Hunger Games

Today I want to go back to a post I made in May about Juliano Mer-Khamis, a founder of the Freedom Theatre in the West Bank, Palestine, who was assassinated outside his own theatre. To put the post in context, both in terms of the Freedom and the regional politics the film below is excellent (and I warn you, at times, difficult to watch).


Now, the co-founder of the Freedom Theatre, Zakaria Zubeidi, and the artisitic director, Nabil al-Raee, are both in Israeli prisons and on hunger strike.  No charge has been brought against Zubeidi and al-Raee has been charged with some very spurious offences.

This isn’t a political post, although you can probably guess what I think from the mere fact I’m blogging about the situation. It is about the power of theatre and the belief in this power to bring about social, cultural and political change.

In the course of the last year, at least six members of the Freedom’s board and staff have been arrested by the Palestinian Authority.  What is it that a tiny little theatre like this can do that causes one of the most heavily armed nations in the world to persecute it in this way? No one has yet been charged for the killing of Mer-Khamis.

Below are a series of articles, the most recent coming first, that explore the last 18 months in the incredible story of the Freedom Theatre.  I urge you read them all and make your own mind up.

Detained Palestinian theatre director resumes hunger strike

West Bank Freedom theatre director on hunger strike

West Bank theatre founder wanted by Israel after amnesty deal revoked

Palestinian theatre stages first play without director Juliano Mer Khamis

Juliano Mer-Khamis – a killing inspired by drama, not politics

Israeli peace activist Juliano Mer Khamis shot dead in Jenin

By clicking the image on the left you can watch to Juliano Mer-Khamis talking about the importance of drama as a means of coping with Israeli occupation.

You can also listen to Mer Khamis talking in another interview from 2005  about a film he made, called Arna’s Children, which you can watch below.

Finally, I repost the video from May about the Freedom Theatre and the immensely important role it plays in helping the people of the West Bank live under Israeli occupation.


Out of the Shadows

Today I am sharing an interview from the Huffington Post, between Katherine Brooks and Maria Tri Sulistyani,  founder of Papermoon Puppet Theater, from Indonesia. Papermoon is not your traditional Wayang kulit theatre and the content of their work is even less traditional.  The company uses puppetry to highlight social and political injustices in Indonesia’s turbulent past. What is also interesting is that the article talks about ‘cultural  diplomacy’ – the idea that in order to truly understand someone from another culture, you also need to understand their traditions, history, language and general way of life.

Indonesia’s Papermoon Puppet Theater is taking an art form we often associate with children’s stories and turning it into a vehicle for addressing the country’s dark history. The company, started by visual artists Maria Tri Sulistyani and her husband Iwan Effendi, (left) uses whimsical puppets and multimedia performances to recreate personal accounts of the mass jailings and executions that took place in Indonesia in 1965. They are harrowing stories, meant to shed light on the emotion and complexity of a time period often glossed over in contemporary history.

Papermoon’s performances reveal intimate moments of Indonesia’s past, but the company maintains that a discussion of politically driven atrocities is something accessible to international audiences. And the U.S. State Department agreed, recruiting Papermoon for its Center Stage program that will be touring throughout the country this year. Sulistyani and Effendi will be showcasing their work, “Mwathirika,” alongside ensembles from Haiti and Pakistan, sharing their brand of art as an initiative of cultural diplomacy.

We asked Maria Tri Sulistyani about her beginnings in the world of puppetry, the heavy themes she’s chosen to present and how she thinks art can interact with diplomacy in an email interview:

Can you tell us a little about traditional shadow puppetry in Indonesia? How does your style of puppetry compare?

Wayang kulit (Shadow Puppetry) has been an important art form – especially on Bali and Java – for almost 1,000 years. Its stories of good and evil, of love and death and transformation are most often taken from the Hindu epics Ramayana and Mahabharata. A single dhalang (master puppeteer) manipulates all of the many two dimensional leather puppets from behind a screen (to cast shadows). He also voices all of the characters. It is a virtuoso performance! While reaching back in history to tell his tales, the master puppeteer always makes reference to current happenings. Traditional puppet theater has played an important role in communicating values to communities.

There is also another kind of puppetry – Teater Boneka – that is generally just for children and it is a much less formal. Inspiration for the stories and the puppets come from lots of different influences – even Sesame Street.

