By Elaine Tan
My co-reviewer, a sandy haired postulant, has been to a dozen or more live performances but only once to the cinema. She is four years old, the age that parenting guidebooks describe as blessed with “a vivid imagination leading to rich fantasy play.” Together, we explored the sudden boom in the business of children’s theatre.
Until fairly recently, Five Arts Centre’s Janet Pillai, “undisputably [sic] a pioneer in working with children to create their own multi-arts plays, using music, video, games, shadow play, storytelling, visual arts and dance” was the leading proponent in this very small field. Then the Actors Studio Academy began offering programmes for kids in KL and Patrick Jonathan became the name linked with ‘acting classes’ for kids. A few years ago, the Jumping Jellybeans with Instant Café’s Shanthini Venugopal and physical theatre advocate Cinzia Ciaramicoli came on the scene. In the big family show arena, Genting’s cabaret-cum-circus productions dominated until the Disney on Ice series started a couple of years ago.
Occasionally, a proper circus would come to town, an acrobatic troupe arrives or a cultural extravaganza tied in with regional sporting events would pop up, but by and large, our kids were becoming mall rats growing up on that American fast food diet of TV and screen entertainment thanks to a dearth of live children’s shows. In the last two months, however, the proliferation of kiddy performances proves that local companies are realising it is big business. The question is, how big?
Under the Big Foreign Production umbrella, where you expect moving sets, a slick performance, high wow-factor and are prepared to pay over a hundred Ringgit a ticket, Genting is offering Peter Pan The Musical as a follow up to Annie, which received a good response in the middle of the year. The use of local children as Lost Boys and mermaids in the former, while great exposure for them, unfortunately and inevitably dragged down the performance value; this is a production decision and compromise that the producers have to balance against ticket price. With Peter Pan, the commercial and professional level was simply not high enough to justify Big Foreign Production prices at their International Showroom with its seating capacity of several thousand. My co-reviewer, however, was suitably fascinated with the wired flying and the show scored high points with her for being a familiar bedtime story and movie.
The other Big Foreign Production is Sesame Street Live! by Yvents, which gave us Disney on Ice and the lukewarmly received Barney’s Big Surprise earlier in the year. All their shows are at the 6,000 seat Stadium Putra at Bukit Jalil, although the stage is set up for half the capacity. Sesame Street (the American touring show, while Barney was an Australian production that Yvents acknowledged was not up to scratch) is definitely sophisticated enough to warrant the RM120-300 arranged seating prices, but how many of us can afford to take the family to a show like that? Cheap upper level tickets are available but Sesame Street Live!, as I explained to my co-reviewer, is a ‘concert’ and for sure, you have to be expensively seated to be able to go dance right in front of the stage, which is the funnest thing about concerts. Still, this is a Madison Square Garden show available in KL; if you are even an aspiring middle-class parent, you have to go. My co-reviewer, albeit carefully nurtured on an Astro-free diet, gave a big thumbs up to her first coke, hot-dog and flashing trinket concert and to seeing her idol Big Bird on stage.
On the indie front, we caught Little Match Girl at the Palace of Golden Horses. Argentinean Omar Alvarez and his antique dolls wordlessly enacted the rather morbid story of the Little Match Girl and her dying hallucinations of food and family. This was Act 3’s first commercial venture in KL. Its ticketing and front of house were, as you’d expect from a Singaporean company, shining examples of courtesy, thoughtfulness and efficiency, and the ticket prices reflected this. It even provided booster cushions, feedback forms and refreshment packs! Act 3 describes its shows as ‘subtle’; challenging parents and children to explore themes like death and love; testing parents’ abilities to explain life and the universe in an age-appropriate manner. An Act 3 spokesperson admitted frankly that “reaction to the show has been extreme; some people really love it, others hate it.” I found Omar’s combination of mime with visual props and effects quite absorbing. My co-reviewer said she enjoyed it but that it was “a very, very sad story.” How, she asked, would I feel if she struck a match and died? This show generated the most questions from her.
Another business is acting classes for kids. Patrick Jonathan has been running the Musical Theatre programme ‘In The Spotlight’ with The Actors Studio Academy and staged his year-end graduation performance at The Actors Studio, BSC. Father Christmas Super Sleuth, songs and script, was written by Patrick and featured some dozen kids, with a preponderance of little girls, aged between seven and twelve. School shows are not for the faint hearted; this is a designated ‘proud parents only’ zone. Kids can deliver flashes of cuteness, adorability, even real talent, when performing at a school show but you are applauding their gutsiness, and you applaud to cultivate their self-esteem rather than quality of the show. Patrick, a musician, actor and teacher with impressive credentials including “amanuensis to the great English Symphonist Richard Arnell,” readily and happily allowed and praised his kids to fumble their way through his work.
My co-reviewer, to my surprise, rated this show the best of the lot. Unable to dance to unfamiliar music, craning her head to see past big Mat Salleh dads, missing half the story through muffled delivery and stony acting, what could possibly have appealed to her four year old criteria of relativity? Because it’s about Christmas, she told me; because it has kids in it; because people around her were all laughing and clapping and happy; because the ‘good children’ are in Malaysia “where I live.”
