The scene at the Istana Budaya ballet studio in Kuala Lumpur is lively. The floor trembles in sync with the music and the stomping of 46 pairs of feet. The young cast of OlaBola The Musical – made up of Malays, Chinese, Indians, Ibans, Kadazans and Eurasians – move in unison as they rehearse the “army scene”. That's when the Harimau Malaya football team undergoes training with the Malaysian Army.
Watching from the front of the formation, less than 6ft away from the performers, is director Puan Sri Tiara Jacquelina Eu Effendi. She's dressed in a white OlaBola t-shirt, black vest, blue jeans and sandals, tapping her fingers in time to the rhythm.
She nods her head to the beat and leans forward, fully immersed in the rehearsal. Local artist Altimet, cast in the show as drill sergeant Ahmad, raps and marches along with the other actors playing the athletes, and one can see the mental notes forming in Tiara’s mind as the sequence progresses.
OlaBola The Musical, which will be staged at Istana Budaya from Feb 8-Mar 11, is Tiara's directorial debut. It’s ambitious, being based on the critically acclaimed 2016 movie and box-office smash directed by Chiu Keng Guan. The movie itself was inspired by the true story of Malaysia's national football team that had hoped to qualify for 1980 Olympics.
Tiara sat with Star2's Life Inspired team to talk about the biggest project she’s ever undertaken, its challenges and rewards, and how she’s becoming something of a soccer expert.
Why did you decide to make OlaBola The Musical your directorial debut?
For me it’s a story that grabs me. If I know I can’t sleep at night thinking about it, I know there’s something in it. When I watched the movie, it moved me to tears and that’s already a sign there’s something in this story that works.
When I came home, I couldn’t stop thinking about it as a musical. In the shower, I would identify song moments in the story, and I obsessed about how the football sequences could be taken to a whole new level and performed live on stage. Once I had that vision in my head, I said let me go watch it one more time.
I was kind of editing the show on the go – how this is a big dance sequence, how a football game could be performed in a heightened artistic style, here’s where a particular character’s theme song comes in, etc. When I felt confident enough that there were all the elements and ingredients required for a compelling musical, that’s when I said ‘now we go talk to Astro Shaw’!
I’ve watched it several hundred times. We watch it back for reference on the storyline, and whenever we’re not sure we would go back to the film, or I would call Chiu Keng Guan to check on the facts.
Was there anything about this role that surprised you?
My peers in the industry have always been pushing me to direct a show, but it was tough enough just juggling acting and producing in some of our previous shows. Directing is a whole different game altogether.
It involves 110% attention to every single aspect of the show, from concept to working with writers, the composer and music director, directing actors, working with technical experts on sound, lights, multimedia and projection mapping, choreographers, stage managers. It’s full on! And I’m as detailed as a woman could ever get, so you can just imagine what it’s like.
More importantly, I really wanted to save myself for a story that would be compelling enough to be my official directorial debut, that would be impactful and meaningful because for me a project has to be meaningful. I need to be totally immersed and passionate about it. Otherwise, what’s the point?
I want to do projects that are meaningful to the nation. When you watch it, you go home thinking about it, especially if it inspires you to do great things for this country we love. You can see with some of our past projects, our audiences have commented that they get a sense of national pride watching them, whether it’s Puteri Gunung Ledang, P Ramlee The Musical or Mud: The Story Of Kuala Lumpur.
I’ve always been an advocate for how the performing arts can contribute to nation-building from our little corner. A well-written show has the power to influence, inspire and change mindsets. Any kind of positive change we can contribute is surely beneficial for the country. Get people to start thinking big, aiming high, start believing in themselves and the country. When you feel good about the country, you’re inspired to think of ways to do great things for it.
What have been the challenges so far?
It’s a story set in a man’s world, firstly. I watch football but I needed enough of an army around me to help advise on the technicalities of football. We can’t randomly place players all over the place, because we know football involves offensive and defensive strategy and tactics, similar to war.
Every day is 'Football 101' for me. How to design a tackle that will cause a penalty? How to craft goals, saves and game moments that are emotionally engaging? I’m a details person – maybe that’s the girl in me. I need to know, so if anyone ever calls me out on any football technicalities, I can answer confidently.
