Dammam, Asharq Al-Awsat—The Saudi theater elite, critics, directors and Arab and Gulf scriptwriters have gathered in the Saudi Arabian city of Dammam on the Gulf coast, in a bid to pump new blood into Saudi Arabia’s stumbling theater movement.
The 10th Dammam Theater Festival, which began on Friday, incorporates plays, workshops, critical seminars and training sessions. The festival unites two generations of pioneering Saudi and Arab actors, and their younger counterparts. Both groups took part in a performance of the play Al-Naham (The Voice of Art) on the opening night, bringing together their different experiences.
Saudi Arabian theater has recently received considerable support from the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture in Dhahran, owned by the country’s state oil company, Saudi Aramco. Over the past few months, the center has organized a number of training workshops, merging Saudi acting groups with members of the British National Youth Theatre.
The Dammam Theater Festival started 10 years ago as a local activity but soon became an incubator for different theatrical experiments. Tens of theatrical teams have been formed under the banner of the festival, and numerous talents displayed: 79 theatrical teams and over 1,000 actors have taken part over the years. The festival has also honored a number of pioneers of local Saudi and Arab theater.
In addition to a development in theatrical techniques, this year’s plays focused on a number of social themes.
One play, Zowan, shed light on local tribal disputes. The play revolves around a legend recounting a conflict between local tribes over the ownership of the eponymous Zowan Spring. This conflict over water becomes a struggle for land and money and a bid to gain full control of the region by any means, including trickery and murder.
Al-Naham, performed at the opening ceremony, discussed the importance of art in life and its crucial function in promoting social growth. According to Bahraini artist Abdullah Al-Saadawi, who spoke at a critical seminar following the performance, the decision of director Yasser Al-Hassan to also act in the play, led to some confusion.
Another play, Hamlet, Get out of My Head, focused on middle-class ambitions. This is portrayed reflexively in a scene where one of the extras in the cast tries to take on a starring role.
The Show to be Continued, featuring a troupe of young actors from the Theater Club at the King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals in Dhahran, touched upon a number of daily-life issues, but focused mainly on themes of selfishness, people’s treatment of others, and their attempts at power-grabbing. The play shocked the audience by portraying a corpse in the main scene: The characters are divided as to whether to bury the corpse or throw it away, which is meant to be symbolic of the man’s final destiny, despite his importance in life.
Aside from the play’s subject, there were divided opinions over the quality of the actors’ performances. Abdullah Al-Saadawi said in the critical seminar that followed the performance of the play, and attended by the play’s director Rashed Al-Warthan, that The Show to be Continued had a monotonous script and seemed more like a workshop piece than a theatrical performance. Director Abdelhadi Al-Qarni said the play did not incorporate a leading character, and that the work concentrated too much on the corpse scene and the intellectual and cultural struggle over it.
Included in the festival’s activities was a seminar entitled The Art of Scenography in Theater. The seminar, presented by director Qarni and led by actor Maher Al-Ghane, discussed the development of scenography from its original concept to becoming “the most important element in a theatrical performance.” Qarni argued that its components—decoration, illumination, dress designing, accessories, makeup and sound—make up the means by which a play’s objective can be can be communicated to the viewer. He predicted that within the next 10 years scenography would serve “as an alternative to the director.”
“In building up a visual scene, the theater is concerned with lines, colors, areas, illuminated spaces and the assisting background,” he said. “All these are elements in building an image as well as being the characteristics of forming a theatrical scene.”
The 10th Dammam Theater Festival began on Friday, June 13 and continues until Sunday, June 22.