Monday, 31 March 2014

How to choose a short play or rather how I came to be directing Anton Chekhov’s “The Evils of Tobacco”

Anton Chekhov
For some time now I have been an amateur theatre critic via this very blog. You may have noticed that I have an inordinate amount of fun doing this; however, I have had, for some time, a little niggle of guilt. I should have been born Catholic for all the guilt I carry around. What it takes the Catholic Church years to instill I was born with. But I digress, as usual.

I did know that at some point I would have to stand up and be counted, as it were. I really could not keep on as I have been, going about telling people what I thought of their productions and acting ability. I could not, in all good conscious, keep on criticising the very heart of people’s creativity without, at the very least, giving my fellow Drama Darlings the opportunity to return the favour. Which poses a dilemma because, I would prefer not to put myself out there at all - being the reclusive sort. Not shy, please note, just reclusive. Add the fact that I have not done any theatre work for quite some time and  have in the back of my mind the fear that if I don’t get back into it I will lose whatever expertise and ability I may have had. Or worse I may have lost it already. With this going on inside my head I had to have a stern talk with myself “For heaven’s sake, get a bloody grip you silly woman.” I admonished my inner wet blanket. “It is way past time that you got back into the theatre properly”

Having been roundly self-flagellated I was on the lookout for a play, a place and a producer. At about the same time as I was mulling all this over I saw that Dubai Drama Group were calling for directors for  an evening of short plays. Good (or is that bad?) timing. A short play to get my hand back into the game was exactly the ticket. Excellent! I contacted the Dubai Drama Group and was sent the link to the web page and saw listed  there a handful of plays; a combination of Chekhov  scripts and  modern plays. I already had in the back of my mind that I wanted to do Edward Albee’s “Zoo Story” and I tentatively approached DDG and asked if I could direct that rather than the plays on offer. I could! This had me very excited. My excitement was short lived.

Zoo Story is a hard play and casting has to be just right and I am not a good enough director to take a change with a two hander on unknown quality in terms of actor’s ability, especially as I have enough hubris to think that everyone that I have criticised is going to want to be able to do the same back. Oh my Ego. The audition saw several mighty fine pieces presented but I wanted actors that I already knew (from previous performances) could do the show. This is (I believe) a rather lazy trait in me. Partly as a result of this I could not cast my two men. I had  a combination of men in my head that would work but I could not get the pairing I so desperately felt I needed.
The auditions presented a number of very talented actresses auditioning for the other plays. Cliff Single, the Chairman of DDG, suggested that I put Zoo Story aside and see if I could find another play, possibly one that utilised some of the lovely ladies that auditioned. Good plan B I thought. I cast my net about for a short play with between 2 and 5 women. I contacted my peeps at Harare Reps Theatre. I contacted my Peeps in  Gaborone. I trawled the Internet. I contacted professional Drama Darlings in London and said “eek help”. I was put on to a play written by a friend of a friend so I logged on to Samuel French  had a part read of Henna Nights by Amy Rosenthal and loved what I read. I ordered the play foolishly thinking that I could download it……. Hummm delivery would take a while longer than I had available to me. I was pretty sure I would love the play from what I had already read but this being Dubai I could not commit to a show without knowing what the full script would contain. Oh dear, on and on and it goes my darlings. High drama before you even hit the stage.

With time running out and a need to get rehearsals started and knowing what other plays were already going to be included in the evening Cliff  suggested, ever so diplomatically, that I take up Anton Chekov’s “The Evils of Tobacco” as it was in line with two (already in the show) themes; Smoking and Anton Chekhov. Not the way I would normally choose a play but hey sometimes you have to switch it up. I am very glad that we did.

I was most lucky that Toby Masson, who I had already cast in Zoo Story, agreed to leave the idea of Zoo Story for a while and take up doing a one hander, something that was new to him. I have found over the rehearsal period with Toby that this production has become a very collaborative piece. I am a fairly dictatorial person so this was a bit of a departure for me. I think we have both rather enjoyed the process.

