Podcast 87: Southeast Asian Producers

Earlier this year Producers SG launched the Producers SG Directory, an online directory of independent producers and arts managers working in Singapore and around Southeast Asia, which it hopes can become a starting point for future collaborations and projects in the region. 

In our latest podcast episode, Nabilah Said from ArtsEquator and Mok Cui Yin from Producers SG speak to Bangkok-based producer Siree Riewpaiboon, Malaysian producer Tan Cher Kian and Singaporean producer Fezhah Maznan on the landscape for producing in the region, and their various contexts and challenges.

Stream Podcast 87:

Also available on Spotify.

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Nabilah Said (NS): Hi everyone. My name is Nabilah Said. And you’re here as part of a discussion that we’re doing as part of ArtsEquator’s podcast series. And today we actually have a roomful of producers. I think, 4.0005 (I’m the 0.0005) producers. And just to contextualise, I’m here, moderating this discussion along with Mok Cui Yin from Producers SG, which is a network that promotes collaborations, conversations around producing in Singapore. Recently, they put out a directory of producers who are creating work, especially in our region in Southeast Asia. So we’re very glad today to also have producers from across the region. We have Fezhah Maznan, Siree Riewpaiboon, and CK Tan, or Tan Cher Kian. 

So I kind of have all your bios ready. In fact, I got it from the Producers SG directory, which is super useful. But I think it’s really interesting to get people to introduce yourselves. Maybe we can start with Siree?

Siree Riewpaiboon (SR): Hi, I’m Siree. I am a producer. Sometimes I call myself an arts manager, because I’m not sure in terms of the productivity of the things I do. I’m based in Bangkok and I am a producer under two platforms actually. One is BIPAM, the Bangkok International Performing Arts Meeting. And the other is Prayoon for Art, or maybe most commonly known for our festival, which is called Low Fat Art Festival. It’s a community-based festival, and this year, we’re going outside of Bangkok, to a province called Loei, and most of my work is not necessarily like producing theatre or performing arts. Sometimes I do seminars, workshops, and so on and so forth. Yeah, nice to be here with you all.

Tan Cher Kian (CK): My name is CK. Full name, Tan Cher Kian, you can call me CK. I’m from Malaysia, I’m based in Kuala Lumpur. I’m very new [to] this. I just started in 2018. I produced a few works in Malaysia in 2018, in my capacity as an independent producer – theatre works and also a musical, an English musical. From 2020 I joined Instant Cafe Theatre Company as their producer. So the work that I did was a combination of musical, theatre work.

NS: Fezhah, what about you? 

Fezhah Maznan (FM): Hi, my name is Fezhah. Based in Singapore. I’m currently producing for the Singapore International Festival of Arts. I kind of started right before the pandemic happened. And so I’ve had different versions of, different experiences producing for the festival. Before that I was with The Esplanade producing with them for theatre and dance, and also for Malay programmes. I started my producing journey as early as about 2002, where I produced back in school, for NUS, and then subsequently with Teater Ekamatra and for my own personal pet projects. Yep, that’s me.

NS: I’m already hearing interesting things about institutional producers versus independent producers. So Cui, sorry, I didn’t ask you to introduce yourself as the co-moderator earlier. But please, Cui. I consider you an independent producer extraordinaire. But how would you introduce yourself?

Mok Cui Yin (CY): Maybe the first two words and not the last. But thanks Nabilah, and thanks so much to ArtsEquator for supporting the Producers SG directory as well. I’m an independent producer, as Nabilah mentioned, and I work across different disciplines. I work with independent artists, as well as different institutions in arts organisations to realise their projects. And it could be anything from a performance to an installation exhibition, but also more recently, festivals as well.

And I’m also here today in my capacity more as one of the organising members of Producers SG, and Fezhah is actually one of my fellow organising member from Producers SG. And we’re basically a community network, and very much centred on pushing for sharing of resources and building positive community vibes amongst artists and producers in Singapore, and hopefully, you know, finding ways to connect with our colleagues from the region, especially in the independent sector as well.

NS: Cool, thank you so much.

I’ll start off with the first question. And it’s really like getting-to-know-you type of vibes. So I want to know, how is the producing landscape– how would you describe the landscape of producing in your country or rather, your city? And especially if there’s anything unique and/or weird or idiosyncratic about it. 

