The opening of Five Arts Centre's new home at the GMBB mall in Kuala Lumpur last month could not have been more successful and meaningful.
The new space may be smaller and more intimate (130sq m) compared to the former Kotak black box at Taman Tun Dr Ismail (TTDI) in Kuala Lumpur.
But Five Arts Centre still managed to pack in nearly 900 audience members for what was arguably a bumper three-week programme last month, with two shows selling out in advance.
“It was really more circumstance and practicalities that led us to open the new Five Arts space with a three-week programme of performances, readings and screenings," says Mark Teh, a performance maker, researcher, and curator, who is part of the Five Arts Centre collective.
“We never planned for a small festival, but that's what the metabolic momentum of intensities, intentions and attentions seemed to propel us towards. Each week, a space for different energies and intimacies in the space. A non-linear, liminal layering on the lantai (floor),” he adds.
Since 1984, Five Arts Centre – formed by theatremakers Chin San Sooi and Krishen Jit, dancer-choreographer Marion D’Cruz, writer K.S. Maniam and visual artist Redza Piyadasa – has been known for its thought-provoking, experimental, and intercultural works and last month's programming at GMBB drew from that proud and bold theatre lineage.
The new performances included a contemporary dance work by dancers/choreographers Lee Ren Xin and Tan Bee Hung called Anggota, staged readings of two new plays by playwright Leow Puay Tin (Material Woman In The Beauty World and Mortal Man: Two Monologues) and the documentary performance A Notional History, directed by Teh.
“The idea of doing all these projects in a short, intense period of three weeks allows old friends or new audiences to discover or re-encounter Five Arts in a different or renewed context,” says Teh.
At these recent shows, he mentions that there were many new generation theatregoers in attendance.
"It will take more time to figure out the pattern for newcomers – perhaps it's the new location in the centre of the city, or GMBB's existing network of followers and visitors, or perhaps people just curious and hungry for live performance as the pandemic eases.” “What was clearly discernible was a younger female audience for Anggota, who were curious and interested in the questions Lee Ren Xin and gang were investigating in relation to identity, gender and agency.
“And for A Notional History, there was a very wide spectrum of people – from civil society activists and people involved in the larger indie ecosystem to lots of students as well as young history teachers who are actually tasked to teach the very history textbook we were dissecting onstage,” he adds.
As a production capable of transcending borders, A Notional History impressed the audience and critics when it was shown at the Kunstenfestivaldesarts 2022 in Brussels, Belgium in May.
Rare trip to a local festival
A Notional History, which features activist Fahmi Reza, journalist Rahmah Pauzi, and actor Faiq Syazwan Kuhiri, will now travel to Penang for the George Town Festival (GTF) on July 16 and 17.
“We actually applied to be in GTF through the open call, and are very pleased to be invited through this way. We just tried our luck, really. In the last few years, we have been invited to present our work in around 20 festivals and platforms across South-East Asia, Japan, South Korea, India, UAE, Australia and Europe.
“I am not sure why we have never been invited to present our work at the performing arts festivals that have proliferated (and also evaporated) locally over the past decade or so. I can only speculate that our work, which deals with current affairs and historical events in Malaysia, might be deemed too political or difficult,” explains Teh.
A Notional History, a pertinent theatre work to reflect the times in Malaysia, explores how history is always being written, rewritten and unwritten, and Teh says it is highly important “because the performance attempts to hold space for difficult questions.”
Past, present, future
Five Arts Centre moved into its two-storey shoplot in TTDI in 1998.
In 2015, the studio space in TTDI was converted into a black box called “Kotak”. Since then, a multitude of arts events, talks, shows, exhibitions and workshops have been held at Kotak.
In March last year, Five Arts Centre received a notice from its landlord that the shoplot unit was about to be sold. This prompted the decision to shift to GMBB last September.
When the theatre collective moved into its TTDI art space 24 years ago, it became a meeting point for countless collaborations, joint projects and theatre gatherings.
The idea of a new beginning at a new venue is an enticing one. But Five Arts Centre hopes to also bring along its community-driven, neighbourhood theatre roots at its new home at GMBB.
“At GMBB we find we’re close to the (Klang) river, to Chinatown, to Bukit Bintang, to Brickfields and everything else being a MRT ride away, it’s really exciting to see who and how we will engage with our audiences,” says June Tan, a producer at Five Arts Centre.
Five Arts Centre spent several months raising funds to renovate its new space, an effort which was sponsored by Yayasan Sime Darby and supporters of the arts.
“For the past 10 or so months, Five Arts Centre has really focused our energies on moving, renovations, re-calibrating, getting familiar with our new environment – all the necessary steps you have to take when you relocate after 23 years from the edge of the city to the city centre,” says Teh.
The team at Five Arts Centre is also keen to be a part of GMBB's wider arts-driven plans.
“GMBB is a new mall, almost like a blank slate. Being an early tenant, we’re curious who else will move in," says Tan.
“This curiosity is also encouraged by the mall owners who are keen to build a new engaged community populated by those who work within the arts and creativity related activities,” she adds.
Room for new ideas
Moving to a new space is not just a matter of relocation. It can also be seen as an exercise in changing and evolving as an art collective.
“It is not change so much we’re seeing but an intensification,” says Tan.
“During the lockdown, Mark and I discussed a lot about our work, about being in a collective, and how we locate our work within our impulses and also zooming out to what is happening around us.
“Physically moving into a new part of the city really hits the nail on the head when looking at the question of ‘locating’. We’ve also moved into climate activism, which is one of the biggest challenges facing us today. So, the idea of a new home in an older, rapidly changing part of the city opens up new propositions for us,” says Tan.
Moving forward, Teh shares that Five Arts Centre is exploring further opportunities to tour A Notional History locally and internationally. There are plans for another staging in Kuala Lumpur.
He says that there are also plans for developing new works by Five Arts Centre members such as Marion D'Cruz, Chee Sek Thim, Lee Ren Xin, Syamsul Azhar and Faiq Syazwan Kuhiri. These works will only be realised next year, with possibly some initial workshop and development outings before that.
“We are also planning to research, map and immerse ourselves in the new context in the centre of KL ... there is much to excavate, learn and rediscover about our new location in the city.
“One of the things we have been discussing is to work with the surrounding environments, spaces, contexts and communities over the next few years – to reconsider our relationships with the changing city,” says Teh.
Apart from the managing the Krishen Jit Fund, now in its 17th year, the theatre collective is also considering bringing back its pandemic "Open House" initiative where artists and creative groups can utilise the Five Arts Centre's studio for free.