Apr 21, 2021 Last Updated 2:05 AM, Apr 21, 2021

Re/Imagining the Indonesian theatre community in the time of the pandemic

Published: Jan 31, 2021
In Maumere, Flores, in the midst of the challenges posed by pandemic restrictions a local theatre group has discovered new opportunities to develop their art practice
Versi Bh. Indonesia

Eka Putra Nggalu

The COVID-19 pandemic has had an enormous impact on theatre as an academic discipline and artistic practice. Aesthetically, the pandemic has caused theatre to face up to fundamental questions about definitions of conventional theatre – questions about the need for physical interaction between actors and audiences, the logic of four walled spaces, and the possibilities and problems of interaction between theatre and film, cinematography, the internet and other virtual spaces and realities. On a practical level the pandemic has restricted the process of creation and production of conventional theatre. At the same time it offers a new, progressive reading of the scale, mode and agenda of creation of theatre, and a dialogue between its needs and capital resources.

In Indonesia the creation and production of theatre in different regions is very varied, regardless of the impact of COVID-19. There are differences in knowledge of theatre as a discipline, skills and capabilities of performers and technicians, arts infrastructure, the mode and capital resources of production and various problems of audience reception. The creation and production of theatre in Java is very different to that experienced by theatre practitioners in Eastern Indonesia. Applying a single standard isn’t possible because the cultural and artistic context, as well social, economic and political situation, varies greatly. Although the pandemic severely limited theatre activities in many settings, it also opened up many opportunities.

Artistic encounters

As an example, my friends and I in Maumere, a small city in Eastern Indonesia, have been trying to develop a studio theatre forum which we envisage as a space for consistent and serious study of theatre as a discipline. This forum is a kind of open workshop for anyone who wants to study basic theatre skills, create works together, prepare productions and perform them for audiences. Our mode of work is collective and interdisciplinary. Named Teater Kahe Studio, the forum has been operating for three years as an activity of Kahe Community, which was founded in 2015. The idea of forming this arts community itself arose from the concern of some students about the minimal opportunities for appreciation and discussion of literary works and other forms of knowledge available to young people in Maumere. Over time the community grew. Participants from various arts and science disciplines joined. It not only held discussions about literature but also various forums of artistic encounter such as art exhibitions, musical performances, book clubs, mural parades and theatre festivals. Theatre has recently become the most active of these activities, maybe because of the collective nature of theatre and the fact that it offers many opportunities for interdisciplinary practice.

Both producing and studying theatre have been challenging for us. A major obstacle to our study of theatre has been the scarcity of references concerning both the discourse and aesthetic practice of theatre. Our study method and practice is autodidactic, with very little comparison, involving a limited circle of people. Our theatre productions are hampered by very restricted infrastructure; social problems, such as low wages and the high cost of basic goods; the absence of sponsors and government assistance and a low literacy level in various fields. Our productions draw on the social capital around us – our families and friends – and these are the audiences for whom our theatre performances are staged. In Java well-established theatre communities exist allowing discourse about aesthetic development, opportunities for interdisciplinary work and the possibility of combining theatre with other arts practices and new media, including online platforms. Meanwhile in a very different local context, we have been struggling to strengthen our theatre skills and create a theatre community consisting of ourselves as theatre activists, our audience, close friends, schools and local sponsors.

At first it seemed the pandemic would make our attempts to engage with theatre even more difficult. At a point when we had not yet managed to fully absorb and implement the basic discipline of conventional theatre we were facing fundamental critiques of theatre arising from a shift in the mode of social interaction caused by the global pandemic. In Indonesia, although the pandemic caused a great shock it also gave rise to other interesting and varied responses among theatre practitioners. At a time when face-to-face interaction was very limited, many chose to work with social media and the internet. Some staged performances through digital platforms and began online discussions about theatre, while others stopped for a moment to reflect on their previous work then shared their knowledge through social media. The pandemic has, on the one hand, challenged the creativity of artists with all its restrictions and, on the other hand, invoked an unseen regime which seems to demand that everyone, including artists, must remain active and productive in all conditions.

New ‘portals’

From online performances to dissemination of knowledge, festivals, professional advocacy (for directors, actors and stage managers), social media and digital platforms have enabled ongoing theatre work and involved practitioners throughout Indonesia. In this context the pandemic represents a ‘portal’ that, despite the restrictions, offers opportunities for wider interaction and creation, and engagement with circles that would normally be beyond reach. My friends and I in Maumere, have experienced this trend as a great opportunity to participate in discussions about theatre and to view aesthetic forms in a wider, more advanced theatre community.

