Expanding the theatre scene in Kota Kinabalu

  • Arts
  • Saturday, 02 Apr 2016

Wanted by Pitapat Theatre. This play was staged in 2013 at the Sabah State Museum, G. C. Woolley Hall. Photo: PITAPAT THEATRE

Seng Soo Ming is a perceptive individual. The graduate – from the Intercultural Theatre Institute (ITI) in Singapore – noticed something many did not soon after returning to Malaysia.

He saw a lack of theatre companies and, by extension, performances, in the smaller cities in the country. His professional diploma in intercultural theatre (acting) from ITI would come in handy in taking his theatre work further.

“In Malaysia, the theatre scene only exists in a few cities. When we talk about ‘Malaysian theatre’, it is actually ‘KL theatre’ or ‘Penang theatre’. Both tell mainly the stories and culture about cities,” says Seng, 36, in an interview in Kuala Lumpur.

“But how about other places in the country? We have 13 states. This question was in my mind even before studying in Singapore,” he recounts. Seng knew something had to be done. The Seremban-born theatre practitioneer took matters into his own hands. In 2012, he formed his own theatre company called Pitapat Theatre. His hope is to spread theatre to the other states and “tell the stories and reflect the reality of these places”.

Interestingly, he did not choose his hometown in Negri Sembilan as his base. He turned his eyes to Sabah.

“For me, choosing Kota Kinabalu as a starting point was not really planned. It’s partly because of the unique cultural diversity in KK which is very different from the peninsula. It is fascinating to see KK as part of Malaysia while, at the same time, it’s not quite Malaysia-like,” says Seng.

So, how has the journey been for Pitapat Theatre? Seng, a tutor at Tshung Tsin High School Drama Club in KK, says it began with “returning drama to its own identity”.

Pitapat Theatre
Seng Soo Ming founded Pitapat Theatre to tell the stories and reflect the reality of the society from other regions of the country. Photo: Pitapat Theatre

This was important, he shares, since in KK, “drama is considered as an entertainment or an educational tool other than a profession or art”.

Seng, who is a member of Traditions And Edition Theatre Circus, an international theatre company formed by ITI graduates, believes the best way to tackle this head on was to create more drama performances.

In 2013, Pitapat Theatre produced its first ever play, Wanted!, which told the stories of people from different statuses in KK.

“That was a fully sold out show! With its success, we produced our second production, Die Die Tak Bayar which talked about the crisis of inflation,” he says.

This made Seng and his team realise something – social issues are a relevant and highly accessible theme. This, then, became the bedrock of the theatre company. In fact, says Seng, this is how the local audience remembers Pitapat’s works.

However, it was not always a smooth journey. Even at the very beginning, Pitapat Theatre faced its biggest challenge – finding actors. After all, the theatre company was a new kid on the block and KK was not necessarily a thriving performing arts destination.

Pitapat Theatre
An Enemy Of The People. At The Moment by Pitapat Theatre played at the Damansara Performing Arts Centre in Kuala Lumpur recently. Photo: Pitapat Theatre

Seng’s solution was simple and effective. He started an acting class. And from just three students, the numbers grew after word got around in the arts commmunity in KK. Eventually, the theatre company’s dual thrust – training and performing – drew students and audiences from different circles.

Another challenge which Seng had to overcome was creating a theatre form that includes an audience from different races, different language speakers and different cultures. In Malaysia, theatre hardly includes all the races mainly because of the language background.

“For example, if I perform in Mandarin, non-Mandarin speakers will find it difficult to watch the play. In other words, our theatre is somehow splitting people by languages. That’s why one of my approaches is to create multilingual productions.”

The company’s latest production, An Enemy Of The People. At The Moment, recently played at Damansara Performing Arts Centre in Petaling Jaya. The experimental show was performed in English, Bahasa Malaysia, Mandarin, Cantonese and Hakka. It was an adaptation of Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen’s 1882 work called An Enemy Of The People.

The play deals with themes such as power and authority, gender and the freedom of expression.

Ultimately, Seng believes that theatre represents the reality of where we are and where we come from. “If the reality of our lives is multiculturalism, then the arts have to explore this theme,” he concludes.

For more info, visit Facebook: “Pitapat Theatre” or call 012-837 3748.

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