Historically, the live events industry in the Middle East has not been known for its wealth of homegrown talent, with incoming international acts and even locally based production houses hitherto tending to employ technical crew who learned their craft elsewhere. However, looking to change that is Sharjah Performing Arts Academy (SPAA) – the only dedicated performing arts academy of its kind in the Middle East, aiming to produce the next generation of talent, both on stage and behind the scenes.
SPAA offers a range of undergraduate courses, including BA Production Arts – a four-year programme that aims to prepare the stage managers, technicians, and production designers of tomorrow. “The students get a taste of everything, from lighting, audio and video, to stage management, event management and scenic construction,” began Programme Leader, Jacqui George. “It’s so important that all the students get a good understanding of all aspects of live event production.”
In the second year, the Production Arts programme is built upon three main strands – Technical (light, sound, video), Stage Management (show calling, stage and production management), and Design Realisation (scenic painting and construction, props, costume making and maintenance). “This is when the students get the opportunity to diversify and explore more specialist topics,” George explained.
By the third and fourth year, students spend most of their time working on productions – both internal SPAA shows and external placements. “Sending students out to do external placements is a chance for them to get practical, hands-on experience and build up their CV for when they graduate,” George noted, adding that the abundance of world-class venues and productions in the region provided a wealth of opportunities. “We’ve had students on placement at Dubai Opera, and one who production managed a Saudi Film Festival.”
When George started at SPAA in September 2018, the facility was still a building site. Since then, she has seen the academy grow and witnessed the setup of a world-class facility. “We have L-Acoustics systems and LA8 and LA4X amplification in the main auditorium and rehearsal rooms, Allen & Heath digital consoles and stage racks, Shure radio microphones and accessories, as well as a stock of Shure, Sennheiser and sE Electronics wired microphones,” she stated.
SPAA also boasts two Pro Tools-equipped recording studios, Van Damme stage boxes and infrastructure, an MA Lighting grandMA3, ETC Gio, education licences for both WYSIWYG and Vectorworks, Luminex switches and nodes, Avolites dimmer and distribution as well as a range of lighting fixtures including Robe DL7, DL4 and Spiiders and Arri L70C and S060 SkyPanels. “We’re in a period of investment now over the next five years where we are aiming to bring the facility up to industry standards,” George said.
Of course, even the best technical setup in the world is useless without the right people in place to teach students how to use it.
“It’s not just about having the kit and resources,” George explained. “Students get really excited by having these amazing pieces of tech to play with, but the industry contacts are even more important so we can make sure that what we’re doing is in line with what is happening in the professional side of the industry. If we can know and understand what the leading companies and productions are looking for in terms of employees, then we can create that circle where one feeds into another.”
Having worked in stage and production management for more than 20 years prior to starting her role at SPAA, George knows first-hand the range of skills and level of dedication required to make it in the industry. The Programme Leader has overseen an influx of tutors with strong industry background and years of experience, including John Parkhouse, Nick Wheeler, Candeta Bishop, Andrea Forde and David Filshie. “We’ve also been working closely with Creative Technology UAE General Manager, Lee Forde and the rest of the Creative Technology team,” she added. “They have been a huge support.”
‘OUR DOORS ARE OPEN’
With a strong focus from leadership in the region to promote homegrown talent as much as possible, some SPAA students are already finding themselves in high demand on the professional circuit. “We’re seeing some of our students get a lot of requests before they have even graduated,” George revealed. “One in particular from Dammam, Saudi Arabia, is already extremely busy back in the Kingdom and we have to help them manage their time wisely, so they are able to get as much experience as possible and take as many opportunities as possible without affecting their studies here too much.”
She added: “It’s no secret that historically there hasn’t been anywhere near enough homegrown talent coming out of the region. His Highness [Sheikh Dr Sultan bin Mohammed Al Qasimi, Member of the Supreme Council, Ruler of Sharjah and Academy President and Chairman] realised that and is helping to address the issue. The demand is there – it’s all about building up that talent base in the region,” she said, reinforcing the need to manage expectations for both parties to ensure that placements are beneficial for both students and organisations.
Now onto its third cohort of students, SPAA takes in would-be live events personnel from far and wide. “We have students from as far across as Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Palestine, Syria, Iraq and Saudi,” George revealed. “We’re fortunate that full scholarships with fees, accommodation and bursary are available for MENA region students.” Like the rest of the world, SPAA was forced to take its teaching online in February 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, with the right COVID policies in place, George was pleased to report that they were able to return to in-person teaching from September 2020.
“Everybody learned something during the pandemic, and we have kept a few of the working practices that we adopted – WYSIWYG and Vectorworks training, for example, is easier to teach online,” she shared. “There’s only so much that you can learn in theory before you need the practical experience, so we’re delighted that students are now able to get hands-on experience once again.”
Student intake at SPAA has grown year on year – something which George is keen to continue. “We had to pause a lot of our outreach due to COVID-19, but we are now able to get back out there and spread the word, letting people know both inside and outside the UAE what we can offer,” she concluded. “Our doors are open, and our aim is to take on more students from further afield and further strengthen our connections with the industry.