An After the Final Shows interview by Lauren Noble
I'm sitting at a quaint little coffee shop in Dubai Hills Mall eagerly anticipating the arrival of some of the familiar faces of an ensemble who have just pulled off something truly remarkable in Dubai. They epitomize the audacious idea that absolutely anything is possible as long as you surround yourself with enough daring and determination to light your way on the darkest of roads. Without getting too far ahead of myself, I can already tell that the originating #colabinconvo interview for our new After the Final Shows series is going to be as convoluted as it is calculating, as chaotic as it is creative - and those are always the best roads to travel down! This particular road began just over a year ago with something as unassuming as a social media post which sparked quite a sizeable chain reaction. Little did anyone know just how far that chain reaction would travel though... but here they all are, a little over a year later, basking in the post-show glow of their recent sold out run of a full-scale musical theatre revue called Everybody's Talking About MTDXB!
The energy at the table is immediately one which I have become accustomed to whenever I spend time with this musical theatre troupe. It is one which exudes a sense of enthusiasm and friendship - something which was palpable not only at auditions and rehearsals, but also to everyone who was fortunate enough to sit in that audience and experience the culmination of months and months of hard work from the cast and crew. My first question is directed at James and Bethanie Mitchinson, the fearless leaders of MTDXB and a power couple who I had actually seen on stage a few times over the past year. I first saw James - who is more commonly known as Mitch - last year when I reviewed Dubai Drama Group's The Permanent Way and commented on his impressive ability to swap character so completely through a precise shift in dialect. A few months later I was fortunate enough to experience an almost Vaudevillian double-act as Beth and Mitch took to the stage together in H72's The Play That Goes Wrong. This time it was Beth who caught my eye as a seasoned professional who not only understood the boundaries of physical comedy but wholeheartedly threw herself into the role. And for those who watched the show - I mean this both literally and figuratively, of course! When I ask them how this dream became a reality, Beth immediately jumps in with a conversation starter that speaks directly to why I started Collab Company too. There was nothing similar to the type of experiences they were looking for in Dubai... so one night they just decided to do it themselves. A social media post was the spark which was gradually fanned into a flame, but not before almost being extinguished after their very first event ran at a total loss in what was a massive Catch-22.
"The performance infrastructure and the handful of venues where performances are even possible effectively means that community theatre groups are the ones paying to perform despite adding massive value to the region in terms of the arts. It's not a sustainable model."
This strikes a chord with me too. One of the fundamental issues that has emerged in every conversation I have had with performance practitioners and theatre educators who are working to effect change is that there is a dire need for grassroots structures which respond directly to the current issues being faced in the arts, both locally and internationally. It is something which has already been identified by the Dubai Arts and Culture Authority who have issued reports which engage with the current framework of the expanding cultural industry. With four teachers sitting at the same table, a proposed solution we have all considered at length involves the magnificent and fully-equipped auditoriums that so often sit empty during the summer months and even during certain phases of the academic year inside the schools of Dubai. These spaces could very easily support smaller and growing theatre troupes with rehearsal and performance space in a barter and profit-share agreement. Imagine the possibilities when passionate arts practitioners could provide experiential opportunities which correspond to the academic drama, music, film, media and liberal arts programs already operating in Dubai schools in lieu of upfront payments which effectively curb the flow of experimental arts within the region. The merging of these two worlds can only lead to meaningful improvements for the arts and educational sectors of this region.
Suddenly the five members of MTDXB remember that it's actually their first birthday this week and the conversation moves to a nostalgic trip down memory lane. I am desperate to know why everyone decided to get involved in this experiment in musical theatre and am impressed by the range of responses to my question. Talya Mitchell (apart from being an absolute riot) is one of the social secretaries of the group and she takes full responsibility for every occasion she signed up not herself but her long-suffering brother to anything that looked remotely like the type of performing arts projects they used to do back home in the UK. Born into a family in the entertainment industry, Talya became more and more disillusioned by the lack of musical theatre opportunities on offer in Dubai:
We were definitely spoilt for choice back home. There were so many amateur and even semi-professional drama and musical theatre societies where we lived. Then I moved to Dubai and for five years it was just hit and miss. And I just wished for that same sense of community.