The interesting part is that people in Indonesia had never connected these two types of puppetry before. Papermoon makes that link, and this is something new. Our pieces are performed on stages, like a theater play. Several puppeteers are on stage manipulating the puppets. Mwathirika, the piece we are presenting on tour, is really for adults, not kids and is a story told without words, without speaking. But we are telling stories about values, too — about moral choices and conflicts and relating to everyday life. Our stories are really personal and focus on individuals. From there we can see the bigger issues. Though Papermoon is not really creating a performance in the traditional form, we too want to share and talk about the values and ideals and choices of Indonesian people’s life.

Your earlier work, “Noda Lelaki di Dada Mona (A Stain on Mona’s Chest),” used puppets to convey a politically and sexually charged story. What was the reaction in Indonesia to such a performance?

It was very interesting because Papermoon had created performances for children since 2006, and “Noda Lelaki di Dada Mona” was the very first time we created a piece for an adult audience. That was also the first time we sold tickets to a performance, 300 seats, and it sold out!

People were shocked with what they saw. Not just only about the theme, but also by the kind of puppets we performed with, how realistic they were, and how we combined puppets with the actors who spoke as individuals, which had never been seen by people in Yogyakarta. Together with our audience, we started to realize that puppet theater could reach many people, including adults. Instead of having one puppeter verbalize all the voices, we decided each puppeter will speak for his own puppet. I would say that “Noda Lelaki di Dada Mona” was a kick start for Papermoon to do more performances, based on social themes, to communicate with many different types of audience.

In “Mwathirika” you have again focused on more serious accounts, this time of imprisonment and violence. Do you think the use of puppets makes it easier to express these heavy themes? Or easier to digest on the part of the audience?

Yes. For us, puppets are the perfect medium to bring an unexpected moments or difficult subjects to the audience. Puppets always have the image of cuteness, happiness, sometimes scary, but mostly FUN. So when people come to the theater, with a certain expectation of puppetry, they can be surprised, because what they see is totally different from what they thought.

Many people feel like the story of 1965 is already over, it’s expired, helpless, over-researched, or it’s never been heard. By seeing a poster of two little boys with a red balloon, people will think about something sweet. They don’t have fear to come, they feel relaxed, they are open. It’s perfect.

You spoke to a number of people – parents, grandparents, neighbors – who provided their stories for “Mwathirika.” Could you tell us about one story in particular that sheds light on the historical situation in Indonesia?

We asked them about what they felt at those moments in their lives. There was a lot of data, books about the 1965 tragedy, but very few could give insight into their feelings. And by interviewing those people, we could see their eyes, and what they really felt in their hearts – uncover their personal stories.

One of our company member’s uncle, told a story about how he, a 12 year old boy, had to take care of his little brothers and sisters, after their father was taken away by government officials, and didn’t come back for 13 years. He had to catch frogs in the rice fields, for his family to eat. And how the family grew in the middle of these chaotic moments, with children with no parents, and no one in the village dared to help, because if they helped they might be caught by the army too. In Mwathirika, we are not pointing fingers; we are not saying that one person is right and one person is wrong. But we tell a story about the impact of political turmoil on those who lived through those terrible times and the huge effect it has had on the next generation.

Your project has now become a tool for cultural diplomacy, helping to foster greater understanding in the US in particular. How do you view art in the greater scheme of international cooperation? Do you think that art has the potential to bring people together in a way that other diplomatic tools can not?

Yes. What people know about other countries or cultures, is mostly from the media. And it’s usually about all problems of economy, technology, war, conflict, and how to deal with that on a big scale. Of course people need to do big things, but sometimes people forgot how important it is to build a personal solution for the problems. And for us, Art is a personal thing. It’s about how we can reach out one person to another. When people meet, exchange their cultures, see another art from those who live in another country, then they see a different thing, they learn to respect each other. If people can share, talk more about their culture, the respect will go deeper, and hopefully an understanding of each other will be built there. Like we said, Art gets personal. This is where those big actions made by government might not reach.

Last question: Indonesia has become one of the region’s largest markets for contemporary art. How has the art scene changed in Indonesia since the 1960s?

When Indonesia became an independent country in 1945, art was seen as a big strength and unifying force for the country. The government put a lot of attention on the development of the arts. Sometimes, art was also used as a political tool.

In 1965, the art scene was changed by the political turmoil, lots of critical artists were jailed, silenced, disappeared in the violent political battles between the government and the Army. There were three years of chaos. When General Suharto took power in 1968, the government centralized the arts. Artists that had not been caught, and were still active, could develop their careers, but always had to support – promote –the government. And though things loosened up little by little over time, that was really the case up until the 1990s. The government was still very oppressive, and they didn’t want people to say bad things about them.

