25th anniversary interviews/

Mac Chan

Mac Chan is synonynous with lighting design. Shuttling back and forth across the Causeway, he has lit many groundbreaking productions in Malaysia and Singapore.

Mac is a four-time recipient of the Best Lighting Design award at the BOH Cameronian Arts Awards, and in 2006 he received a National Arts Award for his work in this area. He is also extensively involved in researching Asian performing arts spaces, and has been invited to many international forums and conferences to participate and consult in discussions on the development of theatre architecture and technical theatre in Asia.

What was your entry point to Five Arts Centre?

I was invited by Marion (D'Cruz), along with June Tan. I've known Five Arts since my time at the Malaysian Institute of Art in 1991. As a student, there didn't use to be so many theatre shows we could watch. With my Chinese-educated background, I probably knew and watched more theatre from Taiwan than Malaysia.

Another point of entry was my work with Krishen (Jit). My first work with him was ‘Emily of Emerald Hill’ (1999, Dramalab) with Ivan Heng as Emily. Krishen's work with me was innovative, broke the rules, and brought out the unusual aspects of theatre work - such as asking me to break away from my usual practice, or even to work against my own designs. Basically, he forced me to remove my usual 'infrastructure' for working - this way, your orientation is lost, and things/ideas would become fresh.

I formally joined Five Arts Centre in 2005.

Did you always know you wanted to become a lighting designer or did you kind of fall into the profession? Describe how you developed as a designer. (Anne James)

Actually, I was trained as a stage manager (SM), and early on I was a very successful SM when I went down to Singapore - I was always the choice SM for the late Kuo Pao Kun!

But I did learn about lighting design here and there. What changed was this one time (around 1997) when I had a dispute with a lighting designer who was not under my 'control' anymore (during that production, over what could or could not be done), and I couldn't further justify my demands to him. So, to test myself to see if he was bullshitting me, I tried out my own lighting design. I wanted to make a point (that what I had wanted could be done).

I didn’t know till recently that you graduated with a major in stage management. What is your vision for stage management in Malaysia? (Lew Chee Seong)

Theatre development in Malaysia is one step forward, two steps back. But we constantly challenge ourselves in terms of professional practice.

Stage management is a kind of engineering or a kind of necessary mathematics. It requires infrastructure, hardware, and a system or culture of practice adopted by the majority of practitioners. It is definitely not something that is individual in nature, but rather is centered on the community. For example, calling cues: often times Malaysian lighting designers do not practice marking down their lighting cues, and lighting operators never get these cues until we've bumped in; by right, everyone should get these lighting cues at least 2 weeks in advance!

Also, rehearsal reports should be done after each rehearsal session. But when designers are not professional, they don't pay attention to these reports anyway.

In Malaysia, the stage manager is usually a 1-person team, but by right there should be more than just one person: someone must be the stage manager, someone as the assistant stage manager, and so on. Without this structure, the stage manager cannot work effectively.

Unfortunately, this system won't have a chance to grow because the Malaysian performing arts community is constantly shorthanded. Instead, what you find in Singapore, for example, are teams made up of one stage manager, two assistant stage managers, two production assistants... all who look after the rehearsal process.

In Malaysia, we are very ad hoc. There is no system integration between different spaces and different segments of the community - Istana Budaya, The Actors Studio... all these systems are rather similar, and all can learn from each other.

I think the way forward is a top-down approach, with a strong push by our government. In Singapore, for instance, the government forced the formation of an alliance (of technical theatre practitioners).

You studied stage management, and do lighting. Do you also do perform? (Suhaila Merican)

Yes I did. Hallo, ‘Bunga Manggar Bunga Raya’ (2007) lah.

I was also an actor while a student at Malaysian Institute of Art.

Can you talk about how the experience of working on Five Arts productions may have influenced your work in lighting? (Janet Pillai)

For me, as a lighting designer, I learned a lot in terms of work principles that pushed you to think and work from productions by people like Krishen. I would say that it's not just Five Arts, but these three people who've influenced my work in lighting:

Krishen Jit: he challenged me to break away from past ideas, and to keep doing things differently.

Kuo Pao Kun: he taught me that I should be persistent in concept/design or the completeness of an idea... but one should always be prepared to discard those ideas! Meaning, we must be strong enough to disagree with our initial ideas.

Xiao Li Her (my teacher in Taiwan): she showed the potential of lighting, and that it can create context instead of just aesthetics.

What have been the upsides and downsides of working as a lighting designer with Five Arts? (Janet Pillai)

Upsides: Constantly working with unconventional methods, in unconventional contexts - it keeps your brain working, and so, very fulfilling as a designer.

Downsides: So far none.

I think my work with Five Arts is not about producing the 'perfect picture', beautiful imagery, aesthetic. It's really more about working with people you love working with; work that challenges you; and it's more about presenting a kind of arts-making rather than being just product-oriented. The artists themselves might attract or form new and different dimensions of thinking, even if the art itself is not especially enjoyable.

