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The survival of Malaysian theatre?
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The survival of Malaysian theatre?

by Guest WriterJuly 9, 2017

Is it by giving money to the practitioners to be a full-time artist, or to attract new-audiences to come and watch theatre?

A lot of talks, discussions and meetings have taken place in 2017, about how can theatre companies in Malaysia survive. The initiative of holding meetings have been organized by a few organizations, such as Kakiseni, My Performing Arts Agency, the Ministry, and even among theatre practitioners themselves. During these meetings, the main topic discussed is ‘How can we reach sustainability in practicing performing arts’. The meetings conclude with a few methods on how some theatre companies sustain themselves, like applying for tax redemption for their sponsors who sponsor up to RM1mil, applying for grants, workshops on how to do online theatre marketing properly, collaborations, and more.

Usually by the end of the meetings, I observe that up to 70% of the whole meeting is spent on discussing how can the companies survive individually. They look to bring in a pile of money for themselves, so they can focus on making more plays, and eventually not having to do another job to maintain their passion. They seemingly end up thinking about themselves – how they can survive, on how they can act/direct/write/produce theatre constantly, without having the fear of not have anything to eat once the show ends.

I noticed it is very hard to stay on the topic of attracting new audiences into the scene. It was discussed very minimally in almost all meetings, as if it is a lesser problem in their list. Audiences is what ensures theatre survives, and with the number of audiences that we have in Malaysia we can show how strong the local scene is, and subsequently push harder in terms of the obtaining grants, tax redemptions, corporate collaborations and more. Pulling in new audiences is our main problem right now, and we have to tackle it as a community.

Focus on driving new audiences into the scene first

The basic business rule in theatre is the same as all other business – we need to think on what the consumers want to consume. I am not suggesting we go down the road of the type of stories produced by TV3, Astro and other mainstream media, where they produce products solely on the consumers demand. “Oh memang mass market yang tengok TV, is the mak cik mak cik tua dekat rumah, so kena lah tulis cerita romcom.” This is not the way, because the focus is totally on monetizing their products, and not to produce arts anymore. Most theatre practitioners’ main objective is still to produce good art, therefore I am suggesting we give the consumers a taste of what they are searching for, but in a different treatment and presentation.

We should change the target market from just the mak ciks, to include the young generation in Malaysia, ranging around 20 to 40 years old. Currently the entertainment culture is that if these people go to the cinemas and have an option to either watch a Malaysian-made film or an English-film, most of them without any hesitation will choose the English-film as they feel is it more interesting and enjoyable. If we can give them a somewhat similar taste of what English films offer in our own Malaysian-made movies, they will be intrigued to opt for the local movies. That’s why our films such as Ola Bola, The Journey and Polis Evo get huge support, because the current generation – these young people – love that kind of movies. It is closer to them, not just on the topics chosen, but also when they change the demographic profile of the stories. This helps more people to understand, and appreciate the film more.

More theatre that speaks to the audiences

Theatre in Malaysia, in general, is still alien to most people. The most common theatre know by the common Malay audience are the shows is Istana Budaya, which have involves celebrities from TV and films. We need to tell these audience that the theatre scene in Malaysia is growing fast.

How to do we do that? We need to feed them with what they are familiar with first. We can’t just feed them with the Pinters or the Becketts. Even if they know William Shakespeare, it’s very hard to serve them with the original text.

For example, in April this year, The Oppressed Production adapted a play by Edward Albee “The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?” into a BM version called “Hadiah Ulang Tahun Maling”. It was staged at KLPac, a well known performing arts venue in Malaysia. They were staging an established play in the theatre world, but the turnout for the show was bad. Who is their target market in the first place – the mass market, or the theatre-goers?

A Thoroughly Written Original Plays

I am not saying that we cannot stage established plays. I am just saying do so sparingly because we cannot force-feed the Chinese with a croissant and ask them “Which is better, the croissant or the pau?”

