In my own musings that happened after the project Visible City in Melbourne in 2010, I have begun to wonder about the role of culture in Australia. There is a pretty standard cliche that is spoken about how ‘in Europe the society values the arts more’. I have to say that I don’t know this per se as I have not spent enough time there to really get below the surface of this idea.
I have spent some time in Asia and quite recently as well. The thing that strikes me again and again about being in Taiwan or China or Indonesia is that ‘culture’ is not something that is separated from the ‘normal’ goings on of the people, it is embedded deep within the fabric of day to day life. Going to temple, or eating from a street hawker, giving offerings or a procession of large puppets down a street – all of these things just happen, there is no build up to it, there is no ‘beginning or ending’.
Whilst in discussion with theatre and festival maker Ian Pidd I realised that he has just completed a thesis on the same sort of ideas. In the thesis he discusses the role of performance in Javanese life especially in Jogyakarta where he has made works with Australian company Snuff Puppets.
Here he has kindly allowed me to reproduce part of his thesis;
Architecture and the Neighbours
Physically we worked within the compound at YBK, a sprawling village consisting of three Pandopos (marble or concrete based theatres, open on three sides with a large ornate roof held up by a series of columns that have the effect of dividing the performance space for the audience area), a recording studio, large kitchen and eating area, administration block and dormitory housing for 40 people.
This entire centre was taken over by the PPP (People’s Puppet Process) process. On any given creating/rehearsal day, one Pandopo was being used for rehearsal, one had a team of people building puppets, props and set pieces and the other housed YBK’s magnificent collection of Gamelan instruments and was used by the musicians to write and rehearse the music.
It is important to understand that the compound sits within a larger village within Yogyakarta. Like many arts centres in Indonesia the YBK centre is essentially public space. On any given day the paths and open areas of the compound are traversed by hundreds of local residents. To set the scene, this might include men walking to the mosque; an old woman walking up the hill and back each day to find bundles of leaves for a small herd of goats that are penned just behind the largest central Pandopo; mothers and grandmothers following young children around feeding them nasi ayam; small knots of men sitting, smoking, drinking sweet tea; people with mobile food stalls strolling by ringing bells to call their customers. On one occasion a man sets up his knife sharpening service by the side of the theatre; all aspects of the PPP creative process – from morning warm-up, devising exercises, rehearsal, choreographic sessions, puppet design, script meetings, coffee breaks, creative squabbles – take place in public and become part of a larger conversation within the community.
The informal, casual audience, on the whole, quietly observed our activity over the course of the day. At times, especially when we began to rehearse larger blocks of the work, having this audience gave the process something closer to an actual performance. One sensed the performer’s energy levels rise. On occasion I noticed this casual audience engage members of the team in discussions about particular aspects of the play. This interaction does not just take place at the YBK. On occasion when out having a late dinner at a food stall some distance away from the Centre someone asked if we were the Australians who are preparing the Ramayana up the road and the conversation that followed made it clear that there was some detail in our work that has sparked particular interest: how have we come to be working in Yogya? Why is there such a mix of students and adults? Even a quite specific question about the casting of a woman in the role of Hanuman. YBK’s neighbours are interested and involved in what is going on in the creation of this work. It’s a subtle involvement, but nonetheless, real.
What is notable is the ease with which this rolling collaboration takes place. In no time at all our Indonesian collaborators have struck up friendships within the larger village – sharing cigarettes, cuddling babies, admiring goats, visiting the local mosques (there are four or five within easy walking distance – the din of the speakers calling the faithful to prayers five times a day also amplifies the fact that we are embedded in the village.) In part, of course, this has come about because this village has had artists creating work within it for 40 years. However, much more importantly is the physical environment itself. The compound is set up in such a way as to encourage the flow of human traffic. The Pandopos are spaces from which it is impossible to exclude the outside world. Local residents would have to go out of their way not to participate in the creative process on some level. Even the local dogs add their appreciation to the rehearsal, barking especially loudly during the practicing of the fights.
As the days pass our casual collaborators come and go. They do not wait for scenes to finish; they approach the rehearsal Pandopo from every direction and when they do stay and watch, settle anywhere within a 280 degree radius of the space, choosing to sit up close (indeed on occasion even sitting on the edge of the marble stage itself). This public collaboration, and the way that it is physically enabled by the architecture of the buildings and the placement of the building within the village system, adds to the sense (of it being a) being a manifestation of the community, of it having no front or back, of it not having an “opening night,” of the lack of emphasis on beginning and endings. These elements, I should emphasise, do not lessen the power of the theatre, but rather enhance it, making the form more approachable, more part of every day, more physically present, less concerned with wishing to find its own special place in space and time.
For me this has dovetailed into some of my own thoughts about why it is I try to make work outside of traditional structures and in non traditional spaces.
Recently I was working with Liesel Zink, an emerging choreographer in Brisbane who was rehearsing a work that will take place on the streets of Melbourne in 2012. While she was rehearsing I realised that at first the general public in the park looked and would point and comment to each other, but eventually they would stop looking and return to their conversation and sandwiches. Somehow she and her dancers had become a part of the fabric of the park. When someone came up to her and asked her what she was doing, she said ‘We are working’.
I like the simplicity of this. We are working.
As I said at a talk at Perc Tucker Gallery in Townsville recently;
The larger picture for me is that any sort of deviation from the norm, any sort of cultural, creative, ritual or curious practice in public space can help to change the way we see these places but more importantly that the general public can see that cultural practice is important, that it is interesting and that it is vital to who we are as people.
(Ian Pidd is a Theatre maker, Festival Director and creator of The Village.)