August 02, 2008

Children's Theater

Children's theater: Striving to empower the young

The Jakarta Post, Sunday, July 23, 2006

Tam Notosusanto, Contributor, Jakarta

The Mangkulangit kingdom is in distress. The crown princess is suffering from a rare disease, allegedly caused by a curse. The king orders his two prime ministers, Patih Jalu and Patih Geger, to arrest everyone in the kingdom suspected of practicing black magic.

It's serious business for the two prime ministers, but the two men are anything but serious. They even look funny together: Jalu, the diminutive, energetic guy who, once in a while, does a tumble-and-fall slapstick routine; and Geger, the corpulent state official with his enormous moustache and commanding charisma. Their chemistry recalls Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, even The Blues Brothers.

Yes, this was all a comedy show called When the King and Crown Princess Laugh staged at the Jakarta Arts Hall (GKJ) last March by the theater group Labornitejati -- short for the Theater Laboratory of East Jakarta. The audience, mostly children, were greatly amused by the antics of the actors, who were not much older than themselves. Surya Winata, the 12-year-old boy who played Jalu, is just starting middle school. And Geger was not even male: he was played by a 15-year-old girl named Mawallisa Febrikafi. Their 50 cast mates were about their age or younger.

Fast forward to the group's headquarters this July where they were rehearsing their next show. Surya and Mawallisa had evidently shed their grownup characters and gone back to being children. They spoke with youthful exuberance about their experience on stage. When asked who he models his adult characters on, Surya said, "My mom," pointing to Kartini, a veteran lenong (traditional Betawi comedy show) and screen performer who is one of Labornitejati's administrators. Mawallisa, a charming, down-to-earth teenager who is nothing like the arrogant, oppressive Patih Geger, has no previous experience as an actor. Playing Patih Geger was her first theatrical experience. "Uncle Dorman taught me everything," she humbly said.

The man she referred to is the instructor, writer, art director, songwriter and all-round motor behind Labornitejati. Dorman Borisman has been an actor and director for over three decades, performing with some of the country's prominent theater groups: Arifin C. Noer's Teater Ketjil and Teguh Karya's Teater Populer. He has spent many years acting as foils for comedians and playing supporting roles in Indonesian movies.

He is more familiar to the general public as a sinetron actor, which is how he makes his living. But few people know the 55-year-old actor has been allocating some of his earnings from the entertainment industry to finance his main passion: theater. Teater Jakarta Timur (East Jakarta Theater), the group he established with some colleagues back in 1971, has put on a number of plays with casts comprising both adults and teenagers. Last year, he set up Labornitejati to give children some experience of the performing arts.

"We wanted to develop the talents and resources of children and teenagers," Dorman said. "I do this because it's a spiritual need."

This work requires a lot of dedication. Dorman gets a meager wage from the East Jakarta Youth Arena, the municipality's official venue for children's activities, which accommodates a variety of sports and arts clubs, including his two theater groups. On Thursday and Sunday afternoons, he directs the show together with his associates Kartini and Cak Winarsyowho. Nur Solihin, who helps out with the production, comes to the arena to guide the 60 odd children of Labornitejati through their regular theater exercises.

Children's theater groups exist all over Jakarta. They are mostly community theater groups formed outside schools and some of them are sponsored by the Youth Arenas of each of the five municipalities in Jakarta. A few of them are fortunate enough to be managed by professional performers.

One of the oldest children's theater groups is Teater Tanah Air (TTA), founded 18 years ago by actor-director-poet Jose Rizal Manua, who trains his 80 young disciples every Sunday in a corner of the Ismail Marzuki Arts Center (TIM) in Central Jakarta. Jose, 52, has worked with the country's top dramatists, Putu Wijaya and WS Rendra, and continues to frequent poetry festivals all over the country. He works as an acting coach for some movies and occasionally appears in them. But he never neglects his children's theater group.

"Here's where we nurture their interest and talent," he said. "Through theater, we teach them discipline, self-confidence and social skills."

Jose, who previously worked with another children's theater group in the late 70s through to early 80s, observes that many children's theater instructors do not understand child psychology, and tend to teach children the way they train teenage and adult actors.

"I once went to see them practice," Jose said. "The instructor tells one child to display Angry 1, Angry 3, Laugh 5. The child shows different semblances of anger and joy, but it's all fake."

