The Puppet Master

1 year ago . 5 min read
Ester Christine Natalia
Senior Writer at Forbes Indonesia
The Puppet Master
Maria Tri Sulistyani. (Photo by Wijayanto/Forbes Indonesia)

Maria Tri Sulistyani brings her puppet theater to the next level.

Puppet theater has been a part of Indonesian, and especially Javanese, culture for centuries. Wayang, the term for shadow puppets made of carved leather, is among the most popular forms of puppet theater in the country. Historically, wayang was utilized as a means of spreading Islam by conveying values through ancient epics like the Mahabharata and Punakawan. In wayang performances, a puppeteer called a dalang moves the puppets against a large, backlit, white screen while acting as narrator, director and actor simultaneously. He is also accompanied by a group of gamelan musicians and vocalists. However, enthusiasm among the younger generation for this form of puppet theater has declined amid the search for modern forms of entertainment.

Recently, a new puppet troupe called the Papermoon Puppet Theatre has emerged and successfully attracted the interest of younger audiences. Tickets for its seasonal performances are sold out within minutes and the Yogyakarta-based group has been invited to perform in a number of countries. Not only entertaining, the stories delivered by the puppets are also able to draw forth the emotions of the audience.

Papermoon Puppet Theatre was founded by Maria Tri Sulistyani, more familiarly known as Ria, and her husband Iwan Effendi in 2006. Encouraged by the desire to create art without boundaries, the couple have combined their respective backgrounds and poured them into their artworks. Ria is a graduate of Arts in Communication from Gadjah Mada University (UGM), while Iwan is a Fine Arts graduate from the Indonesian Arts Institute (ISI) in Yogyakarta. During her studies at UGM, Ria was an active member of a realism theater group that eventually expanded her interest in the performing arts.

“Theater made me fall in love with performing arts. I love the performance process-making, but I don’t want to be an actor,” Ria says.

In a quest to create their own artworks, Ria and Iwan chose puppetry as a medium to deliver their story and message. A mixture of materials such as paper, rattan and fabric is used to build the human-sized expressionless puppets. They studied puppet-making on the Internet and from other puppeteers, including a senior dalang named Ki Lejar Subroto. The late Subroto even told her that she was the first young Indonesian woman to come to him to learn wayang-making in his more than 50-year career.

However, Papermoon was not initially designed as a theater-performance group as it is now. When Ria first initiated it, she simply wanted to have a children’s art studio and library. In a small room at her boarding house she let children freely express themselves by drawing any kind of shapes they wanted. Occasionally, she also performed a simple puppet show for the kids. To afford the rent of Rp 70,000 per month in 2006, she made and sold traditional food.

The concept shifted in 2008 as Ria and Iwan became irritated at the way people belittled performances for children. They often found entertainers who downgraded their show quality on the assumption that children were easily entertained.

“In fact, I regard children as the most difficult of audiences because they are honest in expressing their feelings. They don’t hesitate to show their boredom by shouting or talking to each other, unlike adult audiences who have more self-control and so can act in a restrained manner,” Ria explains.

In its early days Papermoon Puppet Theatre was associated with puppet theater for children. However, that perception changed when it performed an adult-only puppet performance entitled “Noda Lelaki di Dada Mona” (Man’s Flaws on Mona’s Breast). Using the 1965 tragedy as a background, the story depicts a laundress named Mona who always tries to remove stains from her customer clothes. The stains represent tragic memories of the 1965 tragedy that are imprinted on the mind of her grandfather, who is an army veteran involved in the mass murders, and who deep down inside feels guilty about what he did. Surprisingly all 500 tickets sold out. The performance also received valuable critical acclaim and feedback from the audience.

Papermoon performances also transformed over time. Initially the performances had dialogue between the characters. Later, the voices were minimized with the characters making mumbling sounds before becoming completely non-verbal and relying on gestures to tell stories as is the case today.

“We realized that puppet theater should be without voices. Language is for humans, not puppets,” Ria says.

A year later in 2009, Ria and Iwan received a grant from the Asian Cultural Council for a one-year residency in New York, United States. The opportunity allowed them to observe various genres of puppet theater and they met roughly 70 puppeteers in the city. It also led them to finally being able to find a match from their contrasting perspectives. Iwan, who used to work alone and expressed himself without taking the audience into consideration, eventually understood that audiences’ opinions mattered.

Back at home, Papermoon launched a performance entitled “Mwathirika”. The non-verbal 55-minute play tells the story of a child that lost its parents in the 1965 genocide in Indonesia, without putting any visualization of Indonesia so audiences from other countries could relate to all genocide cases around the world. The play took Papermoon Puppet Theatre to a whole new level as it started to get invited to tour across the US and to the United Kingdom, among other countries. Despite the enthusiasm, Ria decided to keep Papermoon small by only adding three artists to the team, namely Anton Fajri, Pambo Priyojati and Beni Sanjaya. Meanwhile to conduct the performances, they usually hire and collaborate with other collective puppeteers, lighting designers and music directors.

“Being small doesn’t mean we can’t do great. We count and maximize what we have and what we can do. We want Papermoon to be small but have deep meaning in each of its artworks,” Ria says.

Papermoon Puppet Theatre has created over 20 performances, visual art installations and exhibitions to date, as well as collaborating with renowned Indonesian musicians Mocca and Tulus. One of the plays entitled “Secangkir Kopi dari Playa” (A Cup of Coffee from Playa) is also featured in the famous movie “Ada Apa dengan Cinta 2”. The team has toured in more than 10 countries to perform its plays. Besides that, Papermoon has organized an international puppet biennale called Pesta Boneka that plays host to puppeteers from around the world in Yogyakarta since 2008.

Written By
Ester Christine Natalia
Senior Writer at Forbes Indonesia
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