What's it like going back to live theatre shows during Covid era?

Local theatre houses are allowed to reopen after a five-month lockdown.

Putting in place a strict list of SOP, klpac ensures that theatregoers are sat at least one metre apart. On the far right, director Datuk Faridah Merican joins in during the performance of Bollywood Dreams (Photo: klpac)

There are many things I’ve learnt to do without during the pandemic — holidays whenever one feels the urge, for example, or nursing a glass of wine at a jazz bar – but going without watching a play for quite so long has been especially difficult. I do enjoy the theatre and even if I did watch a fair number of plays for work purposes, it was always an assignment I really enjoyed.

Although many theatre companies have pivoted to video screenings of pre-recorded works — Instant Café Theatre screened Nadirah as a CMCO special last year, for example — there is nothing quite like watching it live.

In early March, successful lobbying from various cultural groups saw an easing of restrictions for live events, including official government programmes, music, dance and theatre — a move that allowed the performing arts industry to revive itself after many months of inactivity.

Arts companies have suffered huge financial losses, not to mention a huge hit to their morale. Senior Minister (Security Cluster) Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob’s announcement was greeted with much excitement, and klpac was one of the first to announce a new production — Bollywood Dreams, which I hope kick-starts an exciting post-pandemic theatre season.


klpac hopes to kick-start a recovery period with 'Bollywood Dreams' (Photo: PixArt Creation/klpac)

In order to make the experience safe and enjoyable, the klpac team have put in place a strict list of SOPs to be adhered to — something I found deeply comforting. There would be no paper tickets, instead, guests needed to show up with a QR code emailed to them when they were purchased.

The vibrantly coloured seats in Pentas 1 fit much fewer theatregoers as everyone had to sit one metre apart, which worked out to two empty chairs between each one that was occupied. My partner particularly enjoyed this, as I am a bit of a talker during movies and plays. This time, he managed to watch the whole things without his wife running interference.

I can’t say I completely enjoyed Bollywood Dreams. With more musical numbers than a Tamil movie, it felt a bit overdramatic, although I loved the way the play’s producers dipped into the Tamil and Hindi cinema industry’s huge oeuvre of music so the song would match the sentiment. But then again, this is always a consideration with theatre, that you attend it with the understanding that you may not like it, but that almost never takes away from the actual experience of being there.

And oh, I’ve missed it. The eager anticipation before it begins, the casual mingling and pre-show glasses of wine. There is much to be said about the minutes spent waiting for a production to start, and I cannot imagine I’d one day actually miss waiting in line to get to my seat.


Watching a live theatre show in the new norm

While there was no glass of wine, no meet-and-greet with the cast and no chit-chatting with fellow audience members at Bollywood Dreams, I was still grateful to be there. As the cast made their final bow, I spied director Datuk Faridah Merican eyeing the crowd cautiously, sitting in a quite corner so as not to be noticed.

I cannot imagine the relief and pride she, and the many other people who keep the arts scene alive, must have felt when the announcement came that theatres can open again.

I have seen Nadirah before and I tuned in to last year’s screened recording as an act of solidarity with an industry for which I have so much love, but even with my inherent bias, I cannot say I prefer this over being physically present for a show. I am grateful it could be done, of course, but it's not ideal.

If the arts is indeed the soul of a society, it beggars belief that we have survived without it for quite this long. 



Short+Sweet 2020 (Live)
Short+Sweet Malaysia 2020 started during the RMCO with Short+Sweet Film online via CloudTheatre, followed by live performances of three more categories, Stand-up Comedy + Song; Musical and Film. This April, the festival will culminate with Theatre, with four groups performing for one-night only. 

Pentas 2, klpac. Apr 4, 8pm. RM34. Buy tickets here.

Hey Girl (Live)
Directed by Sabera Shaik and written by journalist Jennifer Rodrigo for a solo performer, Hey Girl explores how one script is interpreted and given different treatments by two talented actors.

Studio Ramli Hassan, Apr 1-3, 8pm. Entrance by donation of RM20. Buy tickets here

Oppy & Professor Communitas (Online streaming)
A new play led by playwright Leow Puay Tin, the online performance is set at a weekend workshop for arts practitioners where the young Oppy — a happy-go-lucky freelance actor — meets an aging professor who embraces art-making with a disciplined approach. What will happen during their encounter?

Five Arts Centre, Apr 2, 8.30pm; Apr 3, 3pm & 8.30pm. Pay as you like, RM15, 25 and 50. Buy tickets here.



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