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A vision realised

   
(From left) Joe, Rais and wife, Leela, Endon, Faridah and Yeoh examining the model of the KLPAC at the launch

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The Edge Malaysia (Options), 5 July 2004

FEATURE
Impending cultural hub, the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre in Sentul, is a dream come true for many. Sheila Singam talks to the people behind the ambitious project which will open its doors to the public at the end of the year.

Can different people from different backgrounds dream the same dream and turn it into a reality? Yes, if they have the will and passion to make it happen.

The Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre (KLPAC), slated for completion by the end of this year, is a fine example of how will and passion can turn a dream into reality.

The story of the KLPAC is like the unfolding of a play with a happy ending. The main actors in this play: Datin Seri Endon Mahmood, wife of the Prime Minister; Tan Sri Francis Yeoh, art-loving entrepreneur and managing director of conglomerate YTL Corp Bhd; and Joe Hasham and Faridah Merican, the theatre veterans and founders of The Actors Studio.

SCENE ONE

The play opens with a dramatic scene – Faridah and Joe shedding tears of grief over the destruction of The Actors Studio in Plaza Putra after storms wreaked havoc in various parts of the city in the middle of last year.

“We were devastated by the floods. Faridah and I lost everything. It wasn’t just he money, but all we had was gone. And the performing arts has not been quite the same since that space in Plaza Putra went,” Joe tells Options.

But being the resilient duo they are, they wasted no time looking around for another place even before the floodwaters receded. That’s when they saw the old railway workshop in Sentul, an exquisite old building that had been abandoned for several years. Nestled amid the sprawling park of the new Sentul West project, they thought the building would be perfect for their needs.

“We knew we’d found a new home for the performing arts in KL,” Faridah shares. But how to get the building? How to convince the developer of the Sentul West project to let them have it?

Enter Yeoh. The developer of Sentul West was none other than Sentul Raya Sdn Bhd, a subsidiary of YT Land and Development Bhd. although Faridah and Joe knew him to be an ardent supporter of the performing arts, they still had some trepidation at the thought of asking him for a slice of his property. They certainly didn’t expect the response they got.

“We presented the idea for 35 minutes. As we finished, he wrapped us both in his arms and said ‘Go for it’,” Joe recounts. At the same time, Joe and Faridah “whispered a word” into the ear of Endon and the Prime Minister. “We needed all the help we could get and we were not ashamed to ask.”

CONCRETE PASSION

Yeoh’s motivation in agreeing to the idea is based on his need to do something else for performing arts in the city. In an interview with Options, he says: “I have been supporting the arts for a long time. After we had the Three Tenors [here], I asked myself ‘What else can I do?’”

His answer came when Faridah and Joe approached him about the idea of converting the old railway workshop into a performing arts facility. “The KLPAC is a result of the convergence of ideas from Datin Seri Endon, Faridah and Joe. They have such passion for the performing arts. I wanted to do something, and here was the chance, with no bureaucracy and an environment I could control… I thought it would be wonderful to have it in Sentul West, near the park, so it could be a part of people’s lives,” Yoh explains.


   
An aerial view of the park and the existing railway workshop that is being transformed into KL's latest cultural hub

But he didn’t just give The Actors Studio the venue; he handed it over in a silver platter by lending expertise from his corporation and literally putting his money where his beliefs lay. The design for the new facility and the administration of the KLPAC are being undertaken by his people, and he has ploughed in a substantial amount into the project via YTL. “Fiscally, it costs RM10 million to RM15 million for the construction, but we had to five 10 million to mandate it.”

Having given the people of KL the facility, he hopes, of course, for corporate and public support in the days to come. “KL is my city and I participate in its soul. But projects like KLPAC do not function unilaterally. We’ll do what we can to get corporate sponsorship and support from the friends of the performing arts,” he says.

Yeoh’s desire to see Malaysians support the KLPAC stems from his belief that the arts have a “powerful role in uniting the people” and in enhancing the society.

