Life after Covid-19: Can the show go on for Malaysia's performing arts industry?


  • Arts
  • Tuesday, 14 Apr 2020

KLPac is planning to cut its audience capacity by half once the MCO is lifted. Photo: KLPac

It is no surprise that the Covid-19 pandemic and the subsequent movement control order (MCO) – now extended until April 28 – imposed by the government has left many casualties in its wake.

With many institutions forced to temporarily put down their shutters, the economic diagnosis is not looking so well for them.

One industry that is utterly devastated by this predicament is the performing arts industry. Indeed, performing arts venues and theatre companies solely rely on rentals, classes and ticket sales for their survival.

With almost no financial aid from the government and entirely dependent on sponsors, or sometimes even dipping into their own bank account, the fate of Malaysian theatre makers and their beloved arts scene does not seem promising.

Major theatre venues like the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre (KLPac), PenangPac and the Damansara Performing Arts Centre (DPAC) are already gutted by their losses, especially with these venues shut since the start of MCO on March 18.

With 41 shows either postponed or cancelled due to the MCO, KLPac’s total loss projected – from mid-March until October – is estimated at more than RM630,000. PenangPac has lost an estimated RM120,000 (March to June cancellations) and DPAC stands to lose approximately RM250,000 (March/April shows) by the end of this month.

“We are very concerned about our primary revenue streams. Venue rental, ticket sales from productions and Academy courses have all been impacted, ” says Joe Hasham, KLPac’s co-founder and artistic director.

DPAC will implement a social distancing policy and disinfect its premise before and after every show. Photo: DPACDPAC will implement a social distancing policy and disinfect its premise before and after every show. Photo: DPAC

Datin Jane Lew Siew Ting, DPAC’s founder, shares theatre veteran Hasham’s sentiments.

“We have zero income in March and April, and probably very little income from May till July as well. This high level of uncertainty makes it hard for most of our clients to plan for the near future. And thus, how we are going to sustain, operationally, will be a huge challenge right now, ” admits Lew.

As the MCO weeks pass, no work is forthcoming. This state of anxiety is prevalent with independent theatre companies too.

There are only so many online theatre shows – DIY and free – that most of these indie companies can sustain.

“The problem is no matter how you restructure, we are still in the middle of waiting. We don’t know what is going to happen. We might have to start from zero again if show cancellations continue, ” says Seng Soo Ming, 39, founder of Seremban-based Pitapat Theatre.

He aims to shift the Pitapat company’s direction, with small-sized touring shows to make ends meet when the storm settles.

Seng Soo Ming says Pitapat Theatre will adapt to smaller-sized shows with potential touring opportunities. Photo: Pitapat TheatreSeng Soo Ming says Pitapat Theatre will adapt to smaller-sized shows with potential touring opportunities. Photo: Pitapat Theatre

Kelvin Wong, founder of the collective Theatresauce, is hopeful that his company’s upcoming 2020/2021 season can still proceed as planned. Theatresauce's news season is supposed to run between October 2020 and June 2021. An average of RM150,000 is usually spent to hold three mainstage productions, and three showcases for the emerging directors lab.

But the 34-year old theatre lecturer/director sees the lack of funding and private support during the pandemic as a crippling situation.

“Institutions providing grants have pulled out because of the pandemic, which is unfortunate, given that there is no better time to question, challenge and create than right now, ” says Wong.

“This is making us rethink if we should press on with our initial plan, or wait until the following year”.

On March 27, the Inxo Arts Fund 2020, organised by Inxo Arts and Culture (L) Foundation, announced that it was suspending this year’s programme (a total of RM100,000 in grants meant for 10 arts projects).

In a rare spot of positive news, the Cultural Economy Development Agency (Cendana) recently outlined a recovery package to benefit artists and cultural workers in the performing arts, visual art and independent music sectors. The announcement made on April 8 includes a food aid package and the "Create Now Funding Programme", which is an immediate response grant of up to RM1,500 per individual artist/cultural worker and RM3,500 per collective/arts organisation.

'A revamp of Theatresauce’s business model is also imminent – and being in quarantine gets us to think a bit more about business sustainability,' says Kelvin Wong from indie company Theatresauce. Photo: Filepic 'A revamp of Theatresauce’s business model is also imminent – and being in quarantine gets us to think a bit more about business sustainability,' says Kelvin Wong from indie company Theatresauce. Photo: Filepic

On April 14, Jabatan Kebudayaan dan Kesenian Negara (JKKN), or National Department for Culture and Arts, launched an online arts and culture competition called Arts Online @#stayhome.