Teater Kahu performed at the Indonesia Dramatic Festival both online and with a small live audience / Teater Kahe Studio

I have been able to participate in various initiatives by individual artists, groups and arts institutions during the pandemic aimed not at producing performances but rather at extending knowledge and sharing experiences of theatre creation and production. These initiatives include discussions between artists and critics of theatre, and other performing arts, such as those organised by Garasi Theatre in Yogyakarta and the Jakarta Arts Council. In the session Garasi dari Dekat Sekali (Garasi Up Close) actors discussed the group’s history, their rehearsal process and ways of nurturing the collective which in 2020 had been operating for 27 years. Meanwhile the Jakarta Arts Council event looked at contemporary Indonesian theatre from various perspectives, especially at the time of the pandemic. These events were streamed live on Instagram and lasted approximately two hours. Although focusing on two-way dialogue these conversations also provided the opportunity for audience members to submit questions through the live chat feature.

Other virtual forums I’ve attended haven't focused on aesthetic aspects of theatre, but instead addressed the perspective of management and production work. There has also been an initiative to create an institution to promote advocacy for theatre practitioners, in both their professional roles and wider involvement in arts and cultural policy.

The digital platforms initiated during the pandemic have been most important for myself, friends in Maumere and probably other areas of Eastern Indonesia, in a number of ways. Firstly, throughout the pandemic artists, theatre groups and arts institutions have felt the need to re-examine the creative process and revisit the practices and ideology they have previously supported. This often happens in well-established theatre groups which have long been active on both a national and international scale. The public forums they have initiated for replicating and disseminating knowledge have become a space to study and a source of references for contemporary theatre groups, particularly in the regions. They have provided us with rich resources in our struggle with limited references and information.

Our knowledge of theatre has also been enriched by watching online performances of all forms, addressing all kinds of ideas and performed by theatre groups and individual artists everywhere. The experience of watching theatre works of many different genres, from varied backgrounds and social contexts, is something we’d never be able to access in ‘normal’ times. Moreover, the experience of following discourse about theatre in different virtual spaces has given us a new perspective on the importance of the internet as a channel for acquiring and disseminating knowledge.

Secondly, theatre activists have begun a wider examination of the Indonesian theatre community. This has been accompanied by the realisation of the need to organise in order to redefine the concept of professionalism in theatre and advocate for groups and individual performers confronting regulations and policies set by the government. Imagining the Indonesian theatre community has become much clearer during the pandemic through online meetings of theatre activists in different areas facilitated by digital platforms. Hopefully this understanding of a theatre community on a national scale will not simply remain at a symbolic level but take organisational form in networks mutually benefiting and fulfilling the needs of groups and individuals in different regions. One goal to strive for is the wider, more comprehensive dissemination of knowledge in order to promote professionalism and the performance skills of theatre workers throughout Indonesia, in keeping with their particular social, economic and political context.

Thirdly, my friends and I in Kahe Community decided to study hard during the pandemic due to the new awareness we reached after reflecting on our local situation and participating in wider theatre forums. We realise there’s major imbalance between the dissemination of knowledge and discourse about theatre in different areas of Indonesia, in both the field of aesthetics and managerial and production practices. Before the pandemic a major problem faced by theatre practitioners in Maumere was the scarcity of references for both the discourse and practice of theatre; however, during the pandemic through various forums and digital platforms information about and communication with wider theatre communities became easier to access. The pandemic opened a window through which we are able to view the spread of theatre ecosystems throughout Indonesia and converse with theatre practitioners, about both aesthetics, social and political issues and conditions of production, in different areas and contexts.

In addition, the pandemic led us to decide to work with the same mode of production we have used previously – to create community-based theatre productions, develop local social and cultural capital, activate our existing potential and try to build a theatre community in the environment around us, among our family, close friends and community members. We tried this approach, for example, when we were invited to participate in the Indonesian Dramatic Festival 2020. We held two performances, one recorded and broadcast on the festival’s YouTube channel, the other staged live, with twenty audience members from our local community paying very reasonable ticket prices. Both types of performances fitted the context of a pandemic, one broadcast on a digital platform, the other performed live to a specific public with a clear aim and agenda.

Rather than restricting us, the pandemic has opened up a wide field of knowledge about theatre, and opportunities for its creation and production. It has challenged the fundamental, centuries old conventions of theatre; offered new, more progressive ideas and possibilities for interdisciplinary work; and brought theatre together with technology, virtual reality and new media. It has also offered more critical and contextual reflection on theatre and the capital and conditions of production in a particular context, with a more intimate relationship with its local environment. Virtual theatre can be a very interesting choice to explore. However, a live production with a specific, limited audience is an alternative choice for a work with a special agenda or in a context where the local population experiences infrastructure problems, for example, limited internet access. These modes of production can form a path for small initiatives to build a theatre community which can at least be envisaged and nurtured over time.

In Ben Anderson’s book Imagined Community, he describes how Indonesian people of different social groups and regions came together in the ‘imagined community’ of the Indonesian nation through shared struggle against Dutch colonialism and Japanese occupation, maybe facing the challenges of the pandemic we saw the creation of a stronger more vibrant and clearly articulated imagined community of Indonesian theatre.

Eka Putra Nggalu (eckamarley@gmail.com) is a theatre analyst and researcher and leader of Komunitas Kahe, Maumere, Flores, NTT.

Inside Indonesia 143: Jan-Mar 2021

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