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Learning About Modern Indonesian Theatre with Dr. Cobina Gillitt

Theatre History Podcast #64

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When people think of Indonesia’s performing arts, traditions such as the shadow puppets of wayang kulit and the dance-drama of Bali often come to mind. However, as our guest for this episode teaches us, there’s a vibrant modern theatre scene that developed over the course of the twentieth century and continues to produce new and exciting work today. Dr. Cobina Gillitt introduces us to the work of playwright and director Putu Wijaya, as well as the larger context in which modern Indonesian theatre emerged.

actors standing and crouching on a red stage, performing concern
Teater Mandiri's production of EDAN. Photo Cobina Gillitt.


ensemble of actors pull down white cloth onstage
Teater Mandiri's production of ZERO. Photo Cobina Gillitt.

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Michael Lueger: Hi and welcome to the Theatre History Podcast. I'm Mike Lueger. Indonesia is a vast, diverse country with many different performance traditions. Its theatre is just as complicated, with a range of styles and a number of important figures and theatrical groups. One of those institutions is Teater Mandiri, a theatre company founded by the artist Putu Wijaya in 1971. Dr. Cobina Gillitt has been a member of Teater Mandiri since 1988, and today she joins us to talk about the troupe and about modern Indonesian theatre. Cobina is an assistant professor of theatre and performance at Purchase College, as well as a dramaturg and translator of Indonesian plays. Cobina, thank you so much for joining us.

Cobina Gillitt: Thank you. I'm happy to be here.

Michael: Can you help us with some context of how have Indonesia's politics and culture helped to shape its theatre?

Cobina: That's a really good and complex question to answer, because all of the theatre as we talked about, modern theatre, as opposed to perhaps traditional theatre if we were going to make a difference between the two, has been shaped by Indonesian politics. The vast number of different cultures within Indonesia itself, which is [a] vast archipelago of 17,000 islands, which is really just a political grouping, as opposed to something that's organic; in other words, it's leftover from 350 years of colonial rule by the Dutch. And so, within those 17,000 islands, there are 350 distinct languages that are spoken; that's not even including the different dialects. And each of those languages represents a different culture and different backgrounds. And so, you're talking about something very huge.

I'm going to be talking about modern theatre, contemporary theatre, which is in the Indonesian language, which is a single national language that was first adopted in the beginnings of the twentieth century and made official when Indonesia gained its independence in 1945. So when we're asking about how politics and culture helped shape theatre, we can see that, until Indonesian became the national language, there really wasn't any difference between what was called “traditional theatre” and “contemporary modern theatre”; everything was theatre. And, in fact, in Indonesian language itself, there is no word for theatre. The word that they use is teater, so it's a borrowed word.

Michael: Now, we're gonna be talking a lot about Putu Wijaya today. But I'm curious who some of the other major figures of modern Indonesian theatre are.

Cobina: Modern Indonesian theatre, generally we trace back to the introduction of Indonesian as the national language, because before that, theatre was generally performed in the local languages. And so that it was not understandable to people outside of the local communities. And so after 1928, when there was a youth oath to adopt Indonesian as the national language, and Indonesia started to become more of a national performance where there would be people understanding from different communities, we started to see, Indonesia started to have plays that were modeled on a western type of theatre that had been brought to Indonesia by the Dutch colonials. The plays themselves focused on revolutionary themes. They have a number of anticolonial allegories or they were historical epics and, all in all, the type of theatre that was performed was psychological realism.

And this is the type of theatre that was picked up by the national theatre schools, based on the first translated book of western theatre training, which was Boleslawski's Six Lessons. So it was a Stanislavski type of system that was taught—or what we call here in the States “method acting”. The type of work that Putu Wijaya does, and the type of theatre that I do most of my research in, is theatre that grew out of the 1960s, which happens to be a time of political change between Indonesia's first president—Sukarno, who became president when Indonesia declared its independence in 1945—and a coup by President Suharto, who became president in 1965.

