Putu Wijaya: An optimist about theater
Ganug Nugroho Adi
In the world of theater, 66-year-old playwright Putu Wijaya continues to shine.
His works took center stage early October when 28 of his monologues and four of his drama pieces were presented in a week-long event, focusing on his works, at the second Indonesian Theater Forum in Solo, also known as Surakarta, Central Java.
Teater Tanah Air (Jakarta), Teater Lungid (Surakarta) and Putu’s Teater Mandiri also joined in the event, with noted performers Butet Kartaredjasa (Yogyakarta), Ikranegara (Jakarta), Herlina Syarifudin (Jakarta) and Wawan Sofwan (Bandung) taking turns narrating Putu Wijaya monologues, besides himself.
Some of Putu’s writings were discussed by such literary figures as Afrizal Malna (Yogyakarta), Benny Yohanes (Bandung), Cobbina Gillit (USA), Michael Bodden (Canada), Koh Yung-hun (South Korea) and Tamara Aberle (Britain).
“I’m surprised. I didn’t expect there would be such overwhelming appreciation [for my work]. I’m very flattered,” said Putu after presenting his famous monologue, Kemerdekaan (Freedom), in the Central Java Cultural Park of Surakarta.
This man of letters from Puri Anom, Tabanan, Bali, indeed deserves appreciation. He has written over 30 novels and 1,000 short stories, produced essays, screenplays and TV dramas.
As a dramatist, he has penned 40 plays and directed Teater Mandiri since 1971, staging dozens of these plays at home and abroad.
As a screenplay writer, he won Citra trophies at the Indonesian Film Festival for Perawan Desa (Village Virgin, 1980) and Kembang Kertas (Paper Flowers, 1985).
Putu was surprisingly not born into a family of artists. His flair for literature came from his extended family. As a primary school student, he devoured classics like the works of Karl May, Anton Chekhov and William Shakespeare.
“My parents wanted me to be a physician. But I was more interested in languages and the arts. As a youngster, I would sneak out to see traditional dance dramas or wayang [leather puppet show] while my friends would watch TV,” he recalled.
His love affair with theater began when he acted in Anton Chekhov’s The Bear, which was performed for his high school leaving party.
After graduating from high school, Putu studied at three different colleges in Yogyakarta — Gadjah Mada University for law, Indonesian Fine Arts Academy for fine arts, and Drama and Film Arts Academy for dramatic arts — but only completed his law degree.
In Yogyakarta, Putu performed in several famous theater groups like Bengkel Teater and Sanggar Bambu. In 1969, his play Lautan Bernyanyi (Chanting Ocean) won the third place in a drama-writing contest organized by the Indonesian National Theater Development Agency.
Putu later moved to Jakarta, joining Teater Kecil (under the now-deceased Arifin C Noer) and Teater Populer, while working as a journalist with Ekspres and then Tempo. In 1974, he set up Teater Mandiri.
“I learned how to write readable stories from [working at] Tempo and certainly [from founder and senior writer] Goenawan Mohamad,,” Putu acknowledged.
Amid his busy journalistic schedule — after leaving Tempo he joined Zaman — he remained a prolific writer, penning novels and dramas, which he also staged through Teater Mandiri. As if that wasn’t enough, he was also a drama lecturer at the Jakarta Arts Institute (IKJ).
At 66, Putu still dazzles audiences. His delivery of Zero and Kemerdekaan at the literary event was faultless. During the performance, he parted with a few comments on freedom.
“If we keep bearing a grudge against those who have oppressed and subjugated us, we will be in its shackles. If hatred continues to stay with us, we won’t be able to break free.”
He explained his Kemerdekaan was inspired by South Africa’s Nelson Mandela. “I remember Mandela’s dazzling words. Grudge and hatred will never make us free.”
The turnout at the Indonesian Theater Forum in Surakarta was huge, despite worries the event would be a failure because of the lack of a theater community there.
“Theater is very much entertaining, as it contains many messages people can reflect on, instead of just belonging to the world of literature,” noted Putu, adding that everything could be learned from theater. People could even heal through it, he went on.
Putu insisted all his works were open to reviewing. He hoped Surakarta’s Solo forum would be a turning point for the emergence of new theater critics, performers and directors.
“The old will someday cease to perform, but the young ones should remain optimistic. In the future, they will be the colors of our theatrical realm.”
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