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Good theatre must attract the audience Art movement in Kuwait has good future if handled correctly

PRESIDENT Lyndon Johnson once said: “Art is a nation’s most precious heritage. For it is in our works of art that we reveal to ourselves and to others the inner vision which guides us as a nation. And where there is no vision, the people perish.” Performing arts form an important part of our lives, our communication and our self expression. They are the keys that unlock profound human understanding and accomplishments. Indeed, it will not be to wrong to say that we depend on them to carry us towards the fullness of our humanity. “At the end of the day, we have to keep in mind that, in a few years time, a society will be judged by its music and poetry,” warns Shakir Abal, independent performing arts professional and a passionate arts advocate. An award winning filmmaker, Shakir Abal, a Kuwaiti businessman, responded to the call of his heart, when he turned his back on a successful business to pursue what had been a longstanding dream-making film. In Insight, Abal sheds light on the theatre movement in Kuwait, and the reasons for its decline. He speaks of the contentious relation between censorship and creativity and stresses the need for creative freedom for performing arts to grow and prosper.
Question: Is it right to say that ‘theatre’ as a form of art is neglected in this part of the world -in Kuwait especially?
Answer: This is a complicated question because it goes back to ascribing responsibility. Is it really the government that is responsible for supporting theater in the country or is it that the support emerges naturally from society? That is the question we have to answer first.
I believe, at the time when oil was first discovered, theatre was supported by both the government and society in general. That was the time when theatre grew and became successful not only because it was supported, but also because there was a greater sense of freedom for people who were working in theater. Later in the late seventies and eighties, this support and sense of freedom started to reduce and this automatically and consequently had an effect on the theater movement in Kuwait. It constricted it, reduced it and brought it down in quality.
Q: But was there a theatre movement ever present in Kuwait?
A: Absolutely. During the sixties and the seventies and even during the early eighties it was traditional for families to go out to the theater. Theater had a huge audience then. People used to keep track of well-known actors, and their plays would run for weeks and weeks.
Q: So it was not as if the plays were held during special celebrations like Eid and National Day? 
A: No. This is what it has become now. But in the old days, plays were held throughout the year, and they used to run for a long time. In fact, the quality of the script used to be very good. And it used to be a family tradition to see theater, the same way it was in England or elsewhere. 
Q: Do you recall going to the theatre as a young boy?
A: Yes. I recall seeing plays featuring well- known stars, and although the quality of production was not as high as it is now, the quality of scripting, of acting, of the engagement, of holding on to the audience was very good.
Q: And then it all changed?
A: Yes. I feel the most important thing about creativity is to have freedom. People cannot be creative if they do not have freedom. This has been the most damaging factor that has affected the theater movement in Kuwait. It is not governmental support, but the restrictions on creative freedom. This is due to many different factors including censorship and the way the censorship works in Kuwait. No one can invest in a play and not worry about it. Even after it has been approved, one keeps on worrying if the play will be allowed to run.
Q: So there is a very strict censorship in Kuwait?
A: When you read the censorship laws, it is not very strict. But the problem lies in the unpredictability which in turn is due to the fact that it is open to interpretation by whoever it is. So when you have invested say 50,000 KD in a play or 100,000 KD on a production, which needs to be done even before the first show is staged, you cannot afford for this one guy who comes from the censorship one day and tells you ‘Well this is wrong. You have to close the play down for whatever reason”. 
Q: Does this happen ?
A: Yes. It has happened, and it has affected people who have invested their money in a production, and so people have become wary about putting up plays.
Q: So you mean to say there are no clear cut ‘dos and don’ts’ as far as censorship is concerned?
A: The laws are not clear cut, and it is, unfortunately, being controlled by people who lack in knowledge. I am 56 years old. I do not like a 25 year old putting restriction on what I can see or cannot see. And that is what is happening. That is wrong. If a script is approved, it is approved. End of the story. If they cannot or do not know how to read the script, then it is not my fault.
Q: So you mean to say after the censorship passes the script and you stage the play, they may stop it. As a theater person, don’t you have any way of getting this redressed? 
A: No. Practically you cannot do anything about it. This is how censorship works. You submit a script, and they approve it. They put notes on things they want you to change. And then even before the play is staged in the theater, they see the final stage rehearsal before the opening. After they approve, you have to give them three seats at every show, and after that if they so decide, they can close the show anytime they want. So practically every night you are sitting on a razor’s edge. May be an actor may decide to do something that is spontaneous which in theater happens all the time, and they may not like it. 
