Penangites Speak Up

What happens when you gather 100 non-performers and get them to voice their opinions?

It started with a statistician giving some key statistics of Penang – its population is 49% male, 51% female; an average 83,034 passengers take the Rapid Penang transportation service daily; and the people consume 362 million litres of water daily.

After the hard numbers, she then introduced her mother, followed by her friend, and so on and so forth. Most of these “performers” are connected, referring to each other as “friends” or “family”.

“We decided to ask them to find each other… to have links between the people,” Helgard Haug of Rimini Protokoll explained the “recruiting” process.

Helgard Haug of Rimini Protokoll

Berlin-based Rimini Protokoll is no stranger to gathering non-performers for shows, with their first 100% City show being in their home city. Subsequent outings had them gather the local inhabitants of global cities like London, Melbourne, Paris and Tokyo. “100% Penang” is the troupe’s first foray into Southeast Asia.

To ease the audience into the show, it started off tame with easy questions such as geographical dispersion, with binary answers splitting the non-actors. However, as the show progressed, the performers (and the audience) were confronted with some topics which can be considered a tad touchy.

100 Penangites, standing proud.

Whether it be political leanings, stance on the LGBT agenda, or on protection for sex workers, “100% Penang” does not attempt to coddle or sugarcoat the circumstances, nor does it try to downplay them.

“I think it’s a process of understanding… It’s not only right or wrong, there’s a reason why a person expresses that way or believes that way. There is a logic in everyone’s behaviour or opinion. It’s not about everybody loving other; it’s about stating diversity,” Helgard commented.

Looks like people aren’t too fond of how the mainstream media covers the federal government.

Some matters can be a bit too sensitive for people to truthfully state their position, however – especially when put in the spotlight. Put on the bright lights and visible faces, and only a handful admitted to cheating on their tax sheets (cue boos from the audience). Turn off the house lights and the scene changes. The performers, now under the guise of anonymity, responded using flashlights. With no face that ties to their identity, they are free to speak up without repercussions.

Kiss of the Atlantis

The next part of the show had the performers answering multiple choice questions. Perhaps most amusing is how most of them will deal with the hypothetical scenario of Penang sinking like Atlantis – “Don’t worry, we’ll cope.” Humourous, yes, but I’m not sure if these Penangites are a hardy lot, or just “tidak apa” or “c’est la vie” exemplified.

A showcase of filial piety.

Also, a quick shout out to The Brackets & Co. for providing vocal and musical backings for the latter half of the show. Whether cheerful or melancholic, the band kept with the pace of the show, enhancing the experience.

Festival Director Joe Sidek said that “100% Penang” is his personal highlight for this year’s George Town Festival. In my opinion, it embodies what the festival is. It’s not just a celebration of art, culture, and heritage, it’s also a celebration of Penang’s “soul” – the inhabitants. Their joys, their sorrows, their doubts – it is a collection of Penangites’ experiences, condensed into a “performance”.

“One person said it’s like kissing your own city… It’s that hate-love relationship, but you just want to celebrate it, in a way.”

So after Malaysia, where to? “At the moment, we’re in the process of doing it in Yogyakarta, which will be in November. Right now, they are casting the people. We just started to talk with Taipei and Hong Kong. It’s all in Asia, which is really interesting for us.”


During the show, one question caught my attention: the performers were asked if they were lying at any point during the performance. Some raised their hand. Now, that made me question: What were they lying about? Were they lying the whole time? What if they’re not non-actors, but thespians just taking me along for a wild ride? Far-fetched, perhaps, but it is quite funny that we all still try to hide and deceive despite the lack of repercussions for speaking the truth. Interesting. ◆

The George Town Festival is sponsored by the Penang State Government and supported by Tourism Malaysia.