Sending the elevator down

The Middle East might be the final frontier for theatre and the dramatic arts. Kevin Spacey, with a little help from well connected friend Badr Jafar, is hoping to change that, quickly.
Hollywood movie star Kevin Spacey says the Middle East has untapped potential
By Damian Reilly
Sun 13 Mar 2011 01:40 PM

There’s something of the throwback about Kevin Spacey. He wouldn’t have looked out of place in Hollywood’s so-called golden era of the 1940’s or 50’s. Widely hailed as the leading actor of his generation, no one works a pregnant pause like Spacey. Or, for that matter, a room. Sitting in a plush meeting room in Dubai’s Capital Club, telling a crowd of journalists about the Middle East Theatre Academy he is launching with local businessman Badr Jafar, he effortlessly enthralls his audience with his plans, and then with tales of his early career. He goes misty eyed at the memory of Jack Lemon, his mentor – “you gotta send the elevator back down,” was the advice the silver screen icon gave him should he ever achieve success, by which he meant help people at the start of their career to flourish – and he is passionate on the power of the arts to galvanise a society.

Spacey says sending the elevator back down is exactly what he is here today in Dubai to do. The Middle East Theatre Academy is intended to bring theatre to the region, and to involve children and young people in the dramatic arts through workshops and performances. He says he and Jafar have identified a hunger for theatre in the Middle East – a hunger that is being woefully underserved. With luck, all that is about to change.

After the press conference, Spacey is ushered into a room to meet Arabian Business, to discuss the initiative further. Although pressed for time, he is a courteous interviewee, happy to expand upon what he sees as the challenges facing the region’s potential actors and directors.

He recognises, for example, the problems censorship poses to a nascent industry, but says he is optimistic that with the passage of time, the censorship will recede.

“There is no doubt that freedom is something that takes time. And there are traditions – some of them are religious, some of them are cultural, some of them are family – where you can have an art exhibition in Paris or London that might come here and raise some eyebrows. It will take time for people to embrace the idea that freedom of expression is an important part of progress. But I think that there are signs that people want to find expression.”

He cites, as an example, the images that have in recent weeks come out of Middle Eastern countries in the midst of revolution – images of the struggle for freedoms in places where only a few months previously such a struggle would have been unthinkable. He says the impact of these pictures has been terrifically powerfully and draws a parallel with the power of good cinema.

He says: “Cinema is incredibly powerful and we certainly see that images that can find their way out of a country in turmoil can be incredibly powerful and very important for the world to see what is happening somewhere. I think that when images in film are used quite brilliantly and quite beautifully to tell a story, even if it is an incredibly difficult story and tough for some people to watch… that shouldn’t stop us from doing it and it shouldn’t stop some people from saying ‘I have to tell this story’.”

Gulf countries might have reservations about showing some films, or parts of some films (cinemas are banned in Saudi Arabia, for example), but that has not stopped the region embracing the industry, both as a host for film festivals, and as a location for film making. In fact, such is the fervour for all things celluloid in the Gulf that there are an almost ridiculous number of festivals: Dubai has one, so too does Abu Dhabi. Doha’s has one, and there is even talk of one in Bahrain. Perhaps over the coming years a dominant festival will emerge, but the real growth area is location work. In the last twelve months Dubai has led the field in this regard. Mission Impossible IV was largely shot in the emirate, and shortly the latest James Bond film will also be filmed there. Spacey believes it is a trend that – if well managed – will continue.

He says: “Everyone has asked the same questions about Toronto or North Carolina or New Orleans, or New York City or California. The truth is that if you have a clever enough film maker and a clever enough cinematographer, you can make any place look like any place. That is clear. Because Lord knows, Toronto has stood in for New York City in many, many films. But if you look at some of the reasons why films are going to New Orleans, or why they are going to Detroit, it is because of the tax incentives.