CK: As I mentioned, just now, it’s quite new for me. But drawing from my own experience, because I mean, I started in 2018. And being someone who is not in the industry, which is a totally different career before this. I feel maybe one of the interesting things about the producing scene in Malaysia, I would say, it’s pretty free, or welcoming in a sense. I mean, I’m still doing producing work, and I’m totally from a different background. So I think that itself is a testament of how welcoming the scene [is]. At least I think in KL, people are more welcoming to people who want to do stuff, to do work. Which is why I am privileged to have the opportunity to produce two or three Malay theatre [works] in 2018. And then subsequently, I got an offer to produce a new English local musical in 2019. And then I was given the opportunity to join Instant Cafe Theatre, an organisation with a long history. So I [feel] that, yeah, the scene in Malaysia is very welcoming and also accepting.

NS: Kind of like low barriers to entry in that sense.

CK: Yeah. I think that’s a good way to say [it]. Yeah, low barriers of entry.

NS: So is it right to say, CK, since you’re from the oil and gas industry, that– or rather, which one is more challenging?

CK: It’s funny because sometimes I find that it can be the same. When I was in my previous industry (I was doing sales in the oil and gas industry), we always have these meetings, you know, regional meetings, international meetings, everybody talking about the same thing. We’re also talking about the lack of support. Not enough platforms. We should have more regional interactions. It’s exactly the same. I listened to this in BIPAM, the first regional conference that I’ve been [to], I was like, oh, so there’s not much difference for me.  

NS: Wow, that’s super interesting.

Fezhah, what about you, maybe from the other side of the spectrum, where you started [in the] early 2000s, right? 

FM: Oh, yeah. So I was thinking about your question, right. It’s like, “yah, I think you must trace back to [Teater] Ekamatra”. But actually, you know, if I were to think about it, I have actually been producing since before that. Because I was kind of active with… just skipping school and finding different reasons to, you know, not be in class or to submit my essays. And so that was me as a student, and Dr. Robin Loon can attest to that.

But I was thinking about it and I was like, why didn’t I think about my role – that I was a producer back in 2002? Only because I feel that, you know, producing is really quite a recent phenomenon. Before that, with theatre companies, it was just a general manager or production manager. But no one actually used the word “producer”. Or even independent producing was not really a common thing until, you know– where do you go to school? How do you learn to be a producer? Where do you do that? All of that, you know. Even arts management was recent. Arts management degrees, diplomas. You need to be well-to-do to go to, you know, Australia to study, all of that. So no one actually, you know, [thought] about the word “producer”. 

So for me, when you think about what is new, there’s now I feel like a lot more people. When I think about projects, working within my capacity in an institution, when you think about projects and you go, “Okay, I need to find somebody else to help me produce”, I can actually name quite a number of people. And of course, with the [Producers SG] Directory now, it’s going to be easier. No need to be like, “eh who ah? who ah?”, so that has changed quite significantly. There are options now. You don’t really need to work with a company, you don’t really need to work with an institution. You can think about having an independent practice, a freelance practice. And I find that so liberating. Because people have options.  

But in a way also, within Singapore, we’re very lucky to have government support and government funding to really flow some of the projects, from ideation to presentation, even to travel or things like that. The funding support– and I guess our producers have been very fluent in the language of how to get funding and things like that. I find that quite unique, in my experience and understanding of what’s happening in Thailand, what’s happening in Malaysia, Indonesia, etc. Every time you say, “how do you create works” they say in Indonesia, “we just rally together, we do everything together, there’s no money, there’s no money”. And in Singapore, people also say “no money”, and you go like, “but you can apply! You can apply for grants”. I mean, not to take it for granted, you know, but yeah.

NS: Cui, do you have anything to add to that?

CY: I think that some of the points that Fezhah raised we can pick up a little bit later. But in terms of, if there are more resources available for us in Singapore, rather than sitting on our bums and whining about how difficult it is to get funding, actually, I feel like, there is a lot of opportunity in looking further afield and seeing how we can distribute resources with our neighbours and work collectively and collaboratively with other independent producers towards a more regional thing. Because, you know, actually, the last time or perhaps the first time all of us met in person was at BIPAM, which feels like a long time ago. But it was such a wonderful opportunity and gathering. And I feel we need more of those opportunities to gather and share and learn from each other as well.  Siree, what about you? What about producing in the Thai context?

