Cover Photo: Daniel Adams

How Shafeeq Shajahan and Hannah Shields of award-winning theatre company Liver & Lung Productions discover newfound inspiration during lockdown

In the six years since it was founded, Liver & Lung Productions has enthralled both local and international audiences with its unique voice and panache. The company behind sold-out theatre performances such as Sepet the Musical and Malaya Relived: The Fall Of Singapore bagged the BOH Cameronian Award in 2017 for Innovation in Musical Theatre for Mahsuri And Other Peculiar Tales – a noteworthy milestone for a team then in its third year of existence. 

This year, Liver & Lung Productions would have celebrated another milestone: an invitation to perform at the renowned Underbelly venues at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

As the Covid-19 outbreak shifted these plans to 2021, the young creatives at Liver & Lung Productions entered a nationwide partial lockdown pondering this question: how does a theatre company keep audiences engaged when they can no longer gather under one roof? 

Shafeeq Shajahan and Liver & Lung Productions' co-founder Hannah Shields were determined to find an answer with help from digital technology, a whole lot of creativity and a giant leap of faith.       

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Shajahan and Shields were university mates at UCL in London. No stranger to the practice of collaborating from a distance, the duo decided to start a company based partly in the UK and partly in Malaysia once Shajahan had returned home. 

Taking inspiration from their respective Malaysian and British roots, the pair founded Liver & Lung Productions as an outlet to deliver immersive and original stories to the stage.

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Today, while their goal remains the same, their methods of execution have shifted dramatically. Trading in theatre props and stage lights for podcasts and video-editing, the duo are setting an example of how creativity can flourish even under the most trying circumstances. Shajahan and Shields share more in this Q&A:

How do you maintain your creative energy while under quarantine? 

As is the case for all artists in lockdown, some days are great, some are more challenging. There's pressure to be super productive and make the most of self-isolation but sometimes, what our bodies and minds need the most is to sit down with a cup of tea, have a chat with our families and be grateful that we have a roof over our heads.

We're trying to get this balance right. We’re both very driven people, so it’s frustrating when external forces prevent our plans from being realised. You have to take a step back and look at the bigger picture. We’re very lucky to have our health and not be on the front line.

How do you engage with your audience right now? 

As producers, we have a responsibility to create content that is reflective of the current climate. Enhancing Liver & Lung’s online presence was the next logical step. Our digital content has provided us with an opportunity to grow and develop as original content makers, challenging us to adapt and create work specifically for digital channels. By continuously creating, we’ve been able to keep our art alive and introduce our work to new audiences, allowing people a chance to escape from the horrific news stories we see everyday.

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What kind of content have you been working on since the MCO started?

One of the first things we did was set up a podcast called Finding Fabulous, available on Spotify and Apple podcasts. We had been meaning to launch it for a while and self-isolation provided us with a unique opportunity. In each episode we talk about creativity, storytelling and pay tribute to our 'Idol of the Day'.

We’ve also begun hosting a variety of original musicals on our YouTube channel for audiences around the world to enjoy. We can finally be in more than two places at once!

Was it a challenge adapting your productions digitally?

Absolutely! There’s always a level of risk involved when you innovate and try something different. We’re very proud of our live stage shows but were concerned about how recordings, which were not originally intended for broadcast purposes, would translate to screen. Would the intimacy, power of music and stagecraft be lost? Thankfully, our videographer, Riz Hamzah, is top-notch and the quality wasn’t compromised.

The receptions for Sepet The Musical (@ Home) and the subsequent Malaya Relived: The Penang Riots (@ Home) were incredible. Many viewers were not traditional theatre-goers, so it was fantastic to be able to reach new audiences and introduce them to the magic of the theatre.

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What would you like to see more of in the local arts scene?

The Malaysian arts scene is special. It’s diverse, it’s eclectic and it has demonstrated incredible pockets of talents across the board. What it needs is a little more love, some funding and an opportunity to showcase to the world how amazing it is. The ambition for Liver & Lung is to facilitate this. Our mission has always been about developing locally astute but globally relevant content that promotes semangat ('spirit' in English) in a truly British-Malaysian way, giving local narratives the platforms they deserve.

How have your plans shifted in 2020?

We had plans to tour our work to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland and to the Black Box Festival in Macau this summer. We had revivals of our Malaya Relived shows in the pipeline and were working on some exciting adaptations for TV. Covid-19 halted these plans but in doing so, provided us with an opportunity to work on projects that had previously taken a backseat.

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Give us a glimpse of what's ahead for you.

The future is fabulous. Liver & Lung is about developing exciting musicals, film adaptations, dance pieces, immersive events and theatrical experiences for all audiences. When the MCO is over, come watch one of our shows. We promise you will be in for a treat. For now, see you on YouTube.

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