The bizarrely-timed competition, running till April 22, covers various arts disciplines such as theatre, poetry, classical dance, singing, storytelling and even silat. To encourage signups, JKKN is providing cash prizes (up to RM1,000). This may not be the sort of well-informed financial support needed in the performing arts scene right now but at least, it is a small step in the right direction.

The recovery packages being introduced now are mostly one-time hand-outs. Long-term arts and culture recovery strategies have yet to be introduced by the government.

June Tan, a producer at the Five Arts Centre in KL, says at this point, uncertainty is the biggest factor affecting them.

“Fundamentally our work is very much located in a live event. So the need to be in a space together is still very much our impulse. We can only figure out what Covid-19 and social distancing means to this, and what changes we need to make, in the upcoming months. At this point, our other work – researching, writing, archiving are still ongoing albeit at a slower pace, ” says Tan, 45.

Meanwhile, creative arts bazaar platform Riuh had to postpone its Panggung Riuh event to July 4 and 5, and cancelled its upcoming Riuh Raya event scheduled for next month. This is the first time in three years since it started, that there will not be a festive season Riuh. One edition of Riuh usually hosts a minimum of 60 creative arts brands, and can generate up to RM220,000 in revenue.

Of course, these concerns are not unfounded.

Around the world, governments have stepped in to assist their respective arts and culture industries. In Singapore, S$55mil (RM167.7mil) was recently designated for the arts sector through the country’s Resilience Budget. An additional S$1.6mil (RM4.8mil) was set aside earlier for a capability development grant and a subsidy scheme to reduce rental and associated costs.

Khairi Anwar, the artistic director of Anomalist Production, admits the theatre scene will be in a vulnerable state in the months ahead, and it will take plenty of (creative) rethinking and re-adjusting to keep the arts going. Photo: Filepic Khairi Anwar, the artistic director of Anomalist Production, admits the theatre scene will be in a vulnerable state in the months ahead, and it will take plenty of (creative) rethinking and re-adjusting to keep the arts going. Photo: Filepic

On March 31, the Arts Council England also rushed out a £160mil (RM863mil) emergency fund to support organisations and individuals in the creative sector affected by the coronavirus. From that amount, £20mil (RM108mil) will be set aside for freelance cultural workers.

On March 23, Germany launched a €50bil (RM236bil) aid package targeted at freelancers, artists and small businesses. The package aims to preserve the country’s artistic and cultural industry.

However, the Malaysian government’s economic stimulus package called Bantuan Prihatin Nasional, while promising to leave nobody behind, seems to have excluded a tailored financial support package for the arts industry.

Easee Gan, a writer, director and co-founder of local theatre group Muka Space, points out that many arts groups are self-funded, and many practitioners are freelancers.

“To produce a show after this may be more difficult, especially since we will need to look for sponsorship. Will there be funding left for arts and culture? With no small projects (theatre workshops, arts teaching sessions) and theatre show income coming in right now, you have to say a lot of independent arts companies will need some form of support or (financial) jumpstart to reopen, ” says Gan, 33.

Gan reveals almost all of Muka Space's projects for 2020 have been written off. Two theatre projects have been cancelled and one postponed until December. As a pet project, Muka Space's publicity campaigns for its first two theatre book publications, written by co-founder Deric Gan, have also hit the skids.

"My brother Deric was supposed to launch two (Chinese) books related to (local) theatre. They are published by Muka Space. The cancellation of Bookfest Malaysia 2020 in KL has left us with no choice but to promote and sell the books online," says Gan.

"In the months ahead, many people in the arts, already known for their ingenuity, stubbornness and resourcefulness, will have to come together to map a way forward. Creativity doesn't just stop (because of a bad situation)," he adds.

Catch-22 situation

One of the last major arts festivals not to be cancelled yet in Malaysia is the Yayasan Sime Darby Arts Festival at KLPac, which is scheduled in August. The fate of the fest hangs in balance and a decision will be made later this month.

Hasham says KLPac have had three rounds of engagement with the Ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture and a wishlist has been presented to the Government.

The situation could potentially get worse. On April 3, Health DG Datuk Noor Hisham Abdullah did suggest that the Government might continue to ban or discourage mass gatherings for the rest of the year, even after the MCO is lifted.

A live audience is at the very heart of the performing arts. Theatre through digital media cannot replicate this experience.

While the performing arts scene has to stage shows for its very survival, it may also suffer from a loss of footfalls or worse, complete audience absence.

“It will definitely take some time for people to feel safe coming back to the theatre again, ” says Lew, 49.

“After Covid-19 and the MCO is over, we foresee that people will not see theatre and the performing arts as a priority, at least not in the first few weeks or months, ” she adds.

Closed theatres will take months to recover, and admittedly, the masses won’t have shows on their minds.