Kids, I wanted to tell her, are so corny in their love and pride. But of course I didn’t. Instead, I forced myself to appreciate the marketing genius of the Teletubbies creators who designed the characters to mimic the features that appeal to their target audience. I noted that from her perspective – “a personality trait of the 4 to 6 years is that they enjoy singing, dancing and acting” – the simple fact that she was watching and connecting with other children made it a richer experience that overshadowed almost everything else.
Father Christmas Super Sleuth was priced at RM12 and RM22, making it reasonable enough to forgo the ‘treat’ label and in the same price category as the Jumping Jellybeans shows. Cinzia’s clownish antics draw great reaction from kids up to about eight maybe, ten at a stretch. Beyond that, I expect the preteens to be commercially honed to want slicker shows with more merchandising.
Another graduation show is scheduled for middle of the month by Batu Dance Company, so named because the Artistic Director, Vincent Tan, who hails from Batu Pahat. Catering to the Chinese community, their listing in Kakiseni is one small step towards bringing the linguistically divided performing arts industry together.
On that scale of things, it will be interesting to see the result of an audition call for “kids and teens between the ages of 8 to 18 years for an English language musical to be staged for charity in June 2005” by choreographer Farah Sulaiman. Held during Halloween, it attracted over 200 young hopefuls! Clearly, Malaysian Idol and Akademi Fantasia have whetted our appetite for showbiz. The reaction was so positive and the talent so overwhelming that Sandra Sodhy, the writer, said she had to rewrite the script to fit more kids in. Perhaps there are some Patrick Jonathan or Batu Dance graduates auditioning. Between this musical and Genting’s policy of using local child talent, a commercial performing arts industry might be taking seed for the next generation.
For the meantime, Gardner & Wife’s Little Violet And The Angel is starting this weekend. Little Violet is played by a life-size gingham clad wooden marionette puppeteered by Inessa Irdawanty and Cheryl Tan. Smiley faced Syed Zalihafe is a young angel named Gabriel and Mano Maniam Archangel “His Shiningness” Gabriel. His Kopitiam co-star Joanna Bessey also has a role. Sondra Sodhy and Patrick Jonathan, who composed the music, are in it as well.
The story of Little Violet was written by Phillip Osment and won the Peggy Ramsay Award for Best New Play in 2000. This prestigious (and richest) theatre award carries a cash prize worth a couple of hundred thousand Ringgit. It has been a few years since Gardner & Wife put on their own show. With their last two imported shows, James Cameron’s Comedy for Children and Pluck, they seem to have found their niche in the local theatre market: kids and family shows. It seems sensible then that they are choosing the same genre in their return to producing and directing ‘local productions’.
My co-reviewer bumped into the director Richard Gardner wearing Gabriel’s wings at the BSC concourse doing a spot of promo. She was taken by the feathers and that night, pulled out her story book about a little angel who lost her way. She has the lead role and only speaking part in her school play as Archangel Gabriel as well. The rest of the children are mute sheep, shepherds and kings while she gets to say “Don’t be afraid” and wave her star. With her stage debut as Gabriel and a doll her size, I am anticipating a highly positive reaction from her for the show this Saturday.
Besides targeting children, all of the shows have one other thing in common: they are in the same budding industry and fledgling market. If I had paid for the privilege of bonding with my co-reviewer through theatre, I would have been set back some RM700, not including food and toys. If I had two children, a husband and a maid, the exercise would have cost me close to two grand. As yet, the Malaysian market is simply not big enough to support this many shows within such a short time frame. At Genting, Peter Pan played to a quarter hall. Sesame Street, almost full with over 3000 in the audience on opening night, dropped to about a thousand on the second night. The Little Match Girl had under a hundred people in the audience.
The cost of bringing in or putting on a production is steep, but it is not enough for all the companies to individually say they are trying to nurture a theatregoing and appreciating society. They need to work together to expand the market segment and they have to do it themselves, because no organised support or infrastructure will be forthcoming from the government any time soon.
If you go to New York, Melbourne, or even Singapore, you can pick up holiday activity guides for children that lists well in advance shows, concerts, programmes, workshops and camps available for kids with dates, venue, pricing and discounts. To promote shows and programmes for children, the authorities offer tax deductions and incentives, venue providers offer cheaper rates to make up for the lower ticket price, schools organise field trips and group discounts. Libraries, museums, zoos, aquariums and even the public transport system are co-opted into alliances to promote theatre and the performing arts among the young.
Despite the rash of shows these past two months and a steadily increasing number and kinds of live stage performances for the children, there is a risk that this niche market will meander into the same fate as adult theatre without good organizational industry support. As my co-reviewer said, “Super dee duper for so many shows!” – but until the moms at her playgroup, school and music class stop responding to my “Are you taking the kids to any of the shows in town?” with either a “What shows where?” or a “Too expensive lah!” I don’t think the increase in volume and variety is any indication of a maturing society.
Elaine Tan is still convincing her family that she can eke a living as a freelance writer in this country. She has trouble convincing even herself.
First Published: 09.12.2004 on Kakiseni