What happened, starting in the 1960s, is there was a shift away from what had been happening under Sukarno, who had been leaning more and more towards Maoist China and slogans and using theatre as a form of political rhetoric, to something that theatre makers were very excited to feel that would be open; they would have more of an openness and a chance to perform what they wanted. Unfortunately, what happened under Suharto's rule—called the New Order—there was no freedom of speech. There was heavy censorship. But there was one forward-looking governor of Jakarta (the capital city of Jakarta has a governor) that opened theatre complex named Taman Ismail Marzuki. And within that complex, theatre directors were allowed to create theatre without fear of political interference and without having to support any type of political message.

What also happened within this theatre complex is they invited groups up from local communities from across Indonesia to perform traditional forms of theatre that no one had seen in Jakarta before, because as I said, traditional theatres were generally kept localized because it was in their local languages. And so there were a number of theatre pioneers, like Putu Wijaya but also Teguh Karya, Rendra, [inaudible 00:05:58] who were the first ones to start looking at these different types of theatre forms from around the country, and seeing how they could use or incorporate some of the traditional forms and ways of approaching theatre that would move it away from the Western, standard Stanislavski styles that were taught in the schools, and more towards an Indonesian aesthetic; or thinking about an Indonesian theatre, as opposed to just something that was copying Western theatre.

Michael: We've mentioned Putu Wijaya. Who is he, and what's the underlying philosophy of his Teater Mandiri?

Cobina: The very first and most prominent pioneer in contemporary theatre, starting in 1960s onwards, was WS Rendra, who from his group a number of other people grew. Putu Wijaya was a member of his group for a while. Putu Wijaya is actually Balinese born, and left Bali to go to central Java Jogja, where Rendra had his theatre group called Teater Bengkel, which means “Workshop Theatre” where he saw that humans needed to be worked on as like in a car workshop, like in an auto shop, to get back to sort of more of an objective reality, as opposed to being fed information and facts and how to think by the government, to be able to think more independently.

And so Putu grew out of that group. He was actually studying law at the time, but joined the group, and from there went on to create his own theatre company called Teater Mandiri in 1972. Mandiri means “independent”, so it's an independent type of theatre. He has several mottos that have propelled his work forward until now. One of them is bertolak dari yang ada, which means, “make do with what is available.” So it's a type of poor theatre as we can think of perhaps in a Growtoski sense that, you know, if you don't have it, you do without. They didn't have a lot of money; there was no sponsorship, really. But it's also an idea of making do with what's available is using the resources that you have. The number one resource that you have to make theatre are the bodies of the actors within the group.

And so it became a physical theatre, and really using the strengths of the people who joined his group. And he has a wide range of people who have joined this group, from professional actors, to people who are professionals in other fields, to homeless people, to illiterate people, to anybody who has shown some kind of interest in working with him and the dedication to show up to rehearsals have found a place there. Because he has these bodies to work with, he focuses on these actors in order to create plays for his theatre group. So that has been the main sort of underlying force that has propelled them till now.

Michael: Now there's a couple of other terms that come up when talking about Putu Wijaya and his theatre group. What's a tontonan, and how does that differ from the term teater?

Cobina: Tontonan is an Indonesian word, the root of which is “to watch”. So tonton means “to watch”. And so the idea is to make theatre less precious and more of the people who are watching it, in other words, so that it's less elitist. And so a tontonan is something that would usually be applied to traditional performance. So that's one of the things that he picked up in terms of, from the traditional aesthetics is to make it much more of a watching, as opposed to theatre, which is actually has its roots in Greek is to, you know, “seeing place”. And so that, you know, it's more of an Indonesian term to get it away from the western teater, which didn't really jive with how they were looking at theatre.

