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Short+Sweet theatre festival returns to Abu Dhabi for its second edition

From a domestic murder-mystery and a Serbian folk tale to an Arabian moral fable and an “existential crisis in 10 minutes or less”, audiences can expect a dizzying display of diversity at this weekend’s Short+Sweet Abu Dhabi theatre festival.

The competitive event, at New York University Abu Dhabi, will showcase a dozen locally-produced plays – each performed both on Friday and Saturday (January 20-21) – constrained only by the strict condition that none last more than 10 minutes.

Billed as “the biggest little play festival in the world”, the amateur competition – which originated in Australia – now takes place annually in 23 cities in seven countries. Abu Dhabi was added to the list for the first time last year.

“For the audience, the best thing is there’s no specific genre – there’s something for everybody,” says Clive Primrose, NYUAD’s director of marketing and audience engagement.

Last year’s inaugural event in the capital featured a number of theatre groups from Dubai – where Short+Sweet was introduced to the GCC in 2013 – but this year’s event will feature only companies and productions from the capital. Tickets for both nights have sold out – proof, says festival director Zakaia Cvitanovich, of Abu Dhabi’s emerging theatre scene.

“We were very surprised with the response last year,” says the New Zealander, who is also the co-founder of the capital’s Beyond the Veil theatre company.

“As all of us who do a bit of theatre know it’s quite difficult to fill venues – even small ones – so the fact tickets have gone so quickly is incredible.”

Al Hurr Al Dalli – a writer, director and actor who has been involved with Abu Dhabi’s Resuscitation Theatre since 2010 – is taking part in Short+Sweet for the second time.

“When we started [Resuscitation], there was just one other theatre group – now there are more and more theatre companies, and Short+Sweet is a big part of that,” says the 24-year-old Iraqi, who was raised in the UAE. “It’s given people a push, everyone from schools to other more-established companies.”

Al Dalli describes his two-man piece, titled Electric Lamentations: Through the Shattered Glass, as a “satire on the technological age”. A film-school graduate, the skills he learnt crafting short films came in handy during the creation of the play, but the time limit remained a challenge.

“You can’t be too scared,” he says. “It’s a good exercise in narrowing things down, while still fully exploring what you’re trying to say. It’s really tough – I still don’t know if I’ve got it down.”

The event will feature 39 local actors in 12 plays, eight of which were written by aspiring playwrights in the UAE. Awards will be presented on the closing night for acting, writing and production, along with one voted for by the audience. Some of the other plays that will be featured include Beirut and Me and Faisal Makes Three, a play directed by Resuscitation Theatre’s Faisal Al Jadir, about a man leaving Beirut who is forced to choose between two lives. For the Love of H, by director Angeleene Abraham, explores the different types of love.

Cvitanovich is the co-writer of two of the plays, which are ineligible for the writing award due to his official role with the event.

“You think just writing 10 minutes would be easy, but you have to go through all the same plot and character development that you would have to do in a full-length play,” she says.

“The big difference is you have to get to the crux of the piece in seconds. “It’s very easy to get muddled. For the audience, they’re watching one play after another, and if it gets too complicated they won’t even remember your play at the end of the night.”

For the first time, the competition will feature an Arabic-language play. Writer-director-star Abdul Nasser Al Tamimi says he was inspired to take part after watching in the audience last year.

“Short+Sweet is a good chance to perform for a very good audience, very educated,” says the 60-year-old Iraqi, who has lived in the UAE for 15 years.

His script is based on a traditional story told to him by his father, which he has turned into “something between” a comedy and a drama. It was still running to about 15 minutes, he admitted, less than a week before the show.

For aspiring actors and directors, Short+Sweet offers unrivalled opportunities to make use of NYUAD’s world-class facilities in the high-tech, 150-capacity Black Box Theatre. Making sure everything is all right on the night will be the same in-house crew who worked on shows featuring Kronos Quartet, Toshi Reagon and Pee Wee Ellis, as part of the Arts Center’s trailblazing performance programme.

“After last year’s event, a festival organiser remarked to me how the quality of our venue and technical-production team really inspired the companies to take their work to the next level,” says executive artistic director Bill Bragin, a former programmer at New York’s Lincoln Center.

“We’re really lucky to be able to use NYUAD’s wonderful theatre, and it’s a fantastic opportunity for some of the kids to be in such a high-quality facility,” adds Cvitanovich.

“For example, the lighting guy was with the National Theatre in London for 17 years. The team is incredible, and one of the big things is that we give the chance for students starting out to work with these professionals. I would have died for these opportunities at that age.”

• Short+Sweet Abu Dhabi is at The Black Box Theater, NYUAD Arts Center, Saadiyat Island, on Friday, January 20, and Saturday at 8pm. The free tickets are sold out, but there will be a standby line. For more details, see www.facebook.com/shortandsweetabudhabi

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