SR: Well, first of all, thank you for mentioning BIPAM. Actually meeting everybody in the face is really something that we’ve been yearning for a long time. So for us in Bangkok – also, maybe a disclaimer as well: like CK, I’ve been producing only recently, I think it was pretty much the same time, 2018, 2019. Before I was working for the Japan Foundation in Bangkok for three years. So [I] was more [of] a collaborator, and an observer of the whole scene. 

I think, for us in Thailand, and, you know, mostly in Bangkok, because it’s quite centralised, it’s– I mean, I’m not going to talk for the bigger theatres, the commercial theatres, which we only have a few, I think three, four big theatres and they have their own systematic management. For the more independent scene, I think our landscape is pretty much like in Malaysia, and maybe a little bit like in Singapore, in that it’s quite free. We just do things very organically. People wear a lot of hats. Even within your collective, you can be an actor, a director, and also the person who produces – it depends from time to time. Hence, there’s this freedom to it.

And I think the phenomena that has happened recently, as Fezhah said, that we’ve never actually really looked at the term “producing” or actually have official training for it. So in the past, it was just something that’s very organic. But recently, I think people have more passion in it, I guess? They see the more creative side to it. And I think recently people have been trying to call themselves “managers” or “producers” more, and I think that’s quite fun. Yeah, and also, I think there’s a lot of resilience in the scene in Thailand as well, mainly because our venues change a lot – like one pops up, and then another one goes down. You have to really be creative in what you do, and what you try to produce. 

CY: That reminds me of one of the panels that I attended at BIPAM last time around, and there were young Thai producers in the room who were talking about wanting to eke out a space for themselves as producers and I remember that quite strongly. And I remember also there were conversations about networks of producers, which obviously in more established or funded arts contexts is a lot more common – whether it comes in the form of a union or an association, or a more established network. You know, in Japan, they all have something like it. And I know in Thailand, there was POTPAN (Producers of Thai Performing Arts Network)  that was set up recently. And in KL, or in Malaysia, there’s a ProPAU (Producers of Performing Arts Unite!). And I think obviously, these types of producing networks or resource networks or communities are different in each context. I was wondering whether you would be interested in talking a little bit about ProPAU and POTPAN – (laughs) they are just very cute acronyms.

NS: Producers SG needs a cute nickname also. “Prosg”!?

CY: We are living up to our reputation about being a little more boring. 

SR: Maybe I can share about POTPAN first. For POTPAN, it’s short for Producers of Thai Performing Arts Network. I think it’s because of the pandemic, you know, there are not a lot of activities going on. But I think also, it’s mainly because – and I think this links to how the scene is in Thailand and in Bangkok – you find one person who’s responsible for this platform, and they are also responsible for another platform. So POTPAN is also– one of the founders is our artistic director of BIPAM, who is Pupe, or Sasapin [Siriwanij] (either names that you know her for). And a lot of the things that she had made for POTPAN has been done via the collaborations in BIPAM, and with other platforms as well. So, I mean, that is also one platform, we can get connected.  

But there are also other collectives that have been active in terms of trying to build connections and build a network, or also trying to share resources or knowledge. We have the Thai Theatre Foundation, they have been very active in terms of advocacy for the performing arts scene. And they have also offered workshops and interviews or even podcasts on you know, grants or even administrative tips, your budget or something like that. All sorts of these kinds of things that I think the younger generation who are interested in actually seeing how they can push forward the scene would try to gather the information. We are also working closely with them as well, for BIPAM. Because recently, we have gone through a little bit of an organisational change. Meaning that we will have the main meeting – the five-day meeting – but throughout the year, we will have smaller events and activities also.  The network is there. And it’s not always a collective like POTPAN or specific people. But each platform is very connected in a way because we work so closely together. That’s the kind of connection we have. And also casual connections, like Facebook groups and… sometimes, you know, movement on the streets also. 

NS: CK, do you want to talk a little bit about KL?

CK: I think in KL, the scene – just now Cui mentioned about ProPAU. So ProPAU is actually Producers of Performing Arts Unite. I think that’s the group which is targeting producers. But the producers [who] are in the group, mainly they are all from different types of productions, like theatre, dance, performing arts and other stuff. Some are in TV as well. So it’s quite a loose network. We also have a Facebook group for that. But the rest, if you’re talking about the practitioners, of course, there are still a lot more other groups outside, which might be just a general group, whether they are the government organised one or organically, a grassroots type. 