One of the things they were trying to get away from, Putu Wijaya and others, were sort of the Western conventional realism of talking about the weather and sitting around the living room or living room dramas and all of that. First of all, no one talks about the weather in Indonesia because it's always hot. There's no reason to. People don't have houses are the same way, it's just life isn't set up that way. And so, the idea of a tontonan is to make it sort of a more humble type of performance, but also allows in his mind for audience to bring away with them what they want. In other words, his performances, his tontonan can be seen on many different levels. And so the same way that his company shifts all the time and is made up of members from the illiterate to the highly educated, audience members also run that gamut, and his plays work on many different levels. And so if you're there to see something political you'll see something political. If you're there to see something funny, you'll see something funny.

And the point is: he wants to have those conversations continue on after people come to see the performance. He also has a term that he began with when he first moved to Jakarta and started Teater Mandiri in the ’70s. He was working as a journalist, and he started to also think of his theatre or his work in terms of what he called Teater Bodoh—or the “stupid theatre”—which is to say that he would present things in a way that was stupid, in that people would understand what he was saying and get it in the way that reporters often report on complex topics, but in a way that make the readers feel smart, that they've actually gotten something. So that's how he thought his theatre was. In other words, by bringing it down to the level of thinking of it as a tontonan and as Teater Bodoh or “stupid theatre “was to make it more inclusive, to really have it be a theatre of the people where anybody could get something out of it.

Michael: Can you tell us about some of Teater Mandiri's significant productions; and how does the troupe develop its work?

Cobina: They're still producing productions, they're still working, although Putu Wijaya himself suffered a stroke a few years ago and is now wheelchair-bound. He's still writing and performing and, in fact, yesterday had a performance of one of his short plays. In April, there's going to be, his Teater Mandiri is doing a major production. And generally, as I said, he starts with the people who are in the group; the group has, except for one exception, has performed plays that he's written. And so, he knows who's in his troupe and writes for them.

Most of his characters and the way that he creates his plays is they're about a group of people. And from this group of people, certain individuals emerge and have some kind of interaction, and then fade back into the group. And so it's ensemble work, which means that he can really play around with who plays what part. Oftentimes his characters aren't named individual names. They're just one of them, or a committee member or, you know, and so there's committee member, committee member, committee member, committee member, and it's up to the director and to the group itself to figure out which committee member is saying which of those lines.

Some of his more notable productions began back in—one of his very first plays was called Aduh which I've translated as Ought. Aduh is a word in Indonesian that is something that you say when you hit yourself and it hurt. So it's kind of like “ow”, it's kind of like a sigh of like a laugh. And there really wasn't a single word, Putu is known, for all the titles of all his plays are a single word that has a variegated levels of meaning, which goes along with his ideas of being inclusive of different audiences. And so he and I thought for a very long time about what would be the proper word for Aduh to translate.

And the closest thing I could think of being a New Yorker was oi because oi has all those connotations of you know, you hit yourself, oi, or this terrible thing happening in politics, oi but that was too culturally specific. And so we came up with the word ought, which fits into the play in that it's about a group of people, unnamed, who are working and all of a sudden a sick person comes up and ask for help. And while they're trying to decide whether or not they're going to help the sick person, that sick person dies. And so they decide that they need to bury the body or they'll be somehow implicated in this person's death. And so it becomes a rumination on what ought you do in a situation like this.

It's a cyclical play. So at the very end, when they finally go through all these things, getting the body buried, another sick person arrives. And throughout the play, there's hints to back to that this has happened before. So that was a very, that was a significant play that happened early in his career. But he's published over forty plays and has written more than that. So to really pull a lot of them out as significant is hard to do. He's had different periods; there was a long time where his plays were very wordy along with this Ought play. And then we went through much more visual period starting in the late eighties, early nineties, where he began a signature style of covering the whole proscenium with a white curtains screen as a shadow screen, And so that the actors were shadows, performed as shadows behind the screen, along with different objects and puppets.

And then it evolved even more and more until actors started coming out downstage, and he's worked with different ways of working with the lights. And so that has evolved for a long time. And his cast got even bigger and bigger, where he started using school children. There was one that took place about seven years ago, trying to remember the title of that one, but there were about fifty school children, fifty to seventy-five school children who took part in that.