Sophie Worrell, the other social secretary for MTDXB, echoes these sentiments entirely. She was looking for a space to reacquaint herself with her love of performing amongst like-minded people after losing out on so much of that during her secondary school and university years. The conversation shifts to how quickly a high school or college environment can subdue the devotion of even the most committed drama and music students because there is just so much going on at that formative time in everyone's life. Sophie was most excited to audition for Everybody's Talking About MTDXB as a way to reconnect with others who may have fallen out of love with musical theatre just as she had. What she found was a little family of individuals who were ready to discover or rediscover why they fell in love with musical theatre in the first place.
For Vish Kumar, the impetus to audition came from a slightly different perspective as someone who had actually performed in a great many pieces during his younger years too. If his infectious laughter and zeal for absolutely everything that is asked of him wasn't enough, Vish's explanation of how much he has learned in the short time he has been part of this ensemble is enough to send my teacher-heart aflutter:
I have learned so much from this process. Sometimes just being around people who are better makes you want to be better. And then you have to step it up if you want to match that level. It was so educational!
It is a topic of conversation that takes me back to a piece of advice I have received from no less than a teacher, a lecturer and a director over the course of my own performing arts career: absorb everything that you can - be a sponge! - as you work alongside the excellence of others. It is manifestly evident to me that Vish is one of those all-or-nothing people who uses every opportunity presented to them to learn about the arts but also about themselves through that arts. And as Mitch so eloquently puts it: "Vish is exactly the type of individual that represents everything that we want MTDXB to do and be for others. His enthusiasm is so obvious to everyone he encounters and he pushes himself to be better all the time." That is high praise indeed, coming from one of the fearless leaders of this growing ensemble.
With a show as bold and bright as Everybody's Talking About MTDXB finishing it's three-day run, the cast and crew have been feeling some of the post-show blues this month. It takes a lot to put on a production of this calibre in Dubai with over 95% of the cast rehearsing after a full work day which renders even the most resilient of us catatonic sometimes! Add that to weekend rehearsals, individual preparation, costume design and construction, staging changes, sound checks with the band, and the madness of a show week... and you are literally just scratching the surface of how much something like this takes to get off the ground. But that's just it, isn't it? MTDXB didn't just get this off the ground - they flew with it, reaching heights that I have not seen much in the six years I have worked in the arts industry in this region. I was so inspired by what they accomplished in such a short space of time and it is one of my greatest wishes that they understand how influential they have been in redefining audience expectations of amateur and semi-professional theatre here in Dubai. I think they do, though, because when I asked about a favourite memory from the show, Talya mentioned the very first time the full company sang One Day More from Les Mis during one of their rehearsals.
As soon as it came to the end part where everyone is singing the harmony, the hairs on my arms stood up and I felt so emotional, It was the first time that I just knew what we were doing was going to be spectacular.
How very right she was...
We're nearing the end of our #colabinconvo and I tell the table that I actually only have one question left: what's next for MTDXB within the UAE theatre scene? It is a pragmatic answer that begins with the logistics of the committee mapping out the next year as they work towards the immediate goal of being able to perform a big ticket musical which, in turn, feeds into the long-term goal which is to become a self-sustaining production house for musical theatre in the region. For this to happen, they acknowledge that part of their company mission is going to involve further engagement with the community, bolder decisions as they grow in structure and seeking consistent counsel from those who can help them with improvement strategies. This is music to my ears and something I certainly loved being a part of in a very small way for Everybody's Talking About MTDXB! I was enthralled by what quickly became a huge learning experience for me as I sat on the initial audition panel hearing Beth, Mitch, James and Chels (all qualified and highly experienced musicians and singers in their own right) deconstructing every performance to the most minute detail. Later in the process, Mitch invited me back to provide a few notes after a rehearsal and impart some advice to the cast as they navigated the largely uncharted waters of musical theatre audiences in Dubai. These are the moments that engage an entirely necessary shift in agenda across the performing arts in this region, celebrating a shared camaraderie instead of fixating on one another as competitors. We end our conversation with a fervent hope that the performing arts breaks through the glass ceiling which currently feels a little more shatterproof than it needs to be and I take this moment to remind them of something really important. The road they're travelling down right now may feel dark at times but there are a great many individuals - both in their MTDXB family and those of us sitting in the audience - who are more than happy to help light the way if we can. After all... the late, great Stephen Sondheim was not the only one who knew that "no one is alone."
© Lauren Noble for Collab Company | 2022
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