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Thinking and Talking about Arts and Culture in Southeast Asia

Hitting up the Producers SG Directory: Taufik Darwis, Racy Lim and Khor Seng Chew

What is producing within the context of the arts? It is a question whose answer might vary depending on who you ask. Producers SG is a community of independent producers, arts managers and self-producing artists interested in nurturing support systems amongst producers and conversations around the practice of producing. 

Producers SG recently 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. Producers working in and with artists in Southeast Asia can continue to submit their names to this growing database.  

ArtsEquator speaks to three producers from the region: Khor Seng Chew, producer and founder of 27-year-old Malaysian theatre company Dama Asia; Bandung-based producer Taufik Darwis; and Singaporean writer and creative producer Racy Lim about their experiences and journeys in producing.

[The interviews have been lightly edited and condensed.]

 


Khor Seng Chew, Producer / Music Director from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

1) How did you get into producing?

I started producing Dama Asia shows in the 1990s out of necessity rather than by choice. I had earlier worked as a musician – playing the pipa and guitar, as well as performing solo works and concertos with symphony orchestras – and a music teacher. That started in the 1970s and continued until the mid-1980s when I went to study classical guitar at the London School of Music. 

After a stint on stage as a soloist in a West End production of M Butterfly, I returned to Malaysia to further my career, only to discover a very challenging environment for musicians. So I founded Dama Asia in 1993. Our debut concert An Evening Of Chinese Chamber Music in 1994 – which took place on the same day as the FIFA World Cup final between Brazil and Italy – was sold out. We have not looked back since and went on to produce over 40 productions to date, including musical concerts, musical productions, as well as some operas and plays. 

2) What do people think you do as a producer? 

It is a question of how much stress one is prepared to bear. The bigger and more complicated it is, the greater will be our stress level. I believe that is not easily comprehended by the public at large. Neither is the appreciation of the risk we producers have to undertake. Having produced works for the last 27 years, our constant worries over financial loss is tremendous. I often have a recurring nightmare of standing on stage to an empty house. Though we have tried hard to grapple with the formula for production success, it has remained rather elusive. We know we have to secure a good production and creative team, a great cast, a good musical book or script, and last but not least, an effective marketing and promotion campaign. Even then, such endeavours would not guarantee success. So we do pray for luck.  

3) Tell us about one of your favourite moments as a producer.

That happened in 2012 with Dama Asia’s staging of our first original musical Empress Wu – The Musical. The production, which ran for a whole month at the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre, was sold out about a month before the opening night. That was also our biggest production, with more than 40 cast and musicians, coupled with 70 technical and supporting personnel. In retrospect, that was mad.

4) For the uninitiated, how would you describe the producing “landscape” in Malaysia? 

We face a very challenging producing environment in Malaysia as a whole because we have to operate and produce with very little government financial support for the arts, and very minimal corporate sponsorship. We do secure some corporate or organisation support and collaboration in the form of event hosting partners, where they would take up the show to host a fundraising drive or a corporate social responsibility exercise or event. The recent establishment of the Cultural Economy Development Agency (CENDANA) is a welcome initiative. Hopefully it will give the Malaysian theatre industry a new lease of life.

Some challenges are in securing production and creative personnel. The pool of talented creatives is not large. Hence, it is very important for us to map out the production schedule as early as possible to secure all the essential people early. And that comes with the potential risk of having to cancel the show if the show is planned way too far ahead, and with it, the possible compensation to be given out. 

The other major challenges include the retention of existing followers and building of new audiences. Knowing what the audience wants and what can capture their imaginations are easier said than done. And finally, that inevitable eventuality of having to plan for the long-term operational sustainability of the theatre company and its continuity with the changing of guard.

5) What’s a good song title that describes what it’s like to be a producer?

There’s No Business Like Show Business (from the musical Annie Get Your Gun).

 

 

Taufik Darwis, Producer from Bandung, Indonesia

1) How did you get into producing?

The term ‘producer’ is rarely used in the history of the performing arts in Indonesia. We mostly use ‘production manager’. The work of the production manager is more about how to keep the production going well, and usually we only work when a director asks us to. But producers take more initiative, encourage the potential of artists, intervene and provide offers, etc.

I realised that difference around 2012, after I consciously chose not to do as much theatre directing, and instead did more critical writing, research and dramaturgy. I started seeing and recognising the potential of artists and communities, as well as an overview of the dynamics of the performing arts ecosystem. The potential I felt most strongly was in the strong ethic that makes every artist continue to work and be critical of power even without sufficient funds.

This awareness of producership strengthened after I established an interdisciplinary performing arts collective (Bandung Performing Arts Forum) with my friends in 2016, where we are required to take on multiple roles, for the purpose of collective growth.

Being involved in a series of meetings on network expansion has also greatly influenced a general awareness of production work. This term ‘producer’ started becoming part of the discourse both on a national and international scale. In 2017 and 2018, I met new communities who share my concerns about the development of the ecosystem of contemporary performing arts, such as friends at the Indonesian Dance Festival, Teater Garasi and Majelis Dramaturgi (Dramaturgy Assembly). They introduced me to a wider Asian network too, such as TheatreWorks in Singapore, TPAM Yokohama and the Asian Dramaturgs Network.

