Banda Teater Jakarta's 'Momen Metode: Emma After Borges' opened this year's Jakarta Theater Festival at Taman Ismail Marzuki in Central Jakarta. (Photo courtesy of Jakarta Arts Council/Eva Tobing)

Jakarta Festival Turns Spotlight on Early Days of Indonesian Theater


NOVEMBER 09, 2017

Jakarta. The annual Jakarta Theater Festival, held by the Jakarta Arts Council or DKJ, returned on Wednesday (08/11) at Teater Kecil in Taman Ismail Marzuki, Central Jakarta.

This year's festival is titled "Era of the Stars," a nostalgic nod to the early days of modern theater in Indonesia in the late 19th century.

According to festival curator and researcher Akbar Yumni, the rise of Komedie Stamboel in 1891 disrupted the rigid distinctions between the "high culture" of European colonizers in the then Dutch East Indies and the "low culture" of the locals.

Komedie Stamboel was a type of popular opera performed by troupes that traveled like a circus.

They took theater, that used to be performed inside operas or palaces, to the streets with Middle Eastern, Malay and Chinese stories dominating their repertoires.

"The main characters in Komedie Stamboel were no longer the nobility, but the common people," Akbar said.

Stamboel troupes became big commercial hits and most of them were on good terms with the colonial government.

Stars like Tan Tjeng Bok, Tjitjih and Devi Dja lived glamorous lives just like today's celebrities.

But soon after, the Dutch colony's aggressive film industry spelled an end to the golden years of its own theater.

Lacking Relevance

DKJ's theater committee chairman, poet and playwright Afrizal Malna, said the main problem besetting today’s theater groups is coming up with relevant stories.

"Technically they're marvelous, but they are struggling to find stories that are relevant to real life now," Afrizal said.

Another problem is regeneration, or lack of it. Many theater groups stop performing once their star actors are gone, instead of passing on their legacy to new members.

Afrizal said he hoped the Jakarta Theater Festival can help local theater groups to learn from each other and map out where they want to go as a community.

What to See, What to Do

The festival kicked off with a special outdoor performance by Bandar Teater Jakarta called "Momen Metode (Emma After Borges)" on Wednesday night.

Inspired by Jorge Luis Borges' short story "Emma Zunz," the play imagined what happens after Borges' original story ends.

Sixteen local theater groups are in competition at the festival. One of them is last year’s winner, and the rest were selected by theater associations from each of Jakarta's districts.

They will take turns to perform from Nov. 9 to Nov. 16.

Teater Hijau 51, a student theater group from Jakarta’s UPN Veteran university, will perform "Ombang-Ambing" on Nov. 11.

The dadaist play will tell the story of a vintage goods dealer who gets accidentally transported into a fantasy world.

Teater EM will perform "TV di Atas Ranjang" ("TV in Bed") on Nov. 13.

The satirical play will feature characters with conflicting ideologies, including an old actor who thinks performing on TV is degrading and demoralizing, and a young actor who worships TV.

The festival will also feature Side Festival, a series of spontaneous live music and drama performances by Jakarta’s theater associations, which will run everyday from 7 p.m.

An archives exhibition will also take place in the lobby of Teater Kecil, showing newspaper clippings from the "Era of the Stars."

A symposium will also be held on Nov. 16 to delve deeper into the era's history, featuring researchers Akbar, Fandy Hutari, Deddy Ottara and Sartika Nuraini.

Another symposium will take place on the last day of the festival, Nov. 21, this one highlighting the development of written plays in Indonesia.

It will be followed by a music performance by Fluxeminix, a final theater performance by Miss Tjitjih and Stage Corner Community entitled "Era of the Stars" and the award ceremony for the festival’s winners.