Two former Doha residents, Steve Griffiths and his daughter Jane, have successfully produced a grand musical in the turbulent Syrian capital Damascus with a cast comprising a majority who spoke no English at all before the six-week long rehearsals.
Steve, a former music teacher and events co-ordinator with Qatar Foundation, is remembered by many in Doha for the brilliance of his many musical shows performed at Qatar Academy, the innumerable concerts he arranged, including the popular series sponsored by Shell Qatar, and for the important part he played in establishing the now flourishing Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra.
Leaving last December after 12 years in Qatar to take up a post as director of music at Wellington College International in Tianjin, China, he took time off to take up a far greater challenge than any he had faced in Doha: nothing less than a full-scale musical production in Damascus in mid-July.
Given the state of unrest in Syria, and the repeated warnings by the British government to its nationals to leave the country, Steve and Jane, who has assisted him in all his productions in Doha, agonised over whether to accept the invitation from Maria Arnout, general director of the Syria Opera House and a former musician with the Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra.
Arnout was familiar with the Griffiths’ work, having taken part in some of their musical shows in Doha. Her ambition was to stage a musical in Damascus as part of a Children’s Festival at the opera house.
Friends and family warned the Griffiths duo of the dangers in going, and so did the Foreign Office. But in the end they accepted.
“You really shouldn’t be here!” said Simon Collis, British ambassador to Syria and former ambassador to Qatar, when they arrived in May to begin auditioning.
But undeterred, the Griffiths duo lost no time in tackling the formidable task of producing the musical Oliver in just six weeks, beginning in June, in a country which had never before seen the performance of a West-end musical. They had a cast of 70 lined up, most of whom spoke no English!
“Normally we’d have two or three months to work on a project like this one,” explained Jane Griffiths. “We auditioned over 50 children from the Damascus orphanages and selected a number to take part in the show. Other members of the cast were drawn from a local choir and students, lecturers and performers from the High Institute of Music.”
Rehearsals began in early June and everyone worked extremely hard. With the aid of a translator who was present at all the rehearsals with the children from the orphanages, and with English-speaking adult members of the cast helping to translate for the others, somehow they managed, rehearsing six days a week for six weeks. “The children learnt all of their songs and dialogues,” said Jane Griffiths, “and although phrases like ‘You’ve-got-to-pick-a-pocket-or-two’ sung at a fast pace were a bit tricky, we persevered.”
Between the rehearsals, the Griffiths father-and-daughter team fitted in meetings with the set builders at the Opera House, the tailor who was creating the costumes designed by Jane, who also designed the set, and technical and production staff at the Opera House, many of whom had little or no English.
“The staff at the Opera House were very amenable and great to work with,” said Jane, “I was aware that staging a musical like this was as alien to them as it was to most of the performers, so my extensive list of requirements and requests must have seemed demanding, to say the least, however the whole team stepped up to the mark and helped bring our vision to life.”
Towards the end of the rehearsal period, Steve was busy rehearsing with the Syrian National Symphony Orchestra who accompanied the show. The musicians had very little experience of the musical theatre style, however they embraced the project with enthusiasm.
After all the hard work the show was a stunning success, with four sold-out performances and great enthusiasm from the audiences.
The Damascus Opera House has invited Steve Griffiths to return in June 2012 to stage another show, and Jane Griffiths has received a personal invitation from the Minister of Culture to join the jury for the Damascus International Film Festival in November this year. Despite the warnings of British officials and their family and friends, the Griffiths encountered no danger or violence all the time they were in the capital.
“Central Damascus was very calm,” commented Jane Griffiths, “and everyone was so welcoming and friendly. At times I did feel uncomfortable about the situation in other parts of Syria. However we felt that bringing music, enjoyment, entertainment and fun to a country going through difficult times was necessary and important, to allow people to carry on with normal life.”
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