“The arts represent the search for truth through people’s ills and pain and can be powerful,” he observes. He hopes that once the KLPAC is a permanent feature of KL’s cultural scene, it will be a leavening influence on society.

“We’re working with [Datuk Seri] Rais Yatim [Minister for Culture, Arts and Heritage], Datin Seri Endon, Faridah and Joe to make this happen. We will be an icon shining everyday and have a performing arts scene second to none in the world within five years,” he predicts.

YTL appears ready for a long-term commitment to the KLPAC. “We’re in it for as long as the performing arts society likes it, The Actors Studio wants it and Datin Seri Endon encourages it. With the conversion of three powerful forces with such passion behind it, I think it will last a long time, but it all depends on the support of KL folks,” Yeoh comments.

FIRST LADY OF THE ARTS

When Endon’s name is mentioned with respect in conjunction with the performing arts, it’s not simply lip service for the Prime Minister’s wife. Endon has, for the past several years, shown a strong support for the arts, often expressing her concern that several of the art forms in the country are in danger of becoming extinct.

“I am rather concerned for the current status of the performing arts. Based on my layman’s observation, intuitively I feel that the performing arts needs to have an extremely nutritional shot in the arm in order to ensure that there is continuity, growth and development,” she said in a speech at the official launch of the KLPAC, over which she presided. In the same breath, she promised to “try and assist initiatives that aim to develop the performing arts”.

She has already proven her commitment to this end through her support of performing arts groups and the setting up of Yayasan Budi Penyayang Malaysia, a non-governmental organisation aimed at facilitating individuals or groups “to develop their potential as productive and responsible citizens through the provision of appropriate assistance”. She is chairman of Penyayang and patron of the newly formed KLPAC.

Her deep interest in the KLPAC is summed up by Leela Mohd Ali, the chief executive officer of Penyayang and the KLPAC: “It has been Datin Seri’s dream that there should be more attention paid to the performing arts. She has held gatherings of people in her home to discuss the revival of art forms like the makyong, for example, and arts education in schools.

“She said she would use her position for the arts. People would listen to her because of her position.” Endon appears to be going about realising her vision in a systematic way; she began her involvement with traditional art forms like the nyonya kebaya and Malaysian batek and has now turned her sights on the performing arts. Her role as patron of the KLPAC and chairman of Penyayang will ensure that she has a big say in the performing arts scenario in the country, Leela adds.

On their part, Faridah and Joe are deeply grateful to Yeoh’s and Endon’s support of the KLPAC, which will jointly be managed by representatives from Penyayang, YTL and The Actors Studio.

“This whole KLPAC is like God was sitting up there and moving the pieces. It was almost like a thousand-year prophecy that said ‘On this day, three parties – Penyayang, YTL and The Actors Studio – would come together for this to happen’,” Joe says reverently. Perhaps. He was.


   
The computer-generated image of what the new facility will look like

Icon of the arts

The design for the new Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre is a reflection of the building designer’s and landscape artist’s understanding of its intended role as an icon of the arts in Malaysia.

A look at a model of the facility shows a new structure of steel and glass that’s been grafted onto the existing old building of brick. If the design appears to be a collision of sorts, that is exactly what building designer Baldip Singh (of Syarikat Pembenaan Yeoh Tiong Lay Sdn Bhd) intends it to be.

It was built in the early 1900s and used as a railway workshop. The fact that it is totally column-free with a total void made it easy to rehabilitate. We’ve kept the external façade and the integrity of the old building, thus preserving its time,” he tells Options.

Instead of replicating the building’s architecture in the new wing, however, Baldip opted for a steel-and-glass structure, using the metaphor of transparency. The entrance to the facility will be through the new wing, which punctures into the void of the old building. Baldip has moved away from making a grand entrance statement by drawing the porte cochere away from the front façade via an extended walkway.

