As a professional marketer and public relations practitioner, Cecilia Leong-Faulkner spent years building brands for others. The Negeri Sembilan-born and Kuala Lumpur-raised entrepreneur, who now lives in Singapore, has worked for American Express in Malaysia, Wembley Stadium plc in the UK and Banyan Tree Hotels & Resorts in Singapore.
It was while running her own marketing consultancy firm in Singapore — where clients included the Singapore Tourism Board, Six Senses Resorts & Spas and Association of Business Executives of the UK — that the thought of starting her own business materialised.
What was unexpected was that her business would be in theatre and concert production. “I suppose it would be intriguing to many people, considering my corporate background,” says Leong-Faulkner. But it was also a case of a creative idea meeting the right circumstances.
Leong-Faulkner was at the time married to her British thespian husband, John Faulkner, a seasoned actor and director with extensive experience in London’s West End. Having experience doing corporate partnerships with various original and visiting productions, she was keen to get on to the other side of things.
“Perhaps because I married a thespian, I’ve always watched shows and have been fascinated by the performing arts … it has since become a passion that resonates deeply with me and my philosophy of life,” says the founder and managing director of British Theatre Playhouse.
Launched in 2004 with Alan Ayckbourn’s How The Other Half Loves in Singapore’s Shangri-La Hotel as its first production, the company has steadily produced a variety of British works that range from award-winning comedies — No Sex, Please ‒ We’re British and Yes, Prime Minister — to musicals and concerts. In 2016, they staged Noël Coward’s The Vortex, starring actress Jane Seymour, while in 2013, its tour of Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap was a sell-out in Singapore and Malaysia.
Each production is created from scratch, which means first researching what shows to produce, going through the process of acquiring the rights, getting a casting agent and a director, and going through the rounds of auditions for actors in the UK. Often, they are former cast members of the show the Playhouse is producing. The productions then debut in Singapore, before typically travelling to countries such as Malaysia, Thailand, Sri Lanka and Indonesia over two to three weeks.
Some may wonder why exclusively British works?
Leong-Faulkner says, “It started because of the contacts my ex-husband John has, being part of the industry himself, but the West End standard is universally known, and being self-funded, we have to choose shows that would have an appeal to a broad enough audience. Also, I think it’s good for a company to have a unique selling point, and when I started, I thought about what would set me apart from other theatre companies in Singapore and around Asia.”
Its success proves that there is a healthy appetite for well-produced British theatre works in the region. On the other hand, the company has also established itself as a serious player, with British actors now writing in to request work.
And Leong-Faulkner is looking to grow and strengthen its presence across Asia. To that effect, the British Theatre Playhouse recently announced the opening of its KL office. “We want to be more hands-on with the shows we bring here, from finding the right venue to how we present and market it. That quality control factor and better developed marketing strategies are also important for more tangible results. So, I have a business partner here - Jaime Gooi, managing director of British Theatre Playhouse Malaysia - to take care of that. Of course, I would also get her input on Malaysian audiences’ preferences before we start planning any shows,” she says.
While her dream is to ultimately produce a big-budget musical, being a huge fan of the genre, the managing director is thinking of working on a more serious play next year, in a calculated gamble to gauge the receptivity of local audiences.
But for now, to celebrate establishing its office here, the company is presenting The Definitive Rat Pack, featuring the original cast that earned an Olivier Award nomination when it premiered in London in 2003. Showing for one night only, Stephen Triffitt (Frank Sinatra), Mark Adams (Dean Martin) and George Daniel Long (Sammy Davis Jr) will usher the audience into a Vegas showroom in the 1960s, complete with a sizeable nine-member Swing band and the appearance of special guest “Nancy Sinatra”.
“The music of Sinatra is so timeless, so is Dean Martin … the whole Rat Pack. And this is not just a concert of their songs, but these performers are actors, so they embody and interpret the legendary stars in their own way,” Leong-Faulkner says, adding that she will be taking the show to Dubai — the first time the company is bringing a production there — after KL.
Another hallmark of the British Theatre Playhouse is its support for social causes, a vision extended from its founder’s other passion — doing charity work. This time around, the company helped Persatuan Pengasih Malaysia in its fundraising initiative for the United Nations’ International Day Against Drug Abuse by arranging for charity tables that included a pre-show dinner at KL Hilton.
In the end, the question remains: What would drive a marketer to become a performing arts producer? Leong-Faulkner sums it up clearly, “I always feel quality is a strong pull. I like doing work and putting things out that are of high quality. And the artists I’ve worked with are such great talents. Once you put them on stage, it’s magical to watch them ... that the audience gets drawn into that magic. That’s why.”
This article first appeared on June 18, 2018 in The Edge Malaysia.