Malaysian online theatre: to pay or not to pay?

  • Arts
  • Sunday, 14 Jun 2020

An image of KLPac's 'Kandang', which streamed online for free last month. In Malaysia, there is a general reluctance for people to pay for virtual theatre and performing arts content.

There is no news on when the curtains will rise for the country’s performing arts scene. All theatre venues have been shuttered for nearly three months now.

Some theatremakers have already started migrating to the digital platform to “stage” their shows.

The question now is whether to stream the live content for free or make it a ticketed event. It’s still early days and there is no broad consensus from the performing arts community on which option is the best way forward.

Damansara Performing Arts Centre (DPAC) has announced it will charge for its upcoming online shows.

The Petaling Jaya-based venue is opening its virtual doors on July 18 for a ticketed performance by Hands Percussion.

Directed by Hands Percussion’s co-founder Bernard Goh, the 75-minute long percussive show titled Reflections will be streamed live from DPAC’s Theatre with a capacity of 1,000 virtual seats.

It will be broadcast via DPAC’s Youtube channel (at 3pm and 8pm) for RM20 per entry. The show will not be made available online once the broadcast ends.

“It is an affordable price for the audience as it’s like paying for a movie ticket. We are trying out this pricing for now. We hope to reach as many people as possible, ” says DPAC’s theatre manager Tan Eng Heng.

Apart from putting monetary value to a performance, the move to charge a “digital ticket” will also help with the cost of productions.

Free online content, in the long run, is not a sustainable business model.

“We felt that we needed to keep performances running to keep us alive. Doing performances is what we do best. So instead of asking people to donate money to us, we think producing a show and ticketing it will ensure DPAC’s survival, ” adds Tan.

At present, DPAC is in talks with a video production house to assist it technically in recording and streaming the performance by the drum ensemble.

Shah Alam-based theatre company Anomalist Production (Anomalist) will also be staging a live virtual show either in July or August for a minimal price.

It will be streamed via Anomalist’s Facebook page, with actors performing remotely from their homes.

“We will price the ticket at RM15 or below. The pricing is not based on any model. We just wanted to make it cheap and accessible to everyone, ” says Anomalist’s founder Khairi Anwar, who is keen to get back to producing theatre work.

“And because it’s an untested market (in Malaysia), putting it at a low price as a starting point will only help generate wider interest, ” he added.

Joining the ticketed bandwagon is Sarawak-based The Tuyang Initiative, a social enterprise and arts management outfit.

This virtual restaging of Kelunan, the multidisciplinary musical theatre show staged at DPAC last year, will be broadcast online (platform yet to be determined) possibly in mid-July.

Tickets for this newly recorded Kelunan performance will be priced at RM30 and RM58.

“The regular RM30 ticket will give viewers access to the show online. For the premium price tier (RM58), people will get to watch the show and we also will mail a programme book to them and perhaps, other possible perks. There’s the added value to support an independent show, ” says The Tuyang Initiative’s co-founder Juvita Tatan Wan.

The Miri-based cultural arts outfit is also factoring the show’s technical and logistics costs, with a wide range of Kelunan performers based in different parts of Sarawak.

The show will be pre-recorded, reveals Juvita.

However, some industry players are slightly wary about charging for an online show.

“I’m not sure if ticketed online shows can be financially viable on a standalone basis for theatre companies. Unless of course the production and creative team are prepared to do it for a minimal or no fee payment. The financial risk with online streaming is just too high, ” says Dama Asia Production’s artistic director Pun Kai Loon.

Dama has no major theatre productions planned at the moment.

In Malaysia, Enfiniti (M) Sdn Bhd was the first theatre company to upload and charge for archival shows online during the movement control order. These online shows, which started streaming on April 17, were ticketed events (RM25, 48-hour access) and to date, Enfiniti has presented The Secret Life Of Nora and P. Ramlee The Musical: The Life, The Loves & The Inspiration.

But Enfiniti's chief dream maker Tiara Jacquelina says the ticketed online route (with part proceeds going to charity) has been a bit of a challenge.

"I have to admit that the number of people who watched our online shows is nowhere near the size of audiences for our actual shows. But I don't think it's because we ticketed the stream. The online ticket price is only half the price of the cheapest ticket at Istana Budaya. Also, we've had no complaints so far about the price. I think it's simply because people are not used to the idea yet," explains Tiara.

"We realised when we started our online channel, it would be an uphill challenge. We knew it would take some time before we could educate and encourage audiences who enjoyed watching live performances to get used to watching their favourite performances online," she adds.

The Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre (KLPAC) staged its first live virtual show Indicinelive! Quaranstream Edition on June 12.

It was streamed on KLPac’s Facebook page for free, with a donation drive running concurrently.

“We didn’t want to have too many barriers for the general public to enjoy our first digital show. It is not just about gaining back audiences but also viewing it from an audience’s point of view and understanding their difficulties and trying to meet halfway, ” explains Ang Yue May, KLPac’s head of marketing communications.

Last month, KLPac started streaming shows from its archives, starting off with the acclaimed George Orwell-inspired Kandang and the Sudirman tribute One Thousand Million Smiles recently.

Donations to KLPac were welcome for both online shows, but the response was negligible.

“We will likely explore different payment models to see what works best in the future but for now, baby steps, and to take in feedback from the public, ” she adds.

KLPac is expected to have reduced capacity (25%) for its shows when it eventually reopens. In such a situation, there must be flexible plans in place to keep the venue’s theatre programming going and income stream running.

Right now, KLPac is considering various options available.

“Even when we reopen, we do foresee that we will have a mix of online and live offerings. A show in the future can be performed to a limited (physical) audience and we can either livestream it at the same time, or make the recording available online later, ” concludes Ang.

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