Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Ketoprak Tobong, Yogjakarta (and some theatre in Java)




Ketoprak Tobong


In 2000 Risang Yuwono’s father bought a theatre company in Yogjakarta for 36 million rupiah.

They are Ketoprak Tobong, they are a touring folk theatre company and they are still going.  Risang’s father has passed the outfit on to his son as he is not so well these days. And Risang, who is also a fine photographer (see http://projecttobong.com/ for more on his ongoing collaboration with London artist Helen Marshall), is working at making this traditional theatre survive in a world that sometimes forgets about the importance of such traditions.

(The trouble with the Elizabethans is that they didn’t take enough photos…)

I was in Java during September 2014 trying to get to know a little more about Indonesian theatre practices and traditions, having gone in 2013 to a huge puppet festival in Ubud that stirred an interest already awakened by theatre in Thailand.


Kraton, Yogja, set up for puppet show.

I started in Jakarta, which has a very good puppet museum that you could take a day or so to work through properly, and worked my way on to performances in Yogja and Solo before coming home.  I wasn’t awfully systematic about this but was well armed with advice about the Yogja palace (Kraton) and its morning dance, puppet and gamelan performances as well as a few tourist type shows. And you do develop a bit of a nose for ferreting out the performances in foreign parts.

Ramayana at Prabanan, Yogja
The Ketoprak turned up via Via Via, an ecologically savvy tourist company in Yogja, and I signed up for a car and driver to take me to the Hindu temple at Prambanan where I’d already seen something of the outdoor theatre that stages Ramayana with the majestic ruins of Prambanan as its illuminated backdrop. (And when there’s a blackout and a full moon the blackout is paradoxically a thing of great beauty as only the moon illuminates the move to the next scene.) 

Then it was on to a night at the Ketoprak Tobong. We got to the theatre after dark. Not that it looked all that much like a theatre, although there seemed to be some kind of a box office and a large poster and an entrance in the dark and a few people lurking about in woolly hats.


Ketoprak Tobong


But when you go through, the first thing you see is a lit up proscenium arch with a red satin curtain at the end of a dark rough open sided audience space where the floor is almost certainly earth and the chairs are old metal ones. The red satin curtain did it for me. Early training in Sydney means an old fashioned pros arch with a red curtain lit and ready to go unhinges me temporarily. Theatre romantics know this syndrome.

Ketoprak Tobong

Owner Risang was quick to realise he had a theatre romantic on his hands and took me on the pre show tour. On stage as we passed the wings the company was sitting in a circle to workshop and discuss what the show would be that night.

Ketoprak Tobong

Shades of commedia del arte and various forms of semi improvised theatre.  And yes, this rough theatre has wings and battens (all in one piece like a frame) and painted scenery, and backdrops and curtains that roller up and down on ropes. There are only really three locations – a palace, a forest and a peasant hut. But in Shakespearean fashion a bit of tweaking, like less light or adding a green curtain, might provide you with ‘another part of the forest’ or ‘another room in the palace'.

Ketoprak Tobong

Out the back there’s not much light and a half circle of huts. Back in 2000 there were about 60 people in the troupe. It does not seem to be so many today but there are clearly people living in those huts. Or at least getting dressed in them.


Ketoprak Tobong
Behind the stage is the makeup area where the final bits of costume also seem to be added. The actors are unselfconsciously aware of your photography and adjust their poses for photography as they do this. The makeup for the higher class and demonic characters is dramatic. The costumes are rich, magnificent, sparkling.
Ketoprak Tobong

A quick look at the stage manager’s corner (OP as opposed to P in this place) shows that he’s got to be all things, lighting, sound and mechanist. An offer to let me watch from the wings during the second half to see how all of this is going to work in practice is made and accepted.

Ketoprak Tobong
Out the front the gamelan orchestra is arriving bit by bit. There’s an older bloke in a woolly hat and a younger bloke who will seem to use tablet technology to keep himself on track and a scattering of glowing mobile phones. You will never quite glimpse who it is that is hiding behind the giant gongs. A fair amount of smoking goes on. A woman in a hijab will sit at the front, where we might put a conductor, and she will sing, mostly in between the action.


Ketoprak Tobong


Ketoprak Tobong
The stage is nineteenth century proscenium arch perhaps via Indian tent show traditions. There is a Vitruvian perspective effect, with a set of one piece batten and wing frames with the frame getting smaller as the set goes toward the back drop. There are really only three ‘scenes’ – a palace, a forest and a peasant’s hut – but with a little changing around of some of the movable elements you can clearly have ‘another part of the forest/palace’ (but probably not ‘another part of the peasant hut’).

Ketoprak Tobong

It’s Ramayana and Mahabharata and folk story territory and that’s magnificently courtly at the beginning but it soon comes down to the comedians and the locals in the hut and all the local byplay with the audience.  The dignity of the upper class characters is immense but the earthiness of the lower classes is richly shown. There’s a comedian with a cheerful face, full of personality, who keeps the comedy stoked.

