Quiet reflections on international projects

It is some years since I spent 5 weeks embedded in a country where I don’t speak the language, am in my hotel room as an office for most of the day, and then moved by car to a rehearsal room or theatre.  Add to this the phenomenal heat and the restrictions by gender for the use of the gym/pool facility and I am in danger of feeling, sometimes, like a caged animal.  My colleagues are great, but the nature of our work is that we don’t get to meet many people other than in rehearsal or in formal meetings.  Experience suggests, from repeated visits to Korea, Japan and Mexico for projects in the past, is that slowly I make connections who could become friends and people I see socially in Yr 2 or beyond.  For this job, where we are jumping between hotels in three cities, that is even more of a challenge. Despite being in Saudi for 5 weeks I only have one more day in Riyadh to meet people and one more free evening in Dammam to maybe meet or do something non work related.  That is the nature of me and my work.

Part of my role here, bringing a dozen fellow creatives from the UK to begin training programmes and artform development, is to understand the landscape. I try to find out who else is doing what we are doing in the Kingdom. Who else is making strategy or developing exciting trans-national artistic programmes.  That can be difficult because in many countries I have experienced an unwillingness to share between different groupings on the same journey.  People are surprised I am talking with a Broadway producer engaged on a similar pathway. I am keeping in close touch with a lifelong friend and colleague who has been engaged to deliver a similar programme to mine for a different Ministry and sector.  My team on this project are chatting to their writing and directing colleagues who have been to the Kingdom or are developing ideas across the MENA countries.  CGO is building an informal picture from our quiet research.  In my ideal world all of us would sit around a Zoom call or a single table and share ideas, strategies, dreams, and challenges. We’d do that with all the key folk on the ground who are strategizing for the cultural sector.  But from experience of other countries, that is not the way things work.  I remember causing upset in one country years ago by writing an email about our project to all 3 major producers who were pitching to work with us. I wrote one email to all three – presuming they all knew they were competing, so why keep it secret.  Uproar. Each person wanted me at their Separate Table in secret as they pitched ideas to me.  I would have loved a single Round Table for collaborative discussion.  No way.  [I should stress I am not suggesting sharing any business details between parties, just sharing acceptance we are all exploring similar strategies, and then allowing each to pitch the idea etc confidentially, but from a shared understanding].

Whist I may not have time or opportunity to meet many people from the Kingdom or working across MENA countries on arts, cultural, talent and musical theatre development,  I am building a great array of names and contacts with whom I can discuss longer terms strategies when I get home in November.  As inevitably happens there will follow lots of ‘oh you should have popped in to see me when you were in the City’.  For example I am an hours flight from a major training establishment and have the time to hop over there to talk ideas and meet/tour the spaces, but my visa only allows me one entry to the Kingdom so I can’t visit and return across borders.  Lesson learned for next time.

At the moment my work is exploring the nuances here of preparing a sharing of the participants work on the last day of the beginners course. This ensemble of 20 aspiring musical theatre performers want to show what they have learned. I’m delighted that the Ministry wants to see what has happened. So now this boy from Cheam steeped in UK practice of workshops and theatre protocols, is trying to get a handle on what can and can’t happen at this high level for the very first time in the Kingdom.  Saudi is changing so fast and what was restricted when Tania Azevedo did her workshop presentations in 2018 seems more relaxed now.  Our Ensemble, just like CGO and our creative team, are navigating carefully to ensure the quietest and most comfortable celebration of their work in a 45 minute sharing in 10 days time.  We need to balance everyone looking good, with ensuring no one forgets that this is a 45 hour beginners course – not an audition for Chorus Line or Hamilton.

We have been quite below the radar when we started, not least despite 7 months intensive planning from the amber light / budget approval, it was only 2-3 weeks before the start that the courses when the green light was shining and applicants welcomed.  But yesterday in Riyadh a major film/musical producer popped in unannounced. Today the theatre programmer at Ithra World Cultural Centre popped in to see us in Dammam.  Word is spreading and we are taking it carefully and with guidance from Z Entertainment.

Part of my learning this year has been the best way to work with Local Vendors. These are commercial companies who work for the Ministry to deliver the projects which the Commissions, in this case the Theatre and Performing Arts Commission, conceive or commission.  So whilst my initial dealings and agreements on plans and budgets were with officers of the Commission, the whole thing then moves across and my contractor becomes a commercial company. I’ve done two projects with two very different contractors.  It has been a real pleasure working with Z Entertainment in the last few weeks as they secured the project and, despite it being last minute, with great good humour, gathered all the essentials and made them happen. They have been responsible for all our visas, flights, accommodation as well as finding the venues, local staff, launching the programme with the Ministry, accepting and long-listing all the applicants, dealing with catering (yes who knew when you do a course in Saudi the participants get an array of beautiful cakes or food before and during the classes). They have helped us in so many ways and been present in each City for everything we need.  Not just the lead project managers, but also the big bosses of the company. They have been our hosts and have shown the welcome that all professional visitors need.  We have navigated all the money relatively painlessly, the approvals for material to teach, and the sudden need for much bigger branding than CGO had thought about at the start.  There is now a fabulous logo for our work and it keeps appearing beautifully on the walls of rehearsal rooms and on banners.  I hope we will work together many times in the future. We all enjoy their support and real interest in our work. 

So many things we are learning.  The first self tape recorded in a car caused us all surprise. But by the 3rd or 4th tape we had realised why,  So many of the aspiring participants live at home and needed to find a quiet place where they can share their singing with us, or share their voice memo of their true aspirations for themselves and the artform they love. There are not drama schools or music spaces, and most are working as doctors or teachers (or studying serious computer like subjects). Everyone has a car and where better to be able to find privacy and give us a wonderful rendition of an Arabic folk song or a Broadway showtune.  Maybe we should remind  them, next time, to pull over and park up for safety.

My thanks to all the creative team who have come together to make this programme happen. We are only 2 weeks in on the ground but it has been a massive learning curve from idea to delivery. End of this week we move to Jeddah to start programme 3, and then next week hotfoot back to Riyadh to join the creative team there and deliver the first ever Saudi Musical Theatre beginner’s course sharing on Thursday 13th Oct 2022.

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