But talking about ProPAU itself, especially for the last year, I think mainly it is more [for] info sharing, or also a ranting avenue for us, because of the way that our government is actually handling COVID and how they are treating the arts industry, or performing arts industry in general. The group is more [about checking in] with each other, because there are a lot of venue operators also in the group, a lot of them are actually not allowed to open. We actually face that seriously compared to the [others]– in the region, I believe. There are a few of them who are actually trying to lobby the government, so they will use that group to solicit some opinions, get some suggestions and feedback for those things. I don’t think we have a formal organisation for that, or like a structure. But I think there’s an intention to do it more formally. So yeah, let’s hope it will become something that we can draw strength [from] and grow further. 

CY: For the ecosystem in Singapore, it’s a little bit between the situation that Siree described, as well as maybe the situation that CK described for ProPAU, in the sense that I think one other aspect of the Singapore ecosystem is that the flipside of more funding over the years and a very dedicated arts policy is that the scene has been forced, or compelled to professionalise and specialise in a lot of ways that I think that has forced certain kinds of identities to be attached to the work we do. Even if, at the end of the day, we’re all still doing whatever it takes to make the work happen. 

And so I think, when it comes to producing networks in Singapore, for Producers SG at least we try to take care to not be about producers, but about producing. And it’s an acknowledgement that artists have to produce their own works too a lot of the time, or a lot of the work of producers sometimes has to be done by the collective or by other individuals in a group. And not necessarily that to be professional means you must have a professional producer on your project, because I think that’s not necessarily fair or true to impose.  

So when it comes to the network, I think that – I don’t know… Fezhah maybe you can remember when we first started out, there were a lot of like, “What are you doing? Why do you exist? Want to be producer for what?, you know, like “Let the artists live”. But I think that the conversation has evolved a lot more to see how we are fundamentally interdependent. And producing is a job or a hat that different people can wear, whether you call yourself a producer or not. Fezhah, what do you think, what about you?

FM: I was trying to recall how Producers SG started. I think it started with Pearlyn (Cai) and [Hoo Kuan Cien], and I think a bunch of others– I think there is a concerted effort on the part of National Arts Council to put producers together. If I’m not wrong, they were working with another international – I think it was the Australia or UK, I can’t remember – sort of like a producing internship or programme. And I think most of us meet each other more and have spent time with each other when we’re in an arts meeting overseas and not in Singapore. All these meetings, and I think we were encouraged to see, you know, hey, let’s come together and let’s pool our resources, let’s think about, you know… and not just for ourselves, but to see how we could help others who are just starting out, or maybe just even things out a bit. Because we do have very, very experienced producers, but then we also have people who are starting out and are starting to figure their way around. And to be the bridge between– from after they finish school and are like “okay I think I find myself doing producing work”.

And how can we assist? How can we be that support? Because sometimes it gets very lonely, you know, when you’re punching numbers and writing grant proposals, and you have no one to talk to, or to be the sounding board. So I think that’s what Producers SG try to do too, through our Facebook group, or even from some of our casual nightcaps, where we kind of whine, maybe, and share our sorrows together. I think that’s one way to think about what a network does. 

CY: I like how this conversation is turning into an inadvertent plug for BIPAM this year, which I honestly am looking forward to greatly. Siree, you don’t even have to wait to the end of the podcast, we are constantly plugging it. (laughs)

SR: Yeah, thank you so much for doing my job for me. (laughs)

CY: For the uninitiated, BIPAM is basically Bangkok international Performing Arts Market that started a few years ago. And we were all really excited when it was announced. I know that there are a lot of programmes in Singapore and in other places in the region that talk about regionality or regionalism, and gathering Southeast Asia. But I think BIPAM did an amazing job, because you had producers and artists, really from almost every country in Southeast Asia. And that is something really rare and really hard to come by. And I really want to see BIPAM continue and be there each year to kind of participate.  

Yeah, because the next question is also about regional collaboration. But one of the biggest barriers to regional collaborations is, we all know there [are] maybe inconsistencies in funding. Every year, it’s unreliable. Maybe infrastructure is not well distributed across the different cities and countries. But I think there are existing barriers to sharing of knowledge and information in terms of getting to know each other. And I feel like it’s the in-person opportunities that offer us the starting point for regional collaborations. But yah, what are your thoughts about what the opportunities are, or challenges are to regional collaboration between our countries or between your context and a neighbouring country in the region? 

