Creator Spotlight: Dahlia Al-Habieli

Photo credit: John Pankratz

Dahlia Al-Habieli is an award-winning Arab-American scenic designer and educator who was born and raised in Abu Dhabi. 

When the pandemic struck, she had to adapt her teaching methods for an online environment. Since live theatre productions were cancelled due to COVID-19 restrictions, these unique circumstances gave birth to an experimental multidisciplinary collaboration to create a video storybook adaptation of Romeo and Juliet with all collaborators working remotely from around the world. Dahlia spoke with Creativity Undefined about how her mixed cultural heritage and upbringing has shaped her as an artist, designer and educator. She also emphasized the importance of having a strong sense of self separate from your vocation and shared her advice for young people whose parents are reluctant to allow them to enter careers in the arts.

Tell us about your artistic journey. What is your earliest memory of creating art and how did you become the artist you are now?

When I would draw or play games of pretend as a young child, I wouldn’t spend as much time making up stories or characters as I did creating the worlds they lived in. I would draw entire fairy kingdoms over several pieces of paper that spread across the living room floor. I would make elaborate, carefully laid-out building-block homes for my toys. In hindsight, it makes a lot of sense that I have spent my adult life creating worlds for storytelling onstage.

How would you describe your style? Who/What are your greatest influences and how did you develop your style?

I believe that the needs and themes of the play should drive the aesthetic of the set design; the greatest compliment anyone has given me about my work for the stage is that if you put pictures of all of my designs next to each other, you wouldn’t necessarily think they were all by the same person. Because my medium is a highly collaborative one, each design is also deeply informed by the other artists working on the production. The directors I have been lucky enough to work with have also been tremendous influences on my process. Good playwriting means that my job as a designer is often to create poetic, suggestive spaces that center the writing and the performers, and then get out of the way.

How has your mixed ethnicity/cultural background influenced your art and creative process?

My creative process has been informed by a childhood spent among many different cultures. It’s given me a wide storytelling vocabulary. However, I did not begin learning about the rich traditions of narrative performance in the Muslim world until I was an adult living in the U.S. As is the case in so many cultures, the theatre or theatre-adjacent arts of the Middle East are oral practices rather than literary ones. My love for dramatic literature means that my creative practice has largely been text-based, which is an inherently Euro-centric approach to theatre-making that is rooted in a predominantly white dramatic canon. Unquestioning worship of the written word is a dangerous thing, and de-colonizing the art form means de-colonizing my own creative practice.

Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo. Photo credit: Lisa Voll

Is there a painting or drawing you would never part with? If so, which one is it and why?

I am going to cheat and name two. One I actually no longer have the original of, just a handful of printed photographs of it. I made it when I was sixteen or seventeen as a part of my A Level exam portfolio in Art. The technique I was using was relatively new to me, and at one point it involved pouring a bucket of ink over the entire piece. It introduced me to the idea of chance and surprise as elements of art-making. This is something I continue to reach for in my practice.

The other piece I am never letting go of is more recent. I travelled to Prague in 2019 and saw this wildly eccentric storefront, but it wasn’t until late into the pandemic that I actually sat down to render it from the photographs I had taken. This is the first piece of art I can recall making for the simple pleasure of making it in a very, very long time. It is technically imperfect (and I am sure a good chunk of the Czech on the signage is misspelled!) but it kicked off what has become an exhilarating journey back into art as a personal practice rather than a purely professional one.

If you could share an element of Emirati arts and culture with America and incorporate it in a project, which one would it be and why?

It is easy to look at the boom in building in the Emirates and forget that the cultures of the Arabian Peninsula are predominantly nomadic in heritage. With some exceptions, the storytelling traditions are necessarily oral rather than visual, more reported than mimetic. The divide between audience and performer is also not as stark as in many Western traditions of theatre-going, where the world of the play sits in a box across from a politely attentive audience. As the American theatre embraces more diversity in performance forms, the Arabian Peninsula is a place to look to for inspiration.

Looking back, what was your greatest achievement and your greatest challenge? Why?

I have had incredible teachers who knew when I needed to be challenged. I was a difficult student because I hadn’t learned the difference between design as an act of service (service– an act of giving- not servitude, to be clear!) and design as self-actualization. I also hadn’t really grasped how often I used text as a crutch rather than a creative prompt, and how limited I was by my need to predict the exact the outcome of all my design decisions.

My Masters thesis blew all of that apart. It was a design for a devised adaptation of a commedia dell’arte piece – no set script! – on a scale that demanded I trust my collaborators and let go of a lot of creative control. When I dreamed it up, I had NO idea how to actually build it, which was terrifying because I was used to both designing and building/painting my sets myself. The experience taught me that while it is important for designers to understand the technical execution of a design, sometimes magical things can happen if you allow yourself to put worries about physics and money aside for a moment and just dream. 

The Plague in Venice. Photo credit: Louis Stein

Is there anything that you would’ve done differently or wished had happened differently? What? Why?

The distinction between creative service and creative self-actualization is something I wish I had more awareness of as a young artist in my twenties. I think it would have helped me find more joy and less existential angst in the process of creating set designs. But I think that is a lesson most creatives have to learn and balance throughout their journeys.

Where do you draw your inspiration from? Has that changed since the pandemic hit last year? Why or why not?

