SHARJAH, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Kevin Spacey skipped the Screen Actors Guild awards, which handed him a win for his wildly popular role on "House of Cards", to watch 34 young actors from across the Arab world perform a play as part of his foundation's Home Grown initiative supporting local talent.
The cast, all 25 years old or younger, hail from war-torn Syria, Egypt, Yemen, Iraq and other corners of the Middle East. For many of them, the play marked the first time they had ever left their home countries or been given support to hone their craft.
Abduljabbar al-Suhili, 25, from Sanaa, Yemen, is returning from the intensive workshops held in the United Arab Emirates to a country without a president. Yemen has been plagued by power outages, al-Qaida attacks, rebel Houthi advances and widespread political instability. Dabbling in the arts is considered a luxury, and acting is not seen as a serious profession, he says.
"The state bodies are preoccupied with the constitution, the transitional phase and security and stability because of the political situation there," he said. "This has impacted artists because we are unable to fulfill our ambitions in culture or artistic efforts on stage or in music. We have become concerned with earning a living."
But for two weeks, al-Suhili had a chance to escape that. He and the other aspiring actors were flown to the emirate of Sharjah in the UAE in an all-expense-paid program with the nonprofit Middle East Theatre Academy, a joint initiative launched in 2011 with the Kevin Spacey Foundation (KSF) and Emirati businessman Badr Jafar, whose family runs a Sharjah-based petroleum and gas conglomerate.
The actors were selected from a group of around 300 applicants for the first KSF Home Grown workshop to take place in the Middle East, with two previous workshops in the United States and United Kingdom.
After two weeks of training with professional acting coaches from KSF, the actors performed a play titled "Dhow Under the Sun." The play is set in a fictional refugee camp where issues of poverty, corruption, love and hope form the narrative. With a two-night run, it premiered before an intimate gathering Sunday that included the ruler of the emirate of Sharjah, Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed al-Qasimi.
Before the opening night of the play, Spacey spent time coaching the young actors and gave them tips to take with them back home. When introducing the play, he told the audience that it was this kind of setting that helped him grow as an actor.
"Tonight is the kind of night that I grew up with, that I experienced very young because in my theater class I got to be part of many programs where I was brought together with other emerging artists, put on plays, did workshops," he said. "Tonight we celebrate ... bringing together these young remarkable talents from so many different places as well."
KSF Executive Director Steven Winter, who has worked with Spacey for 10 years, said the award-winning actor is "hugely passionate about using the creative industries to propel people forward."
"I think probably because he was a beneficiary of the sorts of programs that we run when he was a young person," Winter said.
The play, commissioned specifically for the workshop, was written by Iraqi-British playwright Hassan Abdulrazzak. It began and ended with the same central question: Do you want to be safe or do you want to happy?
In many ways, that question was for the audience as much as it was for the young actors, who risked following their passion in the arts in a region roiled by instability and uncertainty and where there's little guarantee of safety or happiness.
The play's central question culminates with its heroine, played by 24 year-old Syrian actress Alaa Zadh, having to decide between two choices: Her security and wealth outside the refugee camp or marrying the man she loves and realizing her dreams.
The play also wittingly pokes fun at celebrity and wealthy oil men — with both Spacey and Jafar sitting front row. In one scene, the residents of the camp ridicule a young man in the camp who says that the world cares about their plight. They only care about us when Angelina Jolie passes through, they tell him.
Zadh, the blue-eyed, raven-haired star of the play, said that despite a long history of theater and acting in her home country of Syria, the civil war has made it especially difficult for artists to earn a living or carve out a space for expression.
She says that what Spacey did was "throw the rope to others".
"I didn't feel like it was two weeks and I don't want them to end. I am very happy. I am part of a family," Zadh said of her experience. "I'm still dreaming."
Associated Press video journalists Fay Abuelgasim in Dubai, United Arab Emirates and Taymour El-Alfy in Cairo contributed to this report.
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