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Bernard’s Vision: A New Direction for DPAC

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“I think I put myself in a very challenging position in 2017,” says Bernard Goh. The founder and (continuing) Artistic Director for Hands Percussion recently took on another full-time job – that of Artistic Director for the Damansara Performing Arts Centre (DPAC).

As an experienced Artistic Director, he comes in with a very clear direction in mind. Clear direction, he explains, is part of what has made Hands Percussion such a phenomenon. “When I started Hands Percussion I knew exactly what I wanted,” says Bernard. “I could have chosen to be like a Japanese drumming group, or Korean or maybe Western, where the forte is on percussion instruments, not drums. But I said no, because I needed to pull in elements of Malaysia. We represent Malaysia.”

This vision served as a guiding point for everything Hands Percussion would do. “It’s reflected in the direction, the costumes, our outlook, the hairstyles… also promotional materials and images on the website. You name it, everything.” With Bernard at the helm, Hands not only gained a strong fan base in Malaysia, it is also regularly invited to perform internationally.

DPAC Black Box

“But theatre is different”

Bernard is a great admirer of his predecessor’s work. Trained in dance, DPAC’s former Artistic Director Wong Jyh Shyong (JS) established a strong dance progamme at DPAC and “did it brilliantly, did it perfectly.” Now Bernard wants to make sure DPAC becomes equally well known for other performing arts.

What’s missing?

“Everyone believes that Malaysia has talent,” says Bernard. “You ask and everyone puts up their hands, put up their legs, puts up everything to agree… we 100 percent believe in what we are capable of doing.” So lack of talent isn’t the problem. “Now,” continues Bernard. “We change the environment (for artists) just a little bit.”

What kind of an environment do artists need? “I talk to Jo Kukathas and Ghaffir Akbar because I love their work,” says Bernard. The two actor/directors are equally popular in Singapore and have had many opportunities to work across the causeway where the ‘environment’ is very different.

“In Singapore, their job is full time: They have their script so during they day they learn and practice. At night they go for rehearsals and that’s how it is until the show opens. They tell me they would like to do a lot of that work here but there are no opportunities.” So instead they rely on less satisfying but better paid gigs – corporate jobs and stand up comedy.

“So they do other work where they make money to do the kind of performance they want. Then they do the performance they want and they lose money.”

Bernard sees DPAC as a place where artists do the work they want to do with support, so artists and creators can concentrate on their work rather than on ticket sales and promotion.

“Too many people don’t understand theatre”

Bernard also wants to make DPAC a place where young practitioners come to understand theatre; a rarity even among more experienced performers. People still think of acting as something that has more to do with popularity than skill or training. “Win a modeling contest and they make you a star. And famous DJs are cast as actors.”

There needs to be a reality check. “Young people enter competitions in music, dance or acting and if they win, they feel they’re great already. They think it means they are ready for the stage. But they don’t know the meaning of performing.”

Once again, where Bernard sees a problem he also envisions a solution. “I have the venue here. Let’s start a programme where I can cultivate and nurture and show (aspiring theatre professionals) what the theatre is all about.” He’s already in discussions with a local university to start an internship programme where interns learn about every aspect of the theatre. Including that it’s a profession that requires hard work. Again he brings up Hands Percussion as an example.

“Many of my drummers have been with me since their school days. They train and train and train. Even now,” Bernard glances at his watch, “my group is practicing. Later, I will go back and check on them.”

Follow through is another thing that is needed when nurturing talent. “There are lots of contests that ‘discover’ young talent but there’s no follow up. We need to tell last year’s winners ‘if you want to do a full-length show this year, we’ll support you’.”

A community space

A community spot

“I want to make more use of the Black Box {Link: DPAC Black Box Venue Listing}. It’s cozy and I want to have more music programs. I have a music background because of the drums and and I used to play the trumpet. I love music, I love jazz, I love world music, I love going to No Black Tie, to Bobo…” these last two are popular clubs in KL. “We could make the Black Box into a space like that, a chill, relaxed place where everyone can come and appreciate music.”

The comfortable downstairs lounge where we’re doing the interview could be “a place where famous actors and other theatre professionals hang out,” and people can drop in for a chat.

A greater dream

Bernard’s plans extend well beyond DPAC’s walls. “I love this place,” he says of Empire Damansara, where DPAC is, “Imagine if they fully utilized it. My dream would be to make this place an artist’s hub. You could have your studio here, there are a lot of empty spaces with a lot of natural light here, not artificial.“ But how will he convince these artists and artisans – “potters, ceramists, painters, sculptors, fashion designers, jewelry makers… you name it” – to move here? He’s still working that out…”I still have a lot of thinking to do”

DPAC has already built a strong reputation for its dance programmes

But first things first.

With a clear vision in his head, Bernard knows exactly where to start. He says they already have a strong line-up for 2017 and is determined to take care of small things that make a big difference. The ticketing system at DPAC, for instance, has always been notoriously wonky. So that’s one of the first things that is being looked into.

With all the big ideas and little details that his new job entails, Bernard will still make time for Hands Percussion but will give senior members more responsibility. “They can do it. They have the experience. It’s a very good group and I need to make this happen.”

As for his new job: “It’s 100% in my head. I need to work hard, I need to explore, I need to try. If it doesn’t work, never mind, I’ll just try again. That’s my philosophy for 2017.”

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Amy De Kanter
Amy De Kanter

Former Chief Editor, frequent contributor and enthusiastic audience member, Amy is thrilled to have a job that lets her do three of the things she loves most.