What You May Or May Not Know About The Life Of A Theatre Artist

We spoke to a bunch of theatre professionals to get more insight into the industry.

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What You May Or May Not Know About The Life Of A Theatre Artist
Image: Damansara Performing Arts Centre
How often do you go to the theatre? When was the last time you actually saw a local theatre production on stage?
Whether or not you’re a theatre enthusiast, often times, we think that the life of an artist is full of glitz and glamour. But under all the bright stage lights, the reality is almost entirely opposite.
Nevertheless, one thing’s for sure: it is never dull.
It's Alexander Hamilton!
To get a better idea of the performing arts scene in Malaysia, we spoke to a few local theatre practitioners who have had years and years of experience.

First of all, what is theatre?

Theatre generally refers to stage plays that involve live performers, actors and actresses, to present a live audience with the experience of real or imagined events.
Theatre actor Alfred Loh interestingly defines theatre as anything that has a story to be told.
Alfred and Sharifah Amani play a heartbreaking scene from 'Mimi Fan'.
“It all boils down to storytelling. Whether the story is random or absurd or abstract or physical, it is the act of a group of players telling the story to the audience,” he said.
This story can be conveyed through a combination of gestures, speech, song, music, and dance.

So how exactly do you get into a theatre production?

Just like any regular job, you start off by going for a job interview. In theatre, you would attend casting calls or auditions.
Theatre productions in Malaysia tend to hold closed auditions most of the time, where they would approach specific people whom they have in mind and invite them to attend. However, there have also been instances where you see notices being put up in search for new blood.
When it comes to the audition itself, the style may vary from show to show, depending on what the director is looking for.
“The structure and format of an audition also depends very much on the nature of the play, the theatrical vision of the director and any specific skillset required for the character,” said Freddy Tan from SIFU Production, who is also an actor and director.
A scene from 'Fifteen', a performance by SIFU Production.
The production could either be adapted from an existing piece or devised from scratch. If the story is already set in stone, you could be told to do an original monologue, dialogue, song or dance from the show.
You may also be instructed to do an improv performance. All of this are usually informed beforehand so that the performers can prepare before going for auditions.
“But sometimes, they would specifically ask you not to do songs from the show because they want to see what else you can bring that they may not be able to see,” as musical theatre performer Nabilah Hamid has experienced.
You would either be auditioning for a lead role, supporting role or as a member of the ensemble.

If and when you get called back or selected for the production, that’s when the real work begins.

The rehearsal process, where mistakes should be made

 Actor and producer Siti Farrah Abdullah from SIFU Production calls this stage a journey.
Siti Farrah Abdullah in 'Malaysian Girls the Musical'.
“It is a journey of trial and error, of finding the good and the bad, the right and the wrong, the beauty and the ugly. The process may be arduous, but once you get what you’re trying to achieve, it’s really liberating,” she said.
The stage manager would come up with a schedule all actors can work with once everybody has given their “bad dates”.
If you’re a performer who also happens to be working another full-time job during the day, then things may get a little crazier for you.
Now, why would you need a different job when you’re already working as a theatre performer? We’ll get to that part in a bit.
Nabilah preparing backstage for 'I Hate My Job'.
Rehearsals are typically broken down to several stages, depending on where you are in the production timeline. There will be days dedicated to ice breakers and the first reading, analysing the script, building the characters’ elements and traits, tackling the scenes on foot, practising the choreography, exploring different ways to present the show using improvisation techniques and games, and finally, the full run before going on stage.
Three to four-hour rehearsals are very normal in theatre. For bigger productions, the length of rehearsals could even go up to nine hours!
“If you do this in Broadway, this is basically what you do. They give you the material and you learn on your own. So when it comes to putting everything together, it really is like a working day.

“That’s what a lot of people don’t quite understand; how much work goes into it, because people are not magically good,” musical theatre actor Nabilah Hamid said.
Nabilah performing 'YES Live! KL' in 2013.