Q: How is it different with films?
A: In case of films, they see the film and tell you the changes they want, and once you do the changes they will pass it. But with theatre it is different, because it is live. Theatre is a lot more complicated because the director may introduce changes every night if he so feels. And they do not understand that. If the censorship or some government department or some political big wig or even some newspapers do not like something about the play, they will make a hullabaloo and bring it down.
Q: Apart from censorship, do you feel the lack of professional auditorium is also responsible for what has happened to theatre?
A: For me that is not a big issue. There are auditoriums that are not run very professionally, but as for people who are creating theatre, the bigger issue is the matter of freedom. I can put on a play at Green Island, I can stage it in open – air, I can do it wherever I want, if the freedom is there, and if people come.
Q: That is another reason, right? Theatre lacks in an audience in Kuwait.
A: Yes. The audience has shied away. The audience is clever. They will come to the theatre to see a play if they feel it reflects their lives and problems, and it is the responsibility of the theater to bring in the audience. We talk about this all the time. If a person has come all the way from home, with his family and sat in front of you, he has already given you a chance. If you allow him to leave, that is your problem.
Q: And unfortunately, you don’t have too many talented people who are involved in theatre in Kuwait?
A: I don’t agree with you. There is a lot of Arabic theatre in Kuwait in which young people are involved, but the problem is that since the early 80s theatre had seen a decline. Nothing major was happening and now these young people are starting again. They are really enthusiastic; they want to do interesting things, but the problem is they are starting from scratch. 
Moreover, I think many plays are staged in Kuwait that is not for the general public. These plays are very artistic, very intellectual, not really meant for the common man. I believe if you cannot attract an audience, you have not done good theatre. Kuwaiti theatre, by the way, is a major theater movement in the whole Arab world till this date. You can easily place Kuwaiti theatre at the same level with Egyptian, Lebanese and Syrian theater, and yes, the talents are there.
Q: How come we don’t get to know about them? Is it because they are better featured in the Arabic newspapers?
A: That could be one reason. Moreover, their plays, which are in Arabic, are patronized by an Arabic speaking audience. There is English language theatre in Kuwait, but for me these plays reach out to a very small percentage of people who are mostly elite and non Arabic speaking. They do not cater to a Kuwaiti audience who wants something in his own language.
Q: What brought you to the theater? I know that you are a business person who is very passionate about theatre and performing arts.
A: I do things because I like to do things. I am lucky because I do not have to deal with the problems of production as far as cost is concerned. I am not into expensive production. I do documentaries that are less prone to problems with censorship and stuff like that, but in general I do believe in the art movement in Kuwait, and I think it has a good future if handled correctly .
Q: Is it difficult to straddle both the world of arts and business?
A: But I am not straddling. I don’t do business anymore. I have a meeting once in a while. I have devoted myself to films, documentaries, helping with the classic cinema season at the Dar Al Athar Al Islamiyyah along with the theater season at the Dar. I am trying to see if we can light a fire under this movement and get it going.
Q: As far as the Dar is concerned, the arts and culture movement has really picked up. The number of cinemas that are being screened, the performances that are being held is commendable. Their calendar is jam packed.
A: The movement, in general has picked up in Kuwait. As far as the Dar is concerned, Sheikha Hussa is doing a great job. The Dar Music circle is made up of volunteers, who work really hard. In fact, the Dar has over 100 events from September to May, and this is not a small achievement. Few places in the world can present 100 events in a nine month period. It is true that we receive support from the National Council to put up some of the events, but to organize lectures, musical events, classic cinema event, workshops and theatre is no mean achievement. But apart from the Dar, there are other places like the Bayt Lothan and Kuwait Cinema Magic that are active. Apart from this there are several festivals like the Qurain festival and other events happening. I accept that they are not all great quality, but some of them are hidden gems. 
Q: In your previous interview with me you mentioned that your first film was a lot about an artist’s perception about his/her role in society. What do you think that perception was and does it differ from country to country? 
A: Yes, it does differ. Relatively speaking, compared to Syria, Egypt and Lebanon, actors are looked down upon in Kuwait. But this, I think is changing and it is changing very fast. And the reason for this change has to do with economics. Actors are more in demand than they used to be. They are more affluent than before, and there is more of a ‘star’ quality about them. Earlier, the view was that actors came from ‘low society’. An actress was considered a ‘woman of low virtue’. This perception is unfair, and it goes back a long way. But, generally speaking, there is a change and this change is taking place with the young people not so much with the older generation. 
