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Performing arts to hit high notes

July 18, 2012

A healthy industry will make it possible for talents to actually make performing arts a career.

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By Fadhlullah Suhaimi Abdul Malek

Whenever I go overseas, the thing that hits me is the availability of multiple performances that espouse the rich creative talents in that country. Back home, to enjoy such entertainment, I would probably go to Istana Budaya, KLPAC, Actors Studio and Black Box in Mount Kiara. There are probably more venues but these are the ones that are top of the mind.

I had a chat with friends who are very much into the performing arts and asked them about the somewhat lack of performances in Malaysia. The feedback I got was astounding!

This is an industry driven largely by people with passion, doing it on a volunteer basis and even if they go full time, it’s always an uphill challenge. The situation is complex and fraught with many challenges.

First, the shows tend to have very short runs. This makes it difficult for those interested to readjust their schedules to watch the performances, and prevents them from attracting foreign visitors.

Second, there are only a handful of venues. This negatively impacts the number of performances and their run-lengths. In addition, venues tend to be centralised in Kuala Lumpur, and the audience is, therefore, limited to the city’s residents.

Third, unlike other countries, most shows in Malaysia survive on sponsorships, not on ticket sales. This is not ideal as sponsors are more interested in brand promotions and marketing returns. Sponsorships can also be hampered by the production team’s disorganised market approach. While the government has provided funding in the past, these funds can’t be the main source of income.

Fourth, most performers can’t eke out a living by depending on the revenue generated from the performances. This makes the industry highly dependent on part-timers. While it keeps the industry going, it can’t make headway in developing high-quality shows on a sustained basis.

Lastly, given the limited number of venues, inadequate exposure to the general public and pricey tickets (at times), though some might argue that it’s affordable, performing arts seem to be only for the elite group.

So what gives for Malaysia? In a public-private partnership, the industry is spearheading initiatives to overcome the challenges, with support from the government. This is the same model used in many countries benchmarked. The aim is to make the industry robust, competitive, attractive and sustainable.

Black boxes

Firstly, we need to increase the number of venues. In the short term, we will see smaller venues which are less costly to maintain, being developed.

Kakiseni, the representative of the industry, in collaboration with the National Culture and Arts Department (Jabatan Kesenian and Kebudayaan Negara or JKKN), is identifying new sites within KL to establish what is known in the industry as “black boxes”. This will allow smaller shows to be staged, market testing and talent to be nurtured. In parallel, they will also identify and develop legitimate sites for busking.

Secondly, on the financing front, we have begun bridging the industry and potential sponsors. The Backers Audition 2012 brought together 43 projects and 17 potential sponsors. Pitching was done by the project owners with follow-up coordinated by Kakiseni. Projects planned for 2013 will be pitched next.

Thirdly, we will see the realisation of a Creative Carnival that will bring performing arts to the masses. Through such promotions, the audience spectrum is expanded, which, in turn, will bring in more paying audiences to the shows. However, that in itself would not be enough.

The fourth initiative, therefore, aims to further promote the performing arts to a wider audience. With the government’s support, the industry is working towards realising more transmedia-based productions that come with a strong business case. For example, a live performance is captured in digital format which the public can watch even after the performance has ended. There are also options for other channels such as cinemas and/or the television.

We hope these efforts will have a positive impact on the industry. A healthy industry will make it possible for talents to actually make performing arts a career.

Are we there yet? Of course not! Yet, we have taken significant steps. With a focused approach and rigorous project tracking, the industry has been given the push required. As in any transformation process, there must be transformational leaders. Two ladies have stood out. They are Low Ngai Yuen and Izan Satrina Mohd Sallehuddin.

In the next 12 months, we will see efforts in building more transmedia productions, bringing performing arts to the masses, creation of “black boxes” and creative hotspots areas, talent development and co-productions between countries being communicated. It’s an exciting time for all of us and we hope that everyone will build on this momentum. Let’s rock Performing Arts!

Fadhlullah Suhaimi Abdul Malek is Business Services and Communications Content & Infrastructure National Key Economic Area (NKEA) Director of Pemandu (Performance Management & Delivery Unit), Prime Minister’s Department.

[Photos credit: kakiseni]


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