A Faraway Stage by Zina Carman

The early 90s and my life suddenly changed – from Gilbert & Sullivan on a Melbourne stage to bullets and bombs and a Nissen hut stage in Kuwait!

My husband, George, had taken a job in Kuwait just after the Iraqi occupation. It was a government to government deal to help Kuwait get back on its feet after the war with Iraq. Kuwaitis were sceptical of westerners but George, being an oil geologist, was more than acceptable.

Although it was 18 months after the occupation, Kuwait was still decimated. Collapsed buildings, buildings riddled with bullets and just generally damaged buildings everywhere; it was, without doubt, the ugliest country I had ever been to. And it harboured hidden dangers in the unexploded bombs which occupied roof cavities in homes, washed up on beaches, and lay quietly under the ugly dark sand which constituted the ‘browns’ of the golf course one played on. Nothing green! To tee off, one carried a square of fake grass! And, as it turned out, not just hidden bombs around but bullets in the nooks and crannies in what had been The Kuwait Little Theatre.

Our Theatre

Kuwait Little Theatre (KLT) was an institution in Kuwait from 1948. It had an illustrious reputation in its day, taking shows all over the Gulf states and even boasting many an English actor coming over to grace its stage. But when I got there it was a wreck of a place. As they retreated, the Iraqis for some reason, or perhaps for no reason but bloody-mindedness, destroyed everything in their path and unfortunately the KLT suffered badly.

George, in his infinite wisdom, and knowing he had taken me away from my love of theatre in Melbourne, had signed me up for the KLT before I even arrived in the country, and when I did arrive, I found the KLT was no more than a filthy, desecrated building with very little to show for itself. But I met a lovely English lady, Anne, who had been part of the human shield in Baghdad, brave, determined and a mine of information on what the theatre had been. Anne had been the KLT costume mistress looking after 40 years’ worth of costumes, all now gone of course, but she was determined to get the Kuwait Little Theatre back up and running. So, she and I with 3 others donned oil rig jump suits and set to work.

There were highs and lows and times when we would fall about laughing hysterically because, to be honest, if you didn’t find it funny you would cry. We found the Iraqis had used the foyer area as toilets, even though there were actual toilets there. We debated bronzing the items we found and selling them for souvenirs, but honestly, too disgusting for words!

Wires had been savagely ripped from the bio box and thrown away amongst hundreds of scripts and bits of broken furniture.  We gathered up every non-recyclable item and built a huge bonfire in the back yard of the theatre. Suddenly, loud explosions!! Immediately we realised there were live bullets in amongst the rubbish and now they were whizzing around us. We all fled in different directions. Well, most of us did. George decided the safest place was beside the fire as the bullets were being projected away from it?! He was alone in that strategy. Luckily, no one was shot but the adrenaline was running high.

After each day we would go home exhausted and impatient to shower. The water would run black, truly run black, for a good 15 minutes. What with the excessive 40-degree heat and the general dirt and oil impregnated dust from the burning oil wells, we were utterly filthy.

But it was worth every sweaty, filthy minute because the KLT became a haven for all us foreigners in a foreign land. And it was a foreign land! There were no restaurants to speak of and absolutely no alcohol, although we made some pretty good gin out of ethanol and juniper berries, the drinking of which caused some strange results. But that’s another story!

Although western women did not have to cover completely, they were considered to be immoral, even whores, but when we were inside the KLT we women could wear shorts and t-shirts and be our normal selves without fear of offending some rule. It was a little piece of normal in a strange world.

As more ex-pats arrived in Kuwait, with teachers, engineers and pilots coming in and out, they would gravitate to the KLT and it became our clubhouse. With more hands to help clean up, the KLT suddenly began to take shape, and eight months later, using whatever came to hand and lots of duct tape, we were able to put on a skit night.

The stage, a purpose-built construction on the back of the Nissen hut, had survived the vandalism. However, we had no lights and no chairs. Parking lot lights strung from the ceiling and plastic garden chairs sufficed. We had no costumes either, but we begged and borrowed, raided our own wardrobes, and put on a show. It was all considerably basic, incredibly rewarding, and just pure good fun, a large celebratory party!

We had done it – we were up and running! Six months after that basic skit night we put on the first production since the war – ‘She Stoops To Conquer’ – just a simple little play, not! Sponsored by British Petroleum and the Kuwait Oil Company there were 17 cast, one of whom was the British Ambassador at the time, and 40 backstage and FOH crew. It was a massive undertaking, a black tie and tails VIP night that was a huge success.

The Kuwait Little Theatre was the phoenix rising from the ashes, well and truly launched and ready for action.

And it is still going strong!