Q: Is a Kuwaiti actor free to practice his or her craft in society?
A: Even now there are restrictions on scripts and things like that maybe because of the reasons I explained earlier, but actors are free to practice their craft. And they have to be prepared to take on the stigma attached to their profession. We see a lot of restrictions from families who do not want their children to be involved in this kind of ‘work’. This is one reason why many singers and actors do not belong to so called ‘ big’ families, which is unfortunate.
Q: But I have seen children from well-known families participate in amateur English theatre in Kuwait?
A: Perhaps because it is in the English language and it is amateur theatre. I am talking about the professional Kuwaiti theater. Society is still very restrictive. If you look at the pool of actors, you still find that they belong to a certain section of society. In Kuwait, actors have to be brave. They need to be passionate about what they do. In fact, there is something special about these people that I admire. They don’t care about what society says, or what their family says. They listen to what their heart says. 
Q: You had earlier mentioned that a society that doesn’t respect its artists is a backward society. DO you still stand by that?
A: The more time goes, the more I believe in it. In Kuwait, you notice that people still like to watch old programmes that go back 30 years because it is their heritage. For me, art is heritage, and this is the only thing that lasts. And art does not only mean theatre; it also includes music and dance. Art binds people together in a shared memory. Nobody remembers the biggest trader or who built the biggest house 40 -50 years ago, but they do remember a work of art.
Q: Do you think this attitude is related to ‘ Islamization’ of society? 
A: Yes Absolutely. I think this has been a disastrous influence on Kuwaiti society. This only meant more restrictions on freedom of creative talents. In the past, society in Kuwait was more liberal, the number of people who wanted to be writers, directors, actors or singers were far more than what they are today. Because of rules and restrictions, this pool has been reduced to a small minority. 
Q: This conservatism also affects the quality of audience. I remember you mentioned an incident that took place in the UAE when female University students were not allowed to see Sulayman Al Bassam’s Richard III. 
A: Yes, unless they took permission from their brothers and fathers. 
Q: And it was not Saudi Arabia, but the UAE?
A: In Saudi Arabia, they do not even have the cinema. 
Q: We come to your second film. How did you chose the subject for your second documentary?
A: The subject matter of my second film is my great great grandfather from my grandmother’s side. I was approached by one of his grandchildren who said that there was going to be an event honouring ten great Kuwaitis from the past, and they wanted to do a presentation to honour him. I picked up this story about him, and tried to make it interesting and relevant to Kuwaiti society. The problem was there was no footage. We could not reenact it because it would be too expensive. I thought of correlating him and the period in which he lived, and to make it alive, I used photographs, old footage of films and poetry wanted to give a feel of Kuwait of those times. Also, I wanted to portray Kuwaitis as they were then.
Q: I think that is so much related to what we are talking about. In those times, the Kuwaitis who went out to sea to distant lands were liberal and broadminded. 
A: Yes. That is the curse of money and wealth. Society, I agree, was more open. Due to this, its arts were more open to acceptance. And that is why Kuwaiti music, one finds, is influenced by other traditions because it allowed itself to be influenced. That is where the strength of Kuwait lay. It was willing and allowed itself to be influenced. It took in new ideas and shaped it made it a part of its own unique identity. That was its strength. There is a popular saying about still water going rancid, and it is the same with culture. If there is no movement, no advancement, society will just rot away. 
Q: How hopeful are you about the future?
A: What gives me hope is the talent we have. These young creative talents are willing to work hard. I am a Kuwaiti. I was born here. I grew up here. I like the country. I like the people and I hope that one day this change will take the right course. If people like me who are interested in arts give up then the arts will disappear, and that will be very tragic. I will compare what is happening to the desert. Now the weather is fantastic; the desert is flowering all over the place, but then those seeds till recently were dormant. The seeds have got to be there. If the seeds are there, when the rains come or the time comes, then hopefully we will get the theatre movement moving in the right direction. At present, the situation is dormant, and we have to take care of the seeds till the time comes. 
Former General Manager of The One and the Marina Mall theatre and restaurant. Independent Performing Arts professional whose first documentary Richard III ‘An Arab VIP’ won several awards. Abal’s second documentary ‘The Winds are Fair’ opened to critical acclaim. Abal is also involved in ‘The Culture Project’, an arts advocacy programme with Sulayman Al Bassam.


By Chaitali B. Roy

Special to the Arab Times

By: Shakir Abal

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