By Jerome Kugan
Five Arts’ humble beginning in 1984 was a dismal time. According to co-founder and veteran theatre director Krishen Jit, there was no concerted effort to produce local work in English that speaks of contemporary concerns. “Even though there had been works staged by Syed Alwi, K Das, Edward Dorall and others before us,” he says, “there really was nothing much going on in local theatre. There was nothing like what you have today, with several plays happening every month.”
“Back then, you’d be lucky to have more than three performances a year,” Krishen continues, sitting in the company of three young Five Arts members Lew Chee Seang, Mark Teh and Fahmi Fadzil, who nod their heads, perhaps in a kind of deference to the current situation in the independent arts scene (which sadly is still short of ideal).
For those of us fortunate enough to have come at a time when we are duly intimidated by the local artistic legacy accumulated in the past three decades, it’s accepted that ‘Malaysian arts’ had always been there. It’s with no little credit due to the work of Five Arts, which has been truly trailblazing, that that is now our shared wealth.
Part of this wealth includes many of the plays first staged by Five Arts Centre. In response to the dearth of local English plays in 1984, the company launched itself into existence with KS Maniam’s The Cord, an English melodrama about ambitious local Indian characters. This quickly followed with plays by Chin San Sooi, Kee Thuan Chye and Leow Puay Tin. In between those, there were many devised plays, the Teater Muda programmes and the Director’s Workshop (a collaboration with The Actors Studio), which furthered the careers of James Lee and Nam Ron.
Twenty years and more than 100 big and small productions later, Five Arts is still doing it, making them the oldest surviving arts company in Malaysia. But how? Unlike most other local companies such as The Actors Studio or Instant Café Theatre, Five Arts is quite unique in that it doesn’t limit itself to one genre, theme or target demographic.
Fits of Perplexity
Yet in spite of its variable concept, it is frequently associated with what is known locally as the Five Arts Style, referring to the abstract physical theatre movements featured in many of the company’s plays. To some, Five Arts Centre seems like an institution bent on sending its audience into fits of perplexity. Its productions have often fallen so short (though mostly ‘far out’) of mainstream audience expectation that one wonders how such an unstable coalition of artists producing such inconsistently consistent (or consistently inconsistent) work can work.
The wonderful thing, of course, is that it has worked, even in spite of the fact that, for much during its first decade, Five Arts had to make do with little or no government or corporate funding.
Plays such as last year’s superb 7Ten or gamelan concerts by Rhythm in Bronze or even the Taman Medan Community Project are examples of their vision and financial disregard in the name of art. While such productions are remarkably contemporary, they are not the sort of things that the establishment or mainstream audiences would accept as wholesome entertainment and pump moolah into. Almost every Five Arts production is gilded with an unpredictable edge – when one goes to a Five Arts event, one expects it to be temperamental. Therein lies both a salacious conundrum and an even more delightful metaphor-in-progress: that Five Arts, by virtue of its impulsiveness, reflects Malaysia at its enigmatic best and worst – we don’t always understand it but we try.
Even more surprising is that Five Arts never set out to ‘survive’ the way it has. In a separate interview, co founder and Mother of Modern Malaysian Dance Marion D’Cruz says: “Survival was never on our minds. We didn’t have a 20-year plan. We only set out to produce local work and we’ve stuck to doing just that. And that’s how we still operate. What’s astonishing to me is that we’ve only lost money in perhaps two or three productions. All the others we’ve either broken even or made a little money.”
An element of the political
“You have to understand that we did what we did because we had to,” Marion adds.
It’s an interesting proposition for an arts company in a politically stifling climate such as Malaysia to do what it had to. After all, Five Arts is also known to constantly posit the political as the central focus of its productions. It’s hard to imagine a Five Arts play, for instance, without an element of the political, unraveling aspects of race, religion and sexuality, among many other touchy issues. Many of its members have been outspoken about the political situation under the not-so-transparent Mahathir era.
Has it been a conscious effort on the part of Five Arts to be socio-politically challenging? “Yes. I must say it’s been a part of our agenda,” Marion admits. “Just because it affects all of us in a very profound way.”
Krishen, however, claims not to have done it consciously. “When it comes out politically challenging,” he says, “it’s because it reflects what individual members of Five Arts feel about the issue.” Watching certain Five Arts productions like 2002’s The Vagina Monologues (which was subsequently banned by DBKL), it often seems as though theatre is the one place where there’s any freedom left.
Advice and critique
Which, of course, brings us to the question: If Five Arts was no longer there, what then? “It doesn’t matter,” Krishen remarks, “What’s important is that the work gets done.”
