A glut of short theatre festivals in Dubai?

Is it possible to have too much of a good thing? We’ll find out next year, when two competing short-play festivals run in Dubai at more or less the same time.

The protagonists are Short+Sweet, well established internationally and a fixture in Dubai for the last five years: and the new 10:Ten Fest, set up by the former Short+Sweet licence holder.

The Short+Sweet idea began life in Australia and has since been replicated in several countries around the world – basically by the original organisation licencing the brand (and all the systems, methods, activities, programmes and networks that have been developed over the last 20 years) to local organisations.

In the UAE the original licensee was Alex Broun (right), a hyperactive scriptwriter, director, tutor and general man about theatre here. He is a long-term friend and colleague of Mark Cleary, the founder (and artistic director) of the Short+Sweet mothership, and Broun was the original Festival Director for Short+Sweet Dubai when it launched in in February 2012.

He ran it until the licence passed to a company called Constellation Events for the 2016 and 2017 festivals (Cleary says this was in 2015, Constellation’s Liz Hadaway says it was 2014).

Short+Sweet Dubai has certainly been a success. Its first year had over 100 actors, writers and directors involved and attracted an audience total in excess of 1,1000; that built up to a high in 2016, with 250 artists participating and an audience of more than 2,000. Cleary told is that last year the festival slipped a bit in numbers “but we expect to be back to our normal peaks in 2018”.

That won’t be with Constellation, though. Its licence and the rights to do Short+Sweet in this country were cancelled on 16 May this year.

Cleary has detailed some of the reasons for the breakdown in the relationship between him and Constellation. “Whilst S+S in the UAE may have appeared to be doing well from the outside, there were issues behind the scenes that needed to be addressed.

“I personally attempted to sort out these issues with the organisers on several occasions with little or no response. There was no response from the actual licence holder – this was alarming as S+S events were being executed and presented without proper care and oversight or keeping the parent company (and intellectual property owners of the brand) informed.

“Weeks turned into months of non-response from the licence holder. Then I discovered that our the company that had signed the licence with us no longer existed as a legal entity. In addition there were many other irregularities in financial and reporting areas.”

So he withdrew the licence to present Short+Sweet in UAE and elsewhere. That was in May; but he feels “the basic foundation for the agreement had ceased to exist when the signatory to the agreement had been dissolved, an action which had never been communicated to me or to anyone in the [Short+Sweet] organisation”.

Mark Cleary has put out a statement “to provide some clarity” about the ‘devolved franchise’ model that S+S uses and went on to criticize the idea of duplicating the principle, which is what he presumably feels Constellation is doing –– “the concept of taking our IP and creating a copycat event is totally the opposite of what we are. Personally I find it both sad and pathetic. Any person or organisation who would do this demonstrates conclusively that they don’t really understand Short+Sweet”.

He’s talking about the new arrival of 10:Ten, a festival of short plays – up to ten minutes in length, hence the name – that will run over five weekends from 2 February to 24 February 2018 at DUCTAC, with a Red Carpet Gala Final on 9 March at The Madinat Theatre in Madinat Jumeirah. That’s not very different to the Short+Sweet format.

According to Liz Hadaway: “Myself personally [sic] and my company has had exclusive contracts to run the [Short+Sweet Dubai Theatre Festival] since 2014. Our current contract to run Short+Sweet events in the UAE runs until 2025. No one other than Constellation Productions has the right to produce any Short+Sweet events without our permission.

“This summer there has unfortunately been a hostile takeover bid of our festival by people whom I formerly considered friends as well as colleagues” – specifically, Alex Broun and the team at The Junction theatre in Alserkal Avenue.

It’s The Junction that is now the rights holders for all Short+Sweet festivals throughout UAE, says Mark Cleary. “The potential future for S+S as a force for creativity and self expression in the GCC is fantastic, and a dynamic and forward reaching organisation like The Junction will be a great partner into the future.”

The Junction had already had dealings with Short+Sweet, hosting S+S programmes like S+S Bollywood and S+S Voices, and they were up for it – especially with the participation of Alex Broun as the newly installed Executive Producer of the S+S festivals.

“I have always had a very strong relationship with the owners of The Junction, who were some of the biggest supporters of establishing Short+Sweet in Dubai in the first place,” says Broun. “Indeed they lent us funds so we were able to run the first ever Short+Sweet Theatre Dubai in 2012. I look forward to working with The Junction team on this next exciting chapter in the growth of Short+Sweet in the UAE.”

In practice the fact that The Junction actually runs a venue is a big plus over Constellation, which as a producer has to negotiate slots with suitable performance spaces. As Broun put it, “The Junction is able to programme a year-long programme of Short+Sweet Festivals at their venue whereas Constellation has to try to negotiate with other venues and pay often exorbitant rental fees to put on events”.

Broun suspects that this may have been a reason why Constellation has staged so few Short+Sweet festivals since its own agreement was signed – The Junction is committing to a full schedule of S+S festivals (not just theatre) for 2017-18.

He also queries Constellation’s relationship with The Junction: “after the wonderful job The Junction did in hosting Short+Sweet Festivals in 2017 and 2018, at a very large cost to the venue, why had Constellation unilaterally decided to move Short+Sweet Theatre to another venue in 2018?” He feels that was a slap in the face for The Junction and “an unnecessary wedge in the tight knit Dubai theatre community”.

We offered Liz Hadaway the opportunity to comment on the matter, but she had not been in touch with us by press time.