Ketoprak Tobong


Ketoprak Tobong
In the second half I come out of the audience where I’ve been kept going with large mugs of sweet milky tea and go to perch on a box in the wings. The moon is full above but the wings are dark and full of actors. The stage floor is made of wooden planks covered in the visible areas with carpet. There are bits of half dowel on the floor in the wings to keep the wings from sliding over. There are ropes that the stage manager will rush at to haul curtains and backdrops up and down. There’s no fly floor – it’s an old fashioned multiple rope system where curtains and scenic drops roll onto a bar. Given that there is only one operator the speed at which they do this is impressive.


Ketoprak Tobong

And because there are no walls the moon is clearly setting behind us.

The stage manager makes the job of an Australian equivalent look like a bit of a holiday. He’s being a mechanist with those ropes but he also operates a basic sound system with a mike over the stage to boost the actors’ voices. He has some kind of a prompt book on the desk. Above it are a series of switches that enable a little control over lighting. Since this mainly consists of a central flood centre stage between each of the battens and a single one front of house this is limited to taking out some upstage if a more mysterious look is required.

SM's desk, Ketoprak Tobong 

He also has on the desk a wooden duck with a belly slit. This is actually like a Chinese wood block in western orchestral percussion and he uses it to signal changes. He never stops working, one eye on the book. I hunker down and concentrate on not falling backwards down the rickety steps into the void behind me while trying to take lots of shots of actors waiting in the wings and of glimpses of the on stage action.


Ketoprak Tobong

(The trouble with Shakespeare’s lot is that they did not take enough photos…later in the trip I will lose the IPod touch somehow at the more upmarket ketoprak theatre in Solo but at least the camera makes it home. And the human memory is a camera of sorts too…)


Ketoprak Tobong

On the second night I am put straight into a chair at the back of the orchestra pit and watch from there.

Ketoprak Tobong


The pit is simply a walled off area in front of the stage. I get a close up view of the orchestra’s way of working. Older members might have a piece of paper with a running list. Younger ones have almost certainly got that in their phone or tablet. All of them have the ethos of the performances in their head. Some wear traditional dress, some are smart casual and there’s always an older bloke with a woolly hat.  You still can’t quite see who it is behind the biggest gongs. They chat quietly, they laugh, they comment.

Ketoprak Tobong


Early arrivals, Ketoprak Tobong 
The closer view takes me away from the audience who continue to be a warm presence in the dark, mostly older but with some young ones. Chatting, throwing in the odd comment. When that leading comedian comes on, the young man with a glowing face and charming smile, the ambience of the whole place is electric.

I don’t know Javanese so I am of course not coping with the dialogue.  Later on other places like the wayang orang in Solo will have somewhat erratic surtitles but in Bahasa to help with the older form of language used and not in English. A rough grasp of Ramayana helps but not when the Ketoprak in Solo wanders heavily into folk tales involving mysterious pearls and sultans. It helps to have experienced Thai likhe (folk theatre) performances, where although I grasp the odd word or phrase, I am almost language blind. You do need to develop a certain patience for a different kind of pace and rhythm. Even the theatricality seems different although visual humour often crosses the boundaries.

Then there’s the burden of the western middle class assumption that an audience has to stay for everything and keep quiet while doing so. I’ll admit to wielding a camera but otherwise I stick to early training and keep my seat.

Ketoprak Tobong

Ketoprak Tobong, with its painted palaces and forests and huts is really the pick of what was seen this trip. I go to puppets and gamelan and the stately classical dance and wayang orang, which is the puppet show done with humans instead of puppets and another ketoprak in Solo where the theatre has walls and the star turn is a lean Chaplinesque comedian with a melancholy deadpan face. I notice the older faces among the performers in many shows, their skills transcending any notion that youth is all there is. 

Older dancer, Ramayana Ballet, Yogja

I am taken round the performing arts school in Solo where senior secondary students learn dance and gamelan and puppetry in tiny rooms and open their morning rehearsals to the public. I watch a puppeteer up in Bogor carve exquisitely detailed puppet heads and buy Rama and Sita for that detail, still unpainted. (‘Three days work. Each one. 300,00 rupiah for two…’)


Unpainted puppet head, Bogor 

But nothing quite affects me as much as the Yogja Ketoprak Tobong where canvas and wood and paint and a few judiciously placed lights create ambience that is added to by the rough open sided space. The courtly characters have a true dignity as they sit and debate in the palace or roar into stylised warfare. The scenes among the ordinary people have honesty and humour and the audience feels free to participate with genuine gusto. And there’s a magical moment late in one story where a character who has clearly been blind suddenly changes his face so beautifully as he receives sight.

Ketoprak Tobong

Ketoprak Tobong
Risang has his hand on the practicalities of running this theatre as well as having lively and insightful views about theatre and travel and the world and Java. I am grateful to him and to the people of Ketoprak for being so willing to let strangers in to see the beauty and strength of a tradition that ought to be continued. And to let me, unlike Shakespeare’s lot, take many photos.




Ketoprak Tobong

by Alanna Maclean

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