When they first came up with the award, I think you won about four or five straight Boh Cameronian Arts Awards for Best Lighting Design, often being nominated against yourself in the process. While this was an honour, was it also in fact, frustrating? Ceritalah sikit. (Kubhaer T. Jethwani)

I remember the year I got all the nominations in the category. I remembered that when I got up there and said, "I'm truly happy that my work has been widely accepted and enjoyed by people, but at the same time I'm also very frustrated". You see, I'm concerned with the development of Malaysian technical theatre, but there are no new talent/newcomers who will fight for this. I wanted to see more work, but the industry wasn't growing. And we keep celebrating ourselves. It's not healthy.

How does your work in lighting architecture (e.g. the Petronas Twin Towers) inform your stage works, and vice versa? (Fahmi Fadzil)

Architecture lighting uses a different approach, because you are actually dealing with lighting aesthetics, technology, practice. My architecture lighting is minor compared to the work I do for stage. Even so, my sense of theatre lighting dynamics enters the work I do in architecture lighting, while I bring back technology or technical knowledge from architecture lighting to the stage (e.g. dimmable lights).

Have any of your lighting designs ever outclassed the performance? (Ivy N. Josiah)

[laughs] There are moments. For example, in ‘Puteri Gunung Ledang The Musical’ (2006), there were really some dramatic lighting moments, like when the Nenek Kebayan (played by Sukania Venugopal) dies, the light turns red and spreads out. Of course, it's not for the whole show. But the answer is... yes :)

Your ‘lightbulb’ phase kind of started with 'The Descendants of the Eunuch Admiral' (2000), and we saw it again in 'Election Day' (2004), 'That Was The Year' (2007) and the Singaporean production of 'Cabaret' (2006), amongst others. Can you share why you embarked on this strategy, and did working on Five Arts productions play a part in this development? (June Tan)

The light bulbs were really… I won't say to establish (for myself) an artistic movement. It really wasn't out of an artistic urge, but because of budget issues. I was forced to seek alternative lighting sources. We were at the Experimental Theatre (now in ASWARA), which back then wasunworkable for lighting design. I mean, nothing worked! The lighting board all didn't work! So I found the use of practical lights.

Yes, and no, after that I had always wanted to develop this discipline of using practical lights, but never saw a production opportunity to try it out. Actually, this was brought up many times, but I never got round to it. Marion wanted to do a dance piece with this idea, some more. Hmm...

We never see you around anymore. What projects are you working on these days? (Chee Sek Thim)

I'm working on ‘Victor Victoria’ (Esplanade; at the time of interview), which is a musical with directed by Loretta Chen of Zebra Crossing; a lighting design project for the Singapore Sentosa Universal Studio, and hopefully another Singapore National Day Parade (2010).

As you have been working in Singapore for a while, what are the fundamental differences between Malaysian and Singaporean productions? (Chew Kin Wah)

Basically... it's the infrastructure.

Five Arts is 'expanding' in the sense that Janet and Sek Thim are based in Penang and you are spending more time in Singapore. How do you think we should take advantage of this? Should we have formalised branches in Penang and Singapore and do proper programming in these places? (Marion D’Cruz)

YES! We should do a Penang & Singapore branch! We should have Five Arts cards, saying "Sales Representative, Penang/Singapore office"!

I think it's good, that the Five Arts Centre presence can go beyond Kuala Lumpur. There is so much more interesting information that we can bring back to KL, instead of just (staying within) the KL community alone.

As a fairly new member of Five Arts, what do you see as its strengths and weaknesses? (Marion D’Cruz)

Strengths: Five Arts is multi-disciplinary, and possesses different voices. Five Arts can present a much wider perspective of arts practice. It's what makes Five Arts unique and powerful.

Weaknesses: We need to be able to consolidate our opinions in order to reflect our (group) Five Arts opinion. Nokia, for instance, performs well as a phone; the iPhone can do many things, but it is hard for it to function just as a phone.

What, if any, new direction should Five Arts be taking for the future? (ravi-navaratnam)

When Krishen Jit was around, he was the direction. You can see Five Arts develop towards one direction, but now there are many different ideas, and we are lost… (Five Arts has) become multi-directional.

Five Arts has always confronted current affairs... but where we're heading now is not so clear.

As long as we remain a collective - and the collective mind shifts - it will remain very difficult to develop in one direction. For example, we always ask what we want to do next year, but we don't ask our 10-year direction. The Artistic Direction team must ask: "Where will Five Arts go in the next 10 years?"

We need a strong, visionary leader... which I'm not :(

What was your favourite Five Arts project?

The project that didn't happen: ‘The Good Woman of Szechuan’ (2001).

Let's settle this once and for all - is there such a thing as a "Five Arts style"?

There use to be, when Krishen was alive. That's my personal point of view.

But actually, that's not fair. If Marion D'Cruz would have produced 2 shows a year, and constantly, we would have a style. I wish she can do more.

19 May 2010