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Not crazy, just a little unwell

DUE to the Influenza A(H1N1) outbreak, the public has been urged to avoid crowded places and to wear face masks when mingling with crowds. One supposes theatres, concerts and other arts events would certainly be affected. Dwindling audience numbers and show postponements would surely be the case.

But has it been? How have pandemics in recent days affected performing arts in Malaysia?

Facing the flu

The first H1N1 case in Malaysia was reported in May 2009. In June, the annual Urbanscapes, a full-day creative arts event, was held at the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre (KLPac). By the end of the day, the Twitterverse was aflutter with reports of an individual at the festival who had come down with H1N1.

Chan (Courtesy of Sarah Chan)
Sarah Chan, events editor of entertainment and lifestyle magazine KLue, which organised the festival, looks back on the drama. “We tweeted and blogged about it because we wanted people to be safe and take precautions … People retweeted what we said, and the news spread like wildfire.”

The organisers posted a statement on their website on 30 June: “There has been one confirmed case … while another three individuals, from the same group of friends, are undergoing another round of tests … At this juncture, we are not aware of any other cases beyond this group of individuals… [T]hose who have gone to get tested have turned up negative.”

Two days later, they were happy to report: “There have not been any additional reports of anyone having H1N1 at Urbanscapes beyond the one case that we are aware of.”

“[R]eading these blogs or tweets about the scare made me realise how little we actually knew of the virus at that point,” Chan reflects. “The Urbanscapes public was right to take precaution, but because so many of us weren’t as informed as we thought we were, there was a lot of unnecessary panic.” Oy.

Ten thousand people turned out for Urbanscapes, Chan says. And despite the increase in the number of H1N1 cases over the months, people still seem to be amassing at theatres and concerts. Pang Khee Teik says the outbreak has not impinged terribly on events at the Annexe Gallery at Central Market, where he is the programme director.

“My colleagues did say fewer people came out to Central Market on the weekends,” he tells me. “But the events at the Annexe Gallery didn’t seem so affected. We had our Seksualiti Merdeka (SM) right at the height of it, and yet our numbers show that we had twice the attendance of SM last year.

“Who knows, maybe we could have had more if it were not for H1N1,” he muses.

But large numbers could still mean smaller turnout, according to singer-songwriter Mia Palencia, who recently performed at the Miri Jazz Festival in Sarawak. “They were expecting 8,000 people over a two-night festival. I believe in the end the audience totalled 6,000. Some people had bought tickets and not shown up. Some I know personally cancelled their trip to Miri even though they wouldn’t be able to recoup their airline tickets.”

Measuring up

There’s a cliché in the world of stagecraft: to eliminate onstage nerves, a performer should imagine the audience in their underwear. A variation of this advice suggests that a performer should picture the audience naked; though I suspect the notion of the spectator being spectated upon would actually induce more jitters for the performer.

de Silva (Courtesy of Mark Beau de Silva)
What if the audience were hidden behind face masks? Would partial faces allow a performer to breathe a little easier? Apparently we won’t be able to know, as this hasn’t happened. “The only time I’ve seen an audience [member] with a face mask [on] was during (KLPac’s musical) Kaki Blue,” playwright and director Mark Beau de Silva tells me. “I think she removed it by intermission.”

Actor and director Colin Kirton, who is also artistic director of theatre group Footstool Players, joins in: “I attended a few shows at KLPac, the Short+Sweet Festival, for example, and [the auditorium] was packed out. Some people [were] wearing masks, but H1N1 hadn’t seemed to have sent panic signals through the theatregoing community.”

So what measures have been taken by theatergoers and theatre management? de Silva reckons theatres in KL are “operating as per usual”. Unlike in Singapore, where audiences at major venues like the Esplanade were temperature-screened before entering the auditorium, nothing much seems to have been done here.

Kirton quips: “Nobody was handing out masks at the theatre entrance, or making any references to H1N1, or anything like that. Whether there was any preliminary spraying of the theatre hall before each show, I have no idea.”

Regionally speaking

While H1N1 doesn’t seem to be adversely affecting Malaysian performing arts, the same can’t be said for Singapore, where the arts scene is infinitely more vibrant and thrumming. A visiting friend vaguely reported “fewer bums in seats”, and a Channel News Asia article has demonstrated that the outbreak has resulted in cancellations of theatre performances — but mostly those whose primary target audience is children. Understandably, children are part of the high-risk group where H1N1 is concerned.

In Western Australia, which has nearly 4,500 H1N1 infections and 26 deaths, the impact on the theatrical arts has been virtually nonexistent. Producer Arnold Wong recently staged a production of Les Miserables in Perth, the audience for which he numbers at 15,000. Not one of them wore a face mask, he says. “We monitored the ticket sales on a daily basis and although there are H1N1 cases in WA, we did not notice any linkage.”

Bree Hartley, vice president of the community Roleystone Theatre in WA, concurs: “We have not had any face masks, and I don’t believe H1N1 has affected audience numbers here. It was considered scary for a couple of weeks, and then really downgraded, so people think of it almost as just a normal yearly flu.”

Going back further

Since my friends in the industry and I were regaling each other so fondly on the travails of H1N1, memories of SARS, which first surfaced in Malaysia in 2003, came to mind.

Kirton (Wiki commons, courtesy of
Colin Kirton)
The Annexe’s Pang says: “I remember reading [then Istana Budaya director] Hatta Azad Khan‘s speech at the launch of their programme calendar for the year after SARS. He said the poor turnout the year before was due to the war in Iraq and SARS: one caused by people crazy about wars, and one caused by people crazy about eating all kinds of animals.”

Kirton remembers SARS fondly. “I did a production titled Bridge of Blood, which ran in churches across the Klang Valley during the height of SARS. I was concerned that SARS might affect our turnout, but we played to packed halls each time … so much so that the audience sizes represented a safety concern.”

And Wong has warm memories, too. “We were in Hong Kong rehearsing for South Pacific and we almost had to postpone it. But in the end we went ahead — though the aftershow was named SARS Pacific.”

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