AUIS students Leah and Beyan were the only two students to be selected from Iraq for the Home Grown workshop, run by the Kevin Spacey Foundation and The Middle East Theatre Academy.
March 5, 2015 - International Studies students and aspiring actresses, Leah Farooq and Beyan Tahir, are well known faces of the AUIS Drama Club on campus. They have given stellar performances in plays such as Twelve Angry (Wo)men, Will’s Café and 9 Parts of Desire at the University. Recently, they were able to showcase their talent to a much larger audience in Sharjah, UAE, along with a cast of talented youth from all over the Middle East.
Encouraged by their mentor and Head of AUIS Drama Club, Elizabeth O'Sullivan, both girls applied for the theatrical training program, Home Grown, run by the Kevin Spacey Foundation and the Middle East Theatre Academy (META). They were selected along with 35 young people from the Middle East out of more than 600 applicants. Their intensive two-week training culminated in a theatrical performance on January 25-26 in front of a large audience, including the Oscar Award winning actor Kevin Spacey and Dr. Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed Al Qasimi, Ruler of Sharjah.
Leah and Beyan credit O’Sullivan for believing in them and pushing them to apply for Home Grown. “If it weren’t for Liz (O’Sullivan) I would never have applied,” said Leah. Initially, they were very unsure and nervous about applying for the program. “I did the video one hour before submitting my application. Later, one of the directors told me that it was one of his favourite audition videos, so I was very happy” said Beyan. “He also said that that Leah and I were among those applicants that they did not hesitate about while making the selection.”
O’Sullivan is equally proud of her students for getting into the program. “I'm incredibly proud of all of the AUIS students that auditioned for the workshop. It was not an easy thing to do, and I witnessed some great acting from many of our students. I'm thrilled that out of the 35 spots available, two of them were filled by AUIS students. Leah and Beyan are great examples of how the dramatic arts can help students. They've both been involved with Drama for multiple semesters and it's been really amazing to watch them change and grow as actresses. As a teacher, I feel incredibly lucky to have young women like them to work with.”
Talking about the rare opportunity to work and train with professionals in the field, both agreed that it especially helped them to learn how to use their bodies and movement on stage. “I thought being on stage was all about emotions and acting. But, they did all these lifts and moves and they were so smooth. I feel more connected to my body now after working with them. They made us know our minds, what we are thinking, our emotions and our bodies, and that's very difficult,” explained Leah.
Beyan echoed Leah’s thoughts, “I’ve always wanted to be on a stage where there isn’t just acting, but there’s movement, and there’s singing and dancing. They taught us to be confident on stage and to do whatever was required at the moment,” she said.
The Home Grown production, Dhow Under the Sun, received great response from the audience. “Kevin Spacey cried at the end! He said he couldn’t help it because we were all so good,” said Leah excitedly. Spacey personally spent two hours coaching the participants during the workshop. “I still have quotes from him on my notebook. Every now and then I go back to them so I don’t forget what I want in life and my acting career,” added Beyan.
But, the Home Grown experience wasn’t just about acting; it was also about learning to accept differences, and to start new friendships, especially in the backdrop of the current crises in the Middle East. Leah agreed that they went with some perceptions about the other nationalities. “Before I went there, I never felt like I belonged to the Middle East! I was wondering about how I would get along with all of them,” she said, “But soon it felt like the borders weren’t even there. It started feeling like one country, like one Middle East.”
“What was also amazing about this program was that everybody was accepted without thinking about gender, race, mentality or anything! ” Leah continued, “Everyone had something that was different. There was a spark in each of them, and you wanted to know them. They were all so creative!”
Leah and Beyan have exciting plans for the future with their new friends after finishing this program. Out of the 35 Home Grown cast members, 18 have come together to write a play that they hope to perform in Jordan. “We don’t want this experience to fade away. This is not only going to help us. We’re just starting it but other people might want to join us later. It will be like an institution.” they said. The group members are currently working on the script.
The two students also have a personal project of their own. The writer of the Home Grown production, Hassan Abdulrazzak, is of Iraqi descent, and the girls want to introduce his plays to the local audience. “We want to bring his work to AUIS, and through AUIS promote him in the country. That’s our personal project. We want to have one of his plays that talks about a lot of issues in our society. I think it’s a great honor for us to bring his plays here,” they said.
They credit the AUIS Drama Club, and especially O’Sullivan, for recognizing, building and appreciating their talent. “I never thought I was good on stage until I started practicing with Liz,” said Beyan, “It’s great that AUIS has a drama club. If we didn’t have it, we would not have been able to do anything. Here, in Iraq, we don’t have very good acting schools. The society is not very encouraging.” Leah agreed with her, “I would have never known I wanted to be an actress if I had not come to this university. Liz really cares about each student’s passion and the theatre. She is an incredible woman. She made us discover who we are as actors.”