We have had a couple of joint rehearsals with the other productions. This has allowed us  the opportunity to see  all the plays performed that will share the stage with ours in a couple of weeks’ time. I can safely say that if you come down to thejamjar between the 8th and the 12th of April you will be treated to an evening of delightful and enjoyable theatre. This eclectic mix of dramatic styles will showcase two Anton Chekhov plays and two modern plays. Two plays that include smoking, one a bit tenuously and two that include romance, again one a bit tenuously.

I am trying to build up a bit of curiosity in you in a bid to get you to come down and see for yourself what I am rabbiting on about. Let’s not pretend here that I don’t want your bottoms in the chairs at thejamjar, because I obviously do. I want packed house every night. I want people banging at the doors begging to be let in.  Having said that I also know, in fact I am very sure,  true as bob and honest to god, that when (please note when not if) you come to thejamjar you will  thoroughly enjoy what we are putting on. You will leave refreshingly invigorated and wanting to see more theatre in Dubai.


Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Sleeping like the Dead.

Bryan said “By the way Roger is coming for the weekend.”

“When does he arrive?” I asked in a blasé fashion, being used to having visitors pop in out of the blue and all.

“Oh, I guess in the early morning on Friday.” was the reply I got.

Early on Friday (to me anyway) means any time between six am and say oo'er nine fifty nine am on Friday. Remember Friday is the weekend for us. Any other time is either the middle of the night or day time.

On Thursday after an arty farty overload of beauty  on The Art Bus with Philip (the beloved first born) and an unmemorable evening. Well I can’t remember what we did, if anything. By the by, do you know  at  the moment the days merge into nights into weeks because, darlings, there is just too much on. I really do need to get a life where I am independently wealthy. If for no other reason than to be able to fit all this busy-ness in without the bother of a job. Anyway, after a lovely day of art and “whatever” evening we went to bed, as you do. I think between 11.30 p.m. and midnight, although for us that seems a bit early. Some time between then and the morning Bryan and I were both up fussing about because of ruddy kamikaze Dubai mosquitoes. What is it with mosquitoes in this town? They are evil little vampires with  poison, I swear, in their gnashers. If you get bitten by a mosquito in Dubai the likelihood of acquiring a festering wound within a few days is pretty damn high. Vicious little critters. Anyway, it was not a peaceful sleep (brand plugging aside) that we had. Then as if that was not enough, miserably, at what felt like an ungodly hour (seven a.m. as it happens) I was woken up by Bryan’s phone ringing. The call was to let Bryan know  that Roger has been on our door step since 1.30a.m. !!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Apparently early on Friday is 1.30am. Which of course is technically correct. If I had known  that this was the time Roger was arriving I would have left the door unlocked for the poor man. So our guest arrived at our home and rang the doorbell, and rang it some more, and knocked at the door, and knocked some more (in our defence he did say that he did not knock very loudly) and none of the three people in the house heard a bloody thing. We did not hear a ring or a knock or even plaintive sobbing, if there was any. So Roger curled up outside the front door and tried to get some sleep. Poor bloody bugger.

Over a peace offering coffee (the no longer Jolly) Roger recounted his ordeal. He said it had been cold, so cold in fact that he had to pull his beanie out of his suitcase. Or did he pull out his beanie to stop the mosquitoes from eating him alive… I forget… it was early in the morning. Did I mention he was harassed by mosquitoes (no surprises there) and midges? The marble was not comfortable. He is no longer a young man and stone floors are not made for middle aged bodies. It was a sad, sorry, tale and I felt dreadful for our small , well okay, entire part in his discomfort.

Two things spring to my mind. One is about my / our sleeping patterns and the other about Roger’s tactics.

