When I was a teenage boy in Latakia, the beautiful Mediterranean Syrian city where I grew up, my father once told us that he bought about a 100 olive seedlings for us to plant in his land near Latakia. I have always loved olive trees, and I was so exited to go and see ours. Being the naive boy that I was though, I felt very underwhelmed when I saw how small they were, and was further disappointed when my father told us that it could be 5 years before they become fully grown trees that we can pick olives from. The years passed, we became the proud owners of over 100 beautiful and fully grown olive trees, and each year we would enjoy crisp and delicious olives that we picked ourselves, and olive oil too. This is the case with most achievements and great things in life; slow burners that you need to work on patiently and with passion and commitment for a long time, and then you can enjoy them. The lovely thing about olive trees is that after the patience and hard work of the first few years, that’s it, it will keep giving you olives every year, and all you need to do is wish for good rain in winter, then pick your olives the following autumn.

Well, Yall Arts is my olive tree!

In 2016, I had just finished my PhD in drama at the university of Exeter, and I was visiting one of my favourite cities in the world, Cardiff, to watch a play called Yusuf Can’t Taalk. The play was produced by acta theatre company in Bristol and touring nationally. It is a play about how a group of Somali women with autistic children went from suffering individually in silence and feeling isolated because they have autistic children, to forming alliances and networks of solidarity between them, and started correcting the negative discourse on autistic children in their communities. The play was created by a group of women who had never performed before, with the support and direction of two professional facilitators from acta. This form of theatre devising is known as community theatre (AKA socially-engaged theatre, or participatory theatre), and  here’s the weird thing about community theatre; it is low-production value, the acting is never ground-breaking (obviously because the performers are not professional actors) and it’s far from slick as there will almost certainly be missed ques, forgotten lines, and misplaced or misused props. That performance of Yusuf Can’t Talk was my first experience with community theatre, and my description above to community theatre certainly applies to it, but it still grabbed me and I fell in love with community theatre ever since. This is simply because of the huge impact this type of theatre has had on normal people who felt isolated and abandoned by society only few months earlier, and now they became advocates and leaders through the medium of theatre.

I knew there and then that this is what I want to do, and that was my seedling planted!

Fast forward one year, during which I visited acta in Bristol a couple of times, and they had launched their EU-funded REACT project ( https://www.acta-bristol.com/react/ ). I was very eager in then to get involved in community theatre in general, acta in particular, and the REACT project more specifically, but didn’t know quite how. I guess this is a good example of the law of attraction actually working, because in the summer of 2017 acta announced a 1-year drama worker foundation job, and I got it! It is not in the slightest an exaggeration to say that my year with acta was a lot more rewarding, enjoyable, professionally important, and soul-enriching for me than I had ever wished for. I learned the tricks of the trade for the art form that I was so eager to engage with, and I also gained invaluable mentors and a family of fellow socially-committed creatives. 

The year with acta had finished, and by then all I was thinking about was that I wanted to do this in Exeter where I live. The seedling was growing steadily, but not a fully grown tree yet. I needed  to mature in many ways and learn through small projects, research, and many conversations with different people about management, budgeting, fundraising, partnerships with art and social organisations and venues, community outreach, recruitment, volunteering, etc. Above all, I had to keep listening to my community and have constant conversations with people around me about what I want to do and what they want they to do, and how we can create stuff together. 

By September 2019 the time had come, and Yalla Arts was born with a pilot project funded by Arts Council England called Community Theatre fr a Diverse Exeter. The story of this project and how I managed to get the funding for it in my first time of asking, and the care and support many people gave me for this to happen is for another blog. For now though, I’m happy to say that my tree is ready, it has lots of lovely little olives dangling from its branches, and I’m sure that so many people will be enjoying its produce for many years to come.

Aqeel Abdulla