Dubai’s new-found love for art and everything creative is slowly getting its due days in the sun. But one could trace back the history of the city’s nouveau cultural renaissance to the establishment of its very own community theatre, The Courtyard Playhouse in the bylanes of the hip, upcoming neighborhood of Al Quoz.
With a degree in Theatre Studies from Roehampton, London and some more years of Theatre in Spain and UK under his belt, Kemsley Dickinson, the owner and Creative Director of The Courtyard Playhouse, landed in the UAE to teach kids at Victoria English School in Sharjah. That was then.
Come 2006, the actor and theatre visionary launched an acting course Desert Monologues the first of its kind in the region, which inspired one and many. Running successfully for 8 years, it is the longest running acting course in the Middle East.
“The premise of the place came from the fact we practically had no affordable option where we could put on a show. We decided to take the plunge and get a big place, with the sole purpose of providing an affordable platform to the members of the community to put up a show in. Because if you put on a show here, it will cost you thousands of Dirhams because the overheads of a warehouse is large, therefore to make the money back, the rental fees become phenomenal. With a warehouse in Al Quoz, the overheads are much less which meant we could offer a more homely, affordable and much friendlier atmosphere for people to put on a show.”
It was truly a “Let’s get a warehouse in Al Quoz and start this!” moment and rest became the history of reshaping Dubai’s community theatre scene.
“We have done this for a year now, the first year was absolute murder, putting in 20 hours a day renovating this place. It was a great transition to go from friends and people we knew to the one day when I looked at the audience and realized I didn’t know anyone. It was amazing, because I felt for the first time that this would work and it would work by itself and it was no more about Tiffany and Kemsley, it was about The Courtyard Playhouse. We have always liked small, intimate theatres. For example I took a bunch of school kids to see theatre in London. And every single show, we would be in Aisle A in Upper Circle and we were about 150 years away from the actors in every single show and that creates and disconnect, it becomes a them and us.”
It was a great transition to go from friends and people we knew to that one day, when I looked at the audience and realised I didn’t know anyone. It was amazing, because I felt for the first time that this would work and it would work by itself and it was no more about Tiffany and Kemsley; it was about The Courtyard Playhouse.
From corporate team building exercises to providing work experience for youngsters looking to study theatre, The Courtyard Playhouse has a lot to offer. They are not only the first Improv Theatre in Dubai specialising in it, they are also a KHDA licensed training centre, and run the National Theatre Live programme in partnership with the National Theatre, London.
“We started a work experience course for school kids after we realized there isn’t anything like that anywhere else. For example, there was this girl who really liked lighting and wanted to gain some work experience on the light board. She was going to go study this in London afterwards. I called the two big theatres here and no one could provide her that know-how she wanted. Like her, school kids can come in and learn a trade here and the experience they need.”
With a host of different shows from comedy to drama and everything in between; Dubai’s only running independent community theatre has grown leaps and bounds over the past year alongside the community it supports.
“We have come so far with a lot of help from the community. For example, the bean bags and most of the chairs are sponsored. The best part about doing this on our own money means it’s completely our own. We don’t have to compromise on anything, no corporate responsibilities and that makes us the only independently run theatre in the Middle East. A lot of the money to sustain The Courtyard Playhouse still comes from my own personal funds and my goal over the next few years is to bridge that gap and make it completely sustainable on its own. We offer large corporate team building programs and we do look for sponsorships and any help we can get on the way. But we wish we had more awareness, we cannot really afford large-scale advertising but a lot of it grows by word-of-mouth.”
With its small winding stairs and a merely 60 something seating arrangement, this is not a house, it’s a home for theatre built with the kind of love and memories that turn houses into homes. Sunday nights, friends, laughter and pictures fill the walls of this intimate theatre sitting on one of the quietest by-lanes of Al Quoz. While Dubai still prepares to grow into the exciting artsy oasis in the desert oscillating between art flippers and downtown dilettantes, The Courtyard Playhouse has already set the foundation with a true passion for theatre and a small but ever growing following of those seeking a haven.