Firstly, you need to know that I get woken up every day by a neighbour who goes to the Gym opposite our house at 4am. EVERY MORNING. By the way  the neighbour  shall remain nameless for the time being as not only  is he a neighbour but we work in the same company, so one day when I need some cannon fodder I will have it. I mean all this waking me up at four a.m. must have some emotional blackmail value don't you think? But back to the point. I get woken up by his turning on of the lights in the Gym. Such is the nature of my light sleeperness. This being the case how on God's  green Earth is it possible that I do not get woken up by someone ringing the doorbell? If you are in the business of breaking and entering you know what time to call at our place.

Secondly I think that Roger is far too well brought up by half. I would have made much more noise, thrown a few stones at our bedroom window, or at least tried to break in. Mind you, having been quiet as a mouse about getting into our home, once in it we could not shut him up about the hardship he suffered at our hands. He milked it let me tell you. He milked it expertly, just enough to make us feel as low as shark shit, but not enough to stop us feeling guilty. Well Played Roger.

Whilst writing this post I started to have a sense of deja vu. So I went looking at older posts. I sadly  discovered, much to my shame, that this is not the first time this has happened to our guests....

The other visitor who was left out in the cold. 

We are bad, bad hosts. If you are coming for a visit. Word of advice. If we are not picking you up from the airport. Make bloody sure we promise to leave the door open for you. Oh and bring a pillow and sleeping bag if we don't...... Just saying. Better safe than sorry.

Sunday, 23 March 2014

The story of the Helpless Cat

We have lived in Dubai for some time now and have been pet free for all of that time, for a few reasons.

1.      We do not want to leave pets behind again ever.

2.      I am allergic to cats.

3.      We lived in an apartment for almost 7 years and we don’t think that is an ideal place for a pet dog.

4.      I love birds but prefer them outdoors rather than in a cage.  And anyway they are not furry and snuggley.

None of these, however, stops me from wanting a pet. I try and find opportunities to get a pet by accident. That way it is “fate” and beyond my control.  Etc., etc., et bloody silly cetera.  This is a bit of a tug of war within the confine of the space between my ears. In this context it is hard to call it a functioning thinking brain.

A couple of weeks ago I saw a request from one of the “let’s be kind to pets groups” ( K9 Friends and Feline Friends do wonderful work in Dubai by the way) asking for someone to foster a lovely looking dog and her puppies for a few weeks. Philip was home so it’s not like the dog would be alone all day and it was just for a few weeks. And I would get a pet fix. I thought it was a brilliant idea. Win, win really. Bryan flatly refused to even discuss the matter. I tried showing him pictures of the dog and the pups. So sweet!  He would not even look at them. He was like a two year old in stubborn mode. I would try and say something and he would not even let me finish he just said “No.” and walked away. I followed, I started “But Bryan just for a couple of weeks look cute dog cute pu-“ “No.” You get the picture.

I feed birds in my Garden. I get miffed with and at the neighbourhood cats who stalk the area around my bird feeder. They sit there with greedy eyes, swishing their tails and twitching their whiskers in anticipation of a kill and chasing away the birds. I am in a no win situation here.  I chase cats but I want an accidental pet. You see the logic? Neither do I.

