Women, Play and Pamphlets
My experiences, both in the world of the movements and in the arts, shows me that the two elements of struggle and art can serve to strengthen each other, to keep each other company. Art can be the companion to the struggle for justice, prosperity, gender equality and so. In Indonesia, I can see three trends developing in the world of art and struggle.
Art at the base
Artists who thrive at the base, in communities, represent one trend. Included among these are the victims and the actors within the communities concerned. This artistic trend develops organically as part of the movement itself. Examples of this are the Worker Theatre groups, the Sex-Worker Theatre groups, street children theatre and so on. These groups present directly their real life stories and experience. The technique and methods flow from group discussion. Their materials are a direct response to the most pressing issues. The director has the role “only’ of ordering the plot and the some of the artistic elements. One such “director”, Lena Simanjuntak, from the Independent Women’s Theatre describes herself as a facilitator and not a director. She says that the whole conception of the plays they perform come from all the actor participants. This method appears to be used by more and more groups, such as the women refugees from Aceh.
The group of the Independent Women’s Union in Medan, North Sumatra, comprises women plantation workers. In 2002 they performed a play called “Voices” in Jakarta. The play presented their story as plantation workers experiencing torture at the hands of foremen, experiencing unjust regulations and so on. The actors provide the stories in a process of mutual exploration of their experiences. The role of the director is to help re-order their stories and fit them into an appealing plot.
When I watched their performance and talked with them, I was full of admiration. Their acting was realistic, relaxed and struck exactly the right chord with the audience. When someone in the audience spoke up: “Your acting is very impressive and convincing, what was the process of rehearsal?” They answered very honestly, but sharply too: “I was not acting, this is what I experience every day . . . “ That is their attitude to their art. This honesty does not ignore the artistic requirements of the stage however. The audience is still able to enjoy the performance as well as absorb a great amount of information, far beyond what is normally available on a day-to-day basis.
Surabaya, one of the biggest and busiest of Indonesia’s cities, has many social problems. One of these is prostitution. “Dolly” is one of the oldest areas of prostitution in the country, which is still operating today. One of the educational groups, Hotline Surabaya, which campaigns against HIV/AIDS has gone beyond providing basic education about safe sex and the use of condoms. More recently they have been experimenting with “empowerment through theatre”. They bring their real life stories on to the stage. I saw on eof these performances last year during the national dialogue on trafficking in women in Jakarta. Through very honest and fluent story telling, they surprised the audience with the information they presented with excellent stagecraft. Their theatrical presentation created empathy among the participants in the national dialogue that would not have been possible if they had just relied on straight presentation of data or the presentation of papers – which can sometimes alienate.
It was among workers, especially factory workers, that theatre groups were most common, in addition to street children theatre, such as that of the Akar Theatre group and the Ciliwung Theatre group, among others. There is also a Jogjakarta theatre group comprising domestic servants who have now organised themselves.
This first group usually performs in the affected community or is invited as part of the agenda of struggle.
Apart from theatre another kind of art activity that we found in this category is INSTALLATION, POETRY READING and MUSIC Groups of this kind will also come to the site of action and befriend or accompany the particular struggle by the members of the community and activists.
Art always has a role; it can befriend the struggle; it can also be its hope.
Sometimes these performances are not just a performance but also a kind of catharsis of escape from the burden of some intense sufferings. But from both the director and the participants, there is a consciousness that they want to achieve more than juts an experience of catharsis, to let go of their suffering; they want to be effective in raising consciousness and furthering their campaigns.
Art also played the role of befriending the struggle during the 1996-1998 period when the people, including women, rose up in the struggle to oust the dictator Suharto. Poetry and song was suddenly created in the midst of the bullets. Street theatre as an attraction of social protest also became an accompaniment to the Indonesian peoples struggle at that time.
Committed professional art
A second category are the professional artists, who usually have some professional training, have professional management and try to seek a wide audience and sometimes have a specific market. They usually perform on venues such as the Jakarta Arts Building, and other large venues that can attract big audiences. But they also raise issues pregnant with social justice themes, launch sharp criticism and protest. Some examples of this in Indonesia are the groups of Rendra and Ratna Sarumpaet, as well as Theatre Koma, the Bejana Theatre group, the Tanah Air Theatre group and others.
Since 1970 Rendra has directed a popular theatre group, which is considered to be one of the foundations of Indonesian modern theatre. Rendra, either when reading his poetry or when his group is performing theatre, can attract thousands of people. Many of his works tell of injustice and attack the government for corruption. Rendra’s most praised and criticised political theatre was THE STRUGGLE OF THE NAGA TRIBE, first performed in 1976, which has been translated into English in Australia. It was banned by the government of President Suharto. Rendra’s poems were also used in the film, YANG MUDA YANG BERCINTA, which was also banned by Suharto. Rendra himself was imprisoned for almost 1 year in 1978.
Ratna Sarumpaet, with her Satu Merah Panggung group, has produced many works considered dissident, political and critical. She too was often censored by the Suharto regime. One of her works that suffered such measures was MARSINAH, a play based on the real story of the struggles of a woman worker, who was murdered after being kidnapped and raped by the military. She has also produced ALIA, based on the situation in Aceh.
Ratna herself claims that her works are purely examples of the empathy of an artist. She is not doing politics, she says. For Ratna Sarumpaet, artists must always have empathy so that they will be always moved to communicate the truth about what is happening. She claims that her works are not political but Suharto always considered them dangerous.
The Koma Theatre is often mentioned as the most popular theatre in Indonesia, and often attracts thousands of people to its performances. It appears to appeal to urban professionals, and middle class workers. Performances can run for two weeks, a long time for Indonesian theatre. The play COCKROCH OPERA (OPERA KECOA), about urban poverty, and the story of a sex worker, was also banned under Suharto.
