The adrenaline. The bright lights. The cheering crowd.
It was something she hadn’t experienced in nearly two pandemic years. When comedienne Joanne Kam Poh Poh stepped onto Petaling Jaya Performing Arts Centre’s (PJPac) stage for her recent Kamthology stand-up show, it felt like a new beginning for the veteran entertainer.
“It really felt like I was alive again! It was so good to actually be able to hear the laughter instead of checking on the chat to see our online audience type ‘LOL’ or ‘hahaha’ or even ‘5555’!” says Kam, referring to the virtual pivot many performers resorted to during the various lockdowns.
Like so many live performers, Kam and her comedy group are raring to get back to work.
At PJPac, there are clear signs that stage life is slowly returning during this “recovery run” phase.
From comedy to live indie music, PJPac opened its doors with a diverse list of events. There is even a pop-up Chinese calligraphy exhibition to greet visitors at the venue this month.
Situated at a newly built space in the 1Utama shopping centre, PJPac didn’t have the easiest of starts, especially with the long pandemic shutdowns disrupting its inaugural programme last year.
At a time when the Malaysian performing arts industry is picking itself up, the introduction of this new theatre space is a bold move, signalling an international venue can make an impact in Petaling Jaya and beyond.
The right balance
The creative team at PJPac, owned and operated by Bandar Utama City Centre Sdn Bhd, has also been busy holding “Open Day” tours to introduce the venue to the public and potential partners.
The 2,752sq m venue, with its retro modern design, takes up three floors, with a 686-seater proscenium main theatre (Stage 1), a 300-capacity Black Box, the Nero Event Space and the 1ncubator Studio (which contains four rehearsal and recording studios).
Early this year, the multi-purpose arts venue opened its doors to the public before closing again for MCO 3.0. It was even used as a vaccination centre (for the retail sector) in July to September.
“Our mission is to facilitate the growth of the performing arts and entertainment industries in Malaysia by providing premium, quality spaces with fully-equipped facilities,” says Brian Kwan, PJPac’s theatre manager.
For the public, the location of PJPac also offers easy accessibility, with the venue connected to the Bandar Utama MRT station and the 1Utama Transport Hub.
“This will improve the creative and cultural opportunities for the people of Petaling Jaya and beyond,” adds Kwan.
“Easy accessibility and connectivity to the space is a key strength of PJPac. For too long have we heard excuses like ‘no public transport’, ‘too far’ and ‘no parking’ when it comes to travelling to an arts venue.
“We believe by making things accessible, we will be able to bring the arts to a wider and more inclusive audience,” he elaborates.
Theatre is still at the heart of PJPac’s plans despite an initial burst of non-theatre events durings its reopening phase.
Later this month, performing arts/storytelling show Hasrat, helmed by artistic director Lee Swee Keong, is set to be a reunion for a seasoned cast of performing artists, including Sukania Venugopal, Dida Mallik, Bhajan Jeff, Amelia Tan, Andrew Pok Chong Boon and Azmie Zanal Abdden.
For Tim Johnson, a regular theatregoer, the idea of a performing arts hub in Petaling Jaya is an appealing one, especially if the venue has plans to promote local and family-friendly theatre programmes.
“From watching shows in the old The Actors Studio, in the caverns of Dataran Merdeka, to being regulars at the new spaces that have popped up in the last couple of years, I am looking forward to catching some shows at PJPAC.
"It looks pretty impressive and very accessible to me and the family. Theatre and the arts must bounce back in this endemic age because without the arts, where else would we get our souls captivated and nourished,” says Johnson.
Darwin Raj, a KL-based engineer and local theatre fan, agrees that distance is not an issue if the arts venue offers quality shows, and has a programme to develop creative relationships with young directors and arts collectives here.
“I will definitely travel to PJ to watch a show because good art spaces are scattered around Klang Valley,” he says, adding arts spaces – new or old – can play a big part in supporting the post-pandemic recovery efforts in the theatre scene.
Theatrethreesixty’s show Orang Bulan, directed by its co-founder Christopher Ling, was the first theatre production to be staged at PJPac in late April.
Ling, known for his minimalist ideas in a performance space, says PJPac’s technical specs will impress theatre directors.
“For me, PJPac stands out primarily because of the up-to-date tech facilities available in both Stage 1 and Nero Event Space. Both venues are also fully equipped to handle a full range of non-commercial and commercial events.
“I have a personal preference for Nero as it is structurally and technically modelled quite closely after KLPac’s Pentas 2 and PenangPac’s Stage 2 – both excellent venues in their own right,” says Ling.
He is also currently busy rehearsing for his upcoming multilingual adaptation of Charles Dickens’s classic A Christmas Carol that will open at PJPac on Dec 2.
How about an orchestra performance on Christmas Day? PJPac has also announced it will be hosting the Philharmonic Winds Of Malaysia’s (PWM) first concert on Dec 25 after two years of not being able to perform.
When Ballet Meet Contemporary Dance (Dec 26), a dance performance by La Danza Theatre, is also on the festive schedule.
Sustaining live shows
At PJPac, the recovery programme has welcomed live shows – with pandemic restrictions and a limited number of attendees – that are usually held in Kuala Lumpur venues during pre-pandemic times.
Last month, indie rock band Hujan’s 16th anniversary celebration was held at PJPac, where it sold out all four shows, and attracted 350 concertgoers every night.
At the rate, the indie music live scene might see a gradual shift in boutique gigs from KL to Petaling Jaya, especially with retro rock band Masdo’s shows at PJPac later this month expected to sell out out soon.
“As a performing arts centre, we believe all art forms should have a welcoming space to host their performances. The more types of performing arts we can offer to the public, I feel, the chances of someone finding their love for the arts are higher,” says Kwan.
PJPac’s technical manager Mark Felix notes the venue’s backstage inventory is ready to support a variety of productions.
“Being the newest performing arts centre in Malaysia, we are honoured to be able to offer the latest technology in our spaces such as an LED screen, a seamless and fully connected audio system and Follow Spot tracking system.
“The access to such technologies, we believe, will provide theatremakers and event organisers the avenue to explore and not be limited in their ideas when executing their activities,” he says.
As live venues across the country begin to emerge on the other side of this pandemic, many are also prepared for the ‘new normal’ of the events industry, with public health guidelines and SOPs in place.
At PJPac, Kwan says that besides the regular venue sanitisation, temperature and vaccination status checks, additional sanitisation and air filtration technology such as the Merv12 air filters and UV light filters have been installed.
“Fresh air intake is maximised with nightly 100% purging of stale air and replacement with fresh air to ensure optimal indoor air quality,” says Kwan.
Public health safety considerations continue to be top priorities at PJPac, but it has not forgotten the need for creative content, notably with indie film screenings, arts workshops and art exhibitions steadily filling up its monthly programming.
At a grassroots level, PJPac also wants to ensure that arts practitioners who have been severely affected by the pandemic and the various lockdowns are able to stage shows in its premises.
“We are showing our support to the creative industry by offering a 50% discount off our published rate card on their first venue hire with PJPac. We hope this will help some of the difficulties in producing a performance,” says Kwan.
With only two months left until the end of the year, at a glance, PJPac is definitely making up for lost time.