It’s the ’50s and you’re an expat in Doha. You have a penchant for dramatics. So what do you do for fun? Pull together a bunch of amateur thespians and put on plays, of course.
In simple history, this is exactly how the Doha Players formed in 1954. Without a riyal to their name, the group planned productions in a makeshift space in a furniture shop, beginning with Christmas pantomimes and, eventually, holding three or four plays each year.
It took nearly 25 years to find a permanent home, but a theatre on Al Wabra Street was donated by the Emir thanks to the hard work and persuasive nature of former chairwoman Jennie Jones. The new theatre meant Doha finally had a ‘West End’. Sellout performances like Peter Pan, The Importance of Being Earnest and Annie gave culture vultures something to do in the evenings and, as an added bonus, created a thriving social scene for expatriates with annual balls, cabaret and music nights.
‘We had barbecues and all sorts of things going on at the theatre all the time,’ recalls Canadian expat Kerry Suek, who signed up to the theatre the minute he arrived to Doha six-and-a-half years ago. ‘It was a great way to relax and talk to people, and a great way to network – that’s what I always loved about it. There was such a wide variety and cross-section of people, from teachers to engineers to doctors and bankers and so on. People you wouldn’t normally meet in life.’
It was a golden era for the Doha Players. But it all changed in March 2005, when tragedy struck during a production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. The show was brought to a heartbreaking end when a suicide bomber detonated outside the theatre – injuring dozens and killing the show’s director, Jon Adams. ‘I was mid-sentence on stage,’ Kerry quietly recalls. ‘The guy was in a Landcruiser and he’d reinforced the front and loaded it up with explosives. He smashed his way through the outer wall and was trying to smash his way through into the building and that was it, he let it rip.’ The effect of the blast, an act of terrorism carried out by a 38-year-old Egyptian man living in Doha, was devastating. The theatre was destroyed and witnesses recall seeing people lying on the ground in shock.
After more than 50 years of performance, it seemed the Doha Players had come to an abrupt and tragic end. But the final curtain was yet to fall. The group forged ahead, continuing to hold performances, though not at the Al Wabra theatre. Though much of the building was salvaged and is still used by the group to store costumes, props and makeup – the theatre is unusable, or, as Kerry puts it – ‘condemned’.
With no home turf to stage their performances, these days the Doha Players rely on the goodwill of the community to ensure the show goes on. ‘We go around and lobby different institutions to help us out,’ Kerry explains. ‘The College of the North Atlantic has been very good to us. As has the American School. The other smaller shows we have in different places. In people’s homes, at the sailing club… wherever we can find a place.’
Despite the circumstances, the shows are always a roaring success. All performances of Grease, staged earlier this year at The American School, sold out. And rehearsals are underway for the latest production, Nine Parts of Desire. But, without a permanent base, the theatre is not what it used to be in its heyday. ‘It’s always different now we don’t have a place to congregate,’ says Kerry. ‘People joined the Doha Players for two reasons: to do theatre and to socialise. We’re working hard to keep that going but it’s difficult when you don’t have a place to socialise.’
To help rebuild the devastated theatre site following the bombing, the Qatar Academy (where Jon Adams had taught English) held a successful fundraiser. But the Doha Players were dealt another blow earlier this year when they were asked to vacate the land – granted to them by an Emiri decree – to make way for a shopping centre.
Thankfully, there is some reprieve. The site does not have to be vacated immediately, and around QR8million has been collated from fundraising efforts, financial support from the Diwan and the Qatar Foundation, which is helping to find and fund a new site and theatre. ‘We’re now looking for a theatre site that will enable us to build something in the order of a 300 -seat auditorium,’ says Doha Players chairman Peter Phillips. ‘Like anything here, it’s going to take some time.’
But despite the odds, and in the manner of a true thespian, Peter’s tone has a glimmer of optimism. ‘When it does happen, it will be more vibrant – and it will be lively,’ he says. ‘It will be a return to what we once were.’ The show really does go on.