Nov 18, 2017 Last Updated 3:54 AM, Nov 13, 2017

NGO theatre in the post New Order

Published: Jul 27, 2007


Lauren Bain

The use of the performing arts for political purposes in Indonesia is nothing new. As regular readers of Inside Indonesia will know, dangdut, campursari, and wayang are all popular modes of political communication: just watch the parties compete to secure dangdut superstar Inul Daratista’s upport in the lead up to the 2004 lections.

But political parties are not the only groups that use performance as a strategy to expand their reach. Since the fall of the New Order, partnerships between non-government organisations (NGOs) and artists are becoming increasingly common. The flourishing of local NGOs during this period, the elimination of the requirement for performance permits, and the increased availability of international funding for these sorts of activities have all contributed to this development.

Although these partnerships are usually based on shared values and political commitments, they are also often characterised by tension between artists’ and NGO’s aims. An NGO’s desire to communicate a clear message to the general public, for example, might not be compatible with an artist’s desire to explore abstract ideas and experiment with disjointed narratives and aesthetics. Theatre produced by NGOs — whether in Indonesia or elsewhere — is often deemed to be worthy but didactic, well intentioned but artistically dubious. With its focus on process rather than the final product, ‘NGO theatre’ is often purposely more interesting for participants than it is for the audience.

Despite these tensions, several recent collaborations between artists and NGOs have demonstrated that not only can the arts be an effective medium for NGOs’ work: working with NGOs can in some cases extend and challenge artists’ practice in positive ways.

One such collaboration was a production called Suara dan Suara, by Teater Perempuan Independen Sumatera Utara, a female workers’ theatre group who came together last year to work with director Lena Simanjuntak. Suara dan Suara is a collaborative work that is based on group members’ real life stories.

Teater Perempuan Independen was established in 1999, after an NGO called HAPSARI ran a workshop to explore the possibilities of using theatre as a tool for education and empowerment of female workers. It was one of the first (if not the first) theatre groups in Indonesia whose aim is to express the experiences and concerns of working class women from rural communities. All group members are workers on plantations or in fishing communities and became involved in the project through their affiliation with one of several participating unions.

Suara dan Suara is the first work that Teater Perempuan Independen has performed outside of Sumatra. Performances staged in Jakarta in September 2002 attracted a great deal of interest, both because of the high quality of the performance, the rarity of all-women theatre groups and the politically sharp, accessible subject matter.

The first thing that most audience members notice about Suara dan Suara is that it involves so many ordinary women. There are 18 performers, all of whom are on stage for the entire performance. Suara dan Suara demands that we pay attention to these women and listen to their stories. It is a work in which women create and control their own narrative and representational spaces; it depicts female characters who are human subjects in their own right. Although male characters feature in the performance, they are all played by women, in a reversal of the traditional theatre convention of female roles being played by men.

The stories in Suara dan Suara are honest and confronting. Sourced directly from group members’ personal experience, the dramatisation was developed collectively. Strongly grounded in conventional dialogue, the performance also draws on local oral traditions, music and song.

During the performance, we follow for example the lives of a group of plantation workers who are contracted on a daily basis (buruh harian lepas), one of whom is sexually assaulted by the mandor of the plantation on which she works. We also witness a tragically familiar story about a woman who struggles to escape normalised domestic violence, files for divorce and directly confronts the commonly held wisdom that its ‘lebih baik dipukulin daripada jadi janda’ (better to be beaten than to be divorced).

The final section of Suara dan Suara deals with the experience of a woman from a fishing community whose husband dies at sea when his small boat is caught up in a large commercial trawling net. This story highlights both the insensitivity of authorities to women and the impact of commercial development on poor communities. It makes use of traditional fisherwomen’s songs and is narrated as the cast undertake collective activities such as repairing fishing nets and rowing a fishing boat.

At several points, performers read sections from the Indonesian constitution and other legal documents pertaining to workers’ and women’s rights. Knowing that in Jakarta there would be feminist and labour activists in the audience, the performers asked several times for audience help with interpreting the text of these legal documents. The absurdity of official rhetoric is quickly exposed, implicating the audience in the frameworks and practices that perpetuate the injustices described.

Director Lena Simanjuntak, who is Indonesian but now lives in Germany, is the only member of the group with any formal training in theatre, having studied at the Jakarta Arts Institute. The performers in Suara dan Suara meanwhile have had limited training, which at times means that the performance is ‘rough’ around the edges: words are mispronounced or lines are forgotten. One performer reads from a script because, she says, ‘I have only recently learnt to read and I enjoy doing it.’ But in this context, lack of formal training means that the work is unconstrained by artistic conventions and is refreshingly unselfconscious about its place in the arts world.

Suara dan Suara is a work that challenges the stereotype that ‘NGO theatre’ is well intentioned but artistically uninteresting. As one critic noted, the work was an unusually successful marriage between theatre and activism from which many other groups and artists could learn.

Entirely humble about the project’s outcomes, Lena Simanjuntak points out that one of the major challenges for her as a director of this kind of project is to learn ‘how not to be a director’. She argues that the most important thing in creating a performance like Suara dan Suara is un-learning the skills that are normally associated with directing theatre in order to create space for the performers’ voices. In Indonesian theatre culture, which like many others around the world is dominated by visionary and often egotistical directors, Simanjuntak’s approach is perhaps exactly what is required to make ‘NGO theatre’ work.

In the post New Order era, there are increasing opportunities for artists and NGOs to work together. Organisations involved in international cultural exchange with Indonesia, such as Asialink (in Australia) and the British Council have also — to varying degrees — begun to broaden their focus to include projects that aim to encourage greater grass roots involvement, in some cases working in partnership with NGOs.

As NGOs begin to play an increasingly important role in creating cultural capital in Indonesia it is essential that we develop an accurate picture of ‘NGO theatre’ and document what has and hasn’t worked. As a starting point, Teater Perempuan Independen’s Suara dan Suara is an example of an NGO theatre project that should inspire Indonesian and non-Indonesian artists and NGOs to continue this kind of work.

Lauren Bain (laurenbain@ozemail.com.au) is completing a PhD on theatre and politics in Indonesia in the post-New Order era.

Inside Indonesia 76: Oct - Dec 2003

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