One day last week, when Bryan and I arrived home from work, I spotted a seriously manky looking cat in the garden. I have seen this cat before- not looking so bedraggled) and I always shoo the cat away. Well in my head I am shooing the cat away in reality I start off shooing and when that does not work I get cross with the cat for not retracting to my courteous indication of a lack of welcome and I become a fish wife metaphorically slamming two pan together and screeching (not metaphorically) at the cat to “F off out of my garden and leave MY birds alone.” So on this particular day  I did what I habitually do and started off with the gently shooing.  The cat looked up at me with big plaintive eyes  instead of with  a disdainful toss of the head and bottom presenting  tail in the air that I usually get. I felt dreadful for the poor thing. I tiptoed up closer, cooing and calling.  It looked more pathetic and sorrier close up. I told Bryan that we had to help the cat. Bryan said “No absolutely not. Leave the cat alone it will go home if it needs help.”   Well anyone knows that any self-respecting home having cat would not let itself get into this condition and nor would its owners. “Please Bryan,” said I (like I need his permission but we are a team right?) “we need to help the cat. Go inside and get some milk and I will try and coax it closer.” Bryan said “No.”  So off I went in a strop of indignation muttering about what a cold bastard he was. Glaring at him, and asking him why he was being so mean when usually he was a complete softy about the weak and ailing. He said “I am not getting involved. If we feed this bloody animal it will be the beginning of the end and we will have a cat in the house and you will be sorry because we agreed that we do not want a pet and then it will be my problem.”  We did  agree and he is right and it will be his problem if I am sneezing and scratching all day because of allergies and I will mope about and make it his problem. Well that is what I do. I live to give Bryan purpose.  But that is all beside the point. I was stung by his cruelty and felt bad for the cat. So I went indoors and poured a saucer of milk.  I took it out and called for the cat who looked suspiciously at me and the milk some of its previous disdain returning. I left the cat in peace thinking it would come and get the milk in its own time.

I went back into the kitchen where I could watch. Bryan was hovering outside - so much for not getting involved and not caring. He says “Penny your cat is not much interested in your milk.”

I heard a bird sing in a tree nearby. So did the cat and she/ he / it was off like lightening after its quarry. Gracefully leaping up into the air onto a high wall and slinking along all of a twitch on the hunt. Bloody Ratfink of a Low Life Cat. All vigor and verve and joy do vive was that minxy, moggy.  Drink my milk. Ha that would be the day.

Now I have a dilemma. I don’t want the cat in my garden especially as it is clearly a hunter. I don’t want to be cruel to it. I feel morally bound to keep an eye on it. If it does not have a home hunting is how it is feeding itself.  I don’t want to feed it as then it will stay in my garden.  I don’t want it to starve.  And let us not forget that it has turned up its nose at my milk offering. The circle of life my friends is not simple.

Even though I know this.... I still dream of having a cat.
PS: Whilst getting the links to Feline Friends and K9 I trawled through their web pages.  There are lots of way you can help these organisations. I still love the idea of fostering a dog or a cat but if ,like me, you have a supremely sensible spouse there are other things you can do. You can ,for example, walk dogs.

I have also found some very useful advice from Feline Friends about how to feed a stray cat. and what to do if you find a stray cat.


Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Emirates Airline Festival Of literature 2014


Al Baraha 2 OUR ROOM
Go on ask me what I have been doing.

Well, seeing as you asked….. Rather a lot as it happens. First of all we, that is Bryan and I, in the role of PARENTS, picked up our lovely special first born Pip from the Airport and threw him headlong into the Emirates Airline Festival Of Literature. There is nothing quite like hitting the ground running when you have moved half way across the world. Well, that was our experience and we decided to impose this philosophy on our son. I let Philip rest for a few hours (I am not a monster after all) and then dragged him out.
Pip and I found our way down to the DSCA Theatre in Al Mamza on Tuesday 4th March in the afternoon to the lovely ( but underutilised -if you ask me) venue for the Opening Ceremony of the Lit Fest.  The centre is beautiful in the Arabic Style and you get a lovely view of the beach which you can enjoy from the outdoor seating at the small friendly coffee shop.

I manned a theater door and Philip corralled busses with children in them for a bit and then we watched the “show”. Riz Khan was a delightful host allowing us to look in on his chats with various literary notables. I especially enjoyed listening to Pam Ayres reciting her poems. She has a delightful intimate manner. Here is a bit of Pam Ayres if you need reminding you can read a few of her poems or listen to her recite them. I recommend listening.
Sadly I did not get much of a chance to listen to the whole of any one other authors chat as I was being a lioness and guarding the outside of the door from marauding heaven knows what, such was my unsolicited attention to duty.  Bryan managed to fight his way through the rush hour Sharjah traffic to get to the ceremony in time to hear who he wanted to - I think it was Jeremy Paxman. 
All in all we (Bryan, Pip, and I) had a lovely evening that turned out to be a good kick off to the festival. We went home together feeling all warm and fuzzy after being in the same place at the same time for the first time in a long while.
On Wednesday “my room -Al Bahara II” (please infuse your reading with a possessive tone) was not in use so Philip (who was one of my assistant room managers) and I were free. We went down to the festival so that Pip could get orientated before he was fed to the literary masses of Dubai, so to speak. The Festival was awash with school children of all ages. So much excitement that the air was buzzing with it. There is nothing quite like a bunch of  tweenie reading groupies

