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THE UPHILL BATTLE OF THE ARTS & CULTURE INDUSTRY IN PANDEMIC TIMES – AN INTERVIEW WITH IAN CHOW, KUALA LUMPUR PERFORMING ARTS CENTRE (KLPAC) GROUP GENERAL MANAGER

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Ian Chow had already been doing production work for The Young KL Singers and The Actors Studio for three years before the klpac was established in 2005. It was exactly then when he decided to join the performing arts full-time as he took on the Theatre Supervisor role. He then became klpac’s Theatre Manager and further grew his portfolio when he was made the Group Theatre Manager not only for klpac but also The Actors Studio and penangpac. In his current position as the Group General Manager, he oversees these three entities.

Yayasan Sime Darby’s (YSD) RM5.5 million commitment over 8 years since 2013 has enabled klpac to channel its resources to reinforce its organisation, improve its business performance, strengthen its financial core and grow its marketing capabilities, while creating an impact on the development of the Arts & Culture industry in Malaysia.

YSD recently interviewed Ian, where he shared his journey of working in the arts professionally, klpac’s partnership with YSD and how he and his team have been overcoming pandemic challenges throughout the financial year 2020/2021.


What made you choose to have a career in the arts?

Perhaps a better question would be - why not? Just like how some choose to be a doctor, engineer, chef or administrator, I choose to be an arts practitioner. Performing arts can be a career choice and contrary to what many believe, it can put food on the table. In fact, I have always loved the performing arts (particularly music) since my primary school days. The performing arts has also imparted a lot of soft skills to me which have bolstered my confidence in dealing with people. It has added immeasurable value to my life and now, I would like to add value to the lives of others as well.

How have YSD’s support and contributions helped klpac achieve its goals between July 2020 until now?

The pandemic has been devastating for the arts because the inherent magic of what we do involves a live audience. Through several rounds of closure and while we were being tossed between RMCO, CMCO and MCO, we racked up a loss of almost RM2 million. A lot of producers and event organisers held back from organising shows and events due to the uncertainties. Our main source of income, venue rental, recorded an 80% decrease between 2019 and 2020. Other income streams such as ticket sales, academy courses, sponsorships and donations were also severely impacted.

During times like these, YSD is the very definition of an arts patron – providing unwavering and crucial support. Their funding strategy targeting essential maintenance and upkeep of our building and equipment has ensured that the centre could stay afloat while some other venues have had to close down. This in turn has safeguarded our many development programmes, ensured that artistes and arts groups have a home to return to and a safe space to keep creating. This also meant that the lives of Malaysians continue to be enriched by the arts even during such difficult times.
 
How has the pandemic affected klpac’s efforts in increasing the accessibility and appreciation of the local arts and culture amongst Malaysians?

What we do has not changed but how we do it and how we present it has. Instead of focusing purely on the delivery of live performances, we focused on what the arts could offer to people during this time. It could comfort, it could unite, it could heal, it could bring laughter, it could help us remember better days and give us a way to digest the horror of what many were going through. Before the very first MCO kicked in in 2020, we knew that children would be stuck at home and parents would be at a loss, so we rolled out our first Storytime with Uncle Joe and Aunty Faridah which brought relief and comfort to many families up till today.

Never has the importance of the arts been more apparent and never has the consumption of the arts been so high. People were watching Phantom of the Opera beamed from the UK in their homes. Likewise, our work was being enjoyed by a global audience. We recently premiered Kevin Kerr’s Unity (1918) to audiences from 13 countries amid rave reviews. It has opened up the eyes of many Malaysians and also those abroad about what we can offer.


Storytime with Uncle Joe and Aunty Faridah brought relief and comfort to many families with children who are stuck at home during lockdown periods.


How has klpac dealt with the challenges posed by the pandemic? What are the changes in strategies and plans made to mitigate the challenges?

Besides funding, one challenge is to create an environment that is deemed safe enough for audiences to return. We cannot deny the fact that some are still afraid to watch live performances physically possibly for the next year or two. We are fortunate that we have a solid track record on Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) enforcement as we have been presenting shows consistently during this pandemic period and have been able to fine-tune our SOPs including extremely tight crowd control. For 2021, we have made a concerted effort to digitalise our content so that people have the options of watching it live or online at a later date.

Of course, these efforts come at a cost. We are essentially trying to do more with the same resources including developing live and online offerings. On top of that, we have to bear additional costs from operating during the pandemic such as sanitisation and additional ‘Front-of-House’ staff for crowd control while we face losses from the reduced seating capacity. For Bollywood Dreams which was held in March 2021, we incurred an immediate 70% loss which translated to RM94,320 worth of tickets we could not sell due to physical distancing.

Also, we know that the livelihoods of most practitioners (be it performers or those working behind- the-scenes) are dependent on live productions. When MCO is announced, they would have lost their source of income instantly. Most have had to resort to other ways of earning or even change their career entirely and may never return to the industry. We will be facing huge talent loss and drainage then as the arts require a specialised skillset.

