Spotlight on Dune Productions by Lauren Noble
Today is just one of those teacher days when you may very well be carrying most of your classroom around in stacked boxes, cables slung over one shoulder, laptop bag slung over the other, and all manner of lesson plan ideas running through your head. How serendipitous it was to be heading out of the beautiful black box theatre I have called home for the past few months, thinking about a coffee from the café and finally putting pen to paper for my #collabinconvo with Emma Isbell only to spot a colourful banner just outside the double doors.
"Dune Productions are back, and this time we are weaving our heritage into the stars and beyond with Our Time (A UAE Steamonaut Adventure)"
I somehow extricate my mobile from the depths of my laptop bag whilst balancing my stack of boxes rather precariously on my hip. I send the image off to Emma with a cursory "Get it, girl!" and set about to get that coffee. I cannot say for sure but I think my experiences are not unlike most of the teachers I encounter in Dubai, devoted as we all are to the notion of educating young minds and peddling our passions in a classroom environment, it is inescapably frenetic a lot of the time... and no one understands that better than the team behind Dune Productions!
It all started three years ago when Emma, Harry and Patrick began discussing their shared experiences as performing arts specialists working in Dubai. It was a conversation that began with pedagogy, found its way into the unique pressure that 21st century teachers tend to experience, and ended with the formation of a theatre in education company with an interest in supporting teachers and their students in innovative ways. What a conversation!
During my time as production manager for The Addams Family Musical earlier this year, I had an opportunity to see this trio of artists up close when they attended one of our rehearsals and offered the cast some professional critique the week before curtain up. There is a very magnetic quality about them when they engage in conversations about theatre and about the creation of an atmosphere which aims to leave an impression on the audience. Their presence alone elevated the expectations associated with rehearsing, applying a dash of pressure to step up the performance just ahead of opening night. It was lovely to see how their interaction with the production had our cast and crew acknowledging which strengths to amplify further and which weaknesses needed to improve immediately. I am a proud advocate for professionals in the arts and arts education industries offering critique to one another, effectively building a infrastructure for creativity where mistakes become opportunities for development and notes sessions are underpinned by our collective expertise. But I digress...
I met up with Emma earlier this term and absolutely loved our conversation! It is always so exhilarating to meet up with those of us who have thrown our qualifications, skills and vocations into a melding pot of ideas and innovations which somehow, almost inexorably, transform into a brand before our very eyes. Dune Productions has only been around for a few years but in that time they have managed to establish themselves as a brand which understands how theatre can enhance the educational experience of children across the UAE. They call it "The Dune Difference". I call it artistic and educational alchemy. Hearing Emma speak about her upbringing, there is just so much that resonates with me. She is absolutely obsessed with Disney films and has been since she was a little girl growing up in Hampshire as a member of a very creative family. Her mom is an author, her dad is the quintessential music man, and her brother is a film composer. As a child Emma would attend musicals with her grandparents and she can recall with pinpoint precision what it was like to have The Phantom of the Opera be your first ever musical theatre experience. Waves of nostalgia emanate from across the table as I listen to Emma journeying through her history. She tells me all about her time at Laine Theatre Arts, how it feels to simply breathe in the same space as the Minack Theatre in Cornwall, the universe conspiring to cast her as Judy Garland no less than four times, and how obvious it was that her husband would end up being a fellow creative. In Patrick's case, a composer and musical director.
I find myself in hysterics upon hearing Emma's answer to my question: "Was there a moment when you knew that theatre was your calling?" She launches into another story of her playing the love theme from Romeo and Juliet on the flute for a school concert. The crushed velvet dress. The sparkly shoes. The memory of what is felt like when the audience applauded her performance.
"Making people feel something enough to leave a lasting impression?" she exclaims excitedly. "Now that's currency!"
Currency enough that little Emma would spend the next few weeks flushing the toilet for no reason other than to close her eyes and imagine that the sound of rushing water was, in fact, the sound of thunderous applause - not unlike the kind she had received for that life-changing flute solo. From that moment on, Emma knew her purpose in this world was enmeshed in the rush artists feel when they make others feel too. This lesson was reiterated to her many, many years later when she auditioned for an intense two-hander which explores the beginning and end of a relationship simultaneously. The Last Five Years is told in chronological order from the moment of their first encounter for Jamie but in reverse-chronological order at the end of their marriage for Cathy. I had never heard of the production before our conversation but from Emma's explanation alone I recognise how extensive the characterisation and subsequent emotional resonances would have to be to operate within such a unique storytelling model. Emma went into her audition and sang Still Hurting for the director. It was to become one of her most visceral theatre memories because mid-way through her audition the director stopped her. For those of us who have been there, that is the universal sign for "I've seen enough, thanks!" and is either very good news or very bad news. In a surprising move the director spent some time with Emma coaching her through the intricacies of the piece in a way that pushed her to release the song, the character, the moment into a more realistic space. Emma says not booking that job was the best thing that ever happened to her as an artist because the director had forced her to acknowledge an uncomfortable truth: that there is a marked difference between an excellent performance which showcases technical mastery, and an outstanding performance which serves to truly tell the story. Emma's encounter with The Last Five Years and a director who sought tangible truth-telling on stage meant that she now had an inherent appreciation for both.
Emma, Patrick and Harry have all worked as theatre professionals in London and as arts educators in the UAE. Their multifaceted engagement with the performing arts as artists themselves only served to heighten their classroom experiences in Dubai but - as I myself can attest to - our craft in its true form is a siren call to the soul. Dune Productions was built on their love for their craft but also accesses an intricate knowledge of some of the ways that teachers need support. I love hearing Emma speak some of the words and phrases I have come to associate with my work in Collab Company. "Curriculums are better accessed when kids feel seen." "Arts education matters!" "We need scaffolded systems to hang a syllabus on." "Theatre is education!"
I really could not have said it any better myself...
Before Emma has to head off, I ask her two final questions. The first causes her face to light up, and that piques my interest even more. What's next for Dune Productions?
She tells me the premise of their new offering which weaves the heritage of the UAE within a storyline about sustainable futures.
Dune Productions is all about the growth mindset and love reiterating to their young audiences that the pursuit of knowledge is a continuous journey. This is showcased in Our Time by encouraging kids to look to the stars in the same way the UAE space program has done so extensively over the past few years especially. We enjoy a segue into contextualising our theatre for the space it is both devised and later performed within. Having embraced the same approach for Antigone Retold last year, the notion that a multicultural audience deserves a truly multicultural story is one which is very often lost in the wider theatre industry here. Emma and I both acknowledge that this thread of conversation is worth a wider discussion about representation on a stage space, and how best to engage that representation during the process leading up to and not just the aesthetic of the final production itself... another coffee date is clearly needed! My final question to Emma is the same question I ask every specialist, professional and practitioner I chat to: what is the UAE theatre scene currently missing? Her answer makes me smile. "I'd like to see more unity in reaching for a common goal in this region. When individuals are exposed to good theatre and good theatre training, we all improve. Maybe we could all spend more time shouting out for and supporting one another?" She returns my smile with her closing suggestion. " I also really think that collaborations are an effective way forward for professional theatre in the UAE."
I couldn't agree more...
© Lauren Noble for Collab Company | 2023
DISCLAIMER: Please note that if you were involved in anything published as part of Collab in Convo and would rather your image was not posted to our site, please contact us via email so that we can accommodate your request.