By Teh Kang Ze
One industry that has been badly affected by the re-implementation of the Movement Control Order (MCO) in January 2021 has been the performing arts industry.
Before the Covid-19 pandemic, arts practitioners were used to having large audiences attending their performances. However, physical activities involving big crowds are now restricted by Covid-19 Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) for the health and safety of the public.
With almost every scheduled theatrical project cancelled or delayed, one such performance body heavily impacted by the pandemic has been the Performing Arts Centre of Penang (Penang PAC).
Facing a total zero income, the sole performing arts centre in Northern Malaysia has had to depend on donations from the government and public to sustain itself when its theatres were not allowed to be open to the public during the MCO.
Its company manager, Alexander Ooi, revealed that the donations were insufficient, so they depended on financial loans from their founding company, The Actor Studio, to mitigate costs incurred.
“Although our staff have had to make do with a compulsory salary cut of 30 per cent, we still need to come up with RM40,000 to cover monthly essential expenses during the lockdown.”
The performing art centre has still suffered a great loss even after the theatres were allowed to reopen during the Conditional MCO (CMCO) due to limited audience capacity as a result of the latest SOP.
With only 28 out of 114 seats offered, this has left the company with a loss worth RM12,040 for the four-day show, ‘Once Upon a Time’, where ticket sales are not even enough to cover the venue cost.
Speaking of the arts practitioners who are dealing with financial difficulties, Ooi said that the performing arts industry now is unable to support full-time artists, thus, many of them have to find a full time or freelance job for a living.
The artistic director of Ximply Dance Company, Chia Kai Xian, decided to take up multiple part-time jobs to make ends meet and pursue his passion as a dance educator.
Chia, who owns a dance studio and academy in Alor Setar, Kedah, said the Chinese New Year was supposed to be a peak season for road shows but the cancellations of the performances had burnt a hole in the studio’s expected income.
“Besides putting food on our own tables, we also need to take care of the employees and maintain the studio facilities,” he said.
The professional dancer added that the industry is still recovering from the loss since last year and arts practitioners are having a difficult time to adapt to the new norms.
To curb the spread of the COVID-19 infection, face-to-face interactions must be reduced so many businesses have taken the leap to transform their operations to online mode.
Two of the main sources of income for arts practitioners are stage productions and arts academies, which pose significant challenges in terms of the practicality and effectiveness when conducted online.
Talking about his experiences in teaching online dance lessons, Chia stated that e-learning has its limitations because dancing requires a lot of spontaneous and instant physical interactions.
“Training of group performances is also not applicable with online teaching because the performers are not at the same place,” he added.
On the other hand, Ooi revealed that Penang PAC has lost 70 per cent of its previous students and the instructors have been striving to revamp the syllabus to suit the nature of online classes.
As for online performances, both Chia and Ooi agreed that this new way of entertainment can provide additional values to performing arts, yet it is not sustainable for the industry.
Ooi stated that the investment for online performance is high as one would need to hire directors, videographers and editors, but the broadcasting and performing arts industries are just two different entities.
“Although it could open a new opportunity for ticket sales, performing arts should still focus on providing a unique ‘unity of time, place and action’ kind of live experience for the audience, otherwise it should be called a TV show or a movie.”
More than just making money
Chia said that the performing arts industry is also struggling as other industries, but it remains unnoticed and does not receive enough media coverage.
He also said that a lot of people are taking performing arts for granted as the impacts of their absence might not be as visible as what is happening in other industries.
“Arts and culture form the foundation of a society; our country depends on them to construct her unique identity and image.”
He added that performing arts shares a close resemblance with other areas as local fashion, food and tourism as they are symbolic attractions for foreigners to visit our country.
“The performing arts industry in Malaysia deserves more attention,” exclaimed Chia.
Furthermore, Ooi expressed that a society without its own performing arts element will lose a valuable channel to project its cultures, and the next generation will be inculcated with foreign cultures with missing home identities.
He said that the industry is not only about making money but also about legacy.
“It took us more than 10 years to establish the Penang PAC, but the pandemic has dismantled the fragile ecosystem of the industry in such a short time”, added Ooi.
“If the Penang PAC is closed down due to this pandemic, we might need to spend a decade or more to revive a performing arts centre in Penang.”
Help the industry and artists survive
Apart from the aid from the government, members of the public can play their part in assuring the survival of the performing arts industry and its practitioners in Malaysia.
Ooi said that public awareness of the industry’s struggles is crucial in helping it to get through the pandemic, so sharing related news and messages on social media would be helpful.
“The ticket sales can reduce our burden but they are not enough, please also help us to keep the venues alive with donations,” he added.
Penang PAC’s Facebook page can be visited here to know more about the latest shows and patron donation campaigns.
Besides, Chia said that positivity is important to motivate these arts practitioners so they would not lose hope, the supportive community around him is the reason why he is so committed and passionate in his line of work regardless of all the obstacles.
“There are many ways to help artists who are struggling, it does not have to be only financial aid, even a few words of warm encouragement could mean a lot to people during tough times.”
He added that although live performances are being held back for now, there are still a lot of artists who frequently share their artwork online, sharing of positive comments with them would be much appreciated.
Click here to check out Ximply Dance Studio’s artworks on Facebook.
Tags/ Keywords: Performing arts industry, COVID-19, Movement Control Order, theatrical productions, art studio