With this in mind, klpac, The Actors Studio and penangpac have been actively organising live shows with strict SOPs in place, in hopes that we can continue to provide job opportunities to these groups of people that number in the tens of thousands. Undoubtedly, we can’t save all of them, but we will strive to save as many as we can and keep the ship afloat for as long as possible.


In March 2021, the government finally allowed the creative industry to hold physical events, shows or live performances while adhering to the relevant authorities’ public health guidelines to ensure the safety of patrons. How klpac had anticipated and played its part in making this announcement a reality?

It was a painful process I must say. Painful because some policymakers and decision-makers do not understand the importance of the arts and reduced it to just a form of entertainment. But as we all know, art does not only entertain but educates and enriches our lives as well as expands our view and possibilities. More importantly, it is the rice bowl for many arts workers. Time and again, we have been labelled as non-essential while other sectors including those operating with high traffic flow in a much less controlled environment than a theatre such as malls, night markets and F&B establishments were allowed to re-open with far fewer restrictions and requirements.

In February 2021, we decided to take matters into our own hands. With CENDANA taking the lead, we joined hands with Arts, Live Festival and Events Association (ALIFE) to lobby collectively for the re-opening of our industry. Together we drafted the SOPs for Live Events, presented our case backed by key data and track record and addressed the concerns raised by the authorities. During this period, we also ran awareness campaigns with other arts players to emphasise that the #artsisessential and it is #NotJustHiburan. MKN finally approved the SOPs in March 2021 and we staged our very first show 5 and a half months after the announcement, which was no small feat.

Though the arts industry has grown leaps and bounds over the past few decades, this experience has shown us that there is so much more work to be done to raise the appreciation of the arts and the role it plays in today’s society. The outcome was not perfect as there were many compromises made along the way in negotiating for the re-opening but at that moment, our sole goal was to be able to start again and have a chance at recovery.


How differently will the Yayasan Sime Darby Arts Festival (YSDAF) be held in the ‘new normal’?

One of the magical things about YSDAF since we started it in 2014 is how it shows what Malaysian performing arts can offer to audiences from all walks of life all on the same day and under the same roof. It is convenient, it connects people and it brings out emotions that are hard to express with words. Nothing beats an emotionally charged live performance, where audiences can react and interact with performers.

Plus, a festival with this sort of scale provides jobs and opportunities to not only artistes but all the behind-the-scene team members, logistic vendors, F&B operators, material suppliers and etc. We did explore having an online festival for 2020 and even 2021 but it will lose a huge part of what YSDAF can offer. Hence, we decided to postpone with the festival goers’ safety in mind. When we bring it back, I am sure changes will have to be made to suit the new normal including the possibility of having more digital offerings to augment and supplement the live festival experience.


Apart from the COVID-19 restrictions, what are some of the toughest obstacles in the work that you do, and what motivates you to overcome them?

This is an unprecedented scenario that none of us have gone through before. Creatively, a lot of practitioners have come to a roadblock and some even started to lose their creative spirit and direction. How do we start, where do we even start and how do we continue amid the many obstacles, restrictions and ever-changing variables. I still remember the first few months of MCO 1.0 and MCO 2.0, I could hardly find any inspiration to do anything creative. Currently (besides managing klpac), I also have two other productions that I am directing that have been halted due to the new MCO. One of them, True Love Waits was in planning and rehearsal since October 2019 and has gone through 4 concepts changes and multiple cast changes due to the pandemic. In fact, this production was supposed to be one of YSDAF 2020’s satellite shows. We are now in 2021 and the fate of this show has yet to be decided.

Mental health wise, I am sure it does take a toll on a lot of practitioners in varying degrees. Whether one has the financial means to seek professional help is another question. And on top of that, if they have families and children to look after, it makes the challenge doubly hard. Not only do they need to make ends meet but they also have to juggle their children’s schedules especially with the online learning and haywire schooling schedule.

At klpac, we have to “lend” and “borrow” each other’s strengths and energy to make it through the past year. There will be days when I am down, I will depend on others to jump in to help in whatever way they can and when I am high-spirited, I will then be the one who help others. Currently, we have given more flexibility to the staff in terms of their working hours in hopes that they can find a better balance and find their footing while adjusting to this new norm.

What are your hopes and dreams for klpac, YSDAF and the Malaysia’s arts and culture landscape?

We must stop labelling arts as non-essential and it must be treated as a vital component in everyone’s life. During the MCO, all of us consume arts in one way or another to get through the day be it reading a book, watching a TV series, therapeutic colouring, listening to music, blogging and etc. It has always been part of us without us realising it; it is our life!

And the arts does put food on the table and is a rice bowl for many. It is time that Malaysian arts and practitioners get the respect and recognition it deserves like many of our peers overseas. I also hope more Malaysians will be more vocal in insisting that it is part of their lives and contribute to its development.


Ian briefing the ‘Front-of-House’ staff who are tasked to ensure crowd control.

Ian performing during ‘Yesterday Once More 3’ in July 2020 after the first-ever MCO was lifted


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Last Updated:
26 Aug 2021
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