And now he has moved into a new phase of writing what he calls “monodramas”, which are a combination of straight monologues, or a short play that is primarily spoken, or the dialogue is primarily spoken by one actor but there may be more than one actor in the scene.

Michael: You've written quite a lot about Teater Mandiri's work and Putu Wijaya. There's a particularly striking essay where you talk about how everyone looks at this group's work and says, “Oh, that sounds like Artaud and the Theatre of Cruelty”. We mentioned Grotowski, the Polish director and poor theatre, from our discussion, it really seems like there's this tension between "modern"—which is sort of taken to mean “Western”—and traditional theatre styles in Indonesia. I'm really curious how Putu Wijaya's work, and that of his contemporaries, has handled that tension.

Cobina: There are a couple of different ways that I can answer that question. One of them is of course Artaud, although he came up with his ideas about Theatre of Cruelty on his own, they were confirmed as valid for him when he saw the International Colonial Fair in France in 1931. And what he saw there was a group of Balinese dancers, and by seeing them, and in fact, in his book, The Theatre and its Double, the first essay that he wrote—it’s not the first essay in the book, but the one he wrote chronologically first—is on the Balinese theatre. And so within the Balinese theatre, a lot of his ideas of Theatre of Cruelty were confirmed.

You ask Putu Wijaya have you ever read Artaud, he'll answer “maybe”, but he also answers “well, I'm Balinese”. And so, is it possible that the two of them got there the same way? There's a lot of circularity between Western avant-garde theorists, drama theory, and Asian theatre along, with Brecht who saw Chinese opera, and Growtoski who has connections to India and Artaud and Bali. What happened in the sixties with these theatre conservatories that were very much focused on Stanislavski style of naturalism: there was this underground sort of core group of theatre directors who would pass around mimeographed copies of anything that they could get on theatre theory.

So Growtoski when he was first translated into English in the ’50s, a mimeograph copy went around about the poor theatre. And so these theatre directors have read them, but also, for example, Rendra—who is another theatre director I spoke about—gets a lot of his inspiration from Javanese shadow puppetry. And within the Javanese shadow tradition, there are a lot of what we can call “Brechtian” techniques of distancing or “making strange”, and the separation between the performer as the dalang or the puppeteer and the puppets.

And so, a lot of these ideas that we think of as western theory is already found within the Indonesian traditions. And so, in fact, Putu Wijaya and I also write about these types of theatres as this theatre tradition or modern contemporary theatre that these particular directors do, we call it Tradisi Baru which translates as “the new tradition” because they very much wanted to create theatre that was within the continuum of Indonesian theatre that wasn't a break in any way from this continuum theatre, and it's just a new way of looking at traditions.

And so, you know, your first question to me was how did culture and politics affect theatre. Now, in the sixties and seventies, in this theatre complex that I was talking about, the theatre was very political and in fact, in the end, the openness was shut down by poetry reading that Rendra was giving when someone threw an ammonia bottle over the wall. And what, though, these theatre director saw in this theatre complex by seeing traditional theatres from across the country, for the first time, was there are ways already within the traditions that people addressed sensitive political topics.

So an example again, I'll go back to the shadow puppet, the wayang kulit, always within it has these clown characters. So within the tradition, the major heroes and nobility, they speak a language, an old type of archaic Javanese language, that the audience doesn't understand. So the these clown type characters, they're servants who translate into the local language. But what they also do is they can crack political jokes and make comments on what's going on socially without as much retribution. Basically, what happens is every sponsor of an event would come to the beginning and the puppeteer would behave very well. And by the time they went home—at one, two in the morning—that’s when the clowns would really start getting at it.

So one of the ways that these Tradisi Baru directors found a way in which to use a structure that was based more on a traditional concept of using clown characters to talk about sensitive topics, government or government censorship topics, by using these types of structures from the traditional forms of shadow puppetry and popular entertainment, where you had characters would come in and clown around and talk about these without getting in trouble, basically. Their other way of circumventing the censorship would be to, for example, Rendra would use western plays such as Antigone, for example, and make sure that by putting it in an Indonesian locale, it became clear that he was criticizing some of the state versus morals of the society.

