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Thinking and Talking about Arts and Culture in Southeast Asia

Theatre goes online: Call me a purist, I don’t care

By Fasyali Fadzly
(2,100 words, 7-minute read)

No one would have guessed that the COVID-19 situation would become this bad. The Movement Control Order (MCO) in Malaysia was first ordered on March 18. To date, it has been extended twice, most recently to May 12. This pandemic has greatly impacted everyone, including me, someone who is working in the performing arts. 

At the end of 2019, I was contacted by Singaporean theatre company, Teater Ekamatra, to direct a show titled Punggah. After some discussion with my employer in Kuala Lumpur, I accepted the job. Rehearsals would take place over 5 weeks, and the performance was slated to take place in mid-April, as part of The Studios at the Esplanade. Because of my commitments in KL as a lecturer, I had planned to travel to and fro Singapore and KL every week. Everything was agreed by both parties. I planned my schedule carefully so that I could fulfil all my responsibilities fairly. 

On 12 March 2020, we had our first rehearsal. The COVID-19 situation in Singapore at that time seemed to be under control. Most of the people out in public weren’t wearing masks, but they did maintain some distance between one another. There was a general sense of caution. Each day, the production team would discuss what was happening both in Singapore and in KL. Catching up on social media, I saw how the situation in KL gradually worsened. On my last day in Singapore before I was due to return, the Singapore government issued a directive that people who arrived in Singapore on or after 15 March would have to undergo a 14-day quarantine. I was lucky that I had arrived before that date as it meant that I could make it for the rest of the rehearsals.

I returned to KL by bus on 16 March at 7pm. I was hoping that I could return to Singapore on 19 March – travelling by bus would mean that I would not need to be quarantined upon arrival. But on the way back, I read that the Malaysian government was imposing the MCO across the country that would start on 18 March. This would have meant that I could no longer attend rehearsals. Effectively, this meant I would not be able to direct the show. 

I was very perplexed thinking about what to do. If I could not do anything in Malaysia because of the MCO, it would be better for me to stay in Singapore and continue rehearsals. I resolved to enter Singapore on 17 March before midnight, but the earliest bus available that was leaving from KL was at 10pm. It would have been impossible to arrive in Singapore before midnight. I contacted my employer and was advised to stay in KL. I accepted the outcome with a heavy heart. The chance for me to direct a professional production was out of my grasp. 

As a director, I was hoping to use this opportunity to sharpen my skills on a more professional level, which is something I would not have been able to do in KL, at least in the near future. It would have also been a valuable experience to share with my students, as I teach a theatre directing course. It was just not meant to be. 

To be honest, I was quite sad and stewed in my feelings at first. But after a few weeks, I saw how my friends who worked in the scene were affected. Many of them depended on their jobs in performance and production. They were actors, crew, cameramen, production managers, make-up artists, lighting operators, directors, dancers, choreographer and many more. Their livelihoods were directly affected by the MCO. My sadness was nothing compared to what they were going through, as I had a day job to fall back on, and a salary that was enough for my small family. This made me reflect on myself. 

This COVID-19 pandemic hits the performing arts sector very hard. All performances, whether big or small, have been cancelled or postponed. All rehearsals, pre-production and preparations have been stopped, with no certainty of when they can continue. Television and film production have been similarly affected. In short, everything has come to a standstill. 

Many are disappointed and dejected. I empathise with those who are directly affected by what has happened. In Singapore, the situation is the same. Punggah, the show I was meant to direct, was postponed. My Indonesian friend who was supposed to do a residency programme in KL is no longer able to come. He is disappointed too. Friends who were supposed to present works overseas have cancelled their plans. I spoke to fellow practitioners around Southeast Asia who shared how they have dealt with the challenges in their countries. Everyone is trying to adapt to this new normal – a world where physical gatherings are no longer possible. 

In the first week of the MCO, there were many online activities. I too joined the bandwagon and organised Teater di Rumah, or Theatre at Home competition. My intention was to allow my artist friends to share their acting talents by recording themselves at home and uploading short videos online. While it did not receive a great public response, I valued the efforts of the actors and offered them a small token as a gesture of my appreciation. I was not disappointed by the lack of response – in fact, this was something I had expected. I had, very simply, just wanted to do it. What else had I to do during this time? I also gave talks on directing through Facebook Live over two days. I noticed many students from Universiti Malaysia Sarawak in the audience, no doubt on the urging of a friend of mine who lectures there.

Besides that, there have been many other online activities done by others. Play reading sessions, radio dramas, improv, dance and vocal performances, concerts and many more. My artist friends are finding different ways to showcase their talents and existing work. It seems like the internet is becoming a new playground for performing artists. 