SR: Well, first of all, I think I would have to credit TPAM (Performing Arts Meeting in Yokohama) as well. Because I’ve been to a lot of performing arts markets, or meetings actually. I’ve been to TPAM quite a couple of times, during also my days as an officer for the Japan Foundation. And I still remember how producers and artists from Southeast Asia would gather up in corners of Yokohama or like, you know, one of the tables. I think TPAM also is a wonderful platform.

But then again, sometimes, because of the landscape and the context of each country, especially for us in Southeast Asia, it’s very difficult to go there and “shop” for performances, right? You go to take inspirations, of course, but then it’s like, how can I buy this production? How can I make it happen? I mean, not just buying it, but we don’t have the technology, we don’t have the infrastructure, I mean, a lot of the Thai productions there would happen there, but not be able to happen in Bangkok. So in a sense, we took inspiration from that, and we wanted to create something like that, but you know, closer to home. So I think I would give a lot of credit to TPAM and also Hiromi (Maruoka) for really guiding us when BIPAM started out.

And then going back to the question about collaborations. And I think I’m answering this as an independent producer. I think we really have to think about how we cater the collaboration, and, you know, the timeframe, and also the productivity of it, like what do we want as an outcome. Because I think that will link to how we write for grants, develop our KPI, and stuff like that. So I think we have to think of it [on] multiple levels. So one level is like, of course, for the sake of writing for the grant. But then again, I think we really have to think about the long-term collaboration, because a lot of the stuff, it requires time, especially when you have a language barrier. And sometimes it’s a very brief amount of time to get to know someone or develop something creatively. I think it’s really how we think about it, in terms of, I would like to call it “developing partnerships”. More of a collaboration project. Yeah.

FM: Could I just share an observation? I shared with Nabilah that it’s actually Tokyo Performing Arts Meeting and not “Arts Market” anymore. So there’s a shift. And I agree with you, TPAM has been a huge source of inspiration. But I want to say that– I mean, let’s be frank, right? To create theatre, to create performance is very expensive. And to create, cross-border, cross-national works, even more. But I think we should also acknowledge the works like… folks like Grey (Yeoh), for example from the Australia Council (for the Arts), and in terms of trying to promote Australian artists and Southeast Asian artists, and to provide funding for that. I think countries where you have “more of”, I think have been trying– and folks who have been working on the ground have been trying to [create those connections]. 

Even from – I can’t remember which organisation in Japan – which have a series of producers who come together. And I think they went to Indonesia and several other places, they had these meetings for young producers and arts managers. I thought, that’s encouraging to see. To not just be stuck in our little bubble. But also, like what you’re saying, to have friendships, to have conversations, to make those connections. Yeah. 

CY: I think Fezhah was referring to Asian Producers Platform and the Next Generation: Producing Performing Arts programme – the first one was supported by multiple arts councils across East Asia, and Asia Pacific. And the second one is an initiative by, I think, the Japan Foundation or Asia Center. 

NS: I was actually curious – related to this same question, right. But the idea of which forms are easier to travel than others? I’ve been thinking about this. Especially when it comes to certain theatrical productions that are very locally rooted. CK, I’m thinking about musicals, like those ones that really relate to local identity and cultural nuances. And how do those travel?

CK: Yeah, this is a very interesting question. I mean, the geographical barrier is actually very important to Malaysia. I mean, first of all, Malaysia, there is Peninsular Malaysia and East Malaysia. And it has been so long that everything is focused in West Malaysia, in KL. I think if we are talking about collaboration, the first thing that comes to my mind is that, oh my God, we haven’t even collaborated within our own country, and now we want to go and talk about collaboration in the region. Of course, I’m not objecting to that. I’m a firm believer of, we have to learn from everybody. But I cannot stop thinking right, I should put more effort into doing the networking in our country first, because there are so many interesting things that… or we never get to talk to each other. 

Just now I think Cui or Fezhah mentioned that people in the same country [don’t get to] meet each other, we only meet each other in BIPAM or TPAM right? What went wrong? I mean, geographically, I get it, but Singapore, hello? I mean, like, I have to fly two and a half hours back to my hometown, you know, if I want to actually do something locally in my hometown. So I’m not sure whether this is the right time to say this, but I find that the recent internet thing is actually good. That we are able to do some performance, but also at the same time, you know, five of us talking here, also yearning to meet each other in person. So there’s also a certain amount of that personal connection to meet each other. I don’t know, for me, regional collaboration is good. And I think money is the– funding is the biggest issue.