“So I suspect that part of the reason why films are coming here is because they are getting remarkable deals to be able to shoot films here. So it is cost effective. That’s why films go to Australia. We did Superman down there. I think it helps encourage film makers and perhaps studios to be able to say ‘yes, let’s go there’.”

He adds that Dubai’s stock as a film making hub will grow as the fruits of previous labours are widely seen by cinema audiences and studios.

“I think the more films come, and the more people realise this is a good place to come and shoot, I think more films will come here,” he says.

There was talk shortly after the highly successful release of Avatar globally, that the Gulf might try to make itself the centre of the worldwide 3D film making revolution. Asked for his thoughts on 3D films, it quickly becomes clear that Spacey is of the old school.

Leaning forward in his seat to consider the issue, he unleashes that famous smile before saying: “My favourite response to this phenomenon was when a journalist asked Sam Mendes if he would ever consider working in 3D. Sam paused and said: ‘I have been working in 3D my entire life. It is called the theatre.’ You know, technically, there are some extraordinary things about it. But I happen to think that at the end of the day, a good script with phenomenal actors and performances, and an incredible visionary as a director… nothing is going to trump that.”

The path from acting to politics has over the years become an increasingly short and well worn one. Spacey, who is friends with former US president Bill Clinton and used more than once to turn up to government conferences in Britain, has long been rumoured to be contemplating making the move. That said, the same is also said of George Clooney and several other actors who make films with a political edge.

Spacey has this to say on the subject: “I don’t think George Clooney harbours political ambition. I think Alec Baldwin might, but I don’t think George does. I have always been fascinated by politics, both by what is admirable about public service and what is frustrating about the difference between policy and politics. And there is a big difference. We see it in the United States and we see it all over the world.”

Make of that what you will. While hardly a declaration of intent to run for the Presidency, he is clearly enthused by the machinations of politics. But not all politicians delight him.

“I went to Beirut this summer. It is a remarkable place. The people there were extraordinary. It is beautiful in many places. I met incredible, very kind people. I met people from all walks of life, and all kinds of religious backgrounds, and they are all getting along. And they are living their lives. And they are doing the best that they can. And then you have got a lot of politicians making a lot of angry statements and shaking it all up. And I just think: “be quiet, let people live.” Because they are doing ok, but all this rabble rousing creates tension that doesn’t need to be there. So let the people live, because they are doing ok,” he says.

And with that, Spacey is off – off to spread with Jafar the good news about drama in the Middle East. Theatre to change the world. How’s that for a political message?

Board walk:

The Middle East Theatre Academy is intended to bring theatre to the Middle East and introduce the youth in the Region to the art of theatre and stage performance.

Not for profit, the academy will make use of existing theatre and staging facilities throughout the region to offer a range of creative opportunities for emerging artists, including workshops, masterclasses and special events led by industry professionals in all aspects of theatre and stagecraft. The academy will focus particularly on motivating underprivileged children and teenagers.

Giving back:

The Middle East Theatre Academy Patron Kevin Spacey has previously - in November 2010 - launched The Kevin Spacey Foundation to help advance and promote the creative arts for public benefit through the training and education of writers, actors, producers and directors. Spacey views his Foundation as a means of "giving back" to the community, supporting those with the passion and potential to succeed in the competitive worlds of film and theatre.

Over the last decade, Spacey has worked tirelessly as the Creative Director at the Old Vic theatre in London, restoring the theatre from a crumbling curiousity into a venue for headline grabbing shows. He says it is work he is proud of, but he will leave next year.

Badr Jafar:

Badr Jafar is a United Arab Emirates business leader and social entrepreneur. Educated in the UAE and United Kingdom, he is one of the owners and the Executive Director of the Crescent Petroleum Group of Companies, and founder-CEO of Crescent Investments, the conglomerate's non-petroleum division. He is also the founder and the Chairperson of Gas Cities – a joint venture between Crescent Petroleum and Dana Gas; and Chairperson of Pearl Petroleum – a joint venture between Crescent Petroleum, Dana Gas, OMV of Austria, and the MOL Group of Hungary.

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