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.


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.

Painted Faces

My intention for this blog was that it should be as wide as possible, covering all aspects of theatre and performance, including offering information about production roles and, when appropriate, the wide variety of careers in the creative industries.

So today I offer you an interview with Giuseppe Cannas who works as a make-up artist at the National Theatre in London. It is really interesting and gives you a very clear picture of his job.

A working life: the make-up artist

I’ve blogged elsewhere here about the role make-up plays in world theatre, but think about Chinese and Japanese traditional theatre forms.  Part of the actor training in those traditions is for the actor to be able to apply their own, highly detailed make-up

String Them Up

Puppets are one of the true world theatre traditions and no matter where you go in the world, you can usually find a native form of the art. In fact the UNIMA (Union Internationale de la Marionnette) Congress and World Puppetry Festival has just been held in China. UNIMA  is an international non-government organisation of UNESCO.









Today I bring you an interview with Mark Down, the co-founder of Blind Summit a British based puppet theatre.

Blind Summit’s Mark Down on puppetry and narrative.

Hands Up!

A little added extra for today.  My mother sent me this link and it is quite astonishing.


The art form originated in ancient China and has now taken on a new lease of life thanks to modern imaging technology that allows multi-layering of images. The Indian artists behind this work are Amar Sen and Sabyasachi Sen. You can check them out through this link.

Grand Designs

Today its design. I’ve often thought that in a different life I would liked to have been a theatre designer. Some of the best work I have ever seen has been enhanced or even made possible thanks to the designer.  That’s not say I don’t believe in the power of an empty stage, but when the design is right, it should speak to you in the same way the actors and the play do.

So I’m going to share a few things with you.  Firstly an interview with Tom Scutt, a 28-year-old stage designer who has been taking the theatre world by storm. The above image is from one of his latest creations for a stage version of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. Scutt gave his interview to ‘The Stage’

Secondly, an article in which theatre critics chose what they consider to be The 10 best theatre designs that have changed the face of modern theatre, from a 1912 Hamlet to Punchdrunk’s immersive Faust.

Thirdly a link to a web site by the stage designer J. William Davies that is full of delicious images and material. Click the image below, which is of his box set for a design for Six Characters In Search of An Author by Pirandello.

And finally my favourite two designs of the last couple of years. The first is by Börkur Jónsson, for VesturPort Theatre Company from Iceland, for their stunning production of Metamorphosis that played in Hong Kong a couple of years ago.  I was lucky enough to have front row seats and breath was taken away by every aspect of the production.

The second is by Ushio Amagatsu who directed, choreographed and designed the butoh piece Kagemi, by the Sankai Juko Company. I was privileged to see this one in Melbourne about 4 years ago. Wow.  The antithesis of my first choice, in its beautiful minimalism.


Turning Japanese

It’s Research Investigation time for my TA students and two of them are getting excited about Japanese theatre. So, Tim and Clarissa, three fantastic documentaries to get you going.

And a little added extra.  This is the Ningyo Johruri Bunraku Puppet Theatre in Osaka which I visited 6 years ago.  I went on the opening day of the season, thanks to a very helpful concierge at my hotel. I was fortunate enough to see the greatest living japanese master jōruri – a very wizened old man who was just astonishing.

Specific Reflections

I have been keeping this blog for a month and over the weekend, I looked back at what I’ve posted about……and it made me realise a couple of very significant things.

Firstly, just how much I have learned about world theatre, and more particularly Asian theatre, since I started teaching IB Theatre Arts 6 years ago. What an amazing journey! Mostly, my performance education was largely in the western canon and generally about dead, white male theatre practitioners, so now to have knowledge and understanding about so much more is empowering.

Secondly, there are some trends emerging which reflect my own personal interests in a very obvious way – political (sorry Dennis!), site specific and dance theatre, as well as technology in multimedia performance. I knew it, but it is interesting to see it laid bare in front of me.

Site specific theatre is my current passion, fuelled by work with Dr Sally Mackey, from the Central School of Speech and Drama, and Lynne Bradley from Brisbane-based physical theatre company, Zen Zen Zo. This brings me to the this:

Everyday Moments 12: audio drama for private performance

This is a series of podcasts that have been created by different artists to be listened to in specific places, at specific times. Glorious sound scapes and, in my book, very site specific.

Enjoy, when you have 10 minutes

In The News

A few images from the news in the last week

Goma, Democrati Republic of Congo The Busara Contemporary Dance Company rehearse a production about child soldiers.

Beijing, China. Young students from the National Academy of Chinese Theatre Arts Middle School share a moment backstage before their Peking Opera performance, Nine-tailed Fox.

A victim of the Lapindo mud volcano takes part in a theatrical performance on a retaining dike in Sidoarjo, East Java.. Six years after it erupted from the well of a gas company linked to one of Indonesia’s richest men, the mud volcano known as “Lusi” is still spewing its toxic sludge over Java’s countryside. All attempts to plug the geyser have failed and new spouts are opening up, threatening to destroy more villages, homes and livelihoods in the East Java district of Sidoarjo.

And if you haven’t seen this yet – it’s been doing the rounds on social media – live your theatre journey by it

Art Should Comfort The Disturbed and Disturb The Comfortable

Ceser A Cruz