In 1998 when there were riots in the streets all over the country because of the falling economy, Suharto resigned and things began to change again – to open up and become less centralized. Since then, the art scene is changing (very quickly) again, because of the openness of information through internet, etc.

The video below is about their production Mwathirika.


Propping up the stage

If you are an IB Theatre Arts student reading this you know that we look at the world of theatre through 3 different lenses – Theatre in the World, Theatre in Performance and Theatre in the Making. When we think about the last one, our focus always tends towards the performance element and not everything else that we need to make theatre.

What got me thinking about this was article in The New York Times about a convention of props makers which makes great reading Blood to Rain, in a Bag of Tricks.

These people are real craftsmen and women.  If you ever get the chance to visit a props making workshop in a theatre, go! It is so many ways.

The National Theatre in the UK have a series of videos that are available in iTunesU or on YouTube that cover a whole range of prop making. One of my favourites is the one on food, which you can access by clicking the image below:

All the others in the series can be accessed by clicking the image on the left.  They are really varied and give you a great insight into this backstage world. If you want an even more in-depth view, take a look at this blog Prop Agenda by professional prop maker, Eric Hart. There is also an interview here with Antony Barnett who is Head of Props at the Royal Opera House in London.

Resourcing Asia

The writing of this blog has taken me on a compelling and fascinating journey into the outer reaches of the internet. I am always amazed at what people are prepared to share and take the time to develop and post.

However, yesterday I struck gold for everyone who has interest in, or needs to have a working knowledge of, Asian performance traditions. It is a vastly illustrated web-based text book, an introduction to Asian theatre and dance traditions and so far covers India, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, China, Korea, and Japan. Click the image below to enter this exceptional web-site.

A couple of quotes that stood out for me:

The interrelatedness of drama, dance and music

In Asia drama, dance and music are inseparable. In the European performing arts, on the other hand, they developed their own ways. Thus in the West we talk about text-dominated “spoken theatre”, music-dominated “opera”, and dance-dominated “ballet”.

Most of the traditional forms of Asian performing art combine drama, dance and music into a kind of whole in which it is difficult to draw a clear borderline between these art forms. Most of the Asian traditions employ either dance or dance-like, stylised movements, while movements are frequently interwoven with text. In addition to this, most of the traditions are characterised by their own specific musical styles or genres. The acting technique, which employs dance-like body language, is usually very intricate and it demands many years of arduous training, as western ballet technique, for example, does. Therefore in Asia it is simply not possible to classify stage arts as nonverbal “dance” or “spoken theatre”.

The Interaction between “Living Theatre” and Puppet Theatre

In Asia, puppet theatre and one of its variations, shadow theatre, are often regarded as valued “classical” traditions, whereas in the western tradition puppet theatre is, with only a few exceptions, regarded merely as children’s entertainment.

In Asia there are dozens of important forms of puppet theatre. One could generalise that shadow theatre usually represents the early strata of puppetry with a long history and religious or magical connotations. In shadow theatre the silhouette-like figures are often cut from leather or other transparent or semi-transparent materials and they are seen through a cloth screen while manipulated by one or more puppeteers.

The interaction of puppet theatre and “living theatre” is one of the characteristics of Asian theatrical traditions. There will be several clear examples in this book of how puppet theatre has influenced the structure, acting technique and other conventions of “living theatre” and vice versa.

The main person to thank for this incredible resource, who is the editor and main writer, is Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, a lecturer at the Theatre Academy and Helsinki University in Finland and Mahidol University in Bangkok, Thailand.

It’s a Mystery

As any good student of performance should know,  the history of theatre in almost all world cultures can trace its roots to religious ritual and celebration, be it the Ramayana in India, the Greek gods in Europe or shamanistic rites in ancient China.

However in the West, the performance traditions of the Greek and Roman Empires were lost during the ‘Dark Ages’ leaving the continent with a gaping cultural hole. I’ve always been fascinated by what evolved next, The Mystery Plays, and the impact that they had on the theatrical heritage of almost a whole continent. If you don’t know about the Mysteries you can read a simple history here or a more in-depth one here.

What makes all this worthy of a post here, for me, is that they are still being performed 700 years later. One of the most famous performances takes place every year in the English city of York and this year’s re-interpretation has received some great reviews – have a look at this video, you will see why.

If you want to see more you can here which allows you see the performance from different viewing angles and cameras.

Even more fascinating is that the huge casts for these plays (with the exception of the lead roles) are largely drawn from local people, not professional actors, so it has remained what it began as – community theatre.

