From go-down to arts centre, the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre has had a long and fascinating history. It started in 2003, when theatre producer Datuk Faridah Merican and director Joe Hasham were informed of a marvellous location to build a centre for the performing arts in the Klang Valley.
The catch: It was in a place they had never heard of.
“Our friend (architect Ng Seksan) told me ‘Faridah, come, I’m going to show you this place in Sentul’. And I said ‘Where?’ We asked other people and they didn’t know where Sentul was either,” Faridah remembers about the early days of the ambitious project.
“Sentul?” Hasham says. “I remember going ‘What do you mean, Sentul?’”
But the husband and wife team cast their doubts aside, and the place they visited eventually became Malaysia's first integrated arts centre. From humble beginnings, KLpac has become a home for the arts and has hosted many productions that have shaped the theatre scene. This year, KLpac celebrates its 10th anniversary.
“We have a lot of overseas visitors and the first thing they say when they come here is ‘Wow, we can’t believe there’s a place like this in Malaysia’,” Hasham says.
It’s hard to believe but the origin of KLpac was borne out of tragedy. Flash floods in 2003 destroyed the underground Actor’s Studio at Plaza Putra, Dataran Merdeka, a theatre that Faridah and Hasham built and operated in Kuala Lumpur. “We were devastated,” Hasham recalls. “We wanted to give it all up at that point.”
But less than two weeks after the water receded, Faridah and Hasham were invited to Sentul. The space there had a colourful history: it was previously used as a go-down but now served as a clubhouse for a nine-hole golf course used by the nearby KTM headquarters.
(The land is part of the Sentul West development by YTL Land & Development Bhd, an arm of YTL Corp Bhd, known for its arts patronage.)
They loved it immediately. “The moment we saw the driveway coming into this place, we thought this place is just amazing,” Hasham says.
Getting the place, however, was a challenge. In the end, The Actor’s Studio collaborated with the YTL Corporation and Yayasan Budi Penyayang to establish the centre together.
“We sent a letter and a proposal to Tan Sri Francis Yeoh, and then we had a 30-minute meeting with him,” Faridah reveals about their pitch to the YTL managing director in September 2003.
“At the end of it, he looked up at Faridah and gave her a hug. He gave me a hug, too, before saying the most famous words ever uttered in the history of Malaysian theatre: ‘Go for it’,” Hasham says dramatically. “All of us wept. It was such a joyous occasion. This place would have no hope of being in existence without him and YTL.”
Faridah adds: “We also have to thank Pak Lah (former Prime Minister Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi) and his late wife Tun Endon Mahmood, who kept supporting us.”
Over the next two years, Faridah and Hasham put all their effort into building the centre, using the layout and concept of their old theatre space as a foundation. Construction began in June 2004.
In an interview with The Star in May 2005, YTL Design Group architect Baldip Singh described the centre as a new structure on an old building. “A lot of care was taken to preserve or re-use the original parts of the railway warehouse. For example, some of the steel beams used in KLpac date back to 1897.”
KLpac opened its doors in May 2005 with a French arts festival. “We were very nervous. There were a lot of things that weren’t ready,” Faridah says. “But it all went well in the end.”
The centre has grown in strength since then. It now stages 12 to 28 productions a month, managed by a staff of 40 and “hundreds of freelancers”.
KLpac’s 10th anniversary highlights include Usman Awang’s musical Uda Dan Dara, and David Mamet’s play Speed The Plow, both to be staged in April. Other shows include Dama Orchestra’s musical I Have A Date With Spring in May, and KLpac Orchestra’s Symphonic Swing concert by the in August.
“Some people have lovingly referred to us as a factory,” Faridah quips, prompting Hasham to reply: “I don’t think they meant it lovingly.”
Faridah and Hasham say KLpac has seen its share of memorable shows including Someone To Watch Over Me, The Complete Works Of Shakespeare, the ongoing Life Sdn Bhd series, and musicals such as Broken Bridges and Tunku.
“There have been a lot of iconic productions done here and not just our own. Instant Café Theatre’s Air Con, for instance – what a highlight, in any country, to have a production like that. And the shows of Hands Percussion and Dama Orchestra – what a success story. And it’s all happening here,” Hasham says.
The most sustainable project they've created is undoubtedly the annual Short + Sweet festival. “That has been beyond anyone’s wildest dreams – not just from the view that it puts bums on seats, but also that through it, so many young creative people have gotten a foot in the theatre door,” Hasham says.
He adds that KLpac had seen several successful outdoor events as well, such as the Concert Of Celebration in 2005, in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of the YTL Corporation, that saw 6,000 people catered for. Three editions of the Urbanscapes festival were also held on the grounds from 2008-2010, which brought a youthful buzz to the centre.
Hasham also mentions the KLpac Open House events in 2009 and 2011 that drew crowds of 6,000 and 8,000, and the inaugural Yayasan Sime Darby Arts festival last year that attracted 15,000 visitors over two days.
But it’s not been all clear skies for KLpac either. It suffered serious financial problems in 2012 when some of its principal sponsors pulled out as a result of the 2008 economic crisis. “It’s not entirely solved, but it’s better,” Faridah says. “The best move we made was to spread the word that we were in trouble.”
“The general public came out of the woodwork to help out,” Hasham says. “That started the ball rolling and Yayasan Sime Darby came to help us. For three years they are giving us RM1mil for purposes like maintenance.”
Faridah and Hasham admit they will probably never be able to say that KLpac’s money issues are over, but thanks to various supporters like JKKN, Mercedes and YTL, the burden has been lessened somewhat.
They also add that KLpac’s 10th anniversary will roll with a line-up of “10s”. The first event in February was a showcase of 10 singer-songwriters. Up next is a showcase of 10 choreographers (Apr 30-May 3) and then 10 theatre directors (May 14-17). KLpac will also highlight the work of 10 installation artists (Mar-Dec).
“We hope this brings awareness of the decade of KLpac. We won’t only be inviting established people; we’re also inviting certain people who are not as established to get involved. Our main thrust is nurturing,” Hasham says.
As for their future plans, the couple say they hope to build a fourth theatre space there, to add to Pentas 1, Pentas 2 and the Indicine hall. “We’re going to just keep on keeping on,” Hasham says, to which Faridah adds: “Thank you for supporting Malaysian theatre. Do keep on coming – and bring lots of new people!”
For more on the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre, its programmes and productions, go to KLpac.org.