Actors, playwrights and lovers of theater gather to improve their skills and gain a cultural experience.
In the United States, everyone is told they can become whatever their heart desires. Universities all over the nation offer a wide variety of majors with concentrations in business, science, the arts, technology, agriculture and more. Unfortunately, in the Middle East, it is not this way.
The American University of Sharjah (AUS) in the United Arab Emirates is one of the few schools in the Middle East with a Performing Arts Program. The program features minors for students in music and theater. Students at AUS are only allowed to minor in fine arts programs because families of attending students disregard fine arts programs as not financially viable.
"I don't want to say theater is looked down upon, but it's not considered relevant," Texas Tech student Kyle Williams said. "The university has only a minor for theater and a lot of people want to major, but again, their parents are telling them " theater is not a job.'"
Anthony Tassa, performing arts coordinator at AUS, uprooted his life in America and moved to the Middle East. There, he made it a mission to develop performing arts programs in that area. Two years ago, Tassa had the idea for the first theater festival at AUS and planning took off from there.
On Jan. 30, three students in the Department of Theatre and Dance at Texas Tech University, followed by faculty members, Mark Charney, director of Theatre and Dance, and Noel Zahler, dean of the College of Visual and Performing Arts, stepped into the United Arab Emirates, where they would gain the experience of a lifetime.
Williams, Nicole Laiben and Casey Mann were chosen by the faculty of the Department of Theatre and Dance to attend this festival. They spent a week interacting with students from all over the world. Through fun-filled events, lectures, workshops and shows, students not only improved their playwriting, acting and design skills but also expanded their cultural horizons.
"I had never been out of the country before," Williams said. "Everyone there is so willing and open to tell you anything. I met people from Syria, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, and they were so willing to tell me their life stories."
The students and faculty noticed various differences and similarities within the cultures. From their acting styles to their food choices and living habits, each culture had its own unique characteristic, yet they all have striking similarities.
"I was very curious to see their writing styles," Williams said. "What I realized is that religion and family values are so big over there. The family hierarchy system is followed to a " T." You don't go out of your way. You do what you are told."
Within the differences of the cultures, the students and faculty were able to find certain aspects that reminded them of their home at Texas Tech University.
"They gave coupons to use on campus," Charney said. "You could go to a Burger King or Dunkin' Donuts, or you could find local food, kind of like their Student Union Building."
Charney headed the playwriting workshops for the theater festival and noted the surprising similarity between American and multicultural playwrights.
"There was this unbelievable universality and connectivity that I guess I didn't see coming," he said. "With what's going on nationally right now, the paranoia and the extreme reactions to other nationalities, this trip was proof that there is little to fear. We share a similar sensibility, especially those in college, and the cultural exchanges were terrific."
The Texas Tech students and faculty were allowed leisure time to explore the United Arab Emirates and Dubai. Charney described the scene as very clean and conservative. The group explored the mall in Dubai, a cultural market named Global Village and toured the AUS campus. The group also was able to witness the Sharjah lights, where the entire city lights up at night.
"They took me to Old Dubai, we got to walk down on the waterfront and see all of the shops. It's kind of like a flea market," Williams said. "They took us to this museum and it blew my mind. There was all of this artwork everywhere. It was a great experience."
Texas Tech's contingent was accompanied by six other American universities and organizations at the festival. Students and shows traveled from Michigan University, Borough of Manhattan Community College, Palm Beach Atlantic University, Double Edge Theatre, William Paterson University and Clemson University. Charney said the Texas Tech theater program also made connections with New York University Abu Dhabi, Paris-Sorbonne University Abu Dhabi and American University of Sharjah. "
Along with attending the festival in the future, Zahler created the opportunity for students to begin their theater or music studies at AUS and then transfer to Texas Tech to complete a bachelor's program in their area of study. The faculty also are working with Paris-Sorbonne University in Abu Dhabi to coordinate a fine arts master's and doctorate program.
"Traveling is essential," Williams said. "We need to experience different cultures. You have to. If you live in one mindset your whole life, how can you ever grow?"