SR: I would like to add something and maybe piggyback a bit from what CK said. I think this is the reason why I’m putting my foot into two platforms as a producer. So BIPAM is really significant to me as a place for solidarity in the region. And, you know, we can go on about the solidarity within the Southeast Asian region, because I think there’s a lot more depth to it – not just within the performing arts scene. There are so many contexts that we understand each other.

And then CK was mentioning doing regional work within the country. And I think that also holds a significant place for me. And that is why I do Low Fat Art Festival. Because in Thailand, the theatre, the art scene, the contemporary art scene is very centralised to Bangkok. So we see a lot of people from Chiang Mai in the Northern part, or you see a lot of– mostly, it’s like music and visual arts movements in the North East. But for the performing arts… we’re still trying to go forward. For me, the only way to have more negotiation and build a career path in what I do is to also advocate this and try to do this thing regionally. And trying to do cross-sector projects. For me, it’s also a very– like, experiment of how we can build a common value for it. Sometimes when we do things within Thailand, we have to still negotiate why you have to support us. Like, why do you have to– even if it’s crowdfunding, fundings from the government, or even private fundings, it’s always trying to validate ourselves. And I mean, it’s understandable, of course, like when you don’t have that understanding of how the arts can be a welfare. So for me as a producer, I think it’s my responsibility– I mean, my job to discover that. Yeah.

CY: Thanks so much for that, Siree. Go ahead, CK, what were you going to say? 

CK: Siree, you said something that… suddenly I was like, “oh yah”. I don’t know, it feels like as producers we [also] have to kind of advocate the importance of art in society now. Because if you don’t get buy-in, right… I don’t know, maybe because our government doesn’t really support that much – even though these few years we see a lot of funding in Malaysia – but still it’s an ongoing process. Yah. I never thought that it’s actually supposed to be one of my job scope. “Oh!” (laughs)

SR: I’m not dissing anybody! You know, I’m not trying to say like, if you don’t do this, you’re not a producer. No. But I think for me, I think producers are mediators. We understand the artistic side of what we do. But again, there’s a lot of things that you have to do to get the job done. And then sometimes, the language that you use doesn’t work for that. And I think this is what you have to learn when you’re writing for grants, is that you have to kind of twist the [words] a bit– 

CK: Yep. (laughs)

SR: You know, to really answer the requirements. That’s a thing that I’m still training myself to do. 

CY: Producer as translator. Producer as mediator. Producer as advocate, both for people within the arts as well as you know, the public or the different publics as well as to potential funders. Producers produce works, produce opportunities, produce networks. But producers are also together with all the other arts workers and people in the arts, we are constantly producing and reproducing the shared conditions in which art can actually happen and reach the world, right? It’s such a multifaceted hat to put on onto the word “produce”. I am wondering also whether it will be interesting to tilt the question a little bit beyond like, what is done, what we do and what exists, to what you – maybe not necessarily a wish list – but what is something you would be excited to see, whether it’s for your own context, or for something you’re working on, or for something between us all here, or Southeast Asia broadly? 

SR: I have one thing on my mind and I’ve been really quite passionate about it for the past few months, is that – this is the context for Thailand – is that legally, there’s no appropriate, you know, legal term to register for a non-profit organisation in the arts. It’s very difficult to register for a foundation. You have to have a lot of seeding money, which cannot be used in the future. So you’re going to waste that big pile of money. A lot of the legal terms for non-profits are mostly catered to social work, or religion work. For the past 10 years, people have been looking more into social enterprises. But then again, you know, the KPI for social enterprises are mainly focusing on how much you do for social impact, which I mean, of course, you can twist it, but then again, it’s not entirely for art and culture. And because it’s so difficult to register for a legal entity, you lose the negotiating power with larger authorities. You either have to register as a corporate, which, again, you know, taxes and stuff like that, it’s really hard to do things that are non-profit. You have to earn profit for that. There’s not an appropriate legal language for us to develop further. So I think that is my wish list.

CY: What about you, CK?

CK: Well, I try to avoid talking about money. I think, due to the nature of the work or the issues Instant Cafe Theatre is passionate about, I think it will be – I mean, we have been trying to do that all this while – but it will be more interesting to do a lot more work with the NGOs. I think that there are at the moment a lot of these collaborations with NGOs, but to really seriously use art as a way to actually achieve what the NGOs are trying to fight for, is actually not that (how to say), it’s not that well-planned. It’s always very ad hoc, that they use arts. I mean, this is not only [for] the NGO side but [for] us also. 