She calls the row “essentially a B2B business dispute which is now in the hands of our lawyers”. As for Mark Cleary, he feels that everything has been done by the book. “The action that I took was not done overnight or ‘by surprise’ … There is no litigation on our part at this stage, no sinister motives, no ‘hostile take-over’ or efforts to divide the theatre community”.

Alex Broun also doubts that Constellation has a case against anyone. “If Constellation did have a case against Short+Sweet, why have they announced a rival festival which they will be conducting against Short+Sweet in February 2018, effectively driving a wedge into the Dubai theatre community? The website for that new festival was registered on 1 May 2017, so clearly they realised very early on that they had no case against Short+Sweet”.

Constellation’s 10:Ten Fest is described somewhat pointedly as “a homemade, multi-language festival created in Dubai, for Dubai … To add another first to Dubai’s list of artistic and cultural accomplishments, it now has its very own homegrown theatre festival … The 10:Ten Dubai Theatre Festival will launch in 2018 and has been created right here in Dubai …”

Get the point? To allay any doubt, Liz Hadaway, who is the Festival Director of 10:Ten, summarises the programme thus: “There are many incredibly talented artists based right here in the UAE so this is a chance for audiences to check out not what’s being imported as a concept from the UK, Australia or India, but what’s happening in the artistic scene right here in Dubai.”

One differentiator (apart from the emphasis on localness) is the promise of a series of free workshops for all participants “to support the growth and development of artists”. Ms Hadaway also promises that “10:Ten will feature lots of new and innovative twists and ideas … we are very excited about the new possibilities which it opens up”.

Mark Cleary isn’t convinced about those new possibilities. “There have been many copycat productions [imitating the Short+Sweet format] over the years.

“Frankly, if you have to copy someone else’s idea what does that say about who you are and what you stand for?”

And by contrast to the local emphasis, the Short+Sweet approach majors on its international network – “Short+Sweet is the global leader in short form theatre, dance and music (and now film)”, said Cleary.

At a basic level, ideas and procedures can be swapped between licensees. There’s also the chance for international exposure: last year two companies from Dubai performed in the first ever Short+Sweet Hollywood. Two films from Dubai were presented at the first ever Short+Sweet International Film Festival at the Egyptian Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard a few days ago.

Mark Cleary is enthusiastic about the Film Festival programme: “this year there were six S+S Film Festivals (including Dubai) in Hollywood for the Gala Final. Next year there’ll be 15 festivals, 25 the year after. Beyond that, who knows? My estimate is 100 by year six. Along with the reach will come great opportunities for networking and skills development for all participants.”

At magpie we’re not taking sides: our only wish is to see more and better theatre (and indeed performance in general) in the UAE. Mark Cleary says “our only motivation is to make sure that Short+Sweet can grow and thrive in the UAE and follow through with meeting the objectives of our vision providing opportunities for artists and giving people a chance to tell their stories in theatre, dance, film and music”. We’d sign up for that, and in principle we’d say the more opportunities the better it will be all round …

Except that it doesn’t always work like that. A theatre director who didn’t want to be named told us: “There isn’t an unlimited supply of good plays or directors in Dubai. We’re going to have to chose which festival to support, and we would rather not be put in that position”. In fact it’s worse than that: the two festivals overlap in their dates, so companies probably couldn’t do both even if they wanted to.

In the short term the conflict could be divisive, which would be a shame. More won’t necessarily mean better.

 

Short+Sweet Dubai dates and details

The Junction has an impressive 2017-2018 schedule of S+S Festivals. Short+Sweet Theatre runs in January and February next year, but things kick off in September:

22-23 Sep Short+Sweet Poetry

9-11 Nov Short+Sweet Dance

14-16 Dec Short+Sweet Comedy

18 Jan –24 Feb Short+Sweet Theatre

8-10 Mar Short+Sweet Film

15-24 Mar Short+Sweet Voices

12-14 Apr Short+Sweet Cabaret

10-12 May Short+Sweet Bollywood

There is a form on the website for registering your interest in one or more of these. But there’s no detail as yet, either here or on the Facebook page, and The Junction doesn’t have the dates on its own web calendar, so we’re not sure precisely what’s involved and what the restrictions are. The basic principle of Short+Sweet is of course embedded in the name, but while a 10-minute Bollywood routine works that time limit seems bit generous for poetry …

 

10:Ten Fest dates and details

The 10:Ten Fest info is more explicit – though it’s solely a theatre festival (there are hints that more festivals will follow later) so the rules and regs are basically familiar from the last S+S Dubai Theatre Festival.

Registration closes for writers and scripts on 21 October. For directors and theatre companies the deadline is 4 November, for actors it’s 23 November. Auditions will be on 25 November, and selected directors and companies will be invited to attend to look for actors for their plays. Actors can figure in up to three plays, incidentally.

Entry is free for all participants. Sign up at www.tentenfest.com.

There’s an open meeting for anyone interested in participating and/or attending at 7pm on Saturday 23 September at Constellation Productions, 2401 One Lake Plaza in JLT’s Cluster T.

 

Short+Sweet Abu Dhabi

Short+Sweet Abu Dhabi is unaffected by the goings-on in Dubai and will “definitely” continue under its Festival Director, the indefatigable Zakaia Cvitanovich, at NYU Abu Dhabi Arts Center. The dates are 19-20 January 2018.

 

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