Demand for those trained in the performing arts exceeds supply, and the industry is booming.
THE room is silent as two lines of performers stand in single file, facing each other at opposite ends of the room.
The distinct rhythm of the music soon beats throughout the room as the actors, wrapped regally in batik of every hue, walk towards the centre of the room.
Standing on the side of the room is choreographer Pat Ibrahim who watches the performers carefully as they unite in song and dance to the sounds of Suatu Hari Nanti, from acclaimed stage production Puteri Gunung Ledang.
Sunway University College (Sunway) performing arts student Khazmen Shamia, 20, then stands up to sing a solo segment before rejoining his peers in song and dance.
These “performers” are in fact students who have enrolled in a field of study that is slowly gaining popularity and acceptance.
The performing arts, which encompasses dance, drama and music, is a form of art that is performed in the presence of people.
Performing arts aficionados in Malaysia often harbour dreams of becoming the next big actor, like Rosham Noor, an acclaimed dancer like Ramli Ibrahim, or even a director, like the legendary Steven Spielberg.
Passion is the key
It is the passion for acting and dancing that draws many towards a career in performing arts.
Universiti Malaya (UM) Cultural Centre performing arts (drama) student Syarafina Abdullah recalls her first foray into acting. When she was 14, she joined a drama competition in her hometown of Kuching.
”We were champions two years in a row and that was when I realised that I had developed a passion for it,” says the 25-year-old.
Syarafina completed her diploma in acting at the Akademi Seni Budaya dan Warisan Kebangsaan (Aswara) recently, and is now in the midst of her bachelor degree.
She hopes to become an educator and teach drama. In the mean time, this promising talent has been dabbling in stage and television productions and recently played an over-excited fan on the television show, Ghost, which also stars local talent Cheryl Samad.
Aswara performing arts (dance) student Jessica Ho caught the performing fever at a young age, too.
When she was four, Jessica used to follow her elder sister to ballet classes. Soon, she asked her parents if she could join too.
“It was through ballet that I developed a love for dance.
“It got to a point that I loved it so much, I couldn't imagine doing anything else for the rest of my life,” says the 20-year-old.
Jessica has since competed in many dance competitions and even enrolled in a dance camp in Melbourne, Australia.
Traits of a good performer
Sunway department of performance and media co-head Leow Puay Tin says that passion for the arts will carry students a long way.
“It surprises people that performing arts is a very demanding field that also includes book reading and essay writing, besides the practical aspects.
“We’re looking for people who are intelligent, responsible and are also creative thinkers. The arts need motivated people!” adds Leow.
UM Cultural Centre Performing Arts deputy director (undergraduate) Roselina Johari Mohd Khir says besides performing, students are also required to study the theory behind a production, to have a better understanding of the story, its author and the period in which it was written.
Besides passion, dedication is important as well as the students must be driven to block out any kind of negativity, says Joseph Gonzales, head of Aswara’s dance faculty.
“They have to aspire to be the best they can be, and a good teacher who inspires this among his students is crucial to their success.”
Gonzales adds that self-sacrifice is another quality that a good performing arts student should possess.
UM Cultural Centre Performing Arts senior lecturer Dr Zulkifli Mohamad agrees that self-sacrifice is important in his field as it involves rigorous training.
“Rehearsing for a production can sometimes take weeks or months, from morning to night.
“You almost have no life, but it is the dedication of, and sacrifice from, both the students and the lecturer that ensure a good performance at the end of it all,” Dr Zulkifli says.
High demand, low supply
The number of and the demand for performing arts students are on the rise. As for intake, some institutions have slightly more females than males. Some keep the numbers low, partly due to space constraints, and to ensure individual attention for students.
Performing arts programmes in Malaysia are currently restricted to diplomas that are two-and-a-half-years in duration in private institutions while public institutions offer qualifications that range from diploma level up till PhD.
Such programmes usually comprise both a theory and practical component.
Universiti Sains Malaysia drama/theatre senior lecturer Pillai Pillai says there are lots of opportunities at postgraduate level.
“Many research universities have funds for postgraduate research, so such studies would be fully funded. But not many practitioners come back to pursue their area of interest,” she says.
UM Cultural Centre Performing Arts (postgraduate & research) deputy director and acting director Prof Dr Solehah Ishak adds that it’s not only about producing well-rounded graduates who are good in theory and the practical aspects.
“A strong emphasis on research is also important because of the possibilities available. We want to empower regional theatre to enhance tradition,” she says.
UM Cultural Centre Performing Arts Assoc Prof Said Halim says imparting the performing arts is about teaching, exposing and challenging the students.
“Since it involves both theory and practical, it is important to create a good balance.”
Prof Said adds that the scope for career development is five-pronged.
“Upon graduation, students can become a performer, or be involved in the management of productions.
“Other options include becoming an educator or an entrepreneur who runs a small production company. Or, he could be involved in technical theatre such as lighting and set design.”
Gonzales says the industry is booming today, with plenty of jobs in teaching and television.
“We are shaping people who will be able to produce the goods on stage. The reality of the situation is that there is a greater demand for performers than there is supply,” he adds.
As a result, a large percentage of performing arts graduates are gainfully employed.
One element that runs through all performing arts programmes is the emphasis on traditional theatre such as wayang kulit, mak yong and bangsawan.
Dr Zulkifli says pushing the art form is important to keep it alive.
As rosy as the industry looks, it still gets lots of negative publicity.
Leow says the performing arts is often perceived as being an easy course, one chosen by those who do not have good grades.
“Many parents think of it as a ‘soft’ course that won't guarantee their children jobs in the future.”
One example is Aswara performing arts (dance) student Lakshman Balakrishnan, whose parents strongly objected to his choice of study initially.
“They kept telling me that dance isn't going to put food on the table!” says the 25-year-old.
It was tough for his parents to accept that he wanted to attend dance school, Lakshman adds.
“They're still adapting to the situation today, but they understand more now and are also less sceptical about what I do.”
Mohd Yunus Ismail, 23, who is in the same course, was in a similar predicament.
“My mother believed in me and supported my dreams of becoming a dancer, but my father was not so tolerant. Sadly, my mother died several years ago, before I could show her what I had accomplished,” says Yunus, who set out to prove his capabilities to his father, in the hope of changing his perceptions.
Last year, Yunus was one of the top six finalists of dance reality television competition show, So You Think You Can Dance.
He completed his diploma in performing arts at Aswara and received the best student award at his convocation in 2006. He now hopes to specialise in the bharatanatyam.
Gonzales says if parents are genuinely concerned about their children being happy and fulfilled, it is best to be supportive and encouraging of their career choices.
“Performing is already tough enough, without having to deal with narrow minds and prejudice,” he adds.
Pillai says the glamour side of the industry sways many people.
“Many parents are not knowledgeable about the industry. It is a generational thing. They are not aware of the industry demands. In reality, the business is booming,” she notes.
Future of the industry
With that, oportunities are increasing too, says Sunway performing arts lecturer Melissa Teoh.
“There is plenty of hidden talent out there and more people are willing to take risks,” she says.
Teoh's colleague, Joe Yan, adds that there is more acceptance of the arts among the public today.
Testament to this is the number of large corporate sponsorships for productions, he points out.
But most of those interviewed agree that more needs to be done to educate people about the industry.
Said suggests that the Education Ministry incorporates more arts subjects at school level.
“I have heard of some people who haven't even heard of the performing arts or seen any form of it. Exposure is necessary to create a well-rounded person,” he says.
Pillai agrees and adds that many students have no idea of the existence of the industry.
“Promotion of the performing arts in general has been poor and this goes hand in hand with the industry,” she says.