Senior Minister (Security) Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob announced on Feb 9 that the creative industry will now be allowed to operate under strict standard operating procedures (SOP) from Feb 10.
The six sectors in the industry that will be allowed are: animation and music production; studio-based post-production; music development via digital channels; studio-based song recording; pre-production shooting; and studio-based shooting encompassing dramas, telemovies, commercials, documentaries, sitcoms, live streaming, as well as cultural, arts and heritage recording, without an audience.
However, the updated SOPs by the National Security Council (NSC) were not well received by arts and culture practitioners here, stating ambiguity and financial constraints as key factors.
“We don’t find any significant difference between the current and past SOPs. In fact, we will not be planning any in-house productions for 2021 seeing as audiences aren’t allowed," offers Datin Jane Lew Siew Ting, founder of the Damansara Performing Arts Centre (DPAC).
“A 50% audience capacity would incur a loss to any production. Right now, it isn’t worth planning a programme unless we receive support from the government or sponsors, ” she adds.
After nearly a year of struggle in the theatre industry, Ian Chow, group general manager of the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre (KLPac), isn't mincing words.
“The new SOP does not help us. In fact, it adds salt to the wound of an already crippled arts industry," says Chow.
“This makes it abundantly clear the lack of understanding of those in power who are in fact in the position to help but have not and have fallen short, ” he adds.
What can Finas offer?
Under the NSC guidelines, production companies must apply for National Film Development Corporation Malaysia (Finas) special shooting certification (SPP).
However, the issuance of the Finas license is subject to the results of health screenings which must be conducted on all crew members involved in shooting and the results must be shown to Finas three days prior to shooting.
“To be honest the recent SOPs are quite vague and confusing. If a theatre group wishes to record a show on stage without an audience, do they have to get approval from Finas?” asks Alexander Ooi, PenangPac’s company manager.
Veteran theatre actor/director Jo Kukathas echoes Ooi's sentiments, saying “these SOPs do not consider the performing arts.”
“The SPP is the norm for TV and film production companies but are not applicable to performing arts companies as we do not come under Finas. The question is who do we come under now?" asks Kukathas.
Pre-recording a theatre show is nothing new in this pandemic era. Last December, multidisciplinary show Seni Tiga presented its eleventh edition called Dulu. Saat Itu. as a virtual, pre-recorded performance.
It was supported by the Cultural Economy Development Agency’s (Cendana) Performing Arts Presentation Funding Programme.
However, not many performing arts companies have the financial support to film its shows.
Theatre industry is not the film industry
“We still cannot have audiences in the theatre. This means we have to work more as filmmakers than theatre makers. However, neither funds nor protocols are there to back up the SOP or to assist us in any way. Once again the performing arts feels abandoned or at the back of a long queue, ” says Kukathas.
The performing arts scene in Malaysia, which relies heavily on live shows and audience support, haven't got the resources for film and video production studio work.
“We don't have the manpower and equipment that can compete with the TV and film industry while putting up our show online," says Ooi.
“That would require time and money to be invested. At a time when we can't sustain ourselves, we can't think about investing in what we don't have, ” he adds.
PenangPac recorded a loss of RM132,864 last year due to show, rental and academy classes cancellation. At press time, the performing arts venue has already lost RM37,937 so early in the year after 11 shows were cancelled or postponed since the movement control order (MCO) was reimplemented on Jan 13.
Heavier financial burden is placed on theatre companies as the NSC guideline requires them to conduct swab tests on all the crew prior to the shooting.
“We are already struggling to pay staff salaries on a monthly basis even with severe pay cuts along with other basic operational costs.
“We will never be able to afford a swab test for each cast and crew member for the many productions that we have lined up, ” says Chow.
To date, KLPac and The Actors Studio’s reported losses are close to RM2mil, according to Chow. He adds that at least RM3.3mil is needed this year to cover basic necessities such as overheads and operation fees and technical/ building maintenance and production budget.
What the industry needs, say the performing arts practitioners, is to be fully operational again, with stringent health SOPs in place.
“Allow us to operate like we were doing during the RMCO period. We have been operating safely from July to mid October 2020.
“There is already a good SOP. Why does it even need to be revamped? Why are we reinventing the wheel when there is no need, ” says Chow.
To avoid permanent damage to the arts and culture industry, Chow feels the Government has to step in immediately.
“If our Government truly wants to help rebuild the arts, why not work together with the players instead of make things more difficult with such restrictions?" says Chow.
Even at this precarious stage, Chow mentions a national arts and culture recovery plan is still workable if the Government is willing to consider backing initiatives led by the industry practitioners.
“Just take a look at Singapore where the government has worked hand in hand with venues and arts players to pilot programmes to re-open the live events industry. We would be more than glad to offer KLPac and The Actors Studio as a pilot venue, ” he concludes.