2) For the uninitiated, how would you describe the producing “landscape” in Indonesia?

The performing arts landscape in here, particularly theatre, is shaped by an ethos of amateurism. According to Edward Said, this is an ethic driven by care and feeling, not by profit, self-interest and narrow specialisation. Usually in terms of funding, we do not rely on the amount of funds. So, the strategy is to fix social capital first, then fix economic capital, so that when economic capital is obtained, social capital can support the economic capital as the foundation.

It remains very valuable to me, but it often becomes a romantic trap. For example, Bandung in the last 10 years has promoted itself as a city of creative industry that puts economic measures first. In short, it gives priority to the product over the process. How would negotiation as well as producer politics work in such a situation? Can we still move to create creative spaces, critical spaces and meeting spaces?

3) What are the biggest challenges you face as a producer in Indonesia?

One major challenge is the paradigm of current artistic practice. I think it will be very hard if every artist becomes an essentialist, who doesn’t care about other agencies that are involved in moving the arts. One of the strong agencies is the state, which the artists are always critical of because they see structural problems. For me, it is important to remain critical and develop the bargaining position of the artists around how the state works and facilitates, and how the system is built. Many of the existing platforms are still the initiative of artistic citizens. But if we investigate and go further, there are many needs. And there are state obligations. The state needs to be seen as one of the networks that we can intervene in.

4) What is your dream project? 

I want to create a transdisciplinary arts festival in Bandung. This is an old dream of mine till now. I have already done what needs to make it happen, such as expanding Bandung Performing Arts Forum to become a legal institution as a foundation; unblocking historical blocks for the arts community in Bandung; being involved in artist associations that highlight state policies on arts in Indonesia, such as the Art Coalition and the Indonesian Theater National Association; and not forgetting to invite old and new friends to drink coffee in front of a laptop or smartphone screen to talk about this dream; mapping the sources of capital and networks; and staying healthy.

5) What’s a good song title that describes what it’s like to be a producer?

What’s Going On by Marvin Gaye.

 

 

Racy Lim, Creative producer and writer, Singapore

1) How did you get into producing?

One of the first things I felt comfortable identifying myself with was writing. I was never really a poet or storyteller but I was always interested in media, politics, humanities and psychology. Going into visual arts and taking on curatorial, project management and creative producing work, I found myself turning to textual and video-based material or commentary in the process of furthering my perspectives on certain subjects. Such forms of research and analysis helped me narrow down the angles from which to study a particular interest, and create frameworks of collaboration/partnership with various practitioners.

Currently I’m working with artists in performance, digital/tech and image-making – looking at ways of strengthening our understanding of one another as people and creative practitioners. Some of my producing works have also been commissioned under Such A Mood (a creative studio that I co-manage with art director and artist, Izwan Abullah) in the last two years.

2) What do people think you do as a producer?

I think I get associated with ‘project manager’ quite a lot. In the past few years I have been quietly figuring out my positioning in relation to identity and gender studies. I’ve been fortunate to be introduced to queer theory, which have shaped perspectives on navigating construction of selves in the context of the people whom I work with and those who enter the spaces we’re working from. 

At the moment, I’m most comfortable directly describing my work as combining gender studies and digital sociology. I’m taking my time to arrive at what it means to be intersectional and interdisciplinary, and learning ways of allowing these models to shift and mould based on the time, space and context of which I’m working from and people I’m communing with

3) For the uninitiated, how would you describe the producing “landscape” in Singapore? What do you think is unique or different about it?

We need to be more honest about how we land our jobs and what affords us the ability to dedicate time to creative work. This could mean that the work we do, or how much we can do, is a form of luxury in the context of a city that places key value on the capital that our labour can bring to the table. If you’re not earning enough, it might be difficult to even attain a decent quality of life here. Having a smaller pool of active practitioners (as compared to bigger cities) means that it could be efficient to organise dialogues about navigating the gig economy for those practising independently. However, how equipped are we to consider the backgrounds of practitioners in Singapore and how interested are we to work together to keep everyone financially and emotionally secure with our varying degrees of needs?

I think the pandemic has opened up necessity for artists, curators, art managers and creative producers to consider art-making and art spaces as not just areas to express and discuss mediums or collaborations from within, but their relevance to the world that’s constantly shifting.

4) What is your dream project? 

This is not a project but rather a hope:

For a discourse to not be seen destructive, purposefully alienating or vulgar. In that vein, for art mediums and forms of creative expression to be viewed in terms of how they can break away from elitist mindsets and structures in the process of communicating notions, knowledge and experiences. Not imposing assumptions based on a perceived level of understanding that the public seem to have/not have, but rather question how art infrastructures keep them from accessing these presentations, discourse, dialogue, works to begin with.  

5) What’s a good song title that describes what it’s like to be a producer?

Yellow by Fana Hues. The mood of the song just places me in a good work headspace.

 


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.

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