Jakarta Theater Festival Enters Its 40th Year, but Is That Enough?

One of the longest-running festivals in the city is back for another year: The Jakarta Theater Festival, presenting 16 theater groups that have advanced to the final competition, through Dec. 13.

Founded in 1973 by Indonesian theater pioneer Wahyu Sihombing , the festival was first organized by the Jakarta Arts Council (DKJ) as the Young Persons’ Theater Festival with the aim to promote the advancement of youth theater. At the time, plays with young actors were gaining popularity throughout the city, so the timing was right for the festival to launch.

The festival was organized as a competition, with contestants working their way up from the local level to the Jakarta-wide finals. The winner then produced a performance at Taman Ismail Marzuki , Jakarta’s famous arts center located in Cikini.

As the participants got older, leading theater personality Rendra proposed to change the event to the Jakarta Theater Festival, open to all age groups instead of limiting it to youth theater only.

Some of Indonesia’s best known theater personalities, like Putu Wijaya (Teater Mandiri ), Afrizal Malna (Teater SAE ) and Dindon W.S. (Teater Kubur ), launched their careers by winning the festival in its early days.

The 2012 Festival, which began on Nov. 26, features juried performances at Teater Kecil at Taman Ismail Marzuki. Judges include Ratna Sarumpaet , Romo Muji Sutrisno and Nano Riantiarno . Some of the participating groups have been finalists or winners at earlier festivals.

All of the scripts are original, and most touch on societal problems in Jakarta, especially those faced by common people. For example, in a version of “Lysistrata ” by Aristophanes , East Java’s Teater Panggung sets its story on the problem of tawuran (mass fights) between kampungs. In the play, kampung housewives fight back against local officials who ignore their concerns by occupying district offices and going on a conjugal strike. The powerful women outwit the district head and officials, who finally have to listen to what they have to say.

However, festival juror Ratna says there’s still room for improvement, especially in increasing the role of women at the event. She expressed disappointment that even after 40 years, the festival has never given birth to a winning female writer or director.

“The acting in this year’s festival showed great potential, but directing and staging the manuscripts still needs more work,” she said. “The festival has been rooted in the communities for a long time, it just needs to be strengthened and improved.”

The festival receives funding from the Tourism and Culture Department of the Jakarta Provincial Government. The Culture Department in its written message to the festival emphasized the continuity of the event over the past 40 years, pointing out that this showed a there was “pembinaan” (guided development) and a “system that is established and secured.”

Does this, in other words, mean that an element of redundancy has developed?

The excellent exhibition of photos, clippings and other materials from the festival’s history shows a sameness over the years in its character.

Chatting with some of the groups, it seems that most of them, while strongly linked to their localities, are rarely able to perform in their communities, instead only putting on shows at the festival.

Dodi, one of the many visitors this year, noted that there needs to be some sort of renewal in the festival.

Ideally, the event would just be one small part of the theater group’s annual repertoires, not the main purpose of their work as it is now. Local communities need art and theater to advance knowledge and promote culture among the people. Theater and the arts should not exist to simply serve a festival.

Madin Tyasawan , chairperson of the DKJ Theater Committee, quoted former festival winner Afrizal Malna as saying: “The festival is not just an arts event but an integral part of the life of Jakarta.”

There is a tradition, going back to the youth theater of the 1970s, of these groups growing in the local youth centers. As they matured, they established local theater groups. Local creators and actors emerged with a voice reflective of their communities.

Unfortunately, lack of funding and infrastructure inhibit theater groups from reaching their full potential to become community staples, instead relying solely on the Jakarta Theater Festival to showcase their work. The Jakarta Provincial Government should provide more concrete support to encourage these groups to produce and perform outside the festival routine — which is a necessity for them to truly progress. The urgent need for better infrastructure, repair and maintenance of theater facilities, and better equipped libraries featuring local and international theater manuscripts, are other points that need to be factored in as well.

Most theater groups in Indonesia are nonprofit, yet they are taxed per ticket sold at each performance. Theater venues are also exorbitantly expensive to rent. Often a theater group, which has rehearsed for months — many times at night because the actors work “regular jobs” during the day — can perform for one or two nights only. But perform they must, because it is in their spirit.

Real support is what is needed the most, particularly from the government, because theater can — and should be — an engine for dynamism in the city and society.

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