week with all the belly-laughs. People were primed and ready for a night out and a good laugh and Dubai Opera was able to deliver.
Dubai Opera has just released its new line-up for the season, kicking off with renowned Lebanese comedian Nemr on October 22nd and leading up to a December 12th concert featuring acclaimed Palestinian artiste Omar Kamal. You can also catch Ronnie Scott‘s Giants of Jazz performance on November 6th, Flamenco Passion on November 11th, and Guy Manoukian on November 12th.
Community theaters have also begun to reopen in Dubai. The Junction opened its doors with a strong line-up of August shows ranging from regional pieces to plays written and rehearsed over Zoom during the lockdowns.
“We opened our doors last weekend under government guidelines and in association with Dubai Summer Surprises. Capacity was down to one-third, and social distancing was in place. Right out the door, we sold out three straight shows,” says Goenka. “This tells me there is definite hunger among audiences to get back to live events. Responses post the event were positive and people asked for more. All in all, a good start.”
The Junction has a full line-up of events for the remainder of 2020, from the stage adaptation of the film Reservoir Dogs November 18-21, Dubai’s favorite magician Magic Phil on December 4th and 5th, and a magical re-telling of Shakespeare‘s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, featuring local actors, dancers, and musicians on December 10-12 and 17-19.
Danú Dubai is also gearing up for its first performance post-lockdown. Downey has been rehearsing with a small cast for his upcoming production of The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams on September 24, 25, and 26, which will be performing at The Junction as well.
And beloved improv comedy house, The Courtyard Playhouse, has been able to open its doors again for their youth classes and camps, as well as for sell-out improv shows, like its Monday night Film Noir Improvised.
“Theater getting back up and running again is excellent, not only for those interested in the arts, but for performers too,” comments Satya Baskaran, a Dubai-based actor who starred in The Junction’s August production of The Shape of Things. “It allows us to continue to work on our craft, reconnect with our community, and also enables those of us pursuing acting professionally, like myself, the chance to work.”
Without an audience, there is no work for anyone connected to the industry. There is no income to maintain the high costs of running a live performance venue. As performers and producers struggle to make ends meet, and grapple with the horrible reality that they may be forced to close their doors forever, they continue to hope that tomorrow is a new day.
“Come support our shows. Use the theater to help you get through this,” says Downey. “There is a ton of talent right here in the UAE,” adds Goenka. “We can organically grow our own performing arts scene here if we just support local performers and shows.”