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Throbbing with a sense of promise

   

The Star Online, 22 May 2005

Ladies and gentlemen, preee-senting ... drum roll ... the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre! VERONICA SHUNMUGAM goes on a tour of the space that has long created a buzz in Malaysia’s arts community.?

A WEEK before the official media tour of the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre, I’m driving rather doubtfully through what seems suspiciously like an unused golf course, looking for it.?

There’s bunting promoting swanky homes, there are overgrown fairways, but nothing that looks like the much-touted space I’d been hearing about since last year. ?

Then, around a bend in the narrow, uneven path, I get my first glimpse. And I had to do what The Actors Studio’s Joe Hasham has taken to doing these days: pinch myself to see whether I was “in a beautiful dream”.?

Senses perked up by pungent industrial glue and teeth-on-edge drilling, I realise that I’m looking at it – the source of theatre manager Teoh Ming-Jin’s passion, the talk of the arts community, and an answer to the question, “where now?” after the country’s first privately owned theatre space, The Actors Studio, was destroyed away by the floods of June 2003 (see How it came to be, next page).?

Set within the upmarket YTL Corp Bhd development of Sentul West, the KLPac – as it is known – looks like it has stepped out of the pages of an architecture magazine. In the hot sun, its acres of glass panels gleam, giving it an avant-garde style that could have come from Australia or Western Europe. But a very Malaysian sense of history is evoked by the red bricks and arched wooden doors of the base structure that was once a railway warehouse constructed over a century ago.?

An excited Teoh walks me past a glass-panelled box-office housed in a one-storey structure before the centre proper and down a tree-lined walkway; the walkway is surrounded by pavement partly made of salvaged century-old railway sleepers. Indeed, at almost every turn, my eyes spot exercises in prudence – due to a relatively small budget – that have led to a mix of old and new.?


   
   The gleaming modernity of the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre is softened by the old trees that were left untouched during the renovations and landscaping.

In fact, at the media tour on Thursday, YTL Design Group’s architect, Baldip Singh, described KLPac as a new structure on an old building: “A lot of care was taken to preserve or re-use the original parts of the railway warehouse. For example, some of the steel beams used in KLPac date back to 1897.”  

Baldip said he was influenced by the attitude of two key people in the not-for-profit organisation: The Actors Studio founders, Faridah Merican and Hasham. 

“I was taken by Faridah’s and Joe’s honesty, and the emotion surrounding the whole idea. These people wanted to do something genuine and non-profit, which is rare in the business world. So, as the basis of the design, I kept to the themes of honesty in design and staying true to what was there before.”  

Despite historical links that date back to the 1800s, the centre is all about the future of the performing arts. 

Surrounded by a park just coming into bloom (yes, I had driven through an old golf course, it seems: it has now been redesignated as a park), it throbs with a sense of promise even as it conveys the feel of a work-in-progress. 

There are all the bits and pieces needed to keep visitors happy: a large cafe, a cosy bar, an outdoor dining area, souvenir shops, foyer space for exhibitions, and a VIP room. 

But what I am all agog about is that, even from the outside, I can see that the rumours are true: backstage had been dragged out from its usual dark and dusty back-of-house position into the front. 

In a radical move, Teoh, who works behind the scenes, and lighting designer Mac Chan, asked Baldip to put scenography artists and crew in the public eye and create better working conditions for this oft-neglected group. 

So, right next to the foyer and cafe, in a glassed off area, I can see props being created in a set construction workshop. The spotlight – for once – is on the toughies who usually sweat it out in cramped, makeshift conditions. 

But what of the heart of any performing arts space, the stage? 

There are two: Pentas 1, a proscenium stage fronted by 508 seats, and Pentas 2, a stage in an experimental theatre with 200 seats. And they are, it seems, set for stardom. 

“We got the best equipment we could buy,” says an excited Teoh. “And performing artists – especially Asians whose performances are centred on the ground in homage of (Mother) Earth – will be able to do so much with our stages that are not raised, like those in the Istana Budaya, Panggung Bandaraya or the Dewan Filharmonik Petronas,” he explains, adding that the stages are connected to dedicated loading bays that will make moving props in and out easier. 

The centre also boasts a 100-seater studio for independent filmmakers called IndiCine, a photo development room, film-editing room, and gamelan set. A grand piano, Teoh assures musicians, is on the way. 

