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Rudolf Puspa: Still going strong, on stage and off

A. Kurniawan Ulung

The Jakarta Post

Jakarta  /  Tue, August 1, 2017  /  08:57 am
Rudolf Puspa: Still going strong, on stage and off

Action: Teater Keliling performs a play called Di Balik Topeng (Behind the Mask) in Jakarta. (JP/A. Kurniawan Ulung)

You might not know Rudolf, but on the national theater scene, he is not a new kid on the block. He cofounded touring theater group Teater Keliling (Mobile Theater) in Jakarta in 1974. Since then, the group has performed at least 1,542 shows in over 500 cities at home and 10 countries abroad, breaking a record at the Indonesian Museum of Records (MURI) for having the highest number of performances in Indonesia.

In December 2016, the Indonesia Theater Federation granted the 70-year-old its Lifetime Achievement Award, naming him an Abdi Abadi (Lifelong Servant) for his life-long dedication to theater.

In Rudolf’s latest work, he accompanied his students performing at the Galeri Indonesia Kaya (GIK) auditorium in Grand Indonesia, Central Jakarta.

For around 60 minutes, they staged a play titled Di Balik Topeng (Behind the Mask), which tells of conflicting views between the Grumpy, the Stubborn, the Coward and the Idiot about life.

The theme of the story was heavy, but the play was not boring and it successfully captured the audience’s heart thanks to the witty performance of all cast members, who were mostly teenagers.

“We are in Jakarta in the Ramadhan fasting month only,” Rudolf said in June, which happened to be the holy month.

Although Teater Keliling is from Jakarta, it rarely stages a show in the capital city.

Rudolf PuspaRudolf Puspa (JP/A. Kurniawan Ulung)

Therefore, many Jakartans might not know about it, and if they are asked to name a legendary theater group, their answer might be Teater Koma (Koma Theater), which is two years younger than Rudolf’s troupe.

Read also: Teater Koma presents new story 'Warisan' in August

Rudolf, however, does not mind if his group is not popular in its own birth place.

Teater Keliling rarely stays in Jakarta for a long time due to its tight schedule touring across the country. Every year, the troupe embarks on three tours, and in in each visits five to six cities for two to three weeks.

Prior to performing at GIK, the group had just completed its first 2017 tour in April, during which they performed in Tegal and Pati in Central Java, Kediri and Jember in East Java, and Lombok in West Nusa Tenggara.

Teater Keliling will start its second tour of the year in August, heading to Surabaya and Malang in East Java, Denpasar in Bali, Makassar in South Sulawesi and Lampung.

“After August, we will prepare for a colossal show called Takdir Cinta Pangeran Diponegoro [Prince Diponegoro Love Destiny] in Jakarta,” he said, adding that his group will perform the play in October next year.

Rudolf said he understands that as a result of constant touring, Teater Keliling remains relatively obscure in the capital city. However, popularity had never been a goal of the group.

Rudolf recalled chatting in 1974 with fellow performers Dery Syrna, Buyung Zasdar and Paul Pangemanan at the Taman Ismail Marzuki cultural center in Cikini, Central Jakarta, about setting up Teater Keliling to develop theater outside of the capital.

Read also: Jakpost guide to Jl. Cikini Raya

“We thought that there were many theater groups in Jakarta. Outside Jakarta, there were also theater groups, but it seemed that they were close to death. So, we decided to go around the country to thrill and excite them,” he said.

Those four artists were also inspired by touring theater company Dardanella from Sidoarjo, East Java.

Established by Willy A. Piedro in 1926, Dardanella performed not only in cities across the Dutch East Indies, now Indonesia, but also abroad, including Singapore, India, Italy, Poland and the United states. This achievement crowned the troupe as the country’s first internationally acclaimed art group.

“If [Dardanella] could travel to many countries during wartime, why couldn’t we follow it in this modern era? We already felt that the era [the 1970s] was already modern,” Rudolf said.

Touring is not the only item on Teater Keliling ’s busy schedule.

Because the troupe realizes that regeneration matters, it provides theater training as an extracurricular activity at schools, something that it has conducted since 1999.

Teater Keliling currently has 64 members, including 15 junior and senior high school students.

Today, he teaches 450 students at four junior high schools and 11 senior high schools in Jakarta. He always promises his students to bring them on tour as a way to boost their passion to learn.

Learning theater is useful for children because it will develop their character, he said.

“They will be very open-minded because they are used to playing many characters on stage,” said Rudolf, who found his passion in acting when he was a senior high school student in Surakarta, Central Java.

However, he sometimes faces challenges explaining about the benefits of performing to some parents who think that their children will have a bleak future if they ended up working in theater.

“I have one student who decided to live with her grandmother because her parents had forbidden her to practice theater,” he recalled.

Since 1974, Rudolf has experienced highs and lows performing shows across the archipelago.

During the authoritarian New Order regime, Teater Keliling could have at least 100 shows in a year. But, when the Reform Era started, that number dwindled to between 15 and 20.

He observed that after the regime changed, bureaucracy became a larger problem, especially in cities with self-governing authority. This made it difficulties for his troupe to get permission to perform.

“[During the New Order era], after we had the central government’s recommendation, we were always helped in every city we visited. [During the Reform Era], mayors and regents acted like small kings,” Rudolf said.

However, he does not mean to say that the New Order was better than the Reform Era.

He added that after former president Soeharto stepped down, Teater Keliling enjoyed a greater freedom of expression, which included the opportunity to criticize the government.

“During Soeharto’s era, we always felt anxious, because we could be interrogated for the things we said on stage. During our tours, we were always followed by intelligence agents,” he said.

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