Saudi MT – inspiring music

Every nation on earth has music and stories, and many combine these into artforms which are have many names but in the UK would be thought of as Musical Theatre embracing opera, musicals, music theatre and a whole host of impossible to define sub-genre names. One of the joys of bringing a group of adult aspirational theatre and music makers together is to see how each of them chooses to capture our hearts with their songs and stories.

Today we are on Day 3 of the first Musical Theatre workshop in Riyadh. As a travelling team of UK creatives we will start another workshop in Dammam on Sunday, in Jeddah a week later and then return to see the sharing of creative work at the end of 3 weeks in each City.  30 aspiring professional performers are gathered to get to grips with ‘Broadway’ musicals, They come from wildly different music and performing pathways. Most are self taught because Musical Theatre has not yet been embraced into the curriculum here.  Some are recording artists, or specialists in traditional music forms, or hip hop dancers or film/tv acting. They are singers who act a bit, actors who sing a bit, and dancers who have music in their toes. Each aspires to be a double or triple threat.  They don’t know the repertoire of Western musicals. They don’t know the theatre and musical terms which people their age may have learned in school plays and music hubs.  But they have stories to tell, imagination to share, and music in their hearts.

Yesterday, like so many entering drama training or going on a course, they each shared a solo cabaret/performance moment so that the creative team could assess their vocal style, their confidence, and their dramatic choices.  Over 90 minutes we were inspired by the raw energy and joy emanating from the ensemble. The shared support of these strangers for each other was impressive across age and gender diversity. They embraces a safe space which welcomed someone who had never in their life performed in public to share a song with us.  We closed our eyes to make them feel safer still and the voice started hidden and then blossomed as they realised we were willing them to feel an equal part of the journey.  The applause hopefully gave immense confidence for next time.

I first pitched this idea 5 years ago today in a different time from now globally and for Saudi. For the last year I have been moving the project forward first with the Ministry of Culture Theatre and Performing Arts Commission talent development programme, and then with the local project managers Z Entertainment.  There have been bumps on the road, everything gets decided later than any of us would like, we are learning every step of the way.  I have been blessed to be engaged and be working with committed ministry and management people.  And now we are underway and we are sharing a sofa in the corner of the rehearsal room as magic unfolds before our eyes.

The magic is that of learning – the art of bringing phenomenally experienced teachers of the artform together with committed raw talented folk who want to be stars, or to make a difference to the lives of others through music and song.  My job now is to get out of the way and tidy the coffee cups (to quote Harrison Owen).  Whatever happens will happen…the Right people are in the room for this journey and, so far, it starts on time with total focus for each session.

Each workshop will be different across the three cities.  Here we have Poppy Burton Morgan and Alastair Brookshaw bringing their complementary skills of writing and directing musical theare, and vocal coaching and musical direction in order to bring the very best of the creative instruments each person brings into the room.  The overarching programme of skills and technique training through song is being introduced by Ellie Jones and Alex Rudd before they and I move on to work with another resident team in Dammam and then Jeddah.  We are blessed to have Melissa Sofoian with us throughout who joined as a designer but as we go forward is working on lyrical translations and interpreting along with Assistant Director Lena Elghamry who stays with Ellie and Alex.

For nearly 5 months all the creative teams have trusted me to go from a Draft Agreement engaging them in April to a point where I could pay them in September and confirm the project was actually happening way later than planned.  Now I hand my trust back to them to deliver their skills and impart their wisdom on this amazing group of Riyadh creative participants.

We keep having to remind them that this course is very short – really about 21 hours of teaching, given that most moments are delivered bi-lingually and with careful consideration of the newness of all this Broadway and West End stuff.  That’s less than the time of Freshers week on a normal 3yr BA Musical Theatre course.  Some hope to be stars within a few weeks, but hopefully the Ministry and everyone understands that this is a slow steady process to find the ensembles of the future.

Ultimately I hope there will be the audience, and the talent, in Saudi to present Broadway musicals (to use their term) in Arabic in Riyadh. I also hope there will be new Arabic language musical theatre pieces created and taken to the broader MENA and Arabic speaking world. In time maybe new Arabic musicals will be translated into English and Spanish and Japanese and Korean to play in the mass Musical Theatre markets there. 

But for now, it is time to start teaching the 2nd and 3rd songs from the canon and use them as learning tools for this most complex of artforms.  The performers couldn’t be in safer hands.

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