I used to do a lot more looking at photographs of architecture and interior design, both historic and contemporary- which makes sense, because my job is similar to both disciplines. Since I started drawing and painting for myself again, I have been looking to more illustrators for inspiration not only for my drawing practice but for set design as well. Illustrations are different from photographs in that they are poetic interpretations of the world from a particular viewpoint. That is exactly what design for the stage is.

How do you overcome artist’s block?

If the problem is that I haven’t connected to the material, I have to dig into the play and background research until I do, and talk to my collaborators about the things that resonate for them. The more urgent and specific the need to tell the story is, or even just one aspect of that story, the greater our sense of shared creative purpose.

If I am at a point in the process where I have a sense of the design in my head but can’t get it out, I will switch between mediums- collage, Photoshop, watercolour, pencil, sculpture- and try to make as much as I can as quickly as I can. That letting go of control I mentioned earlier? If you really know the play and have really done your homework, you can trust your instincts and process enough to let yourself be surprised by the things you make.

Who would you jump at the chance to collaborate with, if given the chance? Why?

I love working with writers because, if it isn’t clear already, I think they are magic. I always jump at the chance to be part of the new play development process. While I love designing scenery, a combination of factors have me increasingly interested in graphic novels as a form of both literary and visual storytelling. I love working with writers, and the writer-illustrator collaborative relationship is one I would be excited to explore.

The pandemic’s had a lasting impact on everyone. What was the biggest adjustment that you’ve had to make?

I was slated to direct my university students in a production of Romeo & Juliet, and to design the set for it. In response to the pandemic, we created something that is not quite theatre, not quite animation, not quite a radio play… and intensely collaborative. 70 folks of all ages from around the world ended up involved in the project by the time we were done. I am still unpacking what I learned from the process of leading this wild creative experiment, and what it will mean for my work in and beyond theatre moving forward.

Do you think that you’ll maintain any changes once things return to normal? If yes, what and why? If no, why?

American culture encourages us to define ourselves by our vocation in ways that are not necessarily healthy. The forced break from my design practice has given me the opportunity to consider who the heck I am without that identity. I think its important to make room for and get to know that person even as I return to work.

What shifts have you observed from creatives? Will these last beyond the pandemic? Why or why not?

Punishing schedules and systemic racism are not problems unique to the theatre, but I have seen more meaningful change taking place there more quickly than anywhere else. I think that change is here to stay, and will grow.

What are you currently working on? Can you share some details about some upcoming projects?

I am a teacher as well as a designer, and while balancing a design practice with a career in higher education is tricky, I am grateful to be able to do both. Upcoming work with my students are productions of Sensitive Guys, a darkly comedic exploration of toxic masculinity on college campuses, and Iphigenia and Other Daughters, a contemporary reimagining of Greek classics centered on the female characters. I am also designing a professional adaptation of A Christmas Carol that, fingers crossed, will open in December. 

What is your ultimate dream project?

My mother moved from America to Cairo when she was 19. She went alone, in the 1970s, knowing no one. Most American folks think that sounds insane. I feel increasingly compelled to respond to this confusion, and challenge the beliefs behind it. My mom is the single greatest inspiration in my life, and I think her story is incredible not just she is a badass, but because I haven’t seen a story on stage that depicts the Middle East that she came to call home. Whether on a stage or on the pages of a graphic novel, I would love to share that story. I am taking the time to make sure I do it as much justice as I can.

I would also love to be able to travel to render all the architecture and cityscapes I love so much. Working from photographs has been wonderful, but my best work happens when I can actually visit and experience the place.

Which iconic show’s set would you most want to revamp and put your stamp on? Why?

I had the opportunity to do this with In the Heights. I love taking work that was created at a specific moment and place in time and finding ways to ground it in a new context for what might be a very different audience. In the case of Heights, it was making a show conceived for a proscenium stage (a world in a box) work in a more environmental space that allowed the Dallas audience to literally be in New York. Moving forward, I long to design more Shakespearean tragedies and histories. Most set designers are probably sick of it, but I love the creative challenge of re-imagining and contextualizing those plays for audiences here and now.

What advice would you share with anyone starting out that you wished someone had told you?

Be aware of the difference between taking care of your physical, mental, or spiritual health through the work, and taking care of your health first so that you can then do the work. Too much of the former is not sustainable.

If you were addressing an audience of young Emirati girls and parents on the issue of some traditional parents being reluctant to allow their children to explore a career in the arts, what would you say?

I would say the same thing I do to my students in the United States: Fear is a consequence of ignorance, and the key to overcoming this fear is knowledge and education. When I was young, there were few models I could look to for an understanding of what creative career paths were out there. Thankfully we live in a digital world that is so much bigger than it once was, with access to countless case studies of women who succeed in creative fields not in spite of their cultural backgrounds, but because of them.

What’s the WORST piece of advice you’ve ever been given and why?

A good piece of advice I received as a designer, “Don’t show everyone all of your work,” is terrible advice when applied to my work as a teacher. I think it is important to be transparent with my students about the messier parts of my design practice, so they in turn are not afraid to get messy, to experiment, to fail. Failure is a necessary part of both learning and designing.

What’s a goal that you hope to achieve, personally and professionally, in the next five years?

My goals have not really changed in the 15 or so years I have been designing. Do it well, do it joyfully, do it with kindness, to keep doing things that feel just a little bit (or very) new and scary.

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