Sun, 08 Apr 2001

Putu strives to save theater

By Yusuf Hartono

JAKARTA (JP): Although performing irregularly, Teater Mandiri, a theatrical company set up in 1971, has made it to the present reform era of Gus Dur, which is characterized by social tumult, after safely cruising through Soeharto's repressive New Order era and the brief period under Habibie.

How did it survive? Answer: By waging a "guerrilla war". This is the strategy used by I Gusti Ngurah Putu Wijaya, a dramatist, who was born in Tabanan, Bali, but grew up in Jakarta. Better known simply as Putu Wijaya, he set up Teater Mandiri 30 years ago, while still working for Tempo news weekly, and has been its impresario since.

For Putu, this "guerrilla" tactic means to keep appearing and disappearing, a hit-and-run of sorts. He has two effective weapons. First, the philosophy of using what is at one's disposal and the second, terror.

Adopting the philosophy of using what is at one's disposal, Teater Mandiri, when facing its limitations or financial problems, has never lost its resourcefulness, with regards to property, human resources, funds and rehearsals.

Take for example Luka (Wound), its latest play held at the Jakarta Arts House between March 23 and March 25 to mark the 30th anniversary of this theatrical company. There were no glossy catalogs although the play marked the 30th anniversary of the group. A modest leaflet folded into three had sufficed. The property consisted of a used banner and sun hats which had been repainted. Even the Balinese-styled headband that Putu wore was a piece of cloth torn from the used banner. Even the song sung by Harry Roesli in the performance was used in Ngeh, a play by Teater Mandiri at the Art Summit II in 1998. A span of three years did not matter to Putu.

With respect to using old objects, once Teater Mandiri perplexed immigration officers when it took a lot of garbage from Indonesia to be used as stage property for its play, Yel ("Yell"), in New York in 1991. When the garbage became part of the performance on stage, the Caucasian audience could only watch in bewilderment, their mouths agape.

Putu, who is married to Dewi Pramunawati, is now mostly occupied with the shooting of his TV films, and did not have enough time to drill his performers for Luka. At first he asked the troupe to rehearse by themselves, but the result was unsatisfactory.

Putu had time for a rehearsal only a few days before the play. That's why he was unable to inject fresh ideas into Luka. So, this play, which was once performed in Japan, was staged just with whatever the group had. Even the absence of the slide on the first day did not matter. The audience were oblivious of these inadequacies anyway.

Keep changing

"Our philosophy of facing a situation with whatever is at our disposal is sort of our resistance against limitations. I believe we will never be free of limitations. To get through this situation, we need a working strategy. This is the source of the light that gives us strength," he writes on the leaflet for Luka.

Putu, usually sporting a white cap, is also known as a short- story writer, a novelist, a screenwriter, a theater/film/TV film director and a columnist. He believes nothing remains unchanged.

Egy Massadiah, who has been with Mandiri for 20 years, said Putu's works keep changing. Although they stage the same play, the performance is different each night.

Egy added that Mandiri relied on the spontaneity and self- confidence of the actors on stage (even when a mistake is made, it will seem right if the actor can convince the audience that it was right).

The plays which Putu writes give room for such an improvisation. When Front was performed in Bandung, for example, a later scene could be moved forward and then moved back again. For such critical moments, the actors have to be always on the alert. These critical moments are part of the performance.

Singer Silvana Herman (Ario), who first joined Mandiri in 1983, added that Putu Wijaya did not teach a Mandiri member how to act, but how to live. He teaches his members how to live mandiri (independently), ready for any circumstances. Also, he teaches them how to lead a good life.


Putu's second weapon is terror. He really enjoys himself when he can mentally terrorize his audience, shocking them to a catharsis. This terror can come from the theme of the story or blown-up visualization in the style of pop art or shadows.

For over a decade, Putu has explored shadows as his theatrical idiom. This idiom was derived from the leather puppet shadow play. He was infatuated with this idiom even before he went to the United States. On his return, he intensively explored the shadows through Aib (Disgrace, 1986). Before optimizing the use of shadows, he performed his plays verbally.

Lately, however, Putu has begun to doubt his skill in introducing mental terror. The country is now in the grips of a greater terror -- street rallies, ethnic conflicts, bombing of places of worship, the loss of a spirit of brotherhood, and mud- slinging and denunciations through the mass media -- as a result of the multidimensional crisis that is sweeping across the country. "I give up. I cannot compete with such a terror," he said.

His fear of the street rallies in Jakarta, which he says is the real terror, had prompted him to skip a rehearsal. Once, his troupe, tired of rehearsing by themselves, took advantage of his fear to get some rest. They told Putu that a terrifying street rally was going on. Putu, in a fatherly manner, told them to end the rehearsal and go home right away.

So, it appears that in this reform era, Putu and his Teater Mandiri have "lost" to the "theater of the masses" on the streets. He is not alone as other theatrical companies are also facing a similar situation.

Putu has even admitted that he has lost his energy. In the past year, for example, he has not been able to get himself to read the newspaper. He would like to lodge a protest against the "grand theater", but he would be powerless against the loss of brotherhood now prevailing in the country. His heart bleeds. "The theater of the masses is too powerful for a stage theater to fight against," he said.

As for how the Indonesian theaters are faring, Putu said that even before the reform era was ushered in, it was already on the decline. One of the basic reasons, he said, was there was no strong market in the country. There is a lack of people interested in mastering art marketing/management like did Amna Kusumo and Ratna Riantiarno of Teater Koma.

If this is a defeat, then this defeat should not make our theatrical workers disloyal to the vocation. Putu, especially, is disposed to continuously exploring his shadows in a guerrilla- like manner.