Farah Wardani

Jakarta Post, February 7, 2014

It all started in December 1993, at the school of social and political science, Gadjah Mada University, when three college friends made a pact in initiating their own theater community, Teater Garasi.

The three were Yudi Ahmad Tajudin, Aji Bayu Kusworo and Puthut Yulianto. Yudi and Aji had been active in the Yogyakarta theater scene since high school, and the campus atmosphere at that time gave them a new drive to start their own initiative and actualize a community in the performing arts field.

Around that time, there were relatively few artistic offerings within the theater scene — especially in contemporary theater — in Yogyakarta, a city regarded as the dynamic cultural capital of the country, with a long legacy of being a place that gave birth to many prominent artistic creations, both traditional and modern.

There were major contributions to traditional theater at that time from some of the most renowned active theater companies in Yogyakarta, such as Gandrik and Dinasti, which used more serious traditional methods. Garasi, then, filled in the missing gap and took on the role of presenting something that offered new experimental techniques from a more avant-garde stance, and also represented the new artistic aspirations of its generation — in conjunction with the awakening of a new sociopolitical and intellectual consciousness in Indonesia in the mid-1990s, before Reformasi (Reform) era.

From 1993 to 1998, Garasi’s activities were still somehow affiliated with its status as ‘Campus Theater Group’ within Gadjah Mada University circles. This, in a way, could be considered its formative years and the period when it built stronger community circles.

During that time, more people who shared the same alma mater joined the troupe. They came from many artistic backgrounds that can support and complement each other in stage productions, ranging from actors, musicians, poets, playwrights, directors, lighting designers to academics. Those who still remain members to this day include Sri Qadariatin, Erythrina Baskoro, Verry Handayani, Naomi Srikandi, Gunawan Maryanto, Ignatius “Clink” Sugiarto, Jompet Kuswidananto, Ugoran Prasad and Risky Summerbee.

In time, the number of members in the Garasi artists collective increased, with a younger batch of actors and musicians such as Theodorus Christanto, Yennu Ariendra and MN Qomaruddin also contributing to the group’s latest project initiatives.

Initially, Garasi funded its own productions with support from its campus, and from institutions such as the Yogyakarta French Cultural Center, which was one of its main early supporters.

Garasi’s first milestone in stage production was marked by Wah in 1995, based on Putu Wijaya’s play, which was followed by a long string of subsequent productions that the group performed on- and off-campus, both loose recreations or adaptations of renowned plays, such as Samuel Beckett’s Endgame, Lorca’s Yerma or Sri (1999), and original productions such as Carousel (1997).

Slowly Garasi became a kind of cult icon within the Yogyakarta performing arts scene, and began to build its own network of audiences that spread outside Yogyakarta, resulting in more invitations to perform in different places and more network support and commissioned projects.

The growing community-based activities with shared artistic vision helped to strengthen Teater Garasi’s position as one of the most prominent young artists’ collectives in Yogyakarta, among others in a similar period from other artistic disciplines such as Cemeti Art House and Taring Padi.

The sense of community and collectivism has always been the basis of Garasi’s activities and productions, which is common in independent arts initiatives in Indonesia — especially regarding the extreme lack of state support for such activities, whether financial support or formal recognition.

Arts communities, such as Garasi, rely on their own resources and networks to create independent productions that are often based on experimentation and created for noncommercial purposes.

Garasi was able to develop its range of work further when it received long-term basic operational support through grants from foreign institutions in 2002. Based on its activities as an artists’ collective, it expanded its role as a “laboratory of theater creations” — a phrase that it also uses to describe itself formally.

Apart from stage productions, it also organizes workshops, residencies, acting and directing classes, offers a music studio, and is involved in interdisciplinary community empowerment initiatives in collaboration with other institutions.

This phase also highlights its productivity in building a memorable repertoire — mostly of original productions — set in a wide range of sociocultural contexts. These have included: a contemporary take on Javanese texts in the Waktu Batu (The Persistence of Time) trilogy, 2002-2004; experimenting with physical theater and poetry in Repertoar Hujan (Rain Repertoire), 2001; a critique on urban development and rural problems in Indonesia with Je.Ja.l.an (The Street), 2008; Tubuh Ketiga (Third Body), 2010; addressing gender and religious issues in Goyang Penasaran (Obsessed Twist), 2011; and exploring migrant worker issues through documentary theater in Sangkar Madu (Honey Cage), 2013.

Many of its plays incorporate both traditional and contemporary elements of performing arts, becoming a great part of its artistic groundwork.

With its strong ideals of conceptual and aesthetic values, it is not surprising that most of Garasi’s productions are not oriented toward commercial purposes or entertaining mainstream audiences.

Consequentially, the collective has also been having its financial ups and downs, and has