The offhand manner with which Krishen and Marion, ostensibly the two co-founders who were there at the inception of Five Arts (the third co-founder is Chin San Sooi), treat the existence of Five Arts is understandable. Like its productions, the identity and structure of Five Arts itself is just as necessarily uncertain, since it does deal with literally five different art disciplines: theatre, dance, music, visual art and youth theatre. Naturally, this uncertainty also applies to the company’s working methods. Individual members or outside collaborators who feel compelled to bring to fruition an idea have to present their work before the group. Advice and critique are important components of the Five Art process.
“What’s exciting for me is that Five Arts has never stopped me from doing what I wanted,” says Mark, who is one of the founder of youth theatre Akshen and a team leader in the Taman Medan Community Project. “Of course, there is a rigorous process of evaluation of every project where all the members sit down and give feedback on a certain idea, but there’s a whole lot of freedom in what I actually do at the end.”
Fahmi, another member of Akshen, and the quietest at the table, brings the point home: ‘The way Five Arts operates makes me think about what I do and that keeps me on my toes the whole time. It makes a lot of difference.”
Finding a balance
At this point, it all sounds very rosy indeed, in a zen kind of way. But is this really the case, that in Five Arts, there’s no tyranny of ego? That it works like a termite colony? The case of composer Saidah Rastam’s walkout on Five Arts’ production of Uda dan Dara: the Opera or the integrity ruckus over the company’s decision to go ahead with Huzir Sulaiman’s cleaned-up-by-DBKL-version of Election Day seem to indicate that the company has had its share of internal problems.
In a separate interview, Mark confides: “I don’t think it has always been easy for people working with and within Five Arts. I personally feel that, yes, there are limitations in Five Arts. Especially when you have to negotiate between what you want to do and how the other members see it. It’s unavoidable. At the same time, though, I feel it’s important that this process exists. All of us contribute.” So would you say that the process is more important than the outcome? “Not at all. We’ve done work before where the process was a lot of fun but the end results were not so good. As a company, we want to put out good stuff. It’s about finding a balance.”
Which is perhaps why Five Arts work as a multi-disciplinary multi-members organisation. Lawyer and producer Lew Chee Seong says, “I would like to think that the directions in which Five Arts has gone into and what we’ve done in the past have been determined by the interests of various people who have worked with the company.”
Presently, Krishen’s interest is in exploring the dynamics between the old and the young. “People of my generation and someone of Mark’s generation really have something to explore,” he says. “We don’t always see eye to eye. In fact, we disagree on so many points. And that creates a kind of friction that I’m really interested in exploring.” To illustrate his point, he describes a plan to hold a series of workshop for the Rhythm in Bronze players, to move their musical performance into a more theatrical milieu. “What would happen if we take the gamelan players as the focus of the narrative? Don’t you think that would be interesting?”
And finding the ‘interesting’, besides finding the balance, seems to be an agenda that unites the varied members of Five Arts, all accomplished personalities in their own right: Akshen, Anne James, Chee Sek Thim, Chew Kin Wah, Ivy Josiah, Janet Pillai, Jerrica Lai, Krishen, Chee Seang, Marion D’Cruz, Ravi Navaratnam, Suhaila Merican and Sunetra Fernando. Not to mention other illustrious arts practitioners, like Wong Hoy Cheong, Leow Puay Tin, Charlene Rajendran and others who had moved on to embark on their own personal journeys, but have in their own ways continued to enrich the Malaysian arts scene.
So, where is Five Arts Centre heading now?
“I remember a few years back,” says Krishen, “we had a retreat where we hired one of those corporate consultant types to help us figure out what we were and in what direction we wanted to go. But we never really figured it out. We’ve always been changing. We respond to the present situation as we see fit.”
SEMANGAT: ARTISTS FOR THEATRE
On a related note, 2004 marks the first year in which Five Arts has decided to actively pursue a policy of ‘breaking even’ in its endeavours. It comes at a time when its office and rehearsal space in Taman Tun Dr Ismail is under threat of disappearing. “One of the things I wish we had more of was funding,” admits Marion. “Having your own space helps so much. And to be able to pay people to do administrative work. That would be good. I would love to hire Kubhaer (Jethwani, a member of Akshen) the Executive Director of Five Arts and pay him RM1,000 a month. But at the rate we’re going, we could only afford to pay him RM40. But what to do?”
Which goes to explain “Semangat: Artists for Theatre”, a three-day art exhibition at Valentine Willie Fine Art gallery, August 18-21. 30 prominent local visual artists (including Redza Piyadasa, Bayu Utomo Radjikin, Yee I-Lann and many others) have contributed art works for sale at the exhibition, with proceeds going to fund Five Arts’ future projects. Art for art’s sake? You can judge for yourself.
First Published: 18.08.2004 on Kakiseni