But on the other hand, he also wrote play that he would very specifically say, “This takes place in a country in South America, not here.” Although, seeing it and reading it, you know very well where it was taking place. And that lasted until 1978, and then the censors got wise and everything, all the sort of that freedom of sort of being covert, shut down. But still, they were very crafty at getting the messages across.

Michael: You've done a lot of work with Teater Mandiri. I'd love to hear about just what you've done, what the experience has been like, and what some of the more significant of those experiences have been for you.

Cobina: Well, I first met Putu Wijaya when I was in college. I was a theatre major at Wesleyan University. My focus was on directing. I had taken a course on Balinese dance and music that counted towards my major. Putu was in the country doing residencies at different universities. Wesleyan was one, University of Wisconsin in Madison was another. And he came and did one of his plays, production of one of his plays called Roar at Wesleyan with the students. I didn't really know him then. But after I graduated, and having taken that course, first thing I did was I hopped on a plane and traveled to Indonesia, spent some time in Bali learning mass dance, and then traveled all over Southeast Asia.

When it came back to New York I was working at La MaMa, downtown New York. Within the rehearsal studios there, I was walking up the stairs—now they have an elevator, but I was on the sixth floor so I could see everybody at each level—and there was Putu Wijaya on one of the levels. I went in and introduced myself and said, you know, I had seen his work and I'd just been to Indonesia and I'd heard more about him. We started talking and we just hit it off. He asked me to be the production stage manager for a production that he was directing at La MaMa, and then he asked me to go back to Indonesia and stage managed his group in Jakarta, which I did, which is interesting because I didn't speak any Indonesian at the time and they'd never had a stage manager before. That was something he learned about here in the United States.

When I first went, this was in 1988, there hadn't been any women really who had any directing roles or leadership roles within theatre groups besides being actors. And so, they weren't used to having a stage manager tell them what to do first of all. And secondly, it was almost impossible for me to sweep the stage because men would come up to say, “No, no, let me do that for you.” So that was an interesting learning experience both for them and for me, and for me to learn how to speak Indonesian very quickly.

One of the most memorable moments after I got there was we were rehearsing for a play called Aum, and I was not really quite sure what I should be doing since they've never had a stage manager and I didn't speak that much Indonesian. I was just standing there kind of confused. And I said to Putu, I said, "What should I do?" And he said, "Up to you." I thought for a moment, what does he mean up to me, it's up to me. And there and then, I discovered one of the other, bertolak dari yang ada—which I said from the beginning is make do with what's available. And another sort of underlying group dynamic which is that you jump in and do what is needed.

So it wasn't that someone was going to tell me what to do. I need to see what needed to be done and do it. That also happens during performances as well. So I've performed with the group. I started out as a stage manager. I've performed with them and I've toured internationally with them and to the United States. We've had some mishaps and things. For example, main actor one time had a heart attack, and we all had to shift roles within the play. You learn to help others out on stage by yelling out their lines for them. They said also because everyone doesn't have a name, it's a community of people, so it doesn't necessarily matter who says what line sometimes.

But there was another time when we were performing during Festival of Indonesia in the early nineties at Cal Arts and the headset system was down, was broken, and we needed a net to fall from the flies. And so that just became something that I yelled out during the performance. So in other words, you step in and you see what needs to be done; you know, there's nothing that does, you know, everyone does their part. And so the, “up to you” was a small bunch of words but had a profound effect in my understanding of how the company itself is run, and how theatre can be made as an ensemble.

Michael: Can you bring us up to date on what's been going on with Indonesian theatre in recent decades?

Cobina: Well, the New Order era under President Suharto ended in 1998 when he was forced to step down. And since then, Indonesia has been a democratically elected government. In fact, the second largest true democracy in the world after India with a one to one voting. And since then there has been a lot more openness in what theatre, what playwrights are able to write about and theatres are able to stage. Although, there are other types of censorship that continue to plague a lot of artists in Indonesia, not just from the state, but now also because of rise of religious conservatives and particularly militant Islam and things like that.

