Covid-19 Exclusives: PenangPac’s Curtains Rise Once More

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Almost RM48,000 in donations have been raised since June.

LAST JULY, the PenangPac warmly welcomed back its patrons for its first post-pandemic live show, The Ice Kacang Project. The lobby, which was leaden with silence over the MCO period, was bustling again, filled with people who are eager for some much needed laughter.

The performing art centre keeps a busy schedule, but this was upended last March by the Covid-19. Instead of marketing new performances, the team found themselves posting announcements of cancelled shows and refunding tickets to disappointed customers.

The resultant economic impact was unprecedented; to some extent, it was cumulative of the difficulties PenangPac has had to weather through since its establishment in 2011, nine years ago.

I met up with company manager Alexander Ooi and publicity manager Fa Abdul one May afternoon; just a few days before, PenangPac had done a survey to gauge Penangites’ willingness to return to see a show post-MCO.1 While the results are encouraging – 84.7% of the respondents say that they are ready to visit PenangPac again, but with strict guidelines in place – Alexander and Fa harbour a cautious mix of optimism and worry.

PenangPac’s inception marked a milestone in the development of the performing arts in the state and in the northern region. The centre commands an area of 22,000 sq ft, and boasts two stages and several studios. Its founding was pivotal in uniting the scattered audience and performers who were once segregated by language.

“Our role is to function as an integrated platform to bring everyone together,” says Alexander. “PenangPac is far more than just a venue provider. Throughout the years, we have put a lot of effort into making the centre a hub to connect and to support different aspects of the performing arts ecosystem, including providing opportunities for talents to try their hands at co-producing shows.” Outreach programmes like Rakan Seni are also carried out to impart knowledge to children with a flair for performing.

Although Covid-19 introduced a new set of challenges to address, PenangPac must also still figure out how to vault over old ones. For example, Penangites have yet to grow into the habit of paying for shows. This, unfortunately, limits the pool of audience to just the performers’ circle of family and friends. Furthermore, this relatively small market translates to low production budgets; performers are unable to generate a steady enough income to support themselves. The challenge is to build a robust enough ecosystem that is able to sustain artistic careers over time.

PenangPac is currently staffed with 13 personnel juggling ticketing, production, marketing, designing and management duties. While revenue comes from venue rentals, ticketing and course fees, this is hardly enough to cover the centre’s monthly cost of more than RM42,000. PenangPac has, in fact, been experiencing a deficit since before the pandemic occurred.

But Covid-19 exacerbated the situation; from March to June, the cancellation of performances and courses amounted to a loss of RM130,000. PenangPac was very nearly on the verge of closing down permanently. Adding to this, venue operators at the time were not entitled to aid from the state government, though individuals and groups involved in the Arts and Culture were provided financial assistance.

Chief Minister Chow Kon Yeow's visit to PenangPac.

Fa (left) and Alexander (right) are eager to welcome patrons back to PenangPac.

The staff cleans and disinfects PenangPac's facilities regularly.

PenangPac was at a critical junction. With its fate up in the air, the donation programme “Spare RM1” was put in motion to corral support from the public. A variety of live streaming courses were also offered with an entrance fee of RM10 which doubles as a donation. The response was overwhelming; almost RM48,000 has been raised from both channels since June. Aid from the state government and other groups also managed to see them through the crisis. “We would like to express our deep gratitude to the donors who helped to keep us afloat during this difficult time,” says Fa, who recently joined PenangPac following a decade of performing experience in KL.

For Alexander and Fa, the value of a performing arts space is irreplaceable. PenangPac has, over the years, created opportunities for many memorable encounters, e.g. when the audience excitedly crowds around the performer for a photo or engage each other in a critical discussion after a performance. These experiences are deeply profound and cannot be easily translated onto social media.

... from March to June, the cancellation of performances and courses amounted to a loss of RM130,000. PenangPac was very nearly on the verge of closing down permanently.

The pandemic has also brought to light the importance of digital onboarding. During the MCO, PenangPac collaborated with other performing groups and individuals to host The Corona Diaries and Q&A sessions with art veterans like Lucille Dass and Ard Omar, which were streamed via social media. For this latter reason, recording and documentation of the performances have had to be of the highest quality.

Likewise, prior to reopening its doors to the public, various preparations were made including reducing the seating capacity from one-fourth to a third under the new spatial arrangement. Other guidelines include the wearing of face masks, regular sanitising of hands, practicing a no-touch policy and purchasing tickets via online and phone only, among others.

Moving forward, and despite financial constraints, PenangPac remains hopeful that the local performing arts scene will continue to thrive and that it will remain a premier hub for the northern region.

Pan Yi Chieh is a research analyst at Penang Institute who was born in Taiwan but now lives in Penang. She is proud to be nurtured by the two beautiful islands she regards as home.



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