Thursday 6th March had us checking into the volunteers’ registration area where we got cosy with fondly remembered volunteers from last year and befriended new volunteers. We sat in on our first Room Managers Morning Brief and launched into our busy next few days.

I really enjoyed the female focus events that were held in our room. I loved listening to the “re-shaping your life discussion”. It was heartening to see that there were a handful of successful women out there that had changed careers (well lives really) more than once. There is hope for me. My heart sang at me. Well there is none at all actually unless I get up off my bottom and do something about it but that is hardly the point……
Sarah McIntyre was just the most fabulous person I came across in the festival. Her outrageous hats and outfits were marvelous. She wore a towering creation at the Opening Ceremony that could not fail but catch ones attention. She continued to be the life and  creative soul of the festival with her "constum-esque" dresses and hats.  Here is a selection of what she wore. Please remember that I have stolen most of these pictures from various places on the WWW and most of the photos are not actually from the EAFOL. But they are what she wore at the EAFOL.
I even managed to get one of the drawings that Sarah drew (unsigned) and then lost it when my clip board disappeared in the ops room under a pile of all the paperwork. I was going to put it up in The Old Library. I am just a little disappointed about that. Oh well.
On Saturday we had another event with Sarah McIntyre this time with Philip Reeve. Never, ever, have I wanted to be five years old again as much as I did then. The co-authors performedOliver and the Seawigs” entrancing and delighting their young (and  new old) fans.
At the end of the evening I donned headphones for an interesting discussion on Emirati Satirical fiction. It was not long into the session when “fiction” became “commentary” and a lively discussion ensued. Khalid Al Suwedi was a charming and warm speaker with a cheeky twinkle in his eye.
Friday 7th March kicked off with a fascinating teaser from Prue Leith about her recently published memoire Relish. Her account of putting herself out there on the dating scene as single woman in her 60’s was delightfully candid. I loved the hints at her growning up in South Africa. I will be getting that book out to read now that I have listened to her talk.
The Big Hit of the Day in our room was Professor Jim Al-Khalili and his talk about The Golden Age of Arabic Science. The audience and volunteers alike (me in particular as I am in total awe of Physicists who can for a nano second make you think that you 'get" what they actually do) loved his engaging talk on the Golden Age of Arabic Science -not to be confused with Islamic Science, by the way. I felt so bad for Bryan as he was in Oman (or somewhere) so could not be at the festival on Friday and missed this. Fortunately he did not miss the Saturday discussion where Prof. Jim discussed his big idea - he talked about Free will – are we slaves to the molecules that make up the machinery of a person and his thoughts, or are we the masters of our will. Bryan managed to squeeze in a question and asked his thoughts on how this  colours thinking on crime and punishment. Jim Al Khalili is an engaging, passionate speaker who clearly loves what he does. Which I think, is think, A LOT. Of course I will be getting his book.

This book fair is proving to be a tad expensive.  I will check first and see if we have the books in the library……..
Orlando Figes talk on love letters sent and received  from the Pechora labor camp in Siberia between two lovers  covering 1946 to 1955 was fascinating and indepth. This is an amazing tale of enduring love and of making a plan to make the impossible happen. Go on get the book you will love it.
Ali Alsaloom of Ask Ali fame (in Dubai) was another delightful surprise. He told the sweetest story about his Grandmother and the pearls that she never had. This was a simple story that told the audience a bit about the history of pearl diving in the UAE from a uniquely personal perspective. Ali invited us to visit his pearl beds in Abu Dhabi’s crystal clear azure waters.

