Becoming a Great Civilisation

Two years ago an email was circulated on the APA list and around the arts community requesting inputs and feedback on the possibility of everyone pooling their resources to set up a new arts centre and performance space in Sentul West.

Sentul West? I suppose some folks reacted with a few sniggers at this suggestion. After all, Sentul isn’t Bangsar or Brickfields – even if many long-time residents also work for the railways, or had fathers who did. Sentul seemed like a very long way from Yuppie Town – being the sort of neighbourhood one associates with derelict humans and trains rather than sporty trainers and chic cafes.

That email was from landscape architect Carolyn Lau who occasionally does fantastic set designs for theatre and who grew up as a protegee of Five Arts Centre. Her partner Seksan, also a landscape architect, had been commissioned to restore a large tract of parkland surrounding an abandoned 1930s railway godown. The developers were toying with the idea of another exclusive condo complex within the park. But Carolyn and Seksan envisaged it as an ideal location for an arts complex and wanted to know if the arts community might be interested in acquiring and restoring the space.

The idea soon fizzled out from lack of initiative or interest – until the fateful flash flood of June 10, 2003, which drowned Plaza Putra – and The Actors Studio theatre complex – in lumpur direct from the kuala. It was a tragedy not only for Joe Hasham and Faridah Merican, beloved founders of The Actors Studio, but for all who love and support the arts.

Transmuting tragedy into triumph is the essential function of the creative imagination – and this is exactly what Joe and Faridah have accomplished, with a little help from friends in high places.

In December 2004, a spanking new RM25 million KL Performing Arts Centre, or PentasSeni KL, will be officially opened – on the very spot in Sentul West that so thrilled Carolyn and Seksan when they first spotted it. It will house a 500-seat proscenium theatre, a 200-seat experimental theatre, 10 rehearsal studios, a resource centre, a bookshop – and, of course, a performing arts academy plus a set construction workshop. Not forgetting also the balmy park surrounding the site, and the outdoor arena stage that will be constructed in phase two.

Teoh Ming Jin, general manager of The Actors Studio – who holds an architectural degree and is credited with designing all their performance spaces to date – took on the task of planning and designing KLPAC, with the help of award-winning lighting wizard Mac Chan.

The 70,000 square foot venue will also feature a centre for independent filmmakers, as well as a bistro, bar, and alfresco dining on the terrace.

For this glorious milestone in the checkered history of Malaysian performing arts, we have Datin Seri Endon Mahmood, the Prime Minister’s better half, to thank. It was she who rallied to the aid of The Actors Studio immediately after the flood disaster, lending her name and wholehearted support to a fundraising campaign to rebuild the facilities that had been lost. A benefit gala, aptly named Banjir, was staged in the Panggung Bandaraya, and it brought together all the biggest names in the performing arts. Hundreds of thousands were raised as seed money – but millions were needed.

Enter Tan Sri Dr Francis Yeoh, managing director of YTL Corporation Berhad, an ardent patron of the arts who, a few years earlier, had brought in opera superstar Luciano Pavarotti, and was now looking for ways to contribute directly to nurturing cultural development at home.

On May 21, 2004, a small assembly of dignitaries, arts luminaries, and the media gathered in the Marriott Hotel to launch the ambitious KL Performing Arts Centre project – a project long whispered in hushed excitement by those who knew its existence but were sworn to secrecy. This long-incubated dream come true has effectively brought together the arts world and the business worlds and a charitable NGO founded by Datin Seri Endon, called Yayasan Budi Penyayang – with the full backing of the Ministry of Culture, Arts and Heritage and the City of Kuala Lumpur (as symbolised by the presence of Datuk Dr Rais Yatim and Federal Territory Minister Datuk Seri Shahrizat Abdul Jalil).

The atmosphere was formal but celebratory, and the speeches, brief, heartfelt, and meaningful:

Datin Seri Endon: “… It is my hope that those who do not take to performing will at least learn to appreciate the performing arts – they could be the appreciative audience that we so badly need. It is in this context that I would also like to propose that the relevant authorities, agencies or organisation think seriously about audience education. We may have the best facilities and offer the best of performance, but alas, it will be of no avail if we do not have the right audience.”

And Tan Sri Dr Francis Yeoh: “The arts must be nurtured in tandem with our progress and achievements in the academic, scientific and business arenas. After all, great civilisations are known by their art.”

The delightfully festive spirit was generated by short, sweet performances by Rhythm In Bronze, Sutra, and Hands Percussion. Jit Murad (who co-emceed the event with Harith Iskandar) pointed out the marvellous multi­ethnicity of Malaysian performing arts by cracking a funny about the fact that the traditional Malay gamelan was being played by a mostly non-Malay group, while Ramli Ibrahim, a Malay, was promoting classical Indian dance. Getting the dynamic all-Chinese Hands Percussion group to bring the performance to an explosive climax augurs well, I’d venture, for the commercial viability of the KLPAC project. In any case, it was a genuinely happy and significant occasion – and the fact that Joe Hasham was observed wiping away a few tears of joy made the launch of PentasSeni KL all the more moving.

The KL Performing Arts Centre, mainly funded by YTL, will be managed by a board comprising The Actors Studio, Yayasan Budi Penyayang, and YTL.

Datin Seri Endon, the nation is truly blessed to have you as a Guardian Angel of the Arts. Joe and Faridah, take a curtain call for showing us all the way to go. Syabas indeed!

First Published: 28.05.2004 on Kakiseni

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