Pan Productions would have turned 10 in 2020 and its founders Peter Ong, Alizakri Alias and Nell Ng had a show in mind that would commemorate its many successful productions over the years — a singular celebration of some of the best musical theatre the country has seen. They were also keen to highlight the fact that all of Pan’s shows have made money, proving the financial viability of an industry not often seen as money-making.
But then the pandemic struck. The performing arts industry was the hardest hit and the last sector allowed to reopen. Even when cinemas welcomed back patrons, live performances in theatre spaces were not permitted — they could only restart earlier this year. At end-2021, when things were especially bleak and the finish line of the pandemic was not yet in sight, Alizakri, Ong and Ng considered winding up the production company altogether, which also meant giving up the idea of the show they had planned just a year before. After all, what was there to celebrate in such circumstances?
“Our sponsors turned out to be our lifeline,” Alizakri recalls. “They reminded us of why we do this and the role they play in our ability to produce the work that we do. They reached out to us at a truly low period in our professional lives, as did the cast and crew of the show, which also made us realise our impact on the industry was something to be reckoned with. We are one of the few theatre companies that paid cast and crew a fair salary, and took pride in providing our sponsors with a solid return on their investments. In all honesty, 12 years on, there was a lot to celebrate; we just needed that reminder.”
Once live performances were allowed again, the trio went back to the drawing board and revisited their idea for the anniversary show. They decided that the focus should be on the heroes of the pandemic — not just our medical frontliners, but also the everyday Malaysians who stepped up and took care of their neighbours in times of need. This is how That's Entertainment — Kita Jaga Kita! was born. It was also a reminder that Malaysians need look no further than each other when they need help.
“We are now industry veterans and we realised we have an obligation to keep creating,” Ong says. “There is a reason we exist and we expect this show to be a really good one; also because it signifies our coming back in a way, and that we are here to stay.”
Starring acclaimed performers such as Nikki Palikat, Elvira Arul and Junji Delfino, along with Alizakri and Ong, the show will feature soulful deliveries of pieces from some of the world’s best-loved musicals and well-loved pop songs. In between, each performer will share his or her own experience battling the pandemic. Alizakri says this part will include a bit about why he abruptly left his role as CEO of the Employes Provident Fund.
He admits that it was a less-than-pleasant experience for him but, today, he can look back on events of the last two years a little more cheerfully. Seated in the sunlit living area of his home, Alizakri says these are much better times for the founders. As the opening of That's Entertainment — Kita Jaga Kita! nears, they are buoyed by a sense of euphoria from being able to take to the stage again. “It is quite magical,” Ong agrees. “And Nell has put together quite a repertoire for this production.”
Sponsors are important for the performing arts to flourish. The industry in Malaysia has for years urged corporations to allocate funds for live performances while pushing for government support in providing the necessary infrastructure. The latter has been slow in recent times, and corporate Malaysia deserves credit for the way it has stepped up where the government could not. After all, in the wake of the pandemic, it is understandable that the performing arts may not be an immediate priority.
In the meantime, it has been critical for the arts to remain nimble, innovative and smart with the funds that they have been allocated. By and large, most are — Pan included. “People continue to want to work with us because we are run like a business, and I think this comes from my corporate background,” Alizakri says. “A lot of creative industries miss out on this sometimes, and it's actually very necessary. Someone needs to be looking out for the budgets, human resources, marketing and media, and so on. For every show we run, we start off with a budget that Peter and Nell must stay within.
“Content is critical, but the business aspect is also important and many creative companies need support with this sometimes. We feel that we have added value to the industry because of the way we do things — we pay our cast and crew properly, the Pan brand carries weight on CVs, and we have presented the possibility of a financially viable theatre company.”
Streamlined budgets and an organised way of doing things draw sponsors, who naturally want the most bang for their buck. Theatre companies that expect exorbitant amounts of funding must be able to deliver on their promises but, in some cases, they do not. When some companies start their shows, funds obtained from sponsors have already fully covered all their costs — this means they have made their money before the curtains go up. This could cause the theatre company in question to be complacent about filling seats or the quality of the performance, which reflects badly on all parties.
“In our case, we only ask for enough funding to be able to start the show. Without sponsors, the price of the tickets would easily be four times as much as it is at present. Our sponsors play a pivotal role in keeping shows accessible and they must be given due credit. How can we support them, add value to them and ensure a return on their investment? They are the unsung heroes of the arts industry, in some ways, because their funding and support is what puts shows on the stage and makes tickets affordable.”
The third part of the performing arts ecosystem, which Alizakri hopes will soon be more active, is the government. The dream is that it will play an active role similar to that in Singapore and the UK — that is, provide the infrastructure as well as clear and simple channels for funding so the industry continues to thrive. While acknowledging the support they have already received, local performing arts troupes have for years continued to ask the government for this. But there is strength in numbers and as established companies like Pan continue to push for change, there is a greater possibility that it will happen sooner rather than later.
For now, though, Pan’s focus is on That's Entertainment — Kita Jaga Kita!, a feel-good singalong show that reminds us of all that is delightful and pure about a live performance and good music. “As director, Nell pieces together the music based on the mood we wanted to create — one of hope, inspiration and eagerness for the future,” Ong explains. “We’ve worked with a new and fresh cast and crew, which is wonderfully exciting, and Nell has been able to put together a show with a sense of rhythm for the entire production.”
Alizakri hopes that one day, the arts industry can be exportable — as South Korea has done so successfully — and a flourishing business. As Malaysia moves towards becoming an economy that is less dependent on commodities, the performing arts plays an important role. Until then, it is up to corporations, the arts industry and audience to fill in the gaps.
Supported by JTI, Alliance Bank and the MyKasih Foundation, 'That's Entertainment — Kita Jaga Kita!' will run from June 16 to 19 (8.30pm, 3pm) at PJ Performing Arts Centre, 1 Utama Shopping Centre, Petaling Jaya, Selangor. Tickets are priced from RM85 to RM125. Buy here.
This article first appeared on June 13, 2022 in The Edge Malaysia.