What Jose does is engage his children in games.

"I tell one child to walk and have her imagine a wasp coming at her, and she has to react to it. Next I tell her to imagine five wasps coming at her, and show me how she reacts to them. Then 10 wasps, then 100 wasps. Every child has a different way of reacting, and it all comes from themselves," Jose said.

Some of Jose's pupils have become renowned entertainers, such as dancer Denny Malik or actors Sylvana Herman and Septian Dwicahyo. Others became bank managers and hotel managers who later went to see Jose to tell him the training helped them professionally.

"I joined the group four years ago," said 15-year-old Ita Puspitasari, a current member of TTA. "Uncle Jose keeps telling me to do stuff in front of the other kids: to improvise, do funny walks, act angry. At first, I was always nervous. But after some time, I become more and more confident."

Some of the young actors' parents notice a difference in their behavior.

"My son used to be extremely shy," said Emmy, the mother of TTA member Rwanda Sutedira. "He has done very well at school and is now beginning high school at age 13. But he spent most of his time in his room, didn't want to go out and play with the neighbors' kids, and would run back into his room whenever we had guests."

She took him to TTA and witnessed a dramatic change. After three months, Rwanda started to open up to people. He became a master of ceremonies at school events and even starred in a television film titled The Little Brigadier.

"He's really changed. "I am not going to push him into the entertainment business, I am just happy he is sociable now. That's why I make the effort of bringing him here every Sunday all the way from Bekasi," said Emmy.

"If children get in touch with art from an early age, they will grow up to have an 'added value' that their peers may not have," said Andi Bersama, writer, director and instructor of the children's theater group Sang Abul, based in Bulungan Youth Arena in South Jakarta.

Andi, a former journalist who is now a stage and screen actor, founded Sang Abul -- short for Sanggar Anak Bulungan or Bulungan Children's Studio -- with some friends in 2003. The group has performed at the Bulungan Arena auditorium and in events at various venues: schools, malls, hotels. Some of these shows were paid gigs, but Sang Abul still has to struggle to finance shows at its neighborhood venue.

Labornitejati, Teater Tanah Air and Sang Abul all charge membership fees, ranging from Rp 10,000 (US$1.10) to Rp 50,0000 ($5.50) a month.

"We implement a cross-subsidy scheme here, because 30 percent of the kids come from poor families," said Dorman. "The well-to-do kids cover their less fortunate friends' fees."

Still, the money doesn't help much when the time comes to put on a show, so the groups' administrators have to ask parents to pitch in. At one time Sang Abul received lunch boxes during rehearsals and show dates from a local restaurateur whose child happens to be in the troupe. Dorman once sent 30 proposals to various institutions and companies to get financial support for a Labornitejati show. He only got a response from three companies, which sent their food and drink products as contributions.

"Our government and businesses have yet to consider the potential in art," Dorman said. "Our society has not made art an important part of life. All we have is the all-instant entertainment industry, which doesn't make us any more intelligent."

Dorman and Jose tell of talent agents who lurk around their headquarters, while Andi has been approached by stage parents who mistake his place as an inexpensive talent agency.

"I was once offered millions of rupiah by parents who wanted me to get their kids shortcuts to TV stardom. I flat out refused them," said Dorman. "I once told one such parent and his child to leave the group."

Andi is more moderate. "My TV connections enable me to link up production companies and child actors," he said. "But I tell parents that's not what Sang Abul is here for."

Their main business is, of course, to get kids to express themselves onstage. Sang Abul was the winner of the biannual Jakarta Children's Theater Festival in 2004. Labornitejati's March show was part of GKJ's Children's Celebrations event. This July, they have been selected by the Jakarta administration's Cultural Affairs Office to represent the city in a children's theater event called Duta Seni Pelajar (Student Art Ambassadors) in Banten from July 17 to 20.

Teater Tanah Air won Gold Medals at the Asia-Pacific Festival of Children's Theater in Toyama, Japan, in 2004 and this July they went to Lingen, Germany, to compete in the ninth World Festival of Children's Theater.

"I realize many people hope to take advantage of what I do for the kids," said Dorman. "But we remind ourselves not to take advantage of the children. It's our commitment to them."

Tam Notosusanto is an actor and director with the community theater group The Jakarta Players.