My husband (Tan Sri Datuk Seri Mohd Effendi Norwawi), who is my most ardent supporter and my greatest critic, is also a football fan, so he watches out for the football sequences in the show and works out game strategies for me.
We love sports, especially when it comes to watching people perform at the top of their game like Usain Bolt, Roger Federer, Cristiano Ronaldo. We often discuss what it must take for a person to get to that level of greatness in their performance.
Similarly, for an actor or singer you have to continuously train so hard in order for you to make your performance look effortless, always pushing yourself mentally and physically to get to that level of spectacular.
Are you excited or nervous?
I don’t think I’ve ever worked so hard on any project before, but I know that with detailed pre-production planning, you have less to fix later on stage. To ensure that everything is perfect before we go into rehearsals, I assembled the best people in the business by my side. I don’t pretend to know everything and I can’t possibly be great at everything, so I rope in the best creative and technical talents to work with me on every project.
How do you stay motivated in your work at Enfiniti Academy?
The challenge when we set up in 2011 was always how do we get people to see performing arts as more than fluffy singing and dancing. But since Puteri Gunung Ledang, the public perception towards the level of professionalism in the arts is very different today. For many performers, as well as people who work behind the scenes, this has become their full time job and many of them move from production to production non-stop.
On Mud: The Story Of Kuala Lumpur, we were hiring a 20-man cast, stage management, technical personnel as well as theatre management, ticketing and marketing staff on salaries, working full time like any other honourable day job so that’s how the performing arts has evolved today. It’s a very different industry now.
Parents are seeing prospects in the world of performing arts and entertainment for their kids. More importantly besides the employability aspect is what it’s doing for young people studying performing arts.
You become more confident, you think more creatively, you’re more innovative, you’re forced to use both your right and left brain, so the young people we train are just much more productive at school and college, and they make for a much more employable bunch of university graduates too.
Enfiniti Academy has also started to collaborate with a few local universities like MUST University and University Malaysia Kelantan, through the Ministry of Higher Education. We also run outreach programmes with the Ministry of Education, ELTC and PADU, teaching English and effective communication through drama.
In general for the nation, we hope to have trained a whole bunch of young Malaysians who now can see a bigger picture for the country, contributing towards building a confident young nation with bright, exciting ideas, brave enough to open their mouths and say what they want, and making a positive difference to the country.
We like to think that at Enfiniti Academy, we’re building a little incubator of creative, innovative young minds who will be the future leaders of the country in different industries. They will come up with breakthrough technologies that will change the world, be leaders in engineering, create the most amazing designs, cars, houses, discover cures for diseases.
If they grow up to be teachers, they’ll be inspiring and empowering. If they become politicians, they will be dynamic, creative and inspirational leaders with exciting and fresh ideas.
Back to OlaBola, which opens in less than two weeks now – here we are with the most ambitious show Malaysia will have ever seen, in terms of scale and the technology we will be using to take Malaysian musical theatre to a whole new level.
We’re working on “transforming” Istana Budaya into Stadium Merdeka during the 1976 qualifying match for the Olympics. Audiences will see the stadium projected in 180 degrees, and hear the lively stadium atmosphere in surround sound. That’s just the opening sequence, mind you. We even invested in a 3D scan of the whole interior of Istana Budaya so that we can have precision projection mapping on the walls and floor.
My team and I have basically worked for over a year, to put together a roller-coaster of an emotional journey that audiences will remember for many, many years to come. The cost to produce a show of this magnitude, which takes over 300 people to create, runs in the millions, so there’s no way we would ever recover this from ticket sales alone.
I’d really like to put in a heartfelt word of thanks to our presenting sponsor CIMB who were first to come on board when we announced OlaBola as a stage musical. They believed in this story and said this was a project they really wanted to be a part of. That kind of corporate support means a lot to us in arts and entertainment.
I would also like to acknowledge our digital partner Celcom Axiata, who have made it possible for us to employ the latest staging technology in our show – because of them, we can now confidently say we will blow our audiences’ minds when they come to watch the show!
That’s how the Koreans did it. The government, private sector and performing arts industry came together to create their “culture economy” which resulted in what we know as the “Korean Wave”. Many countries in the world could take a leaf out of Korea’s book and do the same. That’s my hope for Malaysia, to someday get to that point where the arts industry is self-sufficient, and to a point where the Malaysian brand itself stands for quality.