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The Business of Theatre

  • By Azwan Ismail
  • Ogos 6, 2007
  • 70 Views

By Jenny Daneels

In reply to critical comments in an article we published last year on the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre (KLPac) and the venue’s anchor tenant The Actors Studio (TAS), co-founder and dramatist-director-actor Joe Hasham agrees to an interview with Kakiseni co-founding editor Jenny Daneels to help put things in perspective.

Kakiseni is publishing this face-to-face interview this week when KLPac raises the curtain on “Tunku – The Musical”, possibly its most celebrated and biggest budgeted-production of the year. We hope that audiences, to “Tunku” especially, will go into KLPac with a better picture of theatre-making in Malaysia.

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Jenny Daneels: Can we go back a bit with The Actors Studio? You opened the venue at Dataran Merdeka, Kuala Lumpur in 1995. It ran for nine years until it was damaged by a flash flood in May 2003.  Was it paying for itself or did you have to keep funding it? Was it a Sdn Bhd?

Joe Hasham: It has always been the case that we have had to fund TAS. And yes, it is a Sendirian Berhad.  Everything that was done at TAS at Dataran Merdeka was funded by or resulted in (Joe’s wife, Dato’) Faridah (Merican) and me having to finance it.

It has never been a profit making situation.

We sometimes wish people were more understanding. Almost everything I’m able to earn outside goes into TAS. I’m grateful I’m able to make a lot of money producing and doing voice overs. Ninety-five percent of it goes into the coffers of TAS, mainly to pay for wages. We’d be very happy if we could break even, but we’re never close to it.

Fortunately we’re in a position where we can do that, I’m not complaining about doing it.

JD: What about TAS Bangsar located in Bangsar Shopping Centre, KL? What is your arrangement with Bandar Raya Developments Berhad (BRDB)? Do you pay a monthly rental, or do you split revenues? Does the theatre pay for itself?

JH: We pay a percentage of ticket sales plus utilities. We’d be lucky if sponsorship can cover 10% to 15% of our costs. Rentals from shows and box office receipts cover another 40% to 50%. The remaining 40% comes from personal funding, it goes mainly to cover our rental.

JD: It seems clear TAS is very dependent on you financially. What will happen in the long term?

JH: (Replies rather obfuscatedly) You mean when I die?!

(After some silence) We are very cognisant of the fact that we won’t be around for ever. To manage TAS we have (KLPac theatre manager Teoh) Ming Jin, who’s been with us for ever. And we will leave a legacy in the form of an endowment to run the company.

JD: What about the KLPac? How does that function between the founding partners — the Actors Studio, YTL Corporation Bhd (YTL) and Yayasan Budi Penyayang Malaysia (Penyayang)?

JH: The Actors Studio provides the management — though Faridah and I receive no salary for our work. Francis Yeoh has been our guardian angel; he provided the money to pay for the place. Penyayang is a NGO whose role is to help us to source for funds.

In its making, TAS provided the expertise, at no cost; Ming Jin and (award­-winning lighting designer) Mac Chan did the technical design, free of charge.

JD: What is the staffing like at KLPAC?

JH: It has over 30 people plus numerous free lancers.

JD: KLPAC is a non-profit organisation whose stated aim is to “provide a cutting edge facility to aid the growth and advancement of performing arts practitioners”. What means do you have to realise this? Do you receive a yearly budget from the founding partners? Under what pressure are you to make money?

JH: Some funds come from sponsorship from various organisations that came in as foundation sponsors. They have come in on a three year deal. There are two different scales; one scale is for sponsorship amounts of RM100,000 and over while a second scale is for amounts of between RM50,000 and RM100,000.

If we are in financial trouble, we hope YTL will help. It is a comfort to have Francis Yeah on board, but we don’t necessarily want to rely on him.

So far we’ve been able to make ends meet — but only just. We receive rentals from some productions. Our mission is to nurture professional arts and to develop theatre in all its forms — we’re virtually like a charitable organisation. We try to assist companies by doing collaborations, and giving discounts.

JD: You also run a theatre venue in Penang called The Actors Studio Greenhall. What is the arrangement there?

JH: TAS Greenhall is suffering in Penang. It is wholly subsidised by Faridah and myself — but it’s been going slowly, and we’re thinking of closing it.

