Sewing Marat Sade
Written and created by Kerensa Johnston Dewantoro using texts by Peter Weis ” The Persecution and Assassination of Jean Paul Marat as performed by the patients of Charenton Mental Assylum under the direction of Marquis De Sade”
Nurse: Estee Fauzianna
Music/Lighting design: Yayan Katho
Set Designer/Stage manager: S.E.Dewantoro
Production Team: Sri Agustiani, Sugiyanti Ariani
Documentation: Sastrajinnga Photography
How the show was created
I was teaching myself to sew and using the pieces of fabric that had introduced each scene in the production of Marat/Sade that I’d directed at STSI. These words, these pieces of fabric brought back vivid memories, delusions of grandeur – the text was written for me and the memory of some of the pain I felt. It wasn’t a nostalgic pain of feeling hurt and recognition not given but blows striking. I remember hiding behind some bushes near Sunan Ambun and crying, I could feel my heart being pulled like the body of Damiens in all directions but still living. Of course in hindsight, I know I should have smiled through it, I should have been happy that night and sucked in all the credit.
The day I started sewing, I grabbed a piece of fabric and rolled on the ground with it. The fabric represented Irwan in the scene Liturgy Marat and all of a sudden I was smashing this supposed head into the ground saying, No Marat is weak, not strong., he is doubting himself and everything he believes as I doubt myself as you doubt yourself. That scene where I was using an animated object never made it into Menjahit Marat Sade. But it definitely was the start. I had other scenes where I whipped the girls, Sugiyanti Ariani and Zulfa Lailla for being so stupid not to embrace their power, for being submissive in the theatre world of Bandung that essentially only wants its women theatre makers to be stupid, for accepting that mediocrity was the best way to move forward. The skirt I was whipping them with was a skirt I had used in both productions of Marat Sade; I had worn it in Nyai Ontosoro (possibly the worst production I had ever worked on and certainly my worst work as an actor), Ballada (some of my best work) and a piece at university/ Like my masks and my chair, this skirt, an inanimate object, had developed a spirit of its own. It had taken on the history of my performance work and had grown with me. Lyall Watson talks of the energy objects of daily life get through their use and the power we give them in his book ‘The Secret Life of Inanimate Objects.’ I read it when I was different person, one who was prone to mysticism. My mysticism is still there but far more pragmatic. . And so this skirt and these objects all brought up associations. I would play with them for hours. I was still so angry at what had happened; and consequently a lot of what was coming out was not unlike elements of mean stand-up comedy. I made fun of people, imitated the way they walked, spat on them in my imagination. I was on a suicide mission, determined to ostracise myself and push myself further to the edges that I believe myself to be at. When I started talking to Sugi about my ideas she was, ‘ Are you strong enough to do this?’ and like all suicide bombers you lie to yourself saying that is for the good of humanity or your cause and in my case for the good of theatre; at the end of the day, you just want to feel your skin and your soul rip to shreds and cause as much pain as possible both to yourself and to others.
But……. I am not a mean person and at some point in the devising process, I realised how crass and mean I was. I hate meanness in the theatre for the sake of a cheap laugh. Whilst I am comfortable offending people and speaking my mind, I do not want to cause hurt ( and certainly during the process of both Marat/Sades my tyraids were there to try and do something good, to push us all to dig deeper. And it was my traids that cost me friendship even though in the end I did succeed and having to successful amazing shows.) I needed to reflect on what it was I wanted to say. The improvisations and associations kept coming and I found myself with about four hours of performance material much of which needed long prologues in order to contextualize what I was talking about. Like Jean Paul Marat who was in a process of formulating the seeds of his socialist ideal, I had been sowing seeds of a theatre that I wished to grow and once where every now and then I would pull out weeds, fix the feng shui of my imagination. Like Marat, it was thought in action – a process of doing and thinking and reflecting and doubting – like I infer in the show, Marat really was a man o f the theatre.
Thinking about how you will be received is unhealthy to any process. It took great effort to maintain focus on the task at hand – the exercises, the breath, the symbols. The journey through hours of stupidity can’t be avoided at least in my case. The hours of play and improvisation and reflection cannot be discredited, they were a very important part of my process. We live in a culture that admires brilliance in a second (or at least someone who is confident enough to present fake brilliance.) The only difference between now and the person I was fifteen years ago, I have developed an awareness of my body, my breathing, my thoughts – a double Kerensa who sees in and sees out simultaneously and an ability to sift through the shit. I have learnt to be kind enough to myself to allow this time and even when it looks like I cannot pass through it, I know that the only thing I can do is to keep going and to keep questioning. This is the luxury of not being funded.
I was working on the personal, the theatrical, the physical and the textural levels with each feeding into each other. The movements of my body would dictate what texts I had to use and the objects began to play for me like real actors – making connections and always asking why am I doing this, what do I want to say. Some elements of the show which Sugi thought should be cut I argued for.