But since the fall of Suharto, there was broadening of theatre outside of the theatre of the center; I've really been talking about two centers. One was in Yogyakarta, which was in central Java where Rendra began his Bengkel Theatre, but then everyone moved to Jakarta. So most of the theatre I had been talking about was centered in Jakarta. But since 1998, and there's been a concerted effort to allow contemporary theatre to thrive outside, and there have been a number of important groups that have continued to work in Jakarta like Teater Koma that is headed by Riantiarno; but also we have, there were newer groups that came around during the postmodern 1990s called Teater Sae, and Teater Kubur. Then also other centers such as Bandung, which is in West Java, has had a strong theatre tradition now, Teater Payung Hitam or the “Black Umbrella.”

Out in Jogja, back in Jogja has had sort of a re-blossoming of theatre groups starting with Teater Garasi or “Garage Theatre” or “Theatre of the Garage”, which has modeled basically Bengkel Workshop Theatre in more ways than one, not just in the name, but also in that it's also a training ground, where they study theatre as well. And so, there is an interesting dynamic of theatre in Indonesia which is unlike here in the United States in that theatre groups are mostly comprised of one leader like Putu Wijaya, who's usually or often the sole playwright and director of the group. And from there, it's been very hard for a new generation of theatre makers to emerge. There have been some who have emerged and some groups who are more structured in such a way that new theatre directors can emerge. But it's not—it’s still very much based on that group dynamic as opposed to having a director as an idea and going out and auditioning actors who've never worked together before.

That's starting to happen more now; that's been a much more recent change. But still the overall landscape of theatre in Indonesia, the contemporary theatre Indonesia is dominated by these groups that are led by a single figure or figurehead who is the artistic driver with a bunch of actors who are following them, as opposed to actors being independent, going out, and performing and working with different directors.

Michael: What would you suggest for listeners who want to learn more about Teater Mandiri and modern Indonesian theatre?

Cobina: There are a few articles available. There are some people who write about it. We're a small, rarefied group of scholars across the world. Few of us in the United States, one in Canada, one in England, [and] a couple of the Netherlands who write about Indonesian theatre. One of the problems is and one of the reasons why I became a translator of Indonesian plays is when I was doing my research, there wasn't any information in English. And so I had to learn Indonesian pretty quickly but also had to do all my translations in order to include work in my writing about Indonesian theatre for people to read.

So there are—and as you said, you're going to put up a list of resources that people can look at—there are journal articles, there are books, there are YouTube videos, there's one scene of one of my translations, which you can click on online. There is a major four-volume series of Indonesian plays, all of twentieth-century Indonesian plays in translation that was published simultaneously in Indonesian and in English. And so that's available now through the University of Hawaii Press, it's called the Lontar Anthology of Indonesian Drama. And another anthology that I've edited that has a number of modern Indonesian plays in it is called Islands of Imagination, which is also published by University of Hawaii Press. I'm currently working on a newer volume that brings us into the twenty-first century.

Other than that, it's not an easy topic and it's not one that many people are interested in, although Indonesia is the fourth most populous country in the world, and has more Muslims in its population than all the Muslims in the Middle East combined. And so it's always fascinating to me how little people, and how little even within academia and publishers are interested in supporting work on Indonesia, even after we had a president who spent a good deal of his childhood growing up in Indonesia, which of course is Barack Obama.

Michael: Well hopefully after hearing this episode, listeners will be inspired to learn a little more. It's certainly a fascinating sort of theatrical scene and the work that you've done—with the work that you've done with Putu Wijaya sounds really interesting. So we're going to post some additional information about Teater Wijaya and modern Indonesian theatre, including the links that Cobina mentioned. Thank you, Cobina, so much, for introducing us to this really vibrant, exciting world, and for teaching us about modern Indonesian theatre.

Cobina: Thank you very much. Thank you for letting me share and I do hope that more people will be interested in this really fascinating theatre form.

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