Another aspect of the performing space that’s close to Teoh’s heart is the lighting. He shows me a first-of-its-kind system that he and Chan designed. 

It gets kind of technical, but given my fascination for lighting design, I take it all in. 

“Instead of lighting bars and walkways, we’ve placed beams close together to form a floor, or track, on which we can place and move trolleys. These trolleys can hold lamps and other special effects equipment. We’ve also got sturdy chains on which to hang lamps. 

“So, unlike ordinary theatres, you can place a lamp anywhere and at any angle you want here,” says Teoh, pointing out that lighting shows will be easier. 


   
Theatre manager Teoh Ming-Jin is excited about the state-of-the-art lighting system.

Teoh and Chan foresee that technical people will have to learn new lighting techniques to make full use of these facilities, and thus plan to conduct short courses on light and sound design. For this purpose, Teoh shows me a technical studio in addition to the lighting control room, and sound editing and recording studio. Crew, he adds, can now keep their precious equipment in designated storerooms instead of along corridors and on the odd shelf.  

Surrounding the stages are brightly painted spaces designed with the performer’s convenience very much in mind: training and rehearsal studios, large green rooms (no more cramped changing rooms!) that even have small kitchens attached, prayer rooms, a costume store, and wardrobe and laundry rooms. Arts managers and administrators haven’t been forgotten: there are office spaces, production offices for non-resident theatre companies, a “venue technicians” office, box office and security office. There is even a conference room to hold production meetings in. Such luxury! 

The administrative office opens out onto the main staircase and is easily accessible. “Everyone will be able to see us as we work and approach us for help. We want to convey a sense of accessibility and transparency,” explains Teoh, who’s had more than his fair share of admin-unsavvy artists asking for the world at a moment’s notice! 

So what’s the price tag for all this convenience, nay, downright luxury?  

Well, it seems sustainability and affordability are the watch words: Pentas 1 costs RM2,000 per night to rent while Pentas 2 costs RM500 per night. 

(In comparison, Istana Budaya’s main auditorium, Panggung Sari, now costs RM3,000 per night to rent under the Arts, Culture and Heritage Ministry’s sponsorship scheme). 

Ticket pricing will vary depending on the shows but during the media tour, Hasham assured the press that prices will be kept affordable, and that students, senior citizens and the disabled will enjoy a 50% discount.  

Public access to KLPac is wanting but KLPac general manager, Margaret Chew, says that a shorter access road will be ready in a month and improved feeder bus services and alternative access routes will be built and put in place as people move in to Sentul East and West (in the coming three to five years). 

“Purr-fect for a festival...,” cooed one arts journo at the preview. 

“Maybe you guys could give Singapore a run for its money,” said another teasingly. 

“We’ll take it step by step,” replied Hasham realistically. 

Steady, guys. While the KLPac will certainly offer a “treading of the boards” experience unlike any other space in the country, the paint is still wet, figuratively speaking. Let’s see what happens when this wonderful space is put to real use. 

How it came to be

JUNE 10, 2003: FLASH floods submerge The Actors Studio’s (TAS) premises (above) at Plaza Putra, Kuala Lumpur, for three days. No lives are lost but an estimated RM1.1mil in losses force TAS to close its Plaza Putra space and concentrate activities in its branch in Bangsar Shopping Complex, Bangsar, and other venues in the Klang Valley. 

A few days after the catastrophe, landscape architect Ng Sek San contacts TAS founders Faridah Merican and Joe Hasham about a piece of land harbouring a century-old railway (Keretapi Tanah Melayu, or KTM) warehouse and nine-hole golf course in Sentul that he feels could be a good arts space. The land is part of the Sentul West development by YTL Land & Development Bhd, an arm of YTL Corp Bhd – known for its arts patronage. 

June 20: Ng, Faridah, Hasham and TAS theatre manager Teoh Ming-Jin visit the site.  

Aug 9 and 10: At Banjir – a series of performances to raise funds for arts groups affected by the floods – Faridah meets art patron Datin Paduka Seri Endon Mahmood, wife of the then Deputy Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. Endon is, of course, also chairperson of the Yayasan Budi Penyayang Malaysia. The two women talk about finding replacement space and Faridah tells Endon about TAS’s interest in Sentul West. 

Late August-early September: Endon meets YTL Corp Bhd’s managing director, Tan Sri Francis Yeoh, at a social event and mentions Faridah’s interest in Sentul West. Yeoh, who has heard of TAS’s plight through media reports, is eager to help. 