In order to pull in a certain group of people, we have to speak their language. We need to show something that is close to them, so they will understand and appreciate better, and faster. We want them to keep coming to the theatre, not just to have fun watching a show, but to let them reflect on themselves, and keep coming back to learn more about their society, and themselves.

This is why the theatre in the US and UK have a better number of audiences rather than Malaysia. Every year they will produce new original works, and their industry will acknowledges which play deserves the Best Original Play based on audience acceptance, issues touched, and other relevant criteria. After that, theatre practitioners in around the globe will eventually bring in these award winning plays into their own country, hoping local audiences will appreciate it as how the play is appreciated in its home.

This don’t really work.

So what’s next?

I am not saying no to other methods of creating sustainability in the local theatre scene, but if the practitioners really treat this as a business and look after the financial side of things, then we need to cater our consumers. And there are millions of consumers in Malaysia that are still ignorant of the beauty of theatre; they don’t know that they want it. Yet.

We just need to tackle the right people, with the right play, one show at a time.

ERRATA: The RM1mil tax redemption threshold above is inaccurate. It is actually RM700,000. We apologize for the minor factual error.

This is piece from Seni on Sunday, a weekly column where we invite guest writers to share their two sens about art. As an art advocate, we believe the public must be empowered to appreciate and express the arts. This is a safe space for sharing, in hopes that it would encourage and initiate arts discourse within contemporary Malaysia. The views and opinions expressed does not necessarily reflect Daily Seni’s stand on the matter.
This week we feature Irikha Rawna – a film-loving law graduate who has decided to pursue a career in performing arts, specifically theatre. He believes art can serve the society and create social change if the heart is in the right place. He works actively in the indie theatre scene, helping out companies such as @AnomalistProd and others like Revolution Stage in producing, directing and writing new, original plays. He rathers us follow @info_teater and @twt_teater on instead of him on Twitter.

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  • Soon Heng
    July 10, 2017 at 10:14 am

    I think it is misleading to suggest that as long as you have bums on seats in your productions, theatre companies and performers need not moonlight and can dedicate themselves to their art. If that were the case, states would not need to fund the arts at all. Even ‘commercially and artistically successful’ centres, like London’s National Theatre is state-funded.

    When you consider the personnel required to put on a production, the technical support, front of house,, the cost of rehearsal spaces, the rental of the performance space, etc. you’d see that ticket-sales will not even cover the various costs.

    Live performing arts is primarily “sponsored” by those within the industry, and in particular by the performers themselves.

    So if a city is considered a “livable city” on account of its cultural offerings, remember who some of the credit must go to.

  • Bilqis Hijjas
    July 11, 2017 at 1:14 pm

    I agreement with Soon Heng: in places where theatre is rich and sustainable, it is because the government recognizes it as a social asset and pays for it, as they pay for healthcare and education. In all other places (New York is perhaos the exception, and that’s because of many variables, primarily the tradition of private philanthropy) theatre thrives thanks to long-term sustained government support, not thanks to ticket sales.

    I agree that theatre practitioners should think about their audience. But new local plays ARE written, local productionS ARE made with local audiences in mind, because theatre practitioners on the whole ARE thinking about the local reception. Perhaps their goal is not a mass market — and if they have no incentive to create a mass market, do you blame them? If the government gave grants conditional upon generating a certain audience demographic, then the situation would be different, and perhaps more producers would then generate work with a greater focus upon numbers of bums on seats.

    Until then, Malaysian theatre practitioners will make what they want to make, primarily driven by artistic concerns — with great difficulty, and usually large personal financial investment. Sometimes I think this is not such a bad thing. Extremes of government funding can lead to the Singapore situation: unfriendly amounts of competition between arts practitioners, and almost total incapacity to survive WITHOUT government support. We have a lot to be thankful for here: our arts practitioners are passionate about their practice, they work incredibly hard, and they have created a thriving arts community, pretty much on their own. We should all be proud of that achievement.

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