Earlier this month, members of the NYUAD and local communities gathered at Abu Dhabi's Manarat al Saadiyat to witness the University's first student-led production on the very island that will soon house NYU's permanent campus in the region. Directed by NYUAD Associate Professor of Theater Rubén Polendo, this production of The Ramayana was a collaboration between professionals from Polendo's own Theater Mitu, the Tourism Development & Investment Company (TDIC), the Saadiyat Cultural District, and "more than 50 students working on this production as actors, assistant designers, producers, managers, crew, documentarians, and dramaturges," Polendo said.
Although Polendo and Theater Mitu have worked on and performed other productions in Abu Dhabi, for Polendo, the most challenging aspect of the production was the logistics. Determining "how to produce a rigorous type of theater performance in Abu Dhabi was the challenge. Although Abu Dhabi has many things to offer, its artistic production tracks and channels are still being formed," Polendo said. "Each time we produce a piece here at NYU Abu Dhabi, we continue to forge these tracks. It is here that my theater company becomes indispensable. The ability to bring our 15 years of experience in producing work worldwide into the problem solving of producing here in Abu Dhabi is part of what makes it possible." Yet despite these difficulties, tickets to each show were — though free — sold out long before the first open rehearsal on March 7.
Although she performed in front of her professors and peers, Valentina Vela, NYUAD Class of 2015, found the greatest challenge "was to keep the drive from one production to the next without losing the 'newness' to the performance." Running nightly for three evenings with an additional matinée on the final day, Vela felt that the show and the cast both undertook journeys. "I think it changed as we performed it, and I feel that performing it again will keep changing it and changing us," she said, adding that the production would "affect the choices" she'd make in future projects.
Perhaps most tellingly, Polendo feels that The Ramayana means that NYUAD's theater program has "started." "And what a start it is," he said. "The involvement was thrilling, as was the commitment the students showed to the process and the production. It further solidified the fact that the arts and the theater are a key part of NYUAD, not only fueling and driving our arts programs, but also engaging us with the city and the community in a way that is unique and legitimate. It allows us to be in dialog with the city that we hope to be a part of."
Polendo chose The Ramayana, originally a Sanskrit epic, in part to eschew "the Western canon" and partially for the sake of the story itself. "When I first encountered The Ramayana (as a story and a poem), I was mesmerized by it, by its intricacies, its structure, its depth, and its porousness," Polendo explained. "I was shocked how essential it was philosophically, spiritually, morally, and poetically throughout South Asia and Southeast Asia, and how unknown it was in a Western context. I have since then been overwhelmed with a desire to tell this story."
Polendo's "re-telling" of the epic focused on the theme of journeys, a topic common amongst the NYUAD community. He explained: "[The Ramayana's] many journeys in a way parallel the many journeys that we are experiencing here in Abu Dhabi, both in Abu Dhabi the city and at NYU Abu Dhabi as a community. The piece travels us through journeys of love, pride, and duty. It explores ideas of family, of responsibility, and of adulthood. These were all in line with conversations I had had with my students in and outside of the classroom. Furthermore, the fact that our international community would have a range of entry points into the work seemed almost ideal. That is, for some students it would be a new piece, for others it would be a sharing of their own culture. In a way the piece found us."
The involvement was thrilling, as was the commitment the students showed to the process and the production.