September: YTL contacts Faridah and arranges a meeting between TAS and Yeoh at which TAS presents a proposal on how to use the land as an arts space. After the 30-minute presentation, Yeoh, in Hasham’s words, “walks across the boardroom to Faridah, gives her a hug and says the three magic words, ‘Go for it!’” 

November: YTL Design’s design department head and Syarikat Pembinaan Yeoh Tiong Lay architect, Baldip Singh, meets Teoh and lighting designer Mac Chan to discuss the design of KLPac’s interior space. By now, this unique design process has caught the attention of local and regional theatre technicians and architects.  

February 2004: Teoh and Chan submit their final designs. Baldip begins work. 

May 21: Yeoh launches the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre, or PentasSeni KL, at an event graced by Endon and representatives from Yayasan Budi Penyayang Malaysia. 

June: Construction of KLPac starts. 

May 9, 2005: Staff move into KLPac. 

May 19: Media preview of KLPac.  

Sept 2: Gala opening of KLPac. 


   
   From left: Margaret Chew, Faridah Merican, and Joe Hasham.

What’s in store

DURING Thursday’s media tour of the Kuala Lumpur Perform-ing Arts Centre (KLPac), the not-for-profit organisation’s general manager, Margaret Chew, described the project as a new beginning. 

“All of us are proud to be part of this centre that is dedicated to the advancement of the performing arts in Malaysia, and to be participants in history in the making: the coming together of three organisations with track records in supporting the arts. I don’t think we’ll see anything like this again in our lifetimes.” 

Credit, says KLPac artistic director Joe Hasham, must go to YTL Corp Bhd, its managing director Tan Sri Francis Yeoh, and Datin Paduka Seri Endon Mahmood of Yayasan Budi Penyayang Malaysia. 

“From the word ‘Go’, this has been an emotional time for Faridah and me, and everyone who knows what we’ve gone through since the flooding of Plaza Putra,” said Hasham.  

(He was referring to the loss of The Actors Studio’s – TAS – premises at Plaza Putra in KL after a flood in June 2003. TAS co-founder Faridah Merican is also KLPac’s executive producer.) 

Hasham, who is in charge of programming, has bookings for KLPac until January. The first show to be staged at the centre will be Siddartha (which was well-received when it was first staged in 1999) that is due to start on Wednesday.  

With TAS having declared 2005 Shakespeare Season, KLPac will produce musical comedy Romi & Joolee dan lain-lain (Aug 15-28) and Julius Caesar (Nov 28-Dec 4), and host Macbeth by Edinburgh’s Babel Theatre Company (Sept 5-11). Stressing that there is “absolutely no language barrier in the KLPac”, Hasham announced other highlights such as the French Arts Festival (beginning on Saturday) as well as Malay and Chinese Contemporary Drama Months. 

There will also be what he calls “a Malaysianised version” of G.B. Shaw’s Pygmalion and Cinderella, a pantomime that will be “quite a hoot”. And to honour the late theatre veteran, Krishen Jit – whom Faridah and Hasham, and many others, wish had lived to see KLPac take off – the centre will host Remembering Krishen from July 25-31. 

Policy-wise, KLPac will host 60% Malaysian and 40% foreign productions. And Hasham is not talking about any old foreign production, either: “When we talk of foreign shows, we don’t mean the razzamatazz of West End and Broadway. We mean shows that will focus on the cutting-edge, and performances that mean something to Malaysian audiences.” 

For further details, go to theactorsstudio.com.my 


A user comments

Choreograher Mew Chang Tsing who has been rehearsing in KLPac's studios for her upcoming dance production Mew and her Muses has found that the serenity of Sentul Park and the arty surroundings of centre help her focus and create.  

"It's like how some people go to a retreat to finish writing their book. To see arts people and technicians walking around feels different from seeing Giant Hypermarket and coffee shops - which are downstairs from RiverGrass Dance Academy studio where I teach." 

Mew also find it great to rehearse in a KLPac's largest studio that has a high ceiling and wide balcony: "In a small studio, you can only imagine what your dance is going to look like because you can’t look at it from afar. 

"A high ceiling is vital for dance. For contemporary dance, you need to project you energy upwards as you move and a low ceiling can inhibit you. And for traditional outdoor dances like the ngajat, how are you going to imagine open skies and airy spaces if you are stuck under a small, low-roofed studio?" 

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