PETALING JAYA, July 15 — While it is a challenge at any time to produce a play, try doing it during a pandemic.
This is what Instant Café Theatre (ICT) producer Tan Cher Kian has had to do these past few years amidst the multiple movement control orders due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
"The arts scene had to alternate between having to stop and resume plays," he said of the upcoming refugee-themed play, And Then Came Spring that ICT and refugee theatre group Parastoo are are working on.
"Not just that, there was also the uncertainties among the audience to go back to physical spaces to watch performances."
While dealing with these new challenges, Tan also had to contend with the age-old problem of finding sponsors to support the financial aspects of a play.
This is to pay the actors, buy new costumes, get new sets and other production costs.
In Malaysia, where support for the arts scene is not as encouraging, the onus is on a producer to attract new patrons through unique ways to get people to believe that their cause is worth supporting.
Such causes include having the oppressed communities such as refugees to speak out on stage and to have an audience listen to their plight.
Tan said that the local theatre group turned to online shows to find new audiences as physical shows came to a halt due to the pandemic-induced lockdowns.
"It is important that we tell our loyal patrons and donors the importance of collaborating with Afghan theatre group Parastoo to give an opportunity to them to speak out to the audience to listen to their battles.
"And if audiences are not into refugee rights and their struggles, we hope to put in that seed of awareness like wanting to know why we (ICT) are working with them - and to know their stories.
"Refugees are human beings just like us who have families, have dreams and many have mental health issues as they have to cope with the many traumas - and it’s important that others know the struggles they face."
The play centres around an important theme of refugees being forced to flee their home country, the story of the protagonist Nazanin as she struggles with child marriage that take the audience from Afghanistan to another country.
Tan, who was also producer for The Working Dead, a 2019 local musical comedy, explained that the local theatre group managed to engage with a steady stream of followers through its screening of their past local performances during the Covid-19 lockdown.
"We made sure we were always engaging with our audience so that they could be our potential patrons and audience for And Then Came Spring.
"Throughout the pandemic, we managed to get new supporters, especially young adults through screening our past performances such as Nadirah, Parah and Air Con.
"The aim is to cultivate more shows and discussions through Question and Answer (Q&A) sessions so that we can get a steady stream of followers who are interested in theatre or just want to learn something through the discussions."
Tan said that if people were not interested in donating cash, buying the tickets to watch the show or even in-kind donations were also welcomed such as getting props for the sets or even food for the actors during their rehearsals.
This year, ICT was also fortunate that they were able to kick-start their production thanks to a RM10,000 from the Boh Cameronian grant for new productions.
"With that sum, we were able to pay our actors, costumes, sets onstage and other production costs
"Not just that, we’ve received donations from corporations as well to support the show.
"So in that sense, we were able to pay for urgent payments when needed rather than starting a production from scratch."
Promoting the play, planning rehearsal schedules while working with artistes
Promoting the play is also another role of a producer to ensure that the marketing materials such as posters were up on social media to get more refugees and Malaysians to watch the show.
"Our original poster was designed by a friend of our production team who is based overseas.
"The poster’s variations were done by Allie Hill, a friend of ICT, coupled with regular collaborators with refugee communities in Malaysia.
"Other publicity materials online were designed and researched by the team from ICT and Parastoo - to show that collaboration between the two theatre groups are vital.
Apart from marketing materials, Tan needed to take heed of changes of the actors, and rehearsal dates as the show that was supposed to be staged in 2020 had to be postponed due to the pandemic.
Two refugee actors who were part of the play had resettled to other countries in 2020 and this meant that Tan had to find other actors in discussions with playwright Jo Kukathas and the show’s director Saleh Sepas.
"We had to rewrite the last scene of the script as we had to find other refugee actors to be part of it.
"But it’s an experience as part of the team since the focus is to give opportunities for them to tell their stories - as it’s not common in our local theatre space.”
Assembling the actors was also another part of his job, according to Tan, to make sure that all of them were together for their rehearsals.
"Many refugees are based in Ampang and other parts of the Klang Valley, but the rehearsal space was mostly in Five Arts Centre in Bukit Bintang’s commercial mall GMBB - so we had to make sure that transportation for all the actors to and fro rehearsal space was organised.
"We wanted a rehearsal venue so that the refugee actors can get a taste of what the real stage is like with the different lighting and sets as compared to their community-theatre.
"I also had to make sure that everyone was free at a particular time - and this also means taking into account that some of the actors have to attend classes and have other activities."
He explained that the journey of getting refugee actors was indeed a beautiful one - as he is able to work with a Persian-language director, actors, and other refugee communities.
"As a language lover, it was an eye opening experience to hear Persian language and have it on stage - it’s not a common language that I hear all the time.
"Hopefully, the audience would see the beauty of art in Persian and other languages and learn about the refugees in the country,” he said.
And Then Came Spring will be staged at the Damansara Performing Arts Centre (DPAC) from July 22 to July 24.
Malay Mail is media partner for the play.
Anyone interested in purchasing tickets to the show, can surf over here (insert link: http://www.dpac.com.my/page/ticket/bookTicket/view/1126.html?fbclid=IwAR22gygXKxs6prjppmp_obeSPJQmyNUynbsq7qmZrxWkVvLp8h9bxicwq8Y%20%C2%A0)