25th anniversary interviews/

Ravi Navaratnam

Ravi Navaratnam began his theatre involvement in the mid-1980s, when he was still in his early twenties. A New Straits Times review from 1986 remarked that "young Ravi is definitely an actor of tremendous promise", and he performed in many of the earliest Five Arts Centre productions, including Kee Thuan Chye's '1984 - Here and Now' and Chin San Sooi's 'Yap Ah Loy - The Play' (both 1985). He also performed in several versions of K.S. Maniam's 'The Cord', including a run at the 1986 Singapore Drama Festival.

Ravi soon moved on to work in Corporate Finance, but has continued to be active on the production and finance side of Five Arts Centre.

What was your entry point to Five Arts Centre?

Sometime in the mid-1980s! I had come back to Malaysia after university and got myself involved acting in a number of productions. Marion (D’Cruz), Krishen (Jit) and the rest of the gang invited me after that to become a member of Five Arts.

What would you change if you were to do “chop chilli” song again with Mahadzir Lokman in 'Yap Ah Loy – The Play' (1985)? (Chew Kin Wah)

It’s too long ago to remember even the lyrics, but looking back, I would have liked to have done it with more moving around. It would have been funky to have had some dance movements!!

What was one thing about your performance career that you never told anyone about? (Kubhaer T. Jethwani)

Not telling!!

What was the experience like when you worked with Krishen as your director in 'The Cord' (1986)? (Ivy Josiah)

Krishen taught me to reach. Reach further even when you think you are at your limits - there is always something more. This has stayed with me since - in all aspects of my life.

Do you miss performing? What memories do you have of those times? (Chee Sek Thim)

I stopped performing due to work and travel commitments, and missed it a lot at the time. I don’t miss it as much anymore but have fond memories of performing - especially the ability to lose myself on stage and immersing myself in a stage character. The more different it was from the real me, the better.

What do you see as your main role in Five Arts? And do you personally see production work to be as important as creative work? (Lew Chee Seong)

My main role is to be part of the team. More specifically to assist on financial systems and processes and planning for a sustainable future. It’s an ongoing process. And I see production work to be equally as important as creative work. One without the other is ineffective… there is nothing to produce if there is no creative work. Equally, creative work without appropriate production support means the work does not get out to audiences.

Tell us your experience of working on 'Family' (1998) in the old mansion on Jalan Tun Razak. (Marion D’Cruz)

What a great experience!

The first thing I remember about this was the large production team that was required to handle the project - it was a difficult production. For starters, the production had elements which I had never experienced before in more conventional theatre settings. The old mansion was just that - old. It required a massive clean up inside and out, including having to arrange for the grass on the huge lawn to be cut.

Then there was having to convert the mansion into some semblance of a venue for the performance. Lighting and audio equipment had to be brought in for both inside and outside the house. It took months of preparation but we got it done.

'Family' also taught me how to expect surprises even when you think you have all bases covered.

I remember how it rained heavily during one of the performances and how cars got stuck in the wet, mushy, freshly mown lawn as they tried to get out after the show. The production crew and some of the actors all had to pitch in, to push cars stuck in what by then had become pretty much a huge mud pond.

I remember the great fun we had in setting up the house and how much I enjoyed assisting Marion in heading the production team.

From the 20 years of you being a member of Five Arts, were there any points in time where you felt the collective could have moved on differently, either administratively or structurally? (June Tan)

In an ideal world with no resource limitations I think we could have got to where we are now much quicker. However the reality is that resources (both people and finances) have been limited and we have had to take a longer process. I think we are where we now both administratively and structurally as a result of the various twists, turns, backflips and cartwheels which we have had to go through due to changing circumstances, funding issues, people issues and timing issues. It’s been an evolutionary process and will continue to be one.

What were some of the most difficult choices you had to make as a member of Five Arts Centre, and how did it change your relationship with the collective? (Fahmi Fadzil)

Having to push through the fact that financial resources were not limitless or endless, and as a result we had also to ensure that we undertook projects which were not only creative and groundbreaking but also capable of bringing in revenue. I don’t think however that these difficult choices have adversely changed my relationship with the collective! I hope!!

What’s your advice for Five Arts on their next 25 years? (Suhaila Merican)

Stay true, yet keep with the times and be in tune.

How might Five Arts' history have turned out without an accountant? Describe how your corporate world and the off-the-edge world of Five Arts come together? (Janet Pillai)

The accountant makes only a small contribution to the great history of Five Arts. Its a collective of people with great talent and artistry and the accountant helps only in being able to share thoughts on how to balance this artistry with the realities of requiring some sort of plan - mainly financial - in order to sustain ourselves for the long term.

Corporate life is another just another form of off-the-edge thinking. It’s just that in the corporate world they jargon it as " thinking out of the box"!!!

What kind of work would you like to see more of done by Five Arts and why? (Marion D’Cruz).

More actual theatre performances. I think we have moved a bit off the mark on this aspect. Why? Because I think that as an arts collective we have recently become lesser known for our theatre work, which is a pity considering our rich history in staging dramas and plays.

What was your favourite Five Arts project?

As an actor, 'The Cord', in 1986. On the production side, as producer for Charlene Rajendran’s devised performance 'My Grandmother's Chicken Curry &...' in 1998 and 1999.

How do you balance ‘Ravi’ and Five Arts Centre? (Mac Chan)

Just as anybody has to balance the many aspects of their lives - sometimes with great difficulty. But I choose Five Arts as one of the things I want to include in my life. It’s been a great source of inspiration to me, and it is a group of people and a cause which I am proud to be part of.

If you were the Minister of Finance, what percentage of the national budget would go for ‘art’? What would be your justification? (Anne James)

Not sure what the current figures are, but the more critical issue is how it’s being spent. I think there is huge scope for ensuring that even the current allocation for the arts is better utilized and distributed. There can be so much more done to ensure that the funds are actually being spent on encouraging and developing the arts scene in Malaysia. I mean a true development of a Malaysian arts scene, rather than a preoccupation with arts based on racial lines.

I would also like to see greater incentives to promote increased private sector funding of the arts. The government need not and cannot be the sole provider of funds for the promotion of arts but in realizing the limited resources of the government, there can be more done by way of incentivisation (increased tax breaks) of the private sector to become a bigger contributor.

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

No. And that’s the beauty of it.

2 September 2009