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.


Sound and Fury

Today I want to share an adaptation of a play, Kursk, to film. It is from a growing genre, that of Immersive Theatre, where the audience are required to experience more than something just created with words. The film version attempts to capture some the plays’ experiential  attributes.

In the year 2000, a Russian submarine, the Kursk, suffered a huge explosion that ripped the bow apart and sent the vessel to the seabed. Inspired by this tragic event, this production takes the audience on the imagined journey of a British Submarine sent to spy on the Kursk. The audience is subsumed in the submarine space with the performers, silent observers to the events as they unfold, complicit in their world of secrecy and codes, witnesses to the last minutes of the Kursk.

The piece puts the audience at the heart of the story using a novel and highly engaging staging that embraces both the epic and intensely personal. Using cutting edge sound design that creates the sonic equivalent of a virtual submarine, Kursk is an authentic and emotionally rich voyage into the icy depths of the Barents Sea and the dark recesses of the imagination.

Kursk received quite amazing reviews, two of which you can read here and here.

Thanks to a new initiative in the UK, The Space, the play has been reworked for film and you can watch the whole thing by clicking the image below

The producing company, Sound&Fury is a collaborative theatre company whose artistic interest is in developing the sound space of theatre and presenting the audience with new ways of experiencing performance and stories by heightening the aural sense.

Also on The Space is a fascinating documentary, Writing Kursk, about the making of the piece and is well worth a listen.

I am a real fan of this immerse theatre as I think it can challenge audiences in a very visceral way.  Mind you, not everyone agrees. In her blog, journalist Lynne Gardner explains why she has issues with it; Immersive theatre: take us to the edge, but don’t throw us in, she asserts, saying that it can replicate terrifying human experiences, but this type of theatre is best when it maintains some perspective.

Walking with Angels

Well the holiday is over so to back to blogging about what interests me (and my students hopefully) in the world of theatre and performance.

The first post of the year is about a piece of ‘theatre’ I have just come across. By American director Robert Wilson and set on the east coast of England, it is more installation than performance and it got me thinking (again) about what actually constitutes an act of theatre. What do you think?

Robert Wilson's Walking, in Norfolk

You can read an article about the work here and listen to The Strand programme here

Playing The Game

Now then, Gaming. Never something I’ve managed to get into, which is probably a good thing for me – Angry Birds is about my limit and even that frustrates the hell out of me. However, I do know that many of my friends are into gaming, online or off and that certainly many, many of my students are and this is where the research trail for this post began.  I have a student, Arisa, who is looking to explore the link between performance and gaming as a focus for her extended project.  Not wishing to sound like a complete idiot when advising her I decided I should do some research of my own and I was astounded at what I came across.

So I’ll start here with a review for The Crash of the Elysium (above) which is a new piece of children’s theatre, set in a multi-story car-park, by the internationally renowned Punchdrunk which is described as much of a game or adventure as it a performance. One critic commented

You certainly have to be on your toes, and…….is a one-off experience that children are likely to talk about for years. It’s also a reminder of what theatre can learn from other forms, particularly gaming. The excitement of the young audience comes…….from an active engagement in the unfolding scenario. Take nothing with you except a sense of adventure, wear flat shoes, be prepared to run…….

So this led me to Punchdrunk’s collaboration with PlayStation for the release of Resistance 3, Sony’s flagship sci-fi horror series. The company created a terrifying world beneath the railway arches at Waterloo station in London. The audience take the role of one of the few remaining survivors of an apocalyptic event and as one commentator noted:

From the moment the door closes behind you and you start to navigate the first dank corridor, torch in hand, you are as much part of the experience as witnessing it








And Darkness Descended as the piece is called was reviewed widely – both as a piece of performance and by technology writers and bloggers and the reaction from the two very different groups is fascinating. One blogger, Kevin Holmes who writes for a collective called The Creators Project (which is a global network dedicated to the celebration of creativity, culture and technology) entitled his piece Gaming And Theater Merge To Scare The Crap Out Of People – which I just love as a description.








Then I found this article The Seed: where theatre, gaming and botany collide on a gaming  blog. The Seed is by the company called Goat and Monkey and is described as part immersive theatre and part on-line mystery.  This led me to another game blogger, Fin Kennedy, who asked the question Can video games help theatre reach the next level?

Another writer, Matt Trueman, asked the question The form is growing up. So what do we want from our games as theatre? Is it enough just to play or must we demand that games demand more?

I then came across another Punchdrunk production Sleep No More which is based vaguely around Macbeth, and was described by Salon website as

Shakespeare meets Internet games – Macbeth and alternate reality gaming collide in a show that could suggest the future of cutting-edge theater

.Click the image above for the New York Times review, or here for the Salon article.

This is a relatively new developing area of theatre. There is clearly much emerging all the time. There are even doctoral thesis’ being written on the subject. There is one here, by Katherine Whitlock, entitled THEATRE AND THE VIDEO GAME: BEAUTY AND THE BEAST.

It just all sounds so exciting. Maybe I’ll try Angry Birds again!

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.

Five Truths

What are the differences between five of the most influential European theatre practitioners of the 20th century – Constantin Stanislavski, Antonin Artaud, Bertolt Brecht, Jerzy Grotowski and Peter Brook? How would these five directors work with the actors playing Ophelia in the famous mad scene in Shakespeare’s Hamlet? What would they ask the actors to do and how would they ask them  to behave?

A video installation called Five Truths commissioned by a theatre and a museum was created by a group of contemporary theatre makers lead by stage director,Katie Mitchell, looking at these questions. The Multi-screen installation brings together five interpretations of Ophelia’s madness in Hamlet. and consists of ten short films (2 for each of the practitioners) suggesting possible variations in what you might see. Ten screens of varying sizes simultaneously play films of Ophelia interpreted dramatically through the lens of the Big Five..

I love this project and it is a viewing MUST for any performance student.  You can get to the  five podcasts on iTunes by clicking the image above, or watch them on Youtube, the first being Stan the Man:


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

Chunky Move ‘Mortal Engine’

I was doing the second stage of a dramaturgical exercise with my TA students today and one of them, Tim, had conceived an inter-disciplinary, multi-media piece. It brought to mind this amazing piece by Chunky Move a physical theatre company from Melbourne, Australia.  They are award-winning practitioners who work with technology in amazing and ground-breaking ways. Much to my own annoyance, I missed Mortal Engine when it was in Hong Kong two years ago – mind you, I was climbing Kilimanjaro with a group of students at the time!

Mortal Engine is a dance-video-music-laser piece that utilises sophisticated interactive computer systems which, combined with the performers’ movements, trigger video projections, lights, sounds and laser images to portray an ever-shifting, shimmering world. It is performed on a tilted platform and the dancers appear to defy gravity.

My other favourite piece is Connected :

If you want to know more, you can watch this two-part documentary