Teater Koma Turns 40, but the State of Our Theatre Isn’t Pretty

I’d never forget what my parents said when I, a student that summer in Massachusetts, was to make my first trip to New York City. All the way in Jakarta, my parents told me to watch a Broadway show and get the best seat, even if it meant I had to eat cheap through the trip. My travel mate, an Asian-American student who hadn’t been to NYC herself, got the same advice from her parents in California.

We did as we were told; seats so great we could see little details of the majestic stage and had a fully-costumed actor purring around our feet during Act 2 of Cats, then Broadway’s longest-running show. We wore our fanciest dress and had drinks at a posh bar afterwards, rehashing the play down to the last meow, feeling like fabulous Manhattanites– forgetting we were cash-strapped girls staying at a bug-infested hotel and mostly sharing hotdogs. I’d seen stage plays before but that evening the magic of Broadway simply enraptured me.

Theatre has all-around elements to fascinate us. Voice, sound, light, costume, décor—a make-believe story unfurled in three acts literally before our eyes without a screen getting in the way. As it’s not recorded there’s always a chance the actors deliver jokes better or the dancers jump higher on the particular show you watch. Intimate, and personal.

Back home in Indonesia, Teater Koma is the company that has consistently delivered such magic to me. The stories, the acting, the set, and the satire towards the ruling government. Back in the New Order era, Teater Koma offered unapologetic catharsis for us fed-up citizens to laugh at the antics of Soeharto, his shameless children and incompetent cronies. Their barbs got too pointy and illustrations too real Soeharto shut down their shows at some point.

The 1998 Reformasi means we wouldn’t need to see a theatre to criticize Indonesian government. Anyone’s neighbor’s cousin’s does it openly on social media these days. I like how Teater Koma has maneuvered since, taken more of the cultural heritage path. The legendary Chinese folk tale Sie Jin Kwie for example, upon which Teater Koma incorporated wayang tavip and wayang potehi, two vintage forms of shadow puppetry that are proofs of Chinese and Javanese cultures meshing well for centuries.

The 4th installment of Sie Jin Kwie was on recently, the 150th production of Teater Koma to celebrate its 40th anniversary. Purchasing power going down while ticket prices going up, yet it was a full-house the evening we went. It was also heartening to see teens brought by their parents. Teater Koma remained true to their court-jester role, poking cheekily at Governor Anies Baswedan’s sketchy plan for cheap housing and President Joko Widodo’s penchant for blusukan, much to the roaring laughter of audience.

However, theatre-going in general has not made much progress on the social calendar of Jakartans. Once phenomenal Swara Mahardhikka has long defunct, EKI the dance company garnered respectable number when they threw a production, and there was the rare fluke that was Laskar Pelangi a few years ago—but that’s about it. Great production like Sie Jin Kwie sequels should’ve lasted for several weeks each in a metropolitan of 12-15 million residents like Jakarta. Other theatre shows were held even shorter, sometimes only 2 days.

Months-long preparation costs much, and that’s before venue rentals, which are steep in Jakarta, and promotional expenses. Teater Koma has had the steady support of the Djarum Foundation in recent years, but I gather not all theatre companies are that fortunate. And yet, a poorly-marketed 2-day show doesn’t really generate much attention of audience or sponsor either, hence the vicious cycle.

Supply side problems aside, I wonder why demand seems tepid. Until a few years ago I had a group of friends who’d race after office for an evening at the theatre, but the group has since dispersed. Even if you work in downtown Jakarta’s traffic has gotten so bad in recent years it’s hard to reach Taman Ismail Marzuki or Gedung Kesenian Jakarta by 7pm, let alone Salihara in the southern of Jakarta. Many of my married-with-kids pals have moved to the suburbs; a 3-hour show a la Teater Koma would get them home past midnight on weekdays, while commuting to Jakarta on weekends was so unappealing considering how Jakarta roads have consumed their time most of the week already. I notice some of them still catch a show when they travel overseas, so art isn’t the problem—logistic is. If traffic has indeed discouraged old-timers, it certainly wouldn’t encourage new audience.

Sad, indeed. Especially because I see more Indonesians watching musical or play in neighboring Singapore, or in Jakarta when a good foreign company makes a rare visit. I don’t know enough of the business more than my aforementioned musings, but I believe theatre should be featured more in the rat race that is Jakarta’s daily life nowadays to stop us from completely losing our humanity.

It took decades for Jakarta to finally have a respectable contemporary art museum such as Museum Macan, as I wrote last time. I wonder if to have a vibrant theatre-going city within a decade, even a fraction of Broadway level, would be too much to ask. Anyway, here’s a hopeful toast to see Teater Koma’s 300th production– I’ll tote my grandkids along.

As published: http://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2017/11/25/urban-chat-teater-koma-turns-40-state-our-theaters-isnt-pretty.html

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