Online theatre in Malaysia is definitely going to be a long-term fixture, especially since livestreaming gives more theatre works here the opportunity to attract an audience abroad.
Shafeeq Shajahan and Hannah Shields, founders of Malaysian-British theatre group Liver and Lung Productions, definitely think this is a way forward. During the movement control order (MCO) period, they uploaded two productions Sepet The Musical and Malaya Relived: The Penang Riots on YouTube.
These two musicals, based on “completely Malaysian” subject matter, attracted viewers from Britain, New Zealand, the United States and Canada, among others, with overseas viewers making up 35% of the online audience.
“This level of relevance and engagement is unprecedented. Like all industries, it is critical that theatre catches up with the new world order. If digitisation and technology paves the way for a more accessible evolution of theatre-making, we welcome it with open arms, ” says Shafeeq, 27, via email.
“Digitisation and online shows open the floodgates and make audiences more broad-based. I hope that this forces us to be more representative when approaching storytelling. Theatre needs to be dynamic, engaging, and relevant to keep up with today’s technology and demands, ” adds Shields, 27.
The duo agrees that while online theatre is perceived as “less” immersive than live theatre, things are shifting fast. In the new normal, livestream technology aims to recreate theatre experiences at home.
Online performances also have strengths, seeing how theatremakers have AR (Augmented Reality) and VR (Virtual Reality) tecnhologies to add to their content.
“Challenge is a good thing. It keeps content creators on their toes and pushes them to be more creative and inventive with their output, ” says Shafeeq.
Also enthusiastic about theatre streaming is London-based Vinna Law, the Malaysian founder of British theatre collective Cognatus.
Putting work online, she mentions, encourages theatremakers to think out of the box in terms of presentation.
Law recently put on a performance titled Monologues In The Bedroom, with Singapore-London based company Rumah. The show featured a virtual stage and performers from different countries, and received good response.
“Malaysian theatre is not sought out on the same level as shows on the West End or Broadway. It will take time to gain popularity overseas. But it is not impossible, ” says Law, 28.
“In time, when the right material is out there, I am very sure it will be picked up by audiences outside Malaysia. But for now, I think its important to just put it out there, ” she adds.
“I believe in this day and age, culture and language should not be seen as barriers but as insights into the experience of the ‘other’.
“Knowing we have a budding community of theatregoers and arts enthusiasts in Malaysia, it would be a treat if good quality recordings of shows are put online, or online shows are created.”
Standards must be kept
Terence Conrad, co-founder of Terry and The Cuz, also believes that online theatre could have benefits. To him, there is a major difference between putting shows online and creating a show meant for the screen.
“We believe rushing to put shows online is not the solution for everyone. Theatre is created for a live audience experience, and that is the key word here – experience. Some theatremakers have responded by creating without taking into account how their show looks, sounds and feels to an online audience, ” explains Conrad, 40.
Terry and the Cuz is no stranger to international shows, or pushing theatre performance limits.
Its works include interactive public art/theatre Welcome2Flatland and SK!N, a contemporary performance based on human trafficking stories.
Its shows Thicker Than Water and the off-Broadway season of Made In America were both presented at the Public Theater in New York City.
Conrad adds that many times, a show is recorded for archival purposes, without too much importance placed on things such as camera angles or sound quality.
“These quick responses of putting archival works online may risk the shows judged for how it appears on screen and ultimately diminish the value of the project and company in the eyes of the viewer, ” he warns.
“What theatremakers need to realise is that online content is an art form in itself. Without proper interrogation and appreciation for how this content is consumed can be detrimental to the work and image of the company.”
Digital urgency, don’t stumble
Director Kelvin Wong, of the collective Theatresauce, agrees with these sentiments. He also maintains there is no equal to live theatre.
“It is with the hope that once we return to the theatre, live audiences will return once more, and perhaps in droves, because watching a live performance digitally, no matter how well-captured or edited, will never be enough, ” says Wong, 34.
“The downside, however, is when digital theatre begins to overtake the need for audiences to leave their homes (for live performances). I doubt this will happen though.”
Wong, a US-trained director, theatre and educator, says he will not be putting any of Theatresauce’s previous plays online. To him, they had been recorded for archival purposes, with no intention of being streamed publicly.
“This trend is however, making us rethink our future performances, and the possibility of making them digital audience friendly. But the core of our work will be live, at least for the foreseeable future, ” he says.
Wong is following the developments of Malaysian theatre companies that are creating live performances via digital platforms, such as Zoom, and is interested to see what lies ahead.
“We cannot deny the urgency of the digital world. It’s brought us closer; it’s allowed us to remain relevant and it will continue to be a relevant part of our lives, ” says Wong.
“How can theatre continue to engage digitally, even when we’re back in front of a live audience? I’m keeping this in mind, as Theatresauce gears up for our postponed 2021 season.”