WINNING three BOH Cameronian Arts Awards last year were pretty special moments for Malaysian-born theatre maker Shafeeq Shjahan and London writer, choreographer Hannah Shields of Malaysian-British theatre company Liver & Lung Productions. They were awarded Best Direction for Sepet The Musical, and Best Performance (Lead), and Best Performance (Supporting) for Malaya Relived: The Penang Riots.
“We work hard and invest a lot of love into our productions and it’s nice for that to be recognised,” says Shajahan about the awards received from the long standing Malaysian Arts Awards. “I am a strong believer in the stories that we have told as a company. Sepet The Musical, the Malaya Relived Trilogy, and Mahsuri (& Other Peculiar Tales) were all Liver & Lung productions that received both commercial and critical success. I’m proud of them all.”
For Liver & Lung, the last half a decade since these best friends co-founded the theatre company has already resulted in some stand out experiences as a company. They are certainly more than proud of their award winning productions, which make up just a handful of their already increasing archive of previous productions.
“Together, over the years, we have operated across the world and dedicated our lives to making amazing musical theatre that instills human empathy and champions unheard voices.” he continues.
This year definitely sees no let up, with the release of Sepet The Musical Soundtrack on Spotify and other music stores just recently. We take some time here to ask them how they work and what they look forward to within the arts industry.
What is the thought process when starting a new Theatre production?
I think it starts with a story. You have to be absolutely invested in the story you’re telling and absolutely certain that you’re the right person to tell it. Once you have those objectives in place, everything falls in line. When finding stories, I tend to be really open-minded and inquisitive about the world around me. Recently, I have been highly invested in developing Malaysian storytelling, so I have looked deeply into Malaysian legends and history. At the end of the day, I am a proud Malaysian and I want to be part of the journey towards making our country Asia’s next cultural hub.
How do you go about casting a production? How long does it typically take before its debut?
Liver & Lung development times tend to be a lot more fast-paced and super-charged when you compare them to other production companies in Malaysia. We developed Sepet The Musical and some of our other productions in less than two months. I genuinely believe that the faster you can get content out in front of audiences, the more opportunity you have to fine-tune and perfect your craft.
Casting is about trust and family. The productions I develop are fruits of familial labour. I look for people who I believe in and who I know will help contribute to the final vision. My directing style is highly collaborative and so I look for people who are willing to give it they're all.
Your adaption of Yasmin Ahmad’s film Sepet has been critically acclaimed since you brought it to the stage in 2019. How long did it take you to finish the recording of the album?
The album took about 4 months to produce. It was really lovely to give the songs a bigger sound (the original production only featured a guitar!). I’m really happy with what we’ve created.
How did the recording process take place for all involved during this time?
Recording in times of COVID was always going to be a challenge but we managed to squeeze in recording opportunities in between MCOs!
What were your inspirations when you originally wrote each of these songs for the musical?
When watching Sepet, I was immediately drawn to Yasmin Ahmad’s cinematic piano-driven film score and also the canto-pop references she used. The album is inspired by all of that but also infused a folk-pop sound that Badrish (my co-composer) and I co-developed.
Badrish and I poured our hearts into this album. In the soundtrack, you’ll find some of the most intimate expressions of pain and loss, feelings we have still not worked through. There are also moments of joy and innocence, tributes to memories and lovers that made it all worth it.
It is an homage to Jason and Orked’s story.
How much of the album is a reproduction of the musical? How did Irena Taib get involved?
The original musical featured 12 songs and the album replicates all of them. In fact, the album builds on them with bigger production and instrumentation, thanks to Irena Taib. Irena and I met through a mutual friend early in 2020 and we have loved collaborating ever since.
Irena is a truly versatile producer with the ability to manipulate sound like she is creating magic. She really is the mastermind behind the soundtrack, lifting Badrish and my songs to a whole new level.
How did Badrika Baluch and Joshua Gui record this album for you?
I’ve known Badrika since she was 17 and Joshua for two years now. Joshua and Badrika are basically family to me. Recording the album was a magical experience and it was lovely to recreate the magic of the stage in the studio.
