In the first of a three-part series on the state, role and future of the performing arts in Malaysia, we examine some of the fundamental issues that make it a niche and struggling field.
FOR the longest time, there has been something missing in Malaysia’s performing arts scene: an advocacy movement.
As aptly summed up by actor and director Jo Kukathas: “Artists aren’t always the best people to negotiate with government or corporations. What we need is an intermediary.”
In many countries, arts advocacy groups are common.
Malaysia could do with more individuals or independent organisations working to source funding for artists, says Kukathas.
And so enters Low Ngai Yuen, and the current incarnation of Kakiseni.
Kakiseni was founded by Kathy Rowland and Jenny Daneels as an online platform to facilitate dialogue between artists. Low volunteered to carry on after they left in 2011.
Kakiseni, now headed by Low, has its own office, manned by a small army of bright and passionate individuals.
A set of government-funded grant schemes, mentor-mentee programmes and even a 10-day festival packed with free shows, art installations, forums and workshops, are the result of over two years of hard work.
Lobbying takes persistence, of which Low – a tenacious workaholic and irrepressible theatre activist – has shown an admirable amount.
“It took me about a year before I was invited to the right meetings,” she laughs.
Getting to know people and sitting in on round table sessions gave her the chance to raise issues about the performing arts industry.
The formula is such: find out from practitioners what their problems are, and then be the bridge that champions those issues.
So what are the issues? They are indeed numerous and interconnected, and it begins with a lack of awareness.
The fact that few are aware of theatre means a limited audience attends performances; there is a perception that theatre is only for “certain types” of people.
Perhaps this explains why many Malaysians tend not to have a thriving and prolific performing arts scene in their list of top priorities, and why we compare so poorly with other countries when it comes to patronage and government funding for the arts.
Ticket sales, even when a show plays to full houses, generally only cover about 40% of production costs.
“It’s about scalability,” explains Low. “The work you put up will only run for a certain amount of time, so if your ticket sales cover that particular show, it doesn’t help you cover your next show.”
The remaining half needs to come from external funds – your philanthropists, your government grants, your corporate sponsors etc, she adds.
Not having those alternative sources of funding means that anyone who decides to put on a show faces the risk of struggling to recoup their investment.
Sometimes, actors and crew offer their services for free; often, they get paid a minimal amount.
This, in turn, has obvious implications for the sustainability of theatre companies.
For many years, these financial risks and sacrifices have meant that Malaysian theatre today largely survives on an ad hoc basis.
Each new project brings on a whole new set of financial challenges and worries. This tough environment does nothing for the incubation and development of new talents – the uncertainty and lack of room for professional commitment inhibits the natural progression from amateur to professional.
Asked what constitutes a healthy performing arts industry, Low replies: “A healthy arts scene is one that grows every single year – from the number of performances to audience numbers, to the number of new artists coming in.
“It also entails a good mix of quality shows, re-staging of old as well as new works, traditional and experimental as well as serious and light-hearted performances.”
As such, Malaysia’s performing arts scene has been in stagnation.
Few original productions see the light of day, many performances feature the same old talents, serious drama or experimental works are few and far between, and productions are mostly frequented by niche audiences.
Does anyone make a profit?
Low laughs again. In most cases, the situation is very far from even “struggling to break even”, she says. This is the reality of Malaysian theatre.