Panggung Rakyat is a traditional-based series of live events and workshops initiated by Cendana. The cultural agency has launched its arts recovery package focusing on immediate response grants. Photo: CendanaPanggung Rakyat is a traditional-based series of live events and workshops initiated by Cendana. The cultural agency has launched its arts recovery package focusing on immediate response grants. Photo: Cendana

“People have been in isolation for a month, so their priority will be more personal, such as getting together with the family or regaining economic stability, ” says Khairi Anwar, founder of Shah Alam-based theatre company Anomalist Production.

The extra ringgit, to Khairi, will be used wisely in these difficult times and the performing arts will be viewed as a luxury to most.

“Besides the economy and trade getting disrupted, which would affect our audience’s spending power, it could also affect our sponsors and their capacity to continue supporting us. And that would also have an effect on us and the artists we collaborate with, since the focus will be on ways to pay the bills and a temporary shift from working in art, ” says Tan.

“With no exact timeline of when we can expect things to go back to normal, event planning is on hold, and there is no way to move forward. The reasonable thing to do, at least for us, is to work around it and come up with alternative ways/format, where applicable, to ensure we still reach our objective, to support the creative industry, ” says Marissa Wambeck, deputy manager at Riuh.

Whatever the circumstance, the show must go on. As it stands, no one seems ready to throw in the towel yet. Many have already entered into recovery mode, carefully planning their next move for a post-MCO Malaysia.

“Faridah (Merican) and I have maintained an optimistic view of the performing arts over the past 31 years of our involvement with The Actors Studio, KLPac and PenangPac. We will not allow the Covid-19 episode, as horrific as it is, to dampen our enthusiasm, ” says Hasham, 72.

To regain confidence from the public, theatre and event venues have assured a strict adherence to guidelines set by the Health Ministry once they are allowed to be operational. That means temperatures checks (staff and audience members), sanitising stations and even regular exercises to disinfect the theatres and spaces. Some venues will also cut down their seating capacity.

“Social distancing will remain intact until it is 100% confirmed that all is clear. The number of seats in each of our theatres will, while the initial clearance period is in effect, be cut to 50% capacity. We will be doing everything in our power to make certain that our patrons are safe and secure, ” assures Hasham.

Romantic date nights at theatres might be temporarily ruled out until the Covid-19 storm has cleared.

The Sentul Depot in KL, which is regularly used by crowded Riuh events, will be hard hit by new rules on social distancing. Photo: FilepicThe Sentul Depot in KL, which is regularly used by crowded Riuh events, will be hard hit by new rules on social distancing. Photo: Filepic

“We will enforce distance-seating by having an empty seat between each audience member. Audience numbers at DPAC per show will drop, but these are necessary steps to be taken, ” says Lew.

Christopher Ling, artistic director of local collective theatrethreesixty, says the entire global theatre scene cannot expect things to return to pre-virus normalcy that quickly.

“Residual fear has to be combated with rational measures to protect our theatre community and the audiences we live for. This may mean certain measures put in place by the MCO to remain in place for a few months after it has come to an end, ” says Ling.

Starting from stratch

Khairi, 28, is also considering new ways to attract audiences. Reducing ticket price is definitely on the table, although he is not too keen with the idea as it would affect payment to cast and crew.

“We need to slowly make ourselves relevant to the public at large. Maybe make a show about the MCO? If we can afford it, maybe do a few free shows so that people can come and watch without the uneasy feeling of spending RM50 to watch a play, ” says Khairi.

“In the short term, small to medium scale venues, of 100 pax and below, may be at the forefront of the local theatre scene in the months to come.

“Early 2021 should hopefully see the return of the large-scale venues, invigorated by their time encouraging and supporting the work of their smaller cousins this year, ” predicts Ling, 46.

“Larger venues may want to consider opening up their venues in new, unconventional ways in this new continuing age of social distancing. Reducing rental rates whilst reducing audience capacities may not make financial sense but it would certainly result in venues being used by a broader cross-section of the performing arts community.

“Also bearing in mind that these changes are only temporal until the new normal is ready to be adopted, ” he adds.

Hasham knows a thing or two about dealing with disasters and silver linings.

“The history of The Actors Studio has given us the strength to continue, ” says Hasham, referring to the flash floods that hit The Actors Studio at Plaza Putra in KL in 2003.

That venue was lost, but The Actors Studio regrouped and moved on to the KLPac venue in 2005.

“We did not, at any time, think of throwing in the towel. We were presented with a devastating challenge (in 2003) and we just had to continue.

“To other groups the only advice we can offer is ‘if you want it and need it badly enough, you will find ways of making it happen’. There is no magic formula. It’s up to you, ” concludes Hasham.

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