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

The performing arts and the pandemic

Published: Jan 31, 2021
In this edition our contributors detail the devastating impact of the pandemic on Indonesia's performing arts sector, but also the spirit of resilience driving these artists on

Barbara Hatley & Emily Rowe

In March 2020, as international borders began to close and travel bans were applied all over the world, the government of Indonesia was relatively slow to respond. Although some regions imposed social restrictions, on a nationwide level action to curb the spread of the virus was not taken until May. By then cases of COVID-19 via community transmission had grown exponentially, especially in heavily populated urban centres.

For those in the informal work sector – the bulk of the workforce in Indonesia – restrictions on movement and gatherings of people had an especially severe impact. This included those working in the world of performance art. Musicians, stage managers, actors, and dancers were among the first to be affected. Almost a year later, the COVID-19 pandemic has inadvertently exposed the fragility of performance-based livelihoods, while at the same time bringing to light a inimitable creative resilience.

The contributors to this edition – most of them artists themselves – bring us stories about the impact of COVID-19 on the performing arts in Indonesia. In many ways these are shared experiences, but crucially the stories also reveal significant differences.

For performing artists, the pandemic and associated restrictions on gatherings, was immediately devastating, and their response one of shock and distress. Performances were not possible, shows planned were suddenly cancelled, there was no way to gather together, no income, no avenues, it seemed, for future opportunity. This was felt especially by performers whose sole source of financial support was through performance in the presence of a live audience.

But while some performers have simply had to hang on, barely surviving, for others new possibilities gradually began to arise, and new strategies for dealing with the situation have emerged. Key factors accounting for this variation appear to be related to differences in performance genre, regional location of artists and their relations with social and government institutions.

The rise of virtual performance

As the pandemic evolved around the world, for many artists internet technology has provided the opportunity to stage virtual performances. In Indonesia too, some theatre groups have used this technology. Some have established their own YouTube channels, or have worked collaboratively, and others have been able to stage performances online with support from local government departments and cultural bodies.

In this edition, Elyandra Widharta describes how, with the support of the Yogyakarta local government, his theatre group Sedhut Senut, was able to perform several livestreamed Javanese language plays. Many of these government-supported performances had a COVID-19 theme, which performed the dual purpose of keeping audiences entertained during the lockdown, while at the same time conveying a ‘stay safe’ message. Sometimes the pandemic formed the main theme of the performance. In other cases, the reference is more incidental but in the current context highly meaningful. The Yogyakarta-based ketoprak (Javanese popular theatre) actor and director Nano Asmorodono and his group presented a performance about a kingdom overwhelmed by terrible sickness symbolised by a demon figure unable to be killed, but who could be controlled if the whole population remained united. In another, a group of peasants gathering together to protest against a social injustice remind one another of the vital importance of wearing masks. 

Bima / Gustavo Thomas @Flickr cc

Rahmadi Fajar Himawan’s article describes two wayang performances streamed online also set in the context of COVID-19. Here the sons of Wrekudara or Bima, the large-bodied, straight-talking ‘strongman’ of the five Pendawa heroes, embody the spirit of resistance to the evil power of the pandemic. In both, the dalang conveys the message that ordinary, lower-class people are most vulnerable to the dangers of the pandemic and in order to keep safe, should ‘just stay at home’.

Filming and livestreaming of shows has also provided performers with new learning opportunities, new ways of performing shaped by the context of filming and digital technologies. Widharta describes how his group initially experienced great difficulty acting in front of a camera, having to constantly repeat whole scenes if actors made a mistake in dialogue. But eventually they adjusted to the requirements of digital media and realised that in the process they had acquired new skills and creativity.

Veteran ketoprak ‘master’ Bondan Nusantara, who sees it as his mission to pass on the heritage of ketoprak to young people, has established the YouTube channel Sineprak (meaning ‘ketoprak created with cinematographic approach). Using cameras, lamps and mixers borrowed from a businessman friend, Bondan and his team, work with young actors from in and around Yogyakarta to film short performances (approximately 10-15 minutes). Since late May 2020, a new performance has premiered every Friday evening, amounting to over thirty performances and many thousands of views to date. Bondan reports being overwhelmed by the enthusiasm of all those involved, even though their work is entirely voluntary.

Connecting locally and globally

Digital technologies are also enabling performers to collaborate with artists in other parts of Indonesia and across the world to present virtual performances.

In November 2020, the Yogyakarta theatre group Teater Garasi held a month-long ‘festival’ of performances and discussions hosted on a dedicated website, involving artists based in Yogyakarta, Flores, Jakarta, Amsterdam and Sydney. The focus of the event was Garasi’s Peer Gynt project, a reading of the play by Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen. Whereas in the original work the wanderer, adventurer and sometime trickster Peer Gynt travels south from Europe to sites such as Morocco and Cairo; Garasi’s version takes a ‘global South viewpoint’, in ‘exploring the state of encounters and movement across Asia’.