It’s a shame corporate sponsorship is not more developed here. If you go to the Sydney Theatre Company and look on the wall, you see the names of scores of sponsors. It will take a bit more time here for sponsors to realise they have an obligation to give back to the community, and that sponsorship is a worthwhile investment.

In Singapore there is a lot more sponsorship.

JD: How do you charge companies for the venues at KLPac? Is it a straight rental per day, or is it a share of revenue, or does it vary? Is it a fixed rate, by percentage, or does it depend on the production?

JH: We usually charge a rental fee, which also pays for all the technicians.

If a show has no money to rent but we think it has value for the public, we can collaborate — we charge no rent and share the box office. I will then stick my nose in very briefly as artistic director. Sometimes if artists have a project but no money to produce it, we cover all the production costs, and leave them the artistic input.

JD: How does KLPac get credited in the programme?

JH: Sometimes we share the credit or we say the show is supported by KLPac.

There are three rental rates for Pentas 1 (the main auditorium). The commercial rate is RM5,000 per day, the preferential rate for our sponsors is RM3,000 per day and the subsidised rate for theatre companies is RM2,000 a day plus RM1,000 for every day they need to do the setting up of their production.

In the case of Pentas 2 (the smaller, black box-like theatre space), theatre companies are charged RM570 a day for shows and RM375 a day for setting up.

These rates might seem high, but they include payment towards all the technical staff. These rates also go towards maintenance of the theatres. We close for maintenance works for four weeks a year.

JD: What would you say is a fair price range to ask the public to pay in order to see a show? For productions that are not yours, who fixes the price of tickets?

JH: For most of our productions, we try to keep ticket charges at a level that is such that the average family man can afford to bring his wife and two children to see the show. In Pentas 2, the price of a ticket would be about RM30 and rarely be above RM40. In Pentas 1, ticket prices to a big musical such as “Broken Bridges” (staged in 2006) would be from RM40 to RM60 per ticket.

We also have concession prices for students, children and disabled people. They pay around RM25 per ticket for Pentas 1 and RM10 to RM15 for Pentas 2.

Sometimes we look for sponsors to pay for tickets. For instance the British Council has paid for tickets for students for past shows. We usually calculate ticket prices so that, if we sell 60% of the seats, costs can be covered.

For productions where we are not involved, the ticket price has nothing to do with us.

JD: Would you say you have more productions coming to you than you can stage, or not?

JH: We receive about five to six proposals a month, all of which we cannot satisfy nor would we want to. It depends on the availability of space. We are now taking bookings for up to one year. But we will always consider a show, and give it priority depending on its quality.

JD: What do you consider as your competitors in terms of venues in KL?

JH: We don’t really have competitors as the size is different. Istana Budaya has 1,200 seats and the KLCC Convention Centre has 3,000 seats. We don’t try to compete.

JD: There have been grumbles from the arts community about KLPac charging too much, paying too little for work done or taking too much credit. Are you aware of this? Do you think these complaints are justified?

JH: I am aware that many people take a lot for granted. No one is asking for anything other than courtesy or a “thank you”.

Fortunately, audiences truly appreciate what we’ve done. They are more outspoken and obvious with their feelings, they write e-mails to say how pleased they are.

I have to say one thing, though. When we had the floods at Dataran Merdeka, it was the attitude of the arts people that really got us going again. Prior to that we felt some were not overly pleased with what we were doing; this was either due to jealousy or something else. But when we saw the theatre people slog through the mud to help, it really renewed our resolve.

I honestly believe that if they hadn’t come out in full force, we would have considered giving up. Why bother if no one is appreciative? But I believe, deep down, they are appreciative.

JD: Do you see these complaints and general grumbles from the arts community as a worrying phenomenon?

JH: We have a policy of always doing a post mortem after a show so differences can be exposed and ironed out. We are not perfect. But we have been in business for a long time, so hopefully we are doing something right.

JD: Do you think some people may be reluctant to be openly critical for fear they won’t be able to use KLPac as a venue again?

JH: No, people are very, very open. They are not shy or embarrassed.

JD: Do you wish to add anything?

JH: There are many pitfalls in running a venue such as KLPac. If we had no wherewithal, we’d be suicidal. But as it is, we’re happy as pigs in shit. We’re blessed we can do what we love to do.

First Published: 06.08.2007 on Kakiseni