SMORGASBORD: Bringing Back The Bums

It has been a dispiriting month so far for Malaysian theatre. Several high-profile productions were confronted with half-full, quarter-full, or, in extreme cases, ten-perfect-full auditoria. Examples of plays that have been afflicted are the ICT’s Baltimore Waltz, Gardner and Wife’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and the Five Arts co-production Manchester United and the Malay Warrior.

I only saw the first of those plays and plan to catch the third on its closing night. So how do I know about the lacklustre houses? The grapevine, of course. People from other theatre companies always gleefully tell me of shows ”where there seemed to be more people on stage than in the audience” – which is especially bad if the play concerned is a monologue. These bearers of bad news would continue to crow until their own production is hit, when they will promptly shut up or blame the recession.

What gives? There was a time when plays could be sold out days in advance. Now, even musical comedy, hitherto thought to be a most reliable genre, can’t be relied upon to put bums on seats. Where have all the good bums gone?

The publicity campaigns for all three of the recent shows have been above-average in terms of visibility and reach. The licensing hassle faced by Forum also ensured that it was featured in the main section of our newspapers, an honour previously bestowed only on plays that had “vagina” in its title. In other words, the sort of people who normally go to plays would definitely know that the plays were on. The problem is, these are the same people who are now reluctant to join in the fun.

People aren’t forsaking paid entertainment altogether, of course. More folks are going to the cinema than ever before. December 2001 was the most successful month ever at the Malaysian box-office, with several blockbusters like Lord of the Rings, Lagi Lagi Senario and Khabi Kushi Kabhae Gam playing to jam-packed halls of gawkers. People would proudly tell each other of the hours they had to spend in line just to get tickets – “and even then, got front row, have to look up at the screen the whole time, pain in my neck only!”

May 2002 looks set to match or surpass that momentous month, with the release of Spider-Man, the second Star Wars episode and Yusof Haslam’s Gerak Khas the Movie II. Even piracy, which has now stretched to really impressive DVDs, can’t stop people from going. Does this mean that people are ditching real-life actors in favour of celluloid ones blown up several times bigger? The question of money can’t be avoided, of course. It can cost over RM100 for two people to watch a play, when for that same amount you can bring a small office party to the cinema and go out to eat satay afterwards.

People still pay for imported theatre productions like Fame and Chang & Eng. I didn’t watch either not because I am a xenophobe but because I don’t like musicals. But as recently as a year ago, home-grown Malaysian theatre was in a much healthier state, reception-wise. lstana Budaya and Actors Studio Bangsar both boasted full houses. Did the economy tumble so badly in a matter of months?

I will come clean and admit that I have of late been watching fewer plays than I have in probably my entire adult life. Why? Partly because full-time hacking has not proven to be as lucrative as I had hoped. But mainly, though, I realise it’s become much more painful for me to watch a mediocre play than even a lousy film.

If I don’t like a play, then I will have to sit there and squirm and feel embarrassed on behalf of the actors. I will try to avoid their faces. This is especially bad if the play is being performed to a small house anyway; often times, my gaze will vacillate between the actor’s shoulders and the empty seats and wonder which of them can elicit greater sympathy.

Maybe I’m just getting cranky in my age, but some of the juice seems to have gone out of theatre. It’s not lack of professionalism but something almost opposite. There’s an impersonal slickness, an aloof, over-produced, calculated air to big-budget plays. Even their playfulness lacks “play”. This stretches to reviewing, too, which can run the gamut from PR exercises to Julie Burchill imitations without ever quite becoming passionate or honestly critical.

But enough about me. I can’t help but feel that there probably has not been enough of an effort to cultivate a genuine theatre-going crowd over the years. There might have been an artificial boom a few years ago since gullible people would plonk down cash based on the fact that they recognize a movie or TV star on the poster. But a star’s lustre can dim. Now we are faced with too many venues fielding too many plays, but not enough of an audience to go around.

Many years ago, there was a controversy involving The Actors Studio production of A Streetcar Named Desire. Utusan Malaysia columnist Rustam A. Sani, when writing about it, commented that English-language theatre in this country has “an expatriate quality”. The comment annoyed me at the time but there is something to it.

Theatre still has an elitist feel to it, and the ticket cost is only partly to blame. Perhaps the themes do not resonate. The techniques, especially the frequent use of (dread phrase!) “multi-media”, maybe alienate. And I am becoming personally annoyed at the way we still stage plays that require our actors to imitate “mat salleh.”

There are different types of plays, of course. Some suffer only because our audiences are not curious or adventurous enough to try new things. The two best plays that I saw last year were Namron’s Gedebe and Alfian Sa’at’s Bulan Madu -witty, bold, striking performances, not in the least bit elitist, expatriate or any other nasty word beginning with “e”. Here’s the rub: Neither enjoyed successful houses, but I am so sure that the average Joe who is dragged in to see it would enjoy it. But the average Joe didn’t know, or didn’t care, and continued doing what average Joes otherwise do.

I recently spent time at a university campus 45 minutes out of the city as part of a series of weekly screenings organized by the student body. Most of these students have neither the time nor the inclination to troop down to KL to watch plays. And yet they are not morons – they are a savvy, talented bunch that nonetheless feels that live-action theatre is too remote from their field of interests. But all of them watch a lot of movies.

I don’t suppose these students are atypical. Despite the student discounts, the number of them who regularly attend plays is still small. I know of the logistical difficulties of bringing plays to them rather than the other way around, but I still think that something of the sort needs to be done. A wise person, or George Benson, once sang, “I believe the children are our future.” Theatre needs these young people. The challenge is to make these young people feel that they need – or at least want – theatre.



First Published: 14.05.2002 on Kakiseni

Related items

For Translation

The 8th Annual BOH Cameronian Arts Awards — Results!

dance Prize of RM1,000 Prize of RM1,000 Prize of RM1,000 Prize of RM1,000 Prize of RM1,000 Prize of RM1,000 Prize…

The 7th Annual BOH Cameronian Arts Awards — Results!

dance Prize of RM1,000 Prize of RM1,000 Prize of RM1,000 Prize of RM1,000 Prize of RM1,000 Prize of RM1,000 Prize…