At the same time, because of [the] pandemic now we can’t do a lot of productions. So a lot of things that we do are not really for staging. So we go through our process of really [thinking] again about what we want to do as an organisation. And what we want to do in the arts, right. That opens up a lot of more time for us to actually approach a lot of these organisations and the group of communities that we want to engage with. So yeah, this is what I would like to see. But of course, it will reach a stage where we will come into the big question about money also. We cannot let that stop what we do. But I would like to see more.

FM: I see my role as a producer is – be it on my own or be it with an institution – has always been about, how do I create a safe space for artists? And for me, I think everything goes back to that. But in terms of I guess, [my] obsession, which I’ve been trying to articulate for a long while, has always been about Malay arts or performing arts that involves Malay artists, or the Malay language, or the Malay traditions, and the contemporary performance or expression of it. Because I think there’s a lot of exciting artists, who perhaps do not have the opportunity, or to kind of also challenge what Singaporeans, the world, think about the Malay – or do they even think about the Malay? – if we can inspire them about the culture, the language, and the people. So for me, it [keeps] going back to that, especially in my personal work.

I find that my ambitions are a bit smaller than what CK and Siree are trying to do. But I find that it is something that is manageable for me. And something that I actively, in sleep, and also in my waking hours, keep thinking about what are the different ways, how do I bring different groups of people together with common interests such as mine. And how we can mobilise that.

So I’m a bit idealistic in that sense, CK. I know that there’s the money question. But I don’t want to think about money because I find that as producers, in all conversations, we always talk about money. But I’m saying, what if there’s zero money, now what’s going to happen? How can I make things work? If I don’t have NAC tomorrow, what’s going to happen? How can I still continue producing and creating? I don’t think that stops, because when I first started doing theatre, I was only paid $300, $100, for a work that was three months or six months in the making. And that was enough. I mean, but that was, you know, early 2000s, but it was something for me… that [I] kept thinking, you know, there’s always a way. And that as artists and as producers, we will always find a solution and kind of come through, like what you’ve obviously demonstrated, Siree, with Thailand, and CK, with Malaysia.

CK: I always find it very interesting, right? I mean, I’m lucky to [have been involved] a bit in Singapore during my time there to [experience the scene]. In Malaysia, a lot of people are saying that, “Wow, Singapore, so good, NAC gives you a lot of money”. Which is true. Whereas at the same time, you guys in Singapore are like “yah, we have received a lot of money, but now [we’ve] become like this”. But it’s very interesting, right? Does this whole situation really need to be either one or another? I don’t know. I find it very interesting. (laughs)

FM: But it’s also very tiring, because you have to keep on hustling. You have to keep on keeping on. Because it doesn’t stop, there’s always going to be new challenges every time.

CK: So you know the chances are might be, you know, it’s going to be a cyclic thing – we are going to go through cycles and cycles.

FM: But it’s also about–

CY: Everything comes with its own madness. 

FM: –Yeah. But also to not take things for granted, you know. We have things good in a way, with whatever we have. I mean, I think it’s not about being so nostalgic about “ooh last time, we only had this much and we could make things work”, because, you know, hey, there’s inflation and such and whatever not. 

But I think it was also the spirit. It was also how different groups of artists come together. That’s why I guess we mourn very deeply the loss of The Substation because– I mean, whatever its status is – you know, there were all these groups of artists who were able to come and talk and create together, that’s the magic of it. Now, you don’t have S11. You don’t have The Substation. Now you don’t have– where do we hang out? Where do we talk about art? Where do we agree and disagree and cheer each other on and cry together?

Aside from Zoom. It’s not the same. It’s not the same! (laughs)  

CK: (laughs) Fighting over Zoom is definitely difficult.

NS: So we are actually at the end of our discussion. What are you currently working on or looking forward to?

FM: I am working on SIFA 2021. Singapore International Festival of Arts. So that’s happening in May. With everything that’s happening, I think I liken it to building a festival on shifting sands. Because I have no idea how it’s going to look like, things are changing all the time. But that has been the thing that I’ve been… my every waking hour, even in my dreams. I’m talking to artists while I’m sleeping, so I don’t know (laughs). So that’s what’s happening with me. 

