Drama on the Avenue

07 January 2017Rahel Aima
Drama on the Avenue
Drama on the Avenue
Drama on the Avenue

Despite a storied tradition of Emirati drama and the rapid growth of its art, design, and film scenes, Dubai has largely lagged behind when it comes to performing arts. The few venues available are exorbitant—around AED 25,000 — and that’s before you even begin to factor in municipal event fees and the production cost itself. As such, audiences generally only have access to high-octane big budget extravaganzas, be they opera, ballet, dance or theatre, where organisers can be guaranteed to make back their hefty initial investment.

Gautam Goenka has been involved in independent theatre in Dubai for the past 17 years, but notes that the scene has not been very active due to the high costs. He explains, “It’s not really for the community. If you think about someone who’s a working professional or an avid theatregoer, how are they going to afford to put up a play? What you see here is imported theatre; locally developed has a stigma attached to it.” By way of illustration, he goes on to relate a favourite anecdote about when a local play called A Few Good Men was nominated by TimeOut Dubai for the year’s best theatrical production, up against Cirque du Soleil and a West End play. Only on the awards night—they didn’t win—did the magazine realise, to their shock, that the play was a homegrown affair, with every aspect developed and executed locally.   

Struggling with these same punishing costs, about five or six years ago Gautam and his friends began to dream about setting up their own venue, where they could produce their own events. A chance meeting with Alserkal Avenue director Vilma Jurkute four years ago would plant the seed for what would become an important centre for independent theatre in Dubai. They chatted about the difficulties of doing theatre in Dubai, as well as its relative dearth in the city. After crunching the numbers, however, Gautam realised that he did not have the budget to execute the concept they had been dreaming up. Undeterred, Vilma encouraged them not to give up: “All credit to her, she really encouraged a lot of us to keep thinking and keep doing, and she kept pushing me,” says Gautam. The encouragement led Gautam and his partners to move forward with their plans. 

They went back to Vilma, who told them about the Alserkal Avenue expansion, and The Junction became one of the first concepts to sign on. Handed over a bare shell and core unit, it took them over a year to build and fit out the venue to their specifications: soundproofing, building the stage, installing the seats (it holds about 160 people), building the backstage area and green room. With its arsenal of light and sound technology, the black box theatre, like its counterparts elsewhere, is extremely flexible—they have built multiple-floored sets, and on one memorable occasion, have even staged a show where the audience sat on the stage and looked up at the players.

Picking the venue name was equally arduous. The partners looked at over 200 names with their friends and families before settling on The Junction, a crossroads where people come together for a purpose; here it is to support and promote the performing arts.

When The Junction finally opened in November 2015, it immediately began work on new productions, “and I haven’t looked back since!” says Gautam. In the first 13 months following their launch, they’ve already put on about 100 nights of programming. The focus has been primarily on theatre, but has also included dance performances, acapella music, TED talks and even a magic show. While English remains the lingua franca, the venue regularly has performances in Arabic, Urdu, Hindi, Russian, Italian, French, and even Greek—it is a truly diverse venue that reflects the multicultural city they call home.

In addition to hosting plays by their own production company—recent plays have included One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, A Streetcar Named Desire, and Rumours—The Junction often leases its space out. Mindful of their own struggle finding and affording a place, their rental fees top out at AED 6500, well below the going rates for other venues.

A further strand makes an effort to partner with people who don’t have a platform or cannot afford the rentals, but still display a drive to do theatre. A second in-house production company, instantaneously named, H72 after the venue’s Alserkal unit number,  helps these people who have a theatrical concept and the will to abuse by giving them the space free of charge, and sometimes even covering some of their costs to help them out. “If I were to summarise The Junction, its focus is on performing arts by Dubai and for Dubai,” Gautam finishes. “That’s really the motto that we follow!"

“If I were to summarise The Junction, its focus is on performing arts by Dubai and for Dubai. That’s really the motto that we follow!” – Gautam Goenka