…is that It Is Always Easier to Apologize Than to Ask Permission.
The United Arab Emirates are, essentially, a federation of monarchies. Beloved, benevolent dictators preside over and protect their respective populations who, in turn, deeply respect and revere their Sheiks.
This dynamic manifests in Experience Creation in some subtle and some not-so-subtle ways — each and every one of them unavoidable and simply a part of the process of work in this industry in the UAE.
Predominant effects are:
The most important seat in the House is that of the Sheik. The focal point of any show to be attended by a Sheik is the seat in which that Sheik sits. From that seat, everything must be perfect, and the show must be blocked and choreographed with that in mind, guarding against inadvertent disrespect being shown to the monarch. This translates down to the detail of avoiding the backs of performers being turned toward the sheik.
This makes for meticulous and oft-times paranoid scrutiny and second-guessing, not only during the concept development and creative stages, but all the way through; as successive levels of Executives, from vendor to client to, finally, government, must vet and approve what is being produced…with the Sheik’s Protocol officers making their assessment at the very last minute – usually the day before the show.
This puts a lot of pressure on every level of the production and company.
At showtime; if the Sheik is behind schedule, the Curtain is held until he arrives and is seated. Should he be ahead of schedule, we need to be ready to go within moments; often, with only a 15-minute advance warning. Everything plays off the schedule and position of the Sheik. That’s just the way it is.
Another, more insidious effect of this dynamic is the Fear of Offense this seems to engender, most especially in Emirati (or any employee) working for the Sheik or in the government. There is such a deeply-rooted fear of offending the Sheik that people are afraid to venture out on any sort of creative limb.
Original content is virtually anathema at that level of culture. “Creativity” is applied in the context of lighting and staging, perhaps, and most often at the sourcing of already-proven acts to be brought in and gathered or juxtaposed “creatively” and spectacularly. If an act is a hit elsewhere, the cachet is in the Importing of the Talent rather than in the creation of anything new.
It’s tragic, really; to see so much money spent to bring in “the best,” while overlooking the power inherent in a well-told, originally-created story or Experience. The style may change, though the story tends to remain within one of a few “acceptable” constructs. This, then, explains why the same story seems to be told, over and over, in ceremonies and celebrations in this part of the world: it’s about the magnitude rather than the possibility of deeper engagement.
Actually, there’s the “scary” word: “possibility.” It is the possibility of disappointing the Sheik that seems to keep the Powers That Be from going out on the proverbial limb.
An irony, here, is that these Sheiks are very likely of the most sophisticated, well-traveled, worldly individuals on the planet. Chances are that they’ve been most everywhere and seen most everything and know far more about what is possible than the legions of Deciders and Protectors that surround them.
This is my opinion, of course; I’ve never spoken to a Sheik. I’d be surprised, though, were there not to be thoughts of, “oh, this again?” in the minds of these men as the umpteenth iteration of what’s come before is presented at yet another ceremony.
But. I digress.
So. Yes. The dynamics, creative and detail of virtually any experience or ceremony in the Emirates can hinge on the perceived whim or desire of the relevant Sheik. Ergo, a month before the grand opening ceremony of Yas Waterworld, last month, it came to light that the His Highness was no longer available for a nighttime ceremony; it was going to be taking place by daylight.
When a decision such as this comes down, there is no Appeal. It is absolutely what it now is. Daytime.
At first, there was a Moment of Grief for the beautiful opening ceremony that we’d written…
- Fireworks: Gone
- Flaming Poi: Gone
- Flaming Torches: Gone
- Giant, glowing Pearls in Procession: Gone
- Lighting Stunt with the full cast: Gone
- Myriad, wonderful KO nuance: Out the Window
Then; after that bit of self-indulgence…
- New Show: Coming Right Up!
This was actually a fantastic opportunity for creativity, and I can say without hesitation that it was the best thing that could have happened for this show. We had to respond nimbly to the change, and what we created was far more suited to our audience and the venue.
In short, it became an “interrupted” ceremony. Beginning as a “formal” ceremony on a wide, “floating” stage before the primary set piece of a beautiful dhow at the end of a specially-built jetty, jutting into the center of the wave pool; the experience rapidly evolved into an invasion of bandits, the theft of the pearl, the kidnapping of our heroine, the rescue of the pearl and the heroine and ultimate safe-placement of the pearl…a placement that sparked a spectacular, six-minute Bigger-than-Bellagio fountain show from behind the dhow and throughout the Wave Pool.
It was a huge hit…and there was one, big, surprise that helped to make it so…
The VIP stage was built out, over the wave pool, and from that extended the stage and the jetty to the dhow. At the Exciting Moment of Transition, when the bandits attacked, these bandits were staged in hiding places throughout the set, including under the jetty. Including under the stage, about 5 feet from where the Sheik would be sitting.
Yes, I’m about to come around to the point of the title of this post.
When the fantastic, rubber-faced Sam the Bandit leapt from beneath the stage, he was choreographed to leap, turn, face the Sheik and shout, “Yaaaarrrrrrggghhh!!!” with hands outstretched. Now, I never actually said to Sam that that was where the sheik would be sitting; I just aimed him toward it.
As this idea had come to me, I thought to myself, “…let’s just see how far we get with this…,” and proceeded through the rehearsals.
Time came to show it to the client execs. They sat in the Sheik’s seats. Sam leapt and shouted. They laughed. I don’t think they put it together. Now, I didn’t actually ask if they thought it would be okay for the bandit to growl at the sheil…but there it was; right?
The Sheik’s Protocol Officers came to see a final, dress rehearsal. Same thing. Again and after, I didn’t actually point out that this blocking might be considered a little unorthodox; I just let them see and approve without extra scrutiny.
I mean, if I know Sheiks (and I don’t), I believed that he would love the surprise. After all, the man’s human, right?
So. Sheik shows up. Show begins. Lots of pretty and colorful people, populating the stage. Slow music. Procession. Cute little Safia carries the Pearl toward the jetty. Suddenly, there’s a resounding crescendo, and the Bandits appear from everywhere.
In one, fast move, Sam leaps up, around and leans, leering, toward the Sheik, arms outstretched and loudly growling, “Yaaaaaarrrrrrgggghhhh!”
His Highness, startled, looks at him for the briefest of moments, then bursts out in a big, unrestrained laugh. BIG laugh. (I’ll bet that no one has said, literally, “Boo!” to the gentleman since he was a child.) He loved it, and continued to chuckle through the rest of the show.
Seeing this, the rest of the cast responded with extra-adrenaline-enhanced performances and the show was a fantastic hit.
Happy Client, Happy Sheik, and I’m Quite Happy to not find myself in a police escort to the airport.
I believe, and will expand on this with the proximate post, that there is great opportunity for the creative production entrepreneur who is willing to hold the line on creating the best experience possible; running a production with a strict set of deadlines (and tangible ramifications for missing same), ample time for creative and committed to raising the bar of compelling connectivity within Experiences produced in the UAE and that part of the world.
That will include enlightening clients to the rewards of original content and the offering of the strategically unexpected. It will be an uphill effort; I believe it can very likely be profoundly rewarding for all concerned.
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