You launched Malaysia’s first digital festival, KLoud Fest, back in March this year. How did that come about?
The COVID-19 pandemic hit us all hard and reshaped many working lives. The Malaysian arts and creative industries were affected unprecedentedly as many theatres, cinemas, galleries, and music venues remained closed. Subsequent national MCOs only served to exacerbate the problem.
So how do we revitalise the Malaysian arts scene, produce relevant work and encourage participation within the arts in the middle of a global pandemic? Cendana and Diversecity, two organisations invested in developing Malaysia’s artistic scene, approached us in late 2020. They had seen our innovations in the local theatre scene and were up for a collaboration.
We had always been interested in developing an innovative festival for Malaysians local and abroad and came up with KLoud Fest, KL’s first digital festival. It was a really fun and challenging experience!
What were some challenges in putting something as diverse as this together?
Creating a digital festival from scratch was always going to be a difficult stretch. Habituating audiences to shift from traditional to digital viewership was a challenge but we managed to coordinate an effort amongst influencers, content creators, and digital musicians.
And how did it go vs your expectations?
KLoudFest was Malaysia’s first digital festival combining major arts disciplines into a single festival offering. As a production company with a vested interest in the arts, this partnership served as the unifying helm to guide the festival through uncharted territories and ensure the project reached its destination.
A key barrier to growth within Malaysia’s arts sector pre-COVID was its fragmented and siloed nature. The pandemic taught us we are stronger together. KLoud Fest’s robustness was in its multidisciplinary approach to program curation which served to unify the arts industry. In leveraging Malaysia’s homegrown talent, we engaged with local artists to showcase Malaysia as an artistic hub regionally and internationally and provided purpose and financial stability for artists. Perhaps KLoud Fest’s most impressive accolade was that it allowed artists and audiences alike the opportunity to connect digitally and engage with each other in live artistic and creative experiences on a new integrated and innovative digital platform.
Do you envisage KLoud to be something you might like to continue post-covid?
Yes, of course! We are in the process of designing a new KLoud Fest for 2022, a digital-physical hybrid solution, just for you! Keep your eyes peeled.
Covid-19 has affected so many people in so many industries in Malaysia. How has it affected Theatre and arts, in particular Liver & Lung?
At Liver & Lung, we were very quick to pivot to digital at the beginning of the pandemic. We released a podcast called Finding Fabulous and also launched digital soundtracks on Spotify for two of our hit musicals: Mahsuri (& Other Peculiar Tales) and Sepet The Musical. Not only did we do this, we kick-started our YouTube channel and released some of our musicals on YouTube for free (inspired by Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Shows Must Go On). The culmination of the above effort gave us a headstart as audiences shifted digital.
The pandemic has been hard, but it has given us the ability to view the world with new, opportunistic eyes.
Where do you see Arts and Theatre in Malaysia post-covid?
The pandemic is temporal. It has been heartbreaking to see so many people give up their craft but I am confident in our spirit as a country. I will forever champion Malaysian storytelling and fundamentally believe in our ability to be Asia’s next cultural hub. The pandemic will have bruised us but we will come back swinging. Watch this space!
Any advice for someone wanting to get involved in Theatre in Malaysia?
Just do it. Don’t be scared and don’t waste time in the rehearsal room waiting for opportunities. There isn’t institutional infrastructure in the Malaysian arts scene for you to waste your time on waiting. Create your own opportunities, produce your own shows and deliver. Finally, don’t be hesitant to get in touch. We always love chatting to young people who are interested in developing the scene!
What does the future hold for Liver & Lung?
Firstly, please follow us on Instagram at @shafeeqshajahan and @liver_and_lung to keep up to date with our latest works. You can also listen to the Sepet The Musical soundtrack on Spotify which we have recently launched with the support of Cendana and My Creative Ventures. In the next few months, we are developing a musical adaptation of Hanya.
Liver & Lung Productions can also be found on Facebook and Instagram.