My history, my dance studies, my friends, my enemies, the whole country of Indonesia have all contributed to the person I am. It was also an embracing of parts of myself that I had hidden – the love of the cheesy, of what many Indonesian theatre practitioners call the lowest form of theatre and performance and I just love it ( loud makeup high heels and a sensuous swing of big butt on stage – vavoom). I also needed the audience and myself to end feeling good to have hope that we can all be who we are. Without shame.
Photo Credit: Epiest Gee
One day Sugi told me I had problems with my script. I agreed and I went on a furious edit and rewrite. The next day, Sugi was anxious that I had taken too much of what she said to heart. Despite her intelligence, Sugi has gone through a system of education (at least in the art school) which constantly belittles women and disvalues their opinions ( and I get the impression this lack of disrespect or encouragement of intelligent women is very specific to this a particular art school – Indonesia is full of smart strong women and so my sense of feminism is directed to a specific place and time.) It has been a long process in a friendship to get her to understand the point that honesty and intelligence are two things that I value most highly – that whilst I do need compliments – the pleasure in compliments is short lived and the real pleasure is in the work.
Phot Credit Mega A. Noviandari Actos Kerensa Dewantoro and Sugiyanti Ariani
In the original script, I talked about feet and how I had fallen in love with Irwan’s feet and that a whole set had been designed around his feet in the first production. The feet represented where the revolution began, I cut this scene but it wasn’t till after Menjahit Marat/Sade that I realised how many associations I had with feet and how they had manifested themselves in the production. In terms of theatrical process, to talk about it was indulgent which is why I had cut it but in reality the feet were there throughout the whole production. I had spent most of my life embarrassed by my feet and it wasn’t until I came to Indonesia that I discovered that there is whole country with feet like mine; I started doing the Baris that I felt the power of my feet ( not unlike Suzuki Tadashi’s article Grammar of the Feet) and yet until recently my feet still did not fit in. Not so long ago a shop opened that sells shoes for my size feet both in terms of width and length. I also started running barefoot – a sense of who I am was being beaten out of me – an embracement of my body through the contact of my feet with the earth and yet simultaneously I was buying hooker shoes and enjoying the sensual pleasure of the heel. I characterised myself early in the show as being the naive bule ( foreigner) coming to Bandung for the first time (6 feet tall when in heels) – epitomizing the scary dumb western woman ( a part of my own culture which I once resented). Kota Maca Apa Ini. (What kind of city is this?) I quickly removed them to embrace the revolution that was happening within me. In the beginning of the show, I say I don’t know who I am. Am I an actor, a director ( part of being unsure of who I was is why I felt so disconnected in Sweden) or a revolutionary ( always doing things that others have given up on to face reality) or an empathiser? The removal of my shoes and the agitation in my feet, placed me clearly as an empathiser. (Once again I could not have made this association without Firdaus’s help). One of my favourite photos of the show is of my feet in my red high heels with my bag saying, ‘ I am the revolution’ and it goes back to the question at the beginning of the show – ‘ Is it possible for me to embrace all of these things?’
I was scared of the risk that I believed I was putting those I loved most through – Gepeng, Firdaus and Sugi who may have been tainted by their association with me. My sins would become their sins.
I was wrong.
I was so wrong.
The response during the show was surprising. The audience was there with me and they laughed in places that I never imagined them laughing and responded to the songs and began to sing with me without even my prompting. The atmosphere of madness, the blur between my imaginary worlds, the audience and myself as an actor and as a foreigner meshed. Empathy from the audience could be felt as I sang ‘What’s up?’ in a straight jacket and pleaded with the audience that I do pray every day to be better person. They were as a crazy as me and in a society that often represses emotions, people seemed to be understanding of what I had been processing. The audience laughed when after abusing the imagined Agus and explaining my point of view that I was sorry, that I knew that what I was saying stabbed the ‘ heart of your nationalism’ especially coming from me.
The response to the performance has been overwhelming. One woman came and hugged me said it was not only inspiring theatre but inspiring to her life. Another said it made them think about what they were doing. Irwan said it hurt but he had gone through catharsis. A colleague at work said her and her friends said that they spent hours talking about the philosophy that was in the show ( I am glad I wasn’t there ‘cos I really wouldn’t have been able to say anything.) The biggest crack up of all was that Sugi’s class mates were discussing the hermeneutics of the chair. I do not know what hermeneutics are. However, I do believe that I came to this point via process of humble play rather than an imposition of some academic term. The way you work is more important than the words you say.
And no one mentioned me being white.. It seemed this piece moved past my skin colour to the continent of theatre where my body embraced both my Asian theatrical history (huge) and Western theatrical history (small) and somehow tapped into the audience’s own sense of chaos and our own desires to embrace more than one just part of ourselves. I get a sense that it tapped into this awareness of how we all try to hold ourselves back and be mediocre because this society that we live in values relationships and hierarchy more than competence. All over the world, offices and institutions are having dreary meetings to get everyone in the company to see the same and do only what’s required. We are oppressed by mediocrity. I’m not sure though…… I get to nervous talking to people to be able to delve into this more and feel guilty talking about myself. Ironic huh? Especially since I jhave just written so much about myself.