SR: So BIPAM will happen this year 2021, from the 1st to the 5th of September, we’ve announced the dates. We will still go by a hybrid format. And then for Low Fat Art Festival, we will transform it to Loei Art Festival. And that will happen in June. So it’s the 11th to the 20th. And we will try to coincide with the local mask festival called Phi Ta Khon festival. Although it’s a very localised and community-based festival, we will still have international artists join in. So you can click “like” at the Facebook Page, L-A-F, LAF. And we will launch a fundraising campaign soon, so please stay in touch.

Oh, and also sorry, I almost forgot the most important thing about BIPAM, Under The Sea is also releasing a video-on-demand. So if you’ve missed it, you can check out our website, www.bipam.org. and yeah, check out Under The Sea, our webinar last year. Thank you. 

CY: Under The Sea was a webinar series featuring each Southeast Asian country over many weekends, right?

SR: Yes, and a lot of familiar faces here.

CK: For Instant Cafe Theatre, this year due to pandemic actually… the COVID situation– just a few days ago, the government allowed theatre to have an audience. So it’s still a long process. (others clap silently) Yeah, thank you for that, a lot of people worked to make that happen. And thank you to those who actually worked on that. 

But having [said that], we have one production that we have been postponing multiple times since last year. It’s a collaboration with a refugee theatre group. It has been postponed so many times [that] some of our actors [have actually gotten] a permanent settlement in other countries. Yeah, so it’s news that we should be happy about, because this is good news for them, but it also shows how things change and the uncertainties that we are dealing with. We are still packing a lot of hope, because the play is called And Then Came Spring. So we are very confident spring will come!

Another thing that we are actually working on for this year, we are restarting our First Works programme. So First Works is actually an Instant Cafe Theatre flagship programme [through which] we managed to produce a lot of writings, plays, from writers that, during the last 10 or 20 years, gave us a lot of good productions in Malaysia. We have been approaching a few writers to actually do this. So yeah.

CY: For me – I’m not going to plug projects – but I think that the past year (plus plus) has been really hard on a lot of us. And it’s gonna sound cheesy, but I’m really hoping that this year we’ll have time to reach out and look after each other. We’ve been trying so hard to look after, you know, our own in our own contexts and our own artists, and I do feel a very strong sense of exhaustion on social media across a lot of arts managers and producers. And I really am hoping that there will be an opportunity for us to decompress and look after each other for a bit.  

And on a more practical side of things for Producers SG’s Directory, I’m hopeful that more people will use it or find it useful. We also actually launched a Venues Directory, and we tried our best to put in venues from the key Southeast Asian cities as well. So it’s an ongoing project. It’s also an open call to anyone listening who wants to help out with the endeavour, because this is entirely volunteer-run. And in some ways, [we’re trying to] build [it] into an existing resource that not just Southeast Asian artists and producers can use, but other artists and producers from other countries can tap on to think about Southeast Asia as a regional touring space, or a collaboration space beyond just always coming and then just doing a show at Esplanade and then going off, you know, or doing a show in KL and then going off. And so hopefully, that’s something that, with the Producers Directory or the Venues Directory, there can be some more connections all across the board.

SR: And I think maybe to finish off, I would really like to thank you, Producers SG, and also ArtsEquator. This is only a very small part of the Southeast Asia producers. I think the context within Southeast Asia is so broad. I think there are still some countries within our region that are struggling with other problems that cannot, you know, be here now. (Cui Yin raises three fingers) Yes, yes! And casually connecting via social media. I think it means a lot to– you know, what’s happening in Myanmar, the Philippines… so I think, even though we do not produce anything, just seeing our faces together really means a lot. So thank you so much. 

NS: Thanks so much, Siree. That’s a great note to end on. With that, yeah, thank you so much. 

CY: Thank you Nabilah and ArtsEquator. Thanks everyone!

SR/CK/FM: Thanks!

FM: Bye!

The Producers SG Directory was supported by The Substation, and launched in January 2021 as a project of we are not going back, we are coming around, The Substation’s programme for Novel Ways of Being.

This article is sponsored by The Substation via Producers SG.


About the author(s)

Nabilah Said

Nabilah Said is an award-winning playwright, editor and cultural commentator. She is also an artist who works with text across various artforms and formats. Her plays have been staged in Singapore and London, including ANGKAT, which won Best Original Script at the 2020 Life Theatre Awards. Nabilah is the former editor of ArtsEquator.

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