I had friends who suggested that I upload my past works online. This prompted me to ask myself: What is theatre? I have never believed in watching theatre via a screen. I have never recorded my shows in full, because to me a recording destroys what is unique about theatre. In fact, I don’t have any tangible documentation of any of my past works. While there have been recordings of productions that have been based on my scripts, I have requested for them to be erased because I did not want my work to be viewed by others online. For me, a recording of a show can never duplicate the feeling of watching a show live. Call me a purist, I don’t care. 

If theatre should not be viewed through a recording, then it should follow that a performance transmitted live can be considered theatre too, yes? Take for example: a few people use Facebook Live or Zoom and perform in front of their cameras and there are people watching, then that is not pre-recorded, it is delivered live. Both the audience and the performer exist and are connecting through the same time, yes?  

For me, the answer is: Not exactly. I believe that time is not the only unit we need in theatre, space is equally important. Theatre is about sharing the same space and time. Action, the audience, space and time have to all exist in the same dimension for theatre to happen. A live broadcast via the internet is still not sufficient for theatre to happen. Maybe there are some who believe that the internet is a dimension that theatre practitioners have yet to fully explore. The digital and virtual space can be alternatives for the physical dimension. This could be the future of theatre – being together without physically being together. 

I was rather surprised when the National Theatre in London introduced, seemingly out of nowhere, a new initiative, National Theatre at Home. This is an attempt to bring theatre to the screens – whether on television, computer, tablets and/or smartphones. I totally reject such an idea. It would have been acceptable if it was just short clips, but these are the full shows available online. This renowned theatre institution is exploring the digital space. It was not as if there had never been a theatre show presented through the screen before, but these were never that popular. Most audience members, at least in my view, would prefer to watch a theatre show in a physical venue.  

I had once watched a recording of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, directed by Julie Taymor, in a theatre in Prague. It was not so much a theatrical experience as it was a cinematic one. The experience was like watching a film. With other recordings, I had seldom managed to watch them from start to finish. Of course, this did not include film or TV adaptations of plays, which I could watch because they had been made for the screen. 

As a purist, I can’t seem to accept what is happening at the moment. During this MCO period, I have friends who have shared links to different shows online with me. You can also find many such links on social media. I have not managed to watch any in full. I think the reason is because there isn’t any engagement – no connection between me and the performance itself. What I am watching is documentation. Maybe this is the magic of the performing arts. It is not just the sharing of physical space and time, but also a mutual understanding that, in sitting in the same room, we are connected and interconnected. There is an immediate sharing of response happening between the performer and the audience member.

This is true. Often I hear actors lamenting after a performance is over about the response they received from the audience. Some are satisfied, some are not – everything hinges on the connection between the performer and the audience each night. Even though the action and dialogue are the same for each performance, the feelings that arise can vary greatly. How the audience reacts directly adds to the quality of the performance. This could not be possible if both the audience and the performer were not sharing the same physical space. 

In this the virtual and digital space will surely lose out. Perhaps the situation will be different in the future. When, I don’t know. People used to be skeptical about buying things online – it was not the same as going to a physical shop, touching the products with your hands, trying or testing them out yourself, smelling them, for example. Now, most people are comfortable with online shopping. It is only specific products that people still prefer to buy in person.

Theatre is about being together. This is something I believe. It is not just about acting, action, dialogue and the audience. In our current times, the pandemic doesn’t allow us to be together. Artists are no longer able to make shows, and shows can no longer be watched by audiences in a performance space. Physical togetherness becomes impossible when everyone is homebound. Theatre loses its magic. But to accept this is one thing. The other question is whether the situation is likely to recover after the pandemic dies down.

As a lecturer of theatre studies, my work is not so easily transferred online. Unlike other subjects, practical performance courses cannot be easily taught through the internet. Directing classes, for example, where students have to collaborate, or acting and vocal lessons. I tried looking for similar classes on YouTube and other platforms. These lessons usually required one-to-one or face-to-face interaction between student and teacher for them to be most beneficial and useful. But I hold out hope that we can find the right pedagogical approach. Perhaps my current difficulties signal a need for me to better understand the course requirements and find a better approach for my students.

I took a long time to write this. I have read many articles which have made me reflect deeply about my work and my thoughts about theatre. The truth is, the stress of staying at home has turned me into a pessimist. The meaning of theatre is in flux, often leaving me more and more confused. Even before this pandemic, I have entertained the thought that theatre needs to revolutionise how it engages with its audience. I am now revisiting this idea. But for now, you can call me a purist. I don’t care.


Fasyali Fadzly is a theatre director, playwright, critic, researcher and lecturer based in Kuala Lumpur.

This essay was first published in Malay on Facebook on 14 April 2020. It can be found here. This text has been translated by Nabilah Said.

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