Two Steps Back for Penang’s Theatre Scene

By Miriam Devaprasana

June 2022 FEATURE
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SINCE 2011, the Performing Arts Centre of Penang (penangpac) has fostered shared spaces and built bridges between art practitioners, enthusiasts and members of the public who are linked by one thing – their love of the arts.

However, in the days leading up to their 10th anniversary last November, penangpac announced the premature end of the contract between The Actor’s Studio (TAS) and E&O Berhad, which until then, had provided TAS with rent-free use of the venue.

To continue using the space, penangpac would have had to raise more than RM 1.5 million, excluding other expenditures – a huge amount to reach annually, even post-Covid. Despite fundraising campaigns and other monetary aid, the NGO found no respite from the dire circumstances.

In January 2022, penangpac officially drew its final curtain, leaving only despondence as its standing ovation. While some in the Penang arts community expressed shock and disappointment, others seemed indifferent. Some remain unaware of penangpac’s closure.

The Actor’s Studio (TAS) Academy’s Performing Arts Programme is an initiative to develop and cultivate skills among young arts talents. Photo by: penangpac.

Understanding penangpac’s value as a performing arts centre

For the last decade, penangpac had offered state-of-the-art facilities which enabled a wide variety of events and shows to take place under one roof, holding workshops, internships, partnerships and productions to engage and nurture local talents.

It was interesting that penangpac chose Straits Quay as its ‘home’ – a retail marina away from the city centre and located in a township that caters mostly to the upper-middle class and international community. Some argue that this was the reason for its high ticket rates. However, not many realise that as a non-profit organisation, penangpac’s income relied not only on ticket sales, but more so on venue rentals.

Still, it cannot be denied that penangpac has served many arts communities, especially the local theatre scene.

While E&O Berhad could revive the theatre under new management, the closure of penangpac creates a negative impression of the local arts community and suggests its inability to sustain one of the few spaces dedicated to the advancement of the performing arts. It also makes us wonder what kind of future theatre has in Penang’s arts ecosystem.

A Brief History of Penang Theatre

Penang’s history with theatre began with forms of traditional theatre, like Boria or Potehi (glove puppet theatre). Although for decades these were declining art forms, their revitalisation is now being strongly advocated for, with new approaches being adopted to make them relevant to younger generations.

Potehi, or glove puppet theatre by Ombak-Ombak ARTStudio. Photo by: Ombak-Ombak ARTStudio.

Modern, or contemporary, theatre started making waves in the 1960s, with the emergence of experimental works in the 80s and 90s. Pioneering groups included the Penang Players Music and Drama Society (formed in 1950; revived in 1992), ZXC Theatre Troupe (a Chinese contemporary theatre, founded in 1991) and Bakawalee Penang (a Malay contemporary theatre, founded in 2004).

To support the local theatre scene, the state government established the annual ‘Pertandingan Teater Peringkat Negeri Pulau Pinang’ which enabled troupes to showcase both traditional and contemporary works. Over the years, several platforms have developed for the same purpose, including George Town Festival (GTF), Wayang DiSinkeh, the Initiate, Develop, Perform programme by Reka Art Space and Short + Sweet by penangpac.

Cast of ‘W;t’ by the Penang Players Music & Drama Society.
‘Ikat肚脐带 tōo-tsâi-tuà’ by ZXC Theatre Troupe. Photo by: ZXC Theatre Troupe.

Post-pandemic, GTF is now the only consistent physical platform for theatre in Penang. Undaunted, the local theatre scene has adapted to the new normal and embraced online or hybrid-style digital theatre, making theatre more accessible to audiences worldwide.

This makes it clear that the issue at hand is not the lack of people or talent, but rather a home base for theatre – a space dedicated to the development of the local theatre scene where diversity in theatre forms and practitioners are its pillars.

A Home for Theatre

One might ask, why the necessity for one particular place dedicated to theatre?

Several venues in Penang can currently be utilised as this. Big-scale productions can be staged at Dewan Sri Pinang if one does not mind its formal setting and limited facilities. Dewan Budaya at Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) is another option, although its location (30 minutes from central George Town) may be a disadvantage. Bangunan UAB and Hin Bus Depot also provide alternative spaces that are more suited for small-scale and experimental works.

Nevertheless, it is important to remember that these options are primarily multipurpose venues for all kinds of live performances and events. They do not feature the kind of specialised infrastructure that theatre requires.

Prominent members of the Penang performing arts community have also expressed the need for a dedicated theatre space. Joelle Saint-Arnoult, Chairperson of Penang Players, opines, “Penang needs a venue that offers two spaces i.e. a black box and a large concert hall, along with studios for workshops and rehearsals – a convivial place where budding talents, experienced performers and professionals can give each other support”.

Black box theatres, or studio theatres, are a cheaper initial investment and provide all the necessary equipment with the advantage of flexibility in layout and setup. Spaces like these can also be used for educational workshops and classes in the daytime.

The deck at Hin Bus Depot, suitable for small-scale/experimental theatre productions. Photo by: Hin Bus Depot. 

Dr. Mumtaz Begum (Actor, Dancer and Dean of the School of Arts in USM) agrees but also emphasises the importance of outdoor spaces. “We do not need big venues per se; black boxes and outdoor spaces will do.”

“Penangites prefer site-specific performances too, especially outdoors where family and friends can gather for picnics (before or after) and enjoy performances.”

Darynn Wee, graduate from the School of Arts, USM, and former production and office manager at Five Arts Centre, reflects on penangpac’s location and how its distance and surrounding higher-end communities perhaps deterred people from engaging with theatre. She adds, “We need a venue located in town, somewhere close to the community. This enables theatre to reach a wider audience and increases its access to all.”

As a solution, Darynn asks stakeholders to consider what is already present in abundance. “We have many abandoned heritage buildings [in the city]. Why not use them? Make plans to revamp and renovate to dynamically adapt them to what the theatre community needs today. In my personal opinion, the best the state government could do is to provide a building with no strings attached and to make it something permanent or, at least, long term.”

After all, many heritage buildings in George Town have been readapted for different purposes.

While the closure of penangpac could be seen as a mark of regression, it represents an opportunity for stakeholders to take a good look at what Penang’s theatre scene needs and to put in place appropriate measures for its sustainable development.

Getting theatre a home to call its own is a good start. Stakeholders, including the state government should consider the heritage and cultural offerings of theatre not only for the community, but also for Penang’s creative economy.

Note: The article was written as part of the CENDANA Arts Writing Masterclass & Mentorship Programme 2021.

Miriam Devaprasana

is a dabbler of creative expressions and budding researcher rooted in sensitivity, vulnerability, faith, and human connection. Check out more of her writing on mdev16.wordpress.com.


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