You can find Mystery or Passion Plays being performed all over Europe, but perhaps the most famous is in Oberammergau in Bavaria, Germany, where half the village take part – almost 3000 people.  They perform their Passion Play every 10 years and have done so since 1634. All the roles in Oberammergau are taken by locals. Have a look at this short documentary (apologies for the voice-over):


You don’t need to be a religious person (I’m not) to enjoy the spectacle of the modern Mystery Plays but you can appreciate a great story well told and a fantastic piece of theatre.

Burning down the House

This is the beautiful deco Bolivar Theatre, in Quito, Ecuador, which opened in 1933 with an audience capacity of 2,400.  Whenever I travel I try to visit these grand architectural icons as they often say much about a country’s society and culture, and I was stuck by the grandeur of this one.

Sadly, this is what it looks like on the inside now.  In 1997, after a few years as a cinema, a lengthy restoration process took place, which succeeded in recapturing lost audiences. In 1998 the theatre dedicated itself to promoting culture in Quito, becoming The Theater of the City. 70 events, both national and international, were presented in 1998 and the first half of 1999, bringing more than 70,000 visitors. The future was bright. However, on Sunday, August 8, 1999, a gas leak caused a fire to erupt in the kitchen of the multinational chain Pizza Hut, which was occupying a business area on the ground floor of the theatre. The fire consumed over 70% of the building.

And why am writing about it? Well, as I travelled around Ecuador I was delighted by the lack of international franchises – not a Starbucks to be had, or the greasy stink of a MacDonalds to be sniffed.  The Ecuadorian government clearly has a very tight rein on allowing these companies in.

However, there was a notice on the door of the Teatro Bolivar (to give it is proper title) that explained what had happened, but also went on to say that Pizza Hut refused both to accept responsibility for the fire or help fund or take part in any of the restoration. So much for corporate social responsibility!

The day following the fire, the Theater and Hotel Enterprise of Quito planned the Process of Restoration for the Bolivar Theater that would include a number of principal actions, including initiating legal and public actions to put pressure on Pizza Hut to recognize their responsibility for the fire and to continue to produce cultural events in the Bolivar in the process of rising out of the ashes. The restoration process is clearly a slow one, but the members of the Bolivar Theater Foundation and the Bolivar’s audiences are determined to return their beloved theatre to its original prominence, as one of the most important cultural venues in South America .

The places in which we make theatre can be as important as the performances themselves and represent the significance of creativity in and to a culture. So when one is destroyed by an international corporate giant that then refuses to accept its role in that destruction, it makes me especially angry.

So next time you pick up the phone to order your pizza, please think again and choose a company other than Pizza Hut.

On Cloud Nine

I first encountered Caryl Churchill when I was doing my A Levels, many moons ago. It was her play, Cloud 9, that captured me and her writing has held me enthralled ever since.
It was the structure of the play, not just the content, that caught my attention, although it would be fair to say that the politics it spoke about shouted at me loudly. Act 1 is set in British colonial Africa in Victorian times, and Act 2 is set in a London park in 1979. However, between the acts only twenty-five years pass for the characters. Each actor plays one role in Act 1 and a different role in Act 2 – the characters who appear in both acts are played by different actors in the first and second. Act 1 parodies the conventional comedy genre and satirizes Victorian society and colonialism. Act 2 shows what could happen when the restrictions of both the genre of comedy and Victorian ideology are loosened in the more permissive 1970s. The play uses controversial portrayals of sexuality and obscene language and establishes a parallel between colonial and sexual oppression – and it made laugh!
Also it was developed inconjunction with Joint Stock Theatre Company who were taking the British theatre world by storm at the time with a new way of working, developing plays with well-known playwrights, in the rehearsal room.  The company is no more, but has given birth to Out of Joint, which was founded by Max Stafford-Clark, one of the original members of Joint Stock.
And why am I reminiscing about the play today?  Well, Churchill (pictured above) is about to open two new plays at London’s Royal Court Theatre.  Her writing career has spanned more than 50 years and her influence on Western theatre has been significant, and for me, satisfyingly controversial. You can read about her work and the two new plays in a fantastic article, Caryl Churchill: changing the language of theatre.
Therefore it also seems fitting that I should return to a post I made in June, “there aren’t bloody well enough parts for women” which bemoaned the lack of roles for women in theatre. Well, Churchill has gone a long way to address this in her career and it caught my notice that an all female version of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar as about to open at the Donmar Warehouse in London. One writer commented that “The Donmar’s gender switch of Shakespeare’s play could turn a dusty GCSE set text into something much more Pussy Riot”.
An interesting thought!