Several days to a week before the show is when Tech Week happens, where the sets, props, lighting and sound get assembled.
Tech rehearsals are also when the director runs through all the cues and everything else with the stage manager, who has one of the most stressful and exhausting roles in a theatre production.
And then comes the full dress rehearsal.
The theatre community has a saying that goes, “a bad full dress rehearsal is a good opening show”, because everything that could go wrong should go wrong before the actual show.
For some theatre performers, injuries also become your best friend.
“Bruises are very normal. Blisters are also common, and blisters in blisters, because we don’t wear a lot of shoes during rehearsals,” Nabilah shared.
Ever heard about a dancer’s feet? A theatre performer pretty much faces the same thing.

Now it’s show time!

 After weeks and months of blood, sweat and tears shed during rehearsals, now it’s finally time to present the show.
Most of the time, performers are required to do their own makeup to save time (and money), unless there is a specific makeup style that is required for the show. In that case, the production would hire professional makeup artists to either do the makeup for them or give makeup lessons so that the performers can practise on their own.
Nabilah and her fellow cast members at the 2015 'Short + Sweet Musicals'.
At this point, the worst thing that could happen right before a show is if a cast member is unable to perform due to unforeseen circumstances. This is where an understudy or a swing steps in.
In theatre, an understudy is a performer who learns the lines, cues and choreography of a lead role in a play and takes over in cases like this. In musical theatre, a swing understudies for multiple chorus or dancing roles.
Can you imagine that? It basically means that the understudy would have to memorise multiple lines, songs, cues, and choreography - on top of his or her own original part! That’s a lot of work!
Based on Freddy’s personal experience as a director, the worst thing for him is to realise that there are less people in the audience than the amount of cast before the doors open.
Yup, that has happened before unfortunately, and sometimes more often than they would like.

If this is the case, do theatre practitioners in Malaysia actually earn big bucks? 

Unfortunately, no.
“Unless you’re doing a commercial theatre show with a lot of sponsors attached, not at all. But hey, let’s face it. No one does theatre to get rich. This is a cliché that will last till the end of time: Theatre feeds the soul, that’s why we do it,” shared theatre actor Safia Hanifah, who is also from SIFU Production.
“There aren’t that many commercial theatre shows around as well, so if you intend to live a comfortable life by being a theatre actor, I am sorry but you can’t,” Freddy reiterated.

In fact, quite a number of productions here adopt the profit-sharing method, where they will split the profit with each member of the cast and crew.

“I’ve also seen many cases where each person ends up with less than RM100. That’s after hours and hours of rehearsals, apart from the shows,” Nabilah said.

Hence the reason many theatre performers often choose to work a full-time job during the day is just to pay the bills.
On the other hand, Alfred, who is now a full-time theatre practitioner, has a more positive approach.
“As with any industry, you will be paid well when you receive the recognition and success for your ability to do your job well,” he said.
Alfred, Sharifah Amani, Ghafir Akbar and Iedil Putra performing 'Another Country'.
“At the end of the day, it boils down to you as an artist and the kind of art you want to create. Whether you allow these things, like the inequality of pay, to get to you and make you jaded and cynical.”

So what does the future hold for the theatre scene in Malaysia?

The reality of the industry here is that there isn’t as much success and support as they would like.
Siti Farrah thinks that there definitely is a future, but maybe not now or anytime soon.
“There is so much complaining and whining we can do, until you realise, that the only way to strive in this, is to adapt, change and move forward. For now we educate and support each other, so we can grow better together in the future,” she said.
A scene from 'Indicinelive! IV', a comedy sketch featuring Siti Farrah, Freddy, and others.
On the brighter side, Freddy does see the industry moving towards a healthier state in the form of small-medium theatre groups to help expand the theatre culture.
He also believes that the only way to ensure that the industry grows steadily is to educate.
“We may not have the best theatre education schools and systems, as individuals, each theatre practitioner should make it a point to hone your skills and improve continuously.
"Whether it’s through attending workshops, short courses or just by doing more shows and gain practical experience. Don’t stop.”
Nabilah hopes to see more people begin to appreciate theatre for what it is, not just people in the industry but people at large, because to put it simply, there just aren’t enough people watching the shows that are being put up.
People tend to compare watching theatre to watching movies in the cinema, but watching something live before your eyes brings a whole different kind of feeling altogether.
“In an age when most of our communication happens in front of a screen, I think that this gathering function of theatre is, in and of itself, something that matters,” Freddy said.
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