Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Theatre houses glad to turn on the spotlights again after a year with no audience

But some say the digital hybrid is here to stay, although how well this will resonate with fans remains to be seen.

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When Shafeeq Shajahan co-founded musical theatre production house Liver and Lung Productions with his partner, Hannah Shields, in 2014, it was an instant success with one sold-out show after another.

For six years, they enjoyed the fruits of their labour – until 2020 when Covid-19 hit the country, bringing with it a raft of restrictions and health SOPs.

“We had about 13 shows,” Shafeeq said. “We were supposed to go to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival last year to perform one of our shows. We were supposed to bring Sepet the Musical to Macau.

“But everything had to stop.”

The pandemic changed everything, and Shafeeq knew his business had to change too.

Liver and Lung became one of the first theatre production houses in the country to make a complete shift to a digital platform. And the move is paying off.

For instance, its sold-out 2019 musical based on Yasmin Ahmad’s cult classic Sepet garnered it hundreds of new fans after being streamed on YouTube for a week.

But the move wasn’t easy, as making the shift requires much more than just theatrical skills.

“Obviously we are bread-and-butter theatre boys and girls but we had to upscale our skills to video editing, filmmaking and audio engineering. All those new skills we had to quickly learn,” Shafeeq told MalaysiaNow.

Yet he sees the move outside of their comfort zone as a blessing.

“We upscaled our capabilities in skills that will last us longer in the future.”

“It’s bad if this pandemic came and left and we didn’t learn anything from it.”

In March, authorities eased restrictions on the entertainment sector to allow performances with limited audiences.

But Shafeeq does not see this as a reason to leave digital theatre in the past.

“For the future of theatre, we would like to see this hybrid of digital and live performances.

“It’s bad if this pandemic came and left and we didn’t learn anything from it,” he said.

Khairunazwan Rodzy, founder of production company Revolution Stage, said his outfit had faced many challenges since the beginning of the pandemic when restrictions were first imposed.

In March, it found itself struggling with RM23,000 in overdue rent alone.

Fortunately, fans of the underground arts chipped in and within 10 days had raised the money needed to keep Revolution Stage from going under.

With the relaxed restraints on live events, they are now hopeful of making a comeback although with what profit margin remains to be seen.

The team behind Revolution Stage, which nearly went under after the Covid-19 pandemic hit.

Khairunazwan recalled how their last physical show, held during the recovery movement control order last year, brought them zero profit.

“Ticket collection was very low as we were only allowed an audience of 20 people. At the time, we were already struggling with financial issues so it was a difficult period for us.”

The experience inspired him to merge the physical and digital mediums for his future shows.

Their latest production, “Pegawai Khalwat”, will be shown on-site in Petaling Jaya and streamed live on their official website.

“We are still in the experimental phase to observe if theatre fans enjoy online performances. It’s important to us that they can enjoy online performances as much as they do the physical theatre.

“Now that we have learnt from past experience, I think it’s only wise for us to merge both mediums for audience satisfaction,” Khairunazwan said.

Aqil Syakir, an avid concertgoer, is thrilled to be back in the audience again. He told MalaysiaNow that virtual concerts do not evoke the same adrenaline rush that physical concerts do.

“I am bored with virtual gigs because why do we have to pay for tickets at the same price as physical concerts?

“It’s a whole different experience.”

“So when organisers announced the new norm concerts, it felt like a part of me that went missing was found again.”

The last time Aqil went to a concert was in January 2020. When organisers announced a series of gigs comprising performances by rock bands under strict SOPs, he booked tickets for two concerts in the same week.

But how does one enjoy the music when the hall is no longer packed with concertgoers singing their hearts out side by side?

“The new norm gig is not the same as before as we have to stand in a box one metre apart from each other,” Aqil told MalaysiaNow.

“We also have to wear masks the whole time. It’s a whole different experience for me, but I am just glad I can see bands perform in front of me again.”

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