The online festival was the culmination of a years-long project pre-dating the pandemic. From 2017 to 2019, Garasi members conducted research, held workshops and collaborated with local artists in Eastern Indonesia, Japan, Vietnam and Sri Lanka. Performances were staged in Flores, Shizuoka and Tokyo in 2019, and planned for 2020 in Jakarta and Yogyakarta. When the pandemic struck, causing all live theatre activities to be cancelled, Garasi leader Yudi Tajuddin had the idea of establishing an interactive website where artists in different locations could share ideas, present performances expressing their individual responses to themes in the Peer Gynt project and participate in public discussions of their work.

In a similar activity the feminist organisation Institut Ungu sponsored online performances of the play Waktu Tanpa Buku (Time without Books), Faiza Marzuki’s translation of the original work by Norwegian playwright Lene Therese Teigen, inspired by experiences and memories of victims of dictatorship in Uruguay. Five women directors based in Yogyakarta, Bandung, Makassar and Aceh staged interpretations of the play.

As well as a platform for performances, digital technologies are providing a medium for performing artists in different parts of Indonesia to access and share information and ideas through webinars and online discussions. In his article in this edition, Iswadi Pratama shares the ways Teater Satu are using the internet not for performances, but rather to educate and share knowledge via their ‘Belajar Teater’ program on YouTube.

Eka Putra Nggalu describes how performers in Eastern Indonesia have benefited from participating in these discussions like these. Previously marginalised from mainstream theatre developments and rarely meeting with performers from other regions, they now have access to valuable new information. He suggests that the pandemic has offered theatre groups the opportunity to reflect on their activities and to interact with a wider circle of artists who would normally be beyond reach. In this process, Eka comments, we see perhaps ‘the creation of a stronger, more vibrant and clearly articulated imagined community of Indonesian theatre.’ Similarly, Ibed Sugana Yuga’s description of Kalinari Theatre’s Lelakon project shows that this can happen not only in relation to staged performances but also dramatic literature.

Another development described in Dina Triastuti’s article, is the recent formation of a national theatre association, the Perkumpulan Nasional Teater Indonesia. At a time of crisis such as this, performing artists felt it was important to work together in a dedicated theatre organisation. It was agreed that someone from outside Java should take up the role of president of the association, so that voice could be given to the interests of artists across the country. Shinta Febriany, a playwright and director from Makassar, was elected to this position.

An uncertain future

Nonetheless, these positive developments emerging from the pandemic crisis can in no way deny the severity of its impact on Indonesian performance and its practitioners.

Many have suffered devastating hardship. Performers who are entirely dependent on staging activities to earn a living have seen an acute decline in income, particularly those working in tourist areas. In their article, transgender researchers Melati Adelia Dewi and Hafizt Afrizal, in collaboration with anthropologist Emily Rowe, profile four of Bali’s drag queens, who share their personal stories of struggle. The impact of lockdowns, curfews and the international travel ban on their ability to earn a livelihood shines a harsh light on the socioeconomic precarity brought by the pandemic. As the authors point out, in contrast to the experiences of drag performers in the global north, those in Bali have not benefitted from a burgeoning virtual performance space. A lack of access to financial support and social protection mechanisms has put them in an extraordinarily vulnerable position.

Similar experiences are described in Nicodemus Fredy Hadiyanto's article, as he captures the ongoing financial hardship experienced by other live performers on the island, wholly dependent on the tourist dollar. Nevertheless, despite these reflections on the financially catastrophic impact of COVID-19 and attendant travel bans and restrictions on mobility, the sense of community stoicism and resilience prevails, as does a sense of hope for a post-pandemic Bali.

A social and geographic divide has also emerged from the pandemic. For many practitioners of traditional theatre forms, especially in rural areas with limited access to and knowledge of internet technologies, the relatively high cost of internet access and hiring filming equipment, rules out staging virtual performances even for many city-based groups. As Dina Triasuti explains, recording a performance costs twice as much as staging a live one, but it has to be paid for out of the budget for a single show. From a purely financial viewpoint this makes no sense to Dina and her friends in the Kalinari Theatre Movement. As he explains in his article, Iswadi is similarly worried about a gap developing between those who have financing for virtual performance and those who do not, but his is also a pedagogical concern. He warns against 'Indonesian theatre becoming … "documentary theatre", theatre shown via video.'

Audiences have also suffered from the absence of live performances, often staged as part of family and community celebrations. As Rahmadi details us in this article, during the pandemic Javanese living in Jakarta are missing the warm, inclusive atmosphere of wayang.

Overall, the pandemic has presented many difficulties and challenges for Indonesian performers. Despite their differences, they have faced these experiences with resilience, working together, looking after one another, determined (as suggested by Nicodemus Fredy Hadiyanto), that 'the show must go on'. Just what form that show might take, how the new lessons learnt, and new techniques developed during the pandemic might shape performances of the future remains to be seen.

Barbara Hatley (barbara.hatley@utas.edu.au) is a Professor Emeritus in Asian Studies at the University of Tasmania with a long-standing research interest in Indonesian, particularly Javanese, performance.

Emily Rowe (emilymsrowe@gmail.com) is a health anthropologist based in Bali whose work focuses on HIV prevention and treatment and amplifying the voices of marginalised communities in Asia. She is co-founder of Dare This.

Inside Indonesia 143: Jan-Mar 2021

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