Faridah and Joe
If Malaysia could be summed up in one word, that word would likely be diversity. Comprising a multitude of races, Malaysia is rich in culture, heritage, and tradition. When translated to the arts and culture platform, it makes for a vibrant and colourful setting. The performing arts scene in Malaysia has been on a steady rise for the past 22 years – a feat credited to ‘the doyenne of performing arts’, Dato’ Faridah Merican, with her husband Joe Hasham. This dynamic duo is also the brainchild behind Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre (KLPAC), which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year.
The Actors Studio
Faridah, 76, falls under the category of high-achieving individuals who remain grounded about their accomplishments. She starts off by saying that what she and Joe have done is only a fraction of what can be done to elevate the status of performing arts or theatre in Malaysia. “The journey to nurture the arts in Malaysia has been a difficult but rewarding one and ours began in 1989 with the establishment of The Actors Studio (TAS) at Plaza Putra in Dataran Merdeka,” she explained.
According to Faridah, the idea for TAS was born out of frustration because they were performing at different places in Kuala Lumpur. It was nearly impossible for them to set up plays properly in community halls and government-owned venues due to unpredictable availability. “At that point – much to our chagrin – we were only producing two or three productions a year whereas with a place to call our own, we could be producing and presenting more shows,” she said.
The pair decided to look for a space to call their own. “The first space we chanced upon was the space underneath Dataran Merdeka (Independence Square). We opened a 153-seat theatre there in 1995 and then proceeded to add a 90-seat black box and an academy facility with four studios. There was also a resource centre where people came to read books about theatre,” she recalled.
In 2003, their dreams and aspirations for KL’s theatre industry took a serious hit in a flood that hit the city centre, destroying their facilities. Providentially, perhaps, they were approached by BRDB – the developer of Bangsar Shopping Centre – to set up a theatre within the mall, and they accepted.
Faridah said, “The theatre in BSC was our best theatre to date simply because of its strategic location. Sited in a mall meant we were getting more visitors dropping by to catch a show or two, and that helped garner the awareness from the public. But having a theatre alone didn’t suffice, as we needed a studio and BSC didn’t have the kind of space we needed.”
They continued to look out for an ideal space. “We were covered in newspapers a lot. Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi and the late Datin Seri Endon, who had been friends of ours, were quite instrumental in helping us develop performing arts to where it is today. Other friends in the industry, such as architect Ng Sek San, also heard the news and he played an important role in the set-up,” she recalled. “He said he was going to show me a place in Sentul. Unfamiliar with the location, like many other people, I asked, ‘Where?’ uncertainly,” she reminisced with a smile.
The husband and wife team soon fell in love with the place. Once owned by Malayan Railways Limited (KTM), the land was bought up by YTL Corporation. We wrote to the YTL Management, designed the arts centre, made the presentation, and the project was consequently greenlighted. Today, KLPAC has become Malaysia’s first integrated arts centre, home for the arts,” Faridah said with pride.
Although they prepared the design concept, the actual planning was done in collaboration with YTL’s architect, a move that worked well and enabled them to complete the project within 18 months. “Finally we opened the doors to the audience on 9 May 2005,” said Faridah, who is frequently called the First Lady of Malaysian Theatre.
But it’s not been all smooth sailing for the team at KLPAC. They suffered serious financial problems in 2012 when some of their sponsors pulled out. “The best way to find a solution was to be honest about our problems, so we spread the word that we were in trouble and the public came out to help us,” said Faridah. “Our plea also got the attention of Yayasan Sime Darby, which agreed to help us with a contribution of RM1 million for the next three years.” She acknowledged that KLPAC’s money issues will probably never be over, but thanks to various supporters, the burden is lessened somewhat.
“For KLPAC’s 10th anniversary, it has a line-up of ‘10s.’ We hope this brings awareness of the decade of KLPAC. We won’t only be inviting established people; we’re also inviting certain people who are not as established to get involved. Our main goal is nurturing the talents,” Faridah said, concluding the fascinating interview by thanking the public for supporting Malaysian theatre and inviting them to keep on attending!
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Source: Senses of Malaysia September-October 2015
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