Published: Jul 30, 2007

Some directions in post-New Order theatre

Lauren Bain

Many within the arts community in Indonesia experienced a sense of euphoria after the fall of Suharto. Two years on, is theatre really 'floundering and directionless' as a recent article in The Jakarta Post suggested (6 August 2000)?

Under the New Order the performing arts were subject to tight state controls. Yet theatre groups were to varying degrees able to resist and to make critical comment on many aspects of New Order society.

The late New Order saw increasing numbers of theatre companies producing non-linear, non-text based works using physical performance forms. This form of theatre invited multiple, pluralistic responses from audiences, and in a western theoretical framework could be described as 'postmodern'. Much of this work was also highly critical of the New Order state, but perhaps because of its non-text based format was largely able to avoid censorship. By saying the 'unsayable' without using words it perhaps positioned itself outside the parameters of perceived threats to New Order hegemony and thereby subverted it.

Teater SAE, Teater Kubur, Payung Hitam, Bali Exsperimental Teater and Teater Re-Publik are all groups which produced work along these lines, each in its own unique way. Most are producing it still. Numerous other groups including Teater Api (Surabaya) and Teater Ruang (Solo) continued to use text in their work but also developed a highly physical performance style.

But how has reformasi impacted on this type of theatre production? Is this style of work, this idiom, still an appropriate strategy for subverting the status quo? In fact if there is no clear 'status quo' is it possible to be radical? Many theatre groups and artists are grappling with these questions.

Some maintain that the impacts of the New Order are still so widely felt that there is no need to adapt styles of performance which were successful at that time. The most recent production of Payung Hitam, under director Rachman Sabur, is DOM: Dan orang mati, performed in June 2000. It created a sometimes terrifying spectacle of chaos, violence and confused national identity - a chaos in which the audience itself was also clearly implicated, as massive military search lights passed overhead. Huge floor-ceiling banners, bearing the outlines of the heads of Suharto, Habibie and Wiranto moved back and forth across the stage. Both thematically and stylistically DOM is very similar to the work Payung Hitam have been producing over the last five years. The work is still powerful, and the performance well crafted and disciplined, but for how long will this approach be valid?

Other theatre groups are challenging the paradigm within which for example Payung Hitam work. For Yogya-based Teater Garasi, subverting what they call 'dominant theatre culture' is an important agenda. Yudi Ahmad Tajudin, the group's artistic director, argues that in order to 'subvert' the dominant theatre culture of the late 1990s, it was necessary to return to what he refers to as 'simple' themes - such as relationships between men and women. In addition, Teater Garasi chose to deal with these themes through performing realist text based theatre. Yudi Tajudin also argues that the kind of abstract, physical theatre which dominated the scene in the late New Order was 'killing acting', a trend which Teater Garasi's style of work attempts to reverse.

Whilst Teater Garasi deliberately defines its work as 'subversive', their method of subverting the dominant theatre culture could be seen as a return to a more conservative style. It is also perhaps ironic that a company which draws heavily on postmodern/ cultural studies theory should be so concerned with saving 'acting' - or perhaps the notion of 'the actor' - from the 'threats' posed by physical and overtly political theatre.

Perhaps Teater Garasi's approach exemplifies a more general shift away from a deliberately political theatre culture. 'Theatre (in Indonesia) has become the media of agitators' lamented one artist-academic in Kompas recently (22 June 2000). Nano Riantiarno, director of Jakarta's Teater Koma, who experienced consistent problems with censorship under the New Order, says that he is deliberately taking a more 'mainstream' approach to his work since the fall of Suharto.

Whilst there is a need to question whether the styles of work used under the New Order are still valid, the idea that theatre which does not deal directly with political themes is 'apolitical' is surely a naive misconception. Although Teater Garasi argue that they are 'relaxed about ideology' their work still has ideological implications.

It should not be surprising if there is a sense of a loss of direction within Indonesia's theatre community. Many other types of groups in Indonesia are also re-evaluating their position in relation to structures of power. Theatre artists are developing new modes of critique, and in some cases are re-evaluating strategies which may have been successful under the New Order. If theatre is to continue to be radical in the post New Order era, it is critical that both the continuing use of 'New Order' idioms and the strategies used to 'subvert' this 'political' style of work are themselves opened to question.

Lauren Bain ( is a PhD candidate at The University of Tasmania. She is researching contemporary theatre of the reformasi era from her base in Solo.


Inside Indonesia 64: Oct - Dec 2000