The theatre of Rendra, Ratna, and Koma Theatre have all been quite popular, attracting large audiences. Their plays are intense with social message and criticism. Yet, their performances are those of professional performers and artists.
Art as a “way of life”
A third category is those “marginal artists” who holds up are as a “way of life. Their idealism for art is very high. They usually are small groups, yet unable to attract a ‘market’. They survive in the small cultural enclaves, in artistic communities. The usually perform also for just small circles. One example is PAS theatre at the Jakarta Arts Centre. They also often take up social issues.
“Women at Point Zero” – Perempuan di Titik Nol
The production of “Women at Point Zero” in 2002 was a different experience. I proposed the idea that the well-known novel of the Egyptian feminist, Nawal El Saadawi, be produced as theatre in 2001. There were a number of different reactions. While I had spent some time with theatre groups in the early 1990s, I was proposing this ideas an activist in the organisation WOMEN’S SOLIDARITY. So some reacted: Faiza, you are an activist, what are you doing talking about producing a play. Perhaps you really want to make some kind of street demonstration – is that it?
Another reaction was to remind me that the book was about female sexuality and was not really good material for entertainment. “A seminar would be better,” they said. One week before the performance, one well known feminist figure who was a person who followed the arts reminded me: “Faiza, this is art, you know, not just a pamphlet.”
Of course, these kinds of comments did not lessen our commitment to produce the play. We reread the novel, organised discussions with both feminist activists as well as writers, with people in the theatre arts. We bought up all the copies of the book to make sure that everyone involved read the book; we organised the rehearsals and other activities.
About 5,000 people came to see the play over three nights. There were even demonstrations by hundreds of people protesting that they could not get seats and demanding extra performances. The performances achieved record audiences for Indonesia since Rendra’s plays on the 1970s. It attracted a great deal of public attention and was discussed in all the media. TEMPO magazine, the major weekly socio-political magazine in Indonesia, conducted an exclusive interview with Nawal El Saadawi in Egypt to coincide with the performance. Nawal herself wrote a letter of support to us in Indonesia.
What was the real “appeal” or “Strength” of the production of WOMEN AT POINT ZERO. The novel is a story of the politics of sexuality, about women in Egypt. In her Novel, Nawal confronts the reader with the cased of a woman who fulfils three roles at once: as a domestic servant to her husband, as an (unpaid) prostitute and as a honored? wife. The novel takes us deep into the issues of women’s sexuality as well as analyses the social order that turns women into second-class persons. Women’s sexuality in Indonesia is still a taboo subject; repressed, just as in Egypt. Nawal’s novel is based on a true story.
For two weeks before and two weeks after the performance there was intense discussion of “women’s sexuality” and “women and art” in both the media and on the email lists. Of course, this burst of discussion is not enough. Issues surrounding female sexuality remain and there is still much debate about women and art. The discussion has not stopped. It is clear then that art can indeed have a role in raising issues of social justice and other such issues in society. OF COURSE IT MUST.
I think that anybody who decides to use art, whether theatre, film or text and literature, as a medium for consciousness raising, they will be aware that they face the issue that they are using ART. But what ART means can depend on the background of the person creating the work and what their purpose is. There will be those that say that art is for art’s sake . . .
When in the middle of producing of WOMEN AT POINT ZERO, the thing in my head was that this novel was very important, very important in influencing my thinking about women, for the progress of women. The question was how to get its ideas to the widest possible public. That is where the idea of a performance came from. And the performance must have a “selling point”. What kind of selling point? There was of course the story itself (with its messages, reflections, ideas), as well as its artistic beauty. But I also decided to collaborate with some high-profile women actresses, theatre artists and activists. So we wanted to make it a performance with a message as well as with artistic appeal. This was “art that would not just be a pamphlet … we hoped …
In this approach, I was trying to combine elements from the three categories that I mentioned earlier. There were activists from the women’s rights movement, professional artistic people such as the director, the lead actresses (two well known TV and movie actresses), professional musicians as well as actors from the “marginal” art groups involved in street theatre and “idealist” artists in the various artistic communities.
Before we began rehearsals, we organised a “women’s retreat” for more intense discussions of issues relate to “women’s sexuality”, especially involving the activists and some actors. This was followed by more discussions of the novel with women’s organizations, writers and other artists. This program, alongside intensive rehearsals, continued over four months.
Our publicity strategy was multi-pronged. We lobbied the electronic and print media to get them to discuss the performance. So we had discussion on TV and radio, articles, interviews with the actors and cultural figures during the one-month before the performance and for one week afterwards. “Women at Point Zero” became a household word and was the top story in the women’s and cultural columns. Using theatre to get a message out meant using the publicity and discussion generated by the theatre and not just the performance on stage itself.
It was a very educational experience for the activists also. Activists usually dwelt in the world of street protest and meetings and seminars and working with victims and lobbying government officials. They had to learn a new discipline required by the world of the stage.
Funding was also a big issue for this big project involving around 100 people. Everybody accepted very low honorariums so that most costs were for production. We raised the money from donor organizations, some friendly businesses and through contra deals with publishers. We performed the play in one of the main theatres in Jakarta.
The experience of “Women at Point Zero” showed that political and social activism and art could work very well together. They support and befriend each other.
Artistic groups keep appearing accompanying the struggles for justice and resistance against oppression wherever it develops. In society there is also constant evaluation of this art. There are always comments like that from my friend: “this is art, you know … not a pamphlet.”
For me, art is a pamphlet, which is beauty… pamphlet of ideas, pamphlets which take sides … Art accompanies us in our efforts to reach a goal.
This article was presented at a forum “Activating Human Rights: Using theatre arts to promote social justice”, Perth Juli 2004