MySay: The business of performing arts

This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on June 25, 2018 - July 01, 2018.
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Young teenager Joseph wandered out of the darkened theatre, half-dazed and squinting in the bright sunlight. He turned to his caretaker and said, “I can remember. I remember that I was in an accident, that I lost my memory.” The group of children, whose parents were substance abusers, had travelled from out of town for two hours to attend Wolfe Bowart’s Letter’s End, an irresistible children’s theatre show at Auditorium DBKL, held as part of the KL International Arts Festival 2017.

His caretaker knew that Joseph had been in a car accident and turned anxiously to him to ask, “What happened?”

Joseph was unsure but he could describe it a little. “When we were in the dark theatre just now, we were watching this story about an old man who had lost his memory and then regained it. I could relate to that and suddenly, I could remember again.”

In the meantime, there were squeals of excitement — a group of differently abled (Down’s Syndrome) children had seen Wolfe come out to the foyer and excitedly run up to the tall Australian performer to hug him around the knees, enthusiastically welcoming him as one of their own.

This is just one example of how the performing arts speaks to us. It is a powerful form of non-verbal communication which, in a rapidly urbanising nation, helps us to make sense of life and provides comfort and solace. We also benefit immeasurably by developing empathy when we put ourselves in others’ shoes and understand complex situations.

The arts is also a crucial element of helping us get in touch with our expressive and creative sides, which is much needed for successful careers and businesses of the future.

Just as we all need to make an effort to make the workplace conducive for women — “We cannot all succeed when half of us are held back”, as aptly put by Malala Yousafzai, Nobel Peace Prize winner — we also need to make a concerted effort to tap the right-brained characteristics that include intuition, creativity and understanding our emotions.

In any nation, the most important self-renewing natural resource is its people. If the primary focus of our education and career is left-brain mastery, are we not then performing at half our potential?

In 2013, Google ran a survey of the most important qualities of the best employees and teams and concluded that the seven top characteristics of success at the tech giant are all soft skills: being a good coach; communicating and listening well; possessing insights; having empathy toward and being supportive of one’s colleagues; being a good critical thinker and problem solver; and being able to make connections across complex ideas.

These are essentially traits of emotional intelligence, which can be nurtured through participation in, and appreciation of, the performing arts.

City festivals around the region have been seeded by their governments for decades because of their outsized economic impact. At the KL International Arts Festival, which is produced by DiverseCity, every ringgit invested in the performing arts draws in RM2 to RM3 from other stakeholders.

Further, a 2017 study by Nottingham University’s School of Business and Spire Consulting Group estimated that business directly generated as a result of the festival was at least RM4 for every RM1 invested as seed funding.

When we watch a show, it might seem to revolve entirely around the few performers on stage. However, behind the scenes is an army of people working hard to make it a dazzling success. Jobs are created directly and indirectly as a result of the festival — in 2017, 1,200 jobs were created — which benefits private businesses as they see their revenues increase, as well as the government, directly and indirectly, through increased taxes and contributions. Funding invested in Malaysian arts practitioners circulates closer to its source with a higher multiplier effect than if it were remitted overseas to bring in expensive foreign acts in a foreign currency, with a significant profit element and withholding tax imposed.

TripAdvisor’s Barometer, the world’s largest traveller survey, has observed that travellers of all ages are seeking out things they haven’t tried before. The KL International Arts Festival is an invaluable opportunity to glimpse the heart and soul of the city and the nation as we proudly showcase the best of Malaysian performing arts.

This opportunity has been seized upon by Kuala Lumpur City Hall with a new campaign to make September Visit KL month, anchored by the festival’s multiple events.

We are also deeply grateful to Sarawak Tourism Board, which is running a major tourism campaign next year with promotional activities in five major events around the world, including London, Singapore and China. It has chosen KL International Arts Festival to be the sixth location.

How does DiverseCity create such outsized benefits and impacts? We are laser-focused on capacity building among local arts practitioners. Almost every programme is a specially-created full-length work by Malaysian creatives, many with renowned foreign collaborators, which further elevates standards and quality. In 2017, there were only three foreign productions underwritten by the festival.

We make sure we set goals the right way, emphasising objectives and key results. Is it significant? We have raised RM7.5 million of seed funding from the government in the past three years, matching it with at least RM18 million of sponsorship, support and ticket sales from other stakeholders. At present, we provide the most significant arts grant funding scheme to established Malaysian artists that is not on a reimbursement basis.

Is it concrete? The headline numbers speak for themselves. Last September, the festival ran for five weeks at 20 locations, presenting over 50 events and attracting 33,000 visitors from at least 20 nationalities.

Accessibility, and therefore inclusiveness, is a key objective starting with performances in the schools, as well as folding in the lesser-served segments of society. We also programme large shows with no entry cost, especially at the iconic Panggung Anniversary, which celebrated its 50th anniversary last year, and at the KTM train station platform, which turned a century old last year, resulting in three out of four visitors seeing an event for free during the year.

We commissioned a storytelling version of Macbeth for primary schoolchildren by the extremely talented KL Shakespeare Players, which toured schools with the generous sponsorship of Yayasan Hasanah. It was insightful to see that the vernacular — Chinese and Tamil language — schools scored higher on the quizzes than some identified as Excellence Cluster/Trust schools. We are delighted the children understood such a complex play and could clearly describe “adult” emotions such Lady Macbeth’s guilt.

A parent of a special-needs child wrote that her child “has speech, language, and comprehension difficulties. I mean, he has trouble understanding cartoons. But he understood EVERYTHING about the play. Not only did he fully understand the plot of Macbeth, he understood the messages, morals and meaning behind the story”.

And we do all of this year in and out with no full-time staff — everyone involved in the festival is a volunteer, part-timer, consultant or adviser.

Festivals around the world, such as in Sydney, Edinburgh and Kuching, have been and are being supported by the government and private sector as a means of drawing visitors into a specific locale to spend money while enjoying themselves.

We are just over two months away from the launch of the fourth edition of this landmark festival but the seed funding from the government has not yet been confirmed. I am hopeful that the fresh new thinking of our leaders will recognise and support such a major initiative with multiple benefits to the rakyat, and perhaps even extend the potential and opportunities.

I have been volunteering at the festival since the beginning and am in my fifth year of involvement. I am filled with hope that even more lives will be touched with this powerful medium of non-verbal communication that brings the hearts of all Malaysians and visitors to this country closer to themselves and to each other.


Sunita Rajakumar, who is director of the KL International Arts Festival, studied law and has been a chartered accountant, investment banker, venture capitalist and professional independent director in pursuit of her true abiding passion of helping people become the best versions of themselves

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