Go On Ask Ali
I found Georgina Howells presentation about Gertrude Ball a touch dry in delivery and I much preferred the question and answer session at the end of the session where I felt she warmed to the audience more. I enjoyed that there were differences of opinion about the character and motivation of Gertrude Bell from the floor. There is no doubt however, that Gertrude Bell was a formidable and fascinating woman who influenced the decisions made about the Middle East at a crucial time in its history. This is another book that I will read.
By Saturday 8th March We was ready for whatever was thrown at us. We surged into our first session looking forward to a great day’s literary fodder.

My favorite quote for the Festival came from Justin Cronin on Saturday. When asked how long a short story should be he answered (short version here) that a short story should be as long as the readers’ bladder holds out before the reader need to go to the loo……. 
Vivian French is an amazing teacher! She was brilliant with the children in her session.  I think that an adult writer could have taken away some pointers on how to write just as the children did. Every recommendation given by her young audience was used in her story board. It was quite fascinating to see how she built up her story. Well actually the story belonged to everyone in the room who gave a suggestion. She was inspiring. If someone as creative as Vivian tells you that you can write a story you jolly well believe her!

Another favourite with the public was Jeremy Bowen talking about reporting in turbulent times. He gave an intimate account of how his career impacted on his personal life and mental health. We were treated to a touching conversation that was peppered with snippets of recollections of a life lived fully in the service of honest reporting.
At this point in my post, if any of you are thinking “Oooo I might do this next year”, could I encourage you to pick a couple of sessions that you absolutely would never, ever have thought to do? If I can take away one thing from this festival as a result of being in a redetermined room for the whole event which means that I do not get to choose what I saw, it is that I what Ienjoyed the most was some of the sessions that I would not have chosen to see if I had been given the choice. Don’t go for the obvious. Have no interest in children's authors? Go and see one in action. It will warm your heart. Not interested in Vampires? Sit in on a session about them. You will surprise yourself. 
My Lovely Team
Over the course of the festival I had some of the loveliest people helping me in Al Bahara II. The students volunteers assigned to my room were just so helpful and keen and did not balk at the most loathsome of tasks. Counting the number of people in a room for me (three or four times) just to "be sure". Counting collected tickets, standing for hours outside the room whilst some of us enjoyed listening in on the event. Looking after the VIP and Festival Friends seating by making sure that those seats were held for people that had either paid a premium for their tickets by becoming festival friends or who were sponsors. I have to say something here about the sponsors.  The festival could not take place without them. Honestly, no word of a lie! I am not sure the general public ( that is you and me darlings) realise that the price we pay for our tickets does not cover the cost of holding such an event and that without the financial support of the sponsors the festival would not take place. But back to the volunteers, who are (puffing up my chest) also a valuable asset to the Festival. My team of university students, high school students, and my room managers Philip Mackenzie and Nicolla Henderson were the best. They were reliable, quick to help, and with the support of the AV Team and the Operations team  made a mighty fine bunch of helpers. I like to think we did a good job of juggling looking after our room, the authors, the VIP’s and the general Public. I was mortified when an audience member complained that the doors were being opened and closed to the point of distraction. Mortified I tell you, and hope that we did a good job of stopping that from happening in our room again. The EAFOL team that herds and arranges and sorts out and supports all the volunteers: Chrissie, Jackie, Hala, Mustafa, oh and all the rest of the Operations team kepts the show on the road beautifully with humour and patience. I am proud to  to say that I am a part of this event.

Count me in for next year and I hope to see you all there.
A Beautiful End to the Festival - view from the venue. Picture from Laura Allais- Mare ( a fellow volunteer)
 Here is what The Bookseller had to say about the EAFOL

And Gulf News

The National