May 27, 2024 Last Updated 6:09 AM, May 21, 2024

We can do anything

Workers with soul take their message to the kampung

Bob Muntz and Helen Pausacker

Teater Abu (Diverse Workers’ Theatre) was one of many workers’ theatre groups set up towards the end of the Suharto period. Theatre was a way of informing society, and workers themselves, about working conditions in Indonesia. Teater Abu used their performances to confront issues such as the dismissal of pregnant workers and sexual harassment in the workplace, as well as to explore workers’ personal lives. Its audience was made up mostly of workers, but their performances at urban theatres meant Teater Abu also received attention from the arts community and the press. Under Suharto, it was often possible to say things in theatre that could not have been said at a demonstration or in a pamphlet. Theatre was also an enjoyable way for workers to develop skills and self-confidence, which assisted them in the struggle for better working conditions.

Teater Abu’s plays have included Mentok, an adaptation of Wek-wek by D Djajakusuma, which portrayed workers, defenders of workers and union officials, acting out a court case. They have also performed Opera Nasi Kering (Dry Rice Opera), a theatre piece consisting of original songs composed by street singers, and Kesaksian (Witness), which showed workers downing tools, demonstrating and then being dispersed by an official.

Titi Margesti Ningsih (Gesti), the founder of Teater Abu, and Liswati (Lis), one of its actors, recently visited Australia to attend a workshop on Arts and Culture since Suharto at the University of Tasmania in Launceston. They performed a version of their play, Siti Nurbaya Lari-Lari (Siti Nurbaya on the run), which depicts the position of the modern Indonesian woman and the different pressures placed on her.

How did you come to be involved in theatre?

Gesti: Teater Abu started in 1992. An NGO, Yayasan Perempuan Mardika (Foundation of Free Women), invited me to set up and direct a factory workers’ theatre group. It had workers from all over the Jakarta area, who made shoes and toothbrushes, or worked in other factories. After a year, differences emerged between the NGO and my factory worker friends. The NGO abandoned us and our financial support was cut off. But I felt I had a moral responsibility as an artist to continue what we had started. Often forty ­workers would turn up to my place on weekends. They each contributed a small amount of money and we would buy food and eat together. On Saturday night we would sing and exercise together, and then have a more serious practice on Sunday. They would go home late on Sunday afternoon. Not everyone turned up to every practice — it could be thirty people one time, then only twenty the next time. I had to adapt to that as a director. I also went to their homes for rehearsals and I learned about their problems.

The group has been going for fifteen years. Around the time I moved to Tangerang, many of my worker friends started to get married. Their husbands didn’t let them continue to be involved in theatre, so I decided to invite the women from around my area. Some were factory workers, but there were also satay sellers, masseurs and builders’ labourers. A bakso (meat ball) seller watched us every afternoon and eventually asked to join in. She wanted to know if she had to pay, but we said no — our only condition was honesty.

Everything in our performances has to come straight from our souls, and everything in our souls — both good and bad — has to come out in a performance. Our plays are based on simple matters. For example, Siti Nurbaya is about how women balance tradition and modernity.

Lis: I worked in a Korean-owned factory, sewing shoes. I was invited to Teater Abu by a friend and watched them rehearsing and singing. There was a joy and togetherness there. At the beginning it was just fun for me and a break from the daily work at the factory; the routine of supervisors who spoke harshly to me, and the constant effort to achieve quotas. But after I had been through the practice and performance cycle a few times, it wasn’t just entertainment or release any more. I felt an urge to be on the stage. If I wasn’t on the stage, I missed it and wondered, ‘When will my next performance be?’ So I decided to leave the factory, and seek fulfilment in the theatre. But I still see a lot of my friends from the factory.

What has been your motivation for becoming involved in workers’ theatre?

Gesti: I want theatre to be performed by everyone, not just by professionals. There have been other workers’ theatres, but they chanted too many slogans. I don’t do that. I am more concerned with portraying issues from the workers’ immediate environment. It could be romantic problems between the workers, or problems with work contracts. I want to enrich workers’ lives, so that a satay seller doesn’t just sell satay, go home, then go out and sell satay again. I want to enable her to have another aspect to her life and self, and to increase her knowledge.

Do you concentrate on women’s issues in your theatre work?

Gesti: While the group was initially women only, there are now both men and women in the group. It’s about fifty-fifty now. I feel that it is better not to just involve women. The men are farmers and factory workers. We do have plays about women’s problems, but it’s not our only focus. We respond to the issues that emerge during practice.

Where do you perform?

Gesti: We’ve been all around Jakarta — to factories and kampungs. We have also been invited to festivals with professionals. People say, ‘That’s great! Who are these actors?’ I respond, ‘A satay seller, and others.’ The women walk seven kilometres every day. We climb up the mountain, then practise at one of the farmers’ places. We have toured 12 towns — Bandung, Yogyakarta, Bali, Surabaya and many other places. And we have performed at the Taman Ismail Marzuki Arts Centre in Jakarta.

Do you get financial or other support from trade unions?

Gesti: No. In the early stages, I applied to an arts funding body, because friends had said to me, ‘Your performances are good, ask for funding!’ But I was knocked back. Their reason was because the actors were workers. I don’t ask for funding for performances any more.

Lis: At most, we get donations from sympathetic friends.

Gesti: And I sometimes also sell a ring or a bracelet, to fund a performance.

What process do you go through to develop a performance?

Gesti: With Siti Nurbaya, I was inspired by the poetry of Afrizal Malna. I wanted to portray women’s position. To bring the performance to Australia, I had to re-visualise it from a performance with many people to a solo performance. I directed Lis as a solo actor, but she was used to being one of many actors. She would complain of stomach aches or other ailments. So I had to also step into the play for the scenes that I thought were still weak. Then Lis felt okay, but I had to stay in the play.

Lis: This is my first experience acting on my own.

Is producing theatre easier in the post-Suharto period?

Gesti: Yes. We had a number of difficulties with authorities in the Suharto era. For example, I produced Nyanyian Pabrik (Factory Song) in Bandung at the home of Jeihan, an artist. It was the first play I had directed, and there was a scene where there was fire. Jeihan’s house was in the middle of the forest, not in the city. But the army came and some students hid me upstairs. However, the students told me to teach again. The next day we had a workshop and the army came again, looking for me. They said my performance was setting things on fire — it was firing up the farmers! I was just performing with stones and torches. It seems that a number of NGOs had been handing out pamphlets at the performance, and there had been a workers’ strike in Majalaya, which they thought we had instigated through our play.

The second time we had difficulties with the authorities was a performance where busloads of workers arrived. They were just coming to see their friends, but I was interrogated for an hour. The officials told me that I wasn’t allowed to perform. The performance was called Mentok (to run into a dead end), but I told them it was Mentog (duck). I said that the play was about ducks.

Since reformasi, I can put on a performance in a carpark or on a main street. I don’t need a licence from the police. I can just ask the person who owns the venue. I feel now that I can do anything.

Bob Muntz ( is a member of the editorial board of Inside Indonesia. Helen Pausacker ( is the office and production manager at Inside Indonesia.

Inside Indonesia 86: Apr-Jun 2006

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