Kevin Spacey couldn't make it to Los Angeles to accept his Screen Actors Guild Award, because he had committed to being more than 13,000 kilometres away, in Sharjah, to watch an Arabic play put on by young theatre students he had spent two weeks personally mentoring.
Spacey took a seat in the front row at the Sharjah Institute for Theatrical Arts with Dr Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed Al Qasimi, Ruler of Sharjah, for the hour-long production of Dhow Under the Sun, by the Iraqi playwright Hassan Abdulrazzak.
That the play was in a language he does not understand did not seem to concern him. Neither did missing the SAG Awards, where the Oscar-winner picked up a gong for his work on the Netflix series House of Cards, adding to the Golden Globe Award he took home a week before.
The play, with 34 hand-picked participants from the UAE, Saudi Arabia, the Palestinian Territories, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Egypt, Algeria and Jordan, was the product of a two-week long Home Grown theatre workshop, a partnership between the Kevin Spacey Foundation and Middle East Theatre Academy (Meta) in Sharjah.
Addressing the crowd before the play started, Spacey said: "Tonight is the kind of night I grew up with.
"This is what I experienced when I was very young. In my theatre class, I was a part of many programmes where I was brought together with other emerging artists to put on plays in workshops with professional directors and working actors.
"Tonight is only different in that all the performers you see are from so many different places. In many ways, just as the UAE was brought together by the spirit of a man who believed he could unite all under one banner, we celebrate that spirit by bringing together these young, remarkable talents from so many different places.”
As the play began, Spacey leaned forward, ignoring the titles that flashed on the screens placed at the edge of the stage. He put on his glasses, intently following the expressions and body language of the lead characters, Ghalia and Anis.
The theatre veteran, who completed an 11-year-stint as the artistic director of The Old Vic Theatre in London last year, slipped into the Emirates under the radar two weeks ago to personally train the participants.
One of those was Emirati multimedia design professional Rashed Al Nuaimi, 22, who was chosen for the workshop after a strenuous audition process last year.
"Kevin Spacey told us that ¬regardless of where we come from or the language we speak, human emotions are the same,” said Nuaimi.
"Each one of us had to read a couple of lines from our character and he'd tell us how to express better. I play a goon and he told me how to focus with eye contact, my stance and vocal projection.”
The play was commissioned specifically for Home Grown and explores themes prevalent to the region. After being hit by an environmental calamity, families of a fictional country are displaced and forced into a refugee camp where they have to deal with the struggle for daily amenities, electricity and survival. Writer Abdulrazzak's story was inspired by true accounts of young Syrian refugees who had to abandon their homes and education when the civil war began. The play tackles the issue of statelessness, global warming and corruption, while managing to infuse it with a touch of humour and glimmer of human spirit.
"There is a dictator in the camp controlling the electricity and people are struggling to find it,” explains Nuaimi. "Ghalia, a young refugee, is a threat to this bully as she is working on building a new source of energy.”
Nuaimi says Spacey didn't mince words when it came to critiquing their performance.
"He was so honest with his feedback,” he says.
"There were a couple of participants who he practised with over and over and when they still didn't get it right, he would go on stage and then you'd know you had it coming. He'd then say: ‘no, that's not what I said!,” says Nuaimi, raising his voice and trying to do an impression of the actor.
"We don't have the discipline of theatre and we don't take directions well, yet. So he made us focus, listen and concentrate.”
He says the actor also spoke about fuelling a desire to swim against the tide. "Theatre isn't really an acceptable path to take in the region. He told us he knows it is harder for people like us but then the reward is bigger, as well. It takes time for culture to change and we should be part of a generation where people can express themselves through theatre.
Alaa Masri Zadh, who plays Ghalia, remembers how Spacey raised her confidence while delivering the English dialogues.
"I was afraid because I'm not comfortable speaking in English,” says the 24-year-old, who travelled outside Syria for the first time to attend the workshop. "He pushed me to where I stand now.”
Hala Albassar, from Syria, was also part of the ensemble, playing an egoistic TV presenter and a "mean girl” on stage.
"Kevin talked about his experience and when he realised he wanted to be an actor,” says the 25-year-old graphic designer. "I don't have a huge part, but he told me that it doesn't matter whether I have one line or 10, how I deliver, believe and dress that character is what counts. That was really encouraging.”
Spacey says the ambition and effect of the project can be gauged by the efforts to put together a diverse cast from the region. "For some of these participants, this is the first time that they have left their country of origin, put their lives on hold, rearranged exams, missed weddings, left jobs, departed from families and are taking on this challenge of forging bonds with people they have never met from a wide variety of backgrounds. We chose participants based on their talents, ambition and potential. Our company here is a mixture of abilities, from the relatively experienced to the newly enthusiastic.”
The actor launched his foundation in 2010 to support aspiring thespians around the world with free professional workshops, grants and scholarships. The foundation initiated the Home Grown programme to unearth local talent who would otherwise not have the means to pursue a career in the performing arts. This is the third version of the Spacey Foundation's Home Grown workshops, with the first two held in the United States and United Kingdom last year.
The partnership with Meta, however, has been the most ¬successful yet, says Steve Winter, the executive director of the ¬foundation.
"The easiest way to determine whether it is a success is in the way the participants feel and how they act towards one another,” says Winter.
"The feeling here is one of transformation, positivity and self-¬belief. Historically, some of these individuals shouldn't really interact or aren't allowed to interact with one another, and this has been a learning curve for them. This version truly epitomises most clearly our mission, which is to discover the unknown.”
The future of the partnership, however, has yet to be decided, he says.
"Before we take our next step and see how to move forward, we have to evaluate our time here,” says Winter. "We want it to be authentic and organic and not presume that it will work in the same way.”
The theatre's director Matt Wilde, who worked with the participants to perfect their performance before presenting the full show to Spacey last night, says he has been amazed by the energy of the participants.
"We only had time for one dress rehearsal,” says the director. ‘I would have liked two but we didn't have time. The talent we've seen so far is brilliant. I say if this is just a small bit here on this stage, it'll be very exciting to see what more is out there.”
Source: The National