The landscaping for the facility is being undertaken by Ng Sek San of Seksan Design. “We’ve taken cues from the building and blended the landscaping with the architecture as far as possible,” Ng explains. He has designed the front façade’s landscape architecture such that reflecting pools flank the walkway, while plants push past the entrance into the main foyer. The box office is located in the garden beside the porte cochere to eliminate annoying front-door queues and to imply continuity between the covered and outer areas.

The 70,000-sq-ft facility will contain two theatres – a main auditorium that seats 500 people and an experimental theatre for 216. It will also have a set-making workshop, bistro, bar, pre-function areas, administration offices, studios, dressing rooms and an academy. It is designed to be disabled-friendly.

The KLPAC is expected to create a hive of activity in the Sentul-Ipoh Road area of KL and to become the premier performing arts hub of the city. Looking at the building design, management structure and the spirit of its creators, this is not just a vague vision. But one hopes the reality of it will redefine the shape of things to come for the country’s performing arts scene, regenerating the spirit of the urban enclave it is located in and serving as a beacon of culture for the present and future generations.


   
Building designer Baldip Singh. [Photo by Haris Hasan/TheEdge]

Audience reaction

Here are some comments from patrons and fans of the performing arts about the KLPAC:

CAROLINE RUSSEL,
chief executive officer of Boh Plantations Bhd, title sponsor of the Boh Cameronian Arts Awards

I believe the objectives are excellent. From the site plans I have seen, the location inside a park area is quite special and I like the retention of the old building, which lends a uniqueness to the design.

I have no doubt that The Actors Studio will manage the KLPAC capably, but it will be challenging for them to do so and to sustain the vigour and diversity to make the centre a long-term success. I find in all things the challenge is execution, not so much the concept.

I hope the opening of the centre will contribute to improving the awareness of Malaysians of their performing arts scene, as current audiences are a niche part of the population. I would particularly hope that there will be an opportunity to see more of our traditional performing arts like mak yong and wayang kulit as these forms are becoming more and more rare.

SHASHI KALIA,
accountant and long-term fan of the arts

The concept sounds great and so do the objectives. I hope it works!

I would like to see the regular stuff that we see in The Actors Studio Bangsar now as well as more experimental stuff. I like the idea of outdoor concerts and I don’t mean rock(!) but performances by people like, say Sean Ghazi. Possibly some foreign artistes as well, be it comedy or more serious plays.

I’d also like to see collaborative work with other countries. I think we could learn quite a lot from them and it would give us loyal patrons some variety.

I hope the KLPAC will help promote the performing arts to Malaysians. There are three different kinds of people I know who don’t do the Malaysian theatre scene. First, the type who don’t care for that sort of thing – can’t do anything about them. Second, the most irritating who have been to theatre overseas and would rather not go locally because they say there is no way we can match the overseas stuff. Snobs, in other words. Thirdly, the ones who feel theatre is only for certain types of people. These can be targeted – firstly, by the type of performances and secondly, by how you promote the events.

RITCHIE RAMESH PILLAI,
director of a communications company

I believe Sentul as a location for performing arts will take time to develop. It might take as long as 5 to 10 years for it to be recognised as the premier location for performing arts in South East Asia – if that’s the vision that YTL plans for the future.

I have not seen the model but based on the description, fabulous images that come to mind are Central Park and Hyde Park, where people converge and many types of activities go on – reading a book, picnics, jogging, speeches, outdoor concerts, recitals etc. I feel local handicraft from all ethnic groups should also be showcased and classes held for those interested.

Let’s centralise local and foreign groups. We should merge associations under one roof and get the embassies to hold cultural events at KLPAC; there are more than 100 foreign missions here in KL – imagine if all of them were to contribute cultural performances on a weekly basis.

Finally, this great country has many talents and is a melting pot for culture/arts, so one should be mindful of our heritage that is built upon many civilisations. Narrow interpretations should be avoided by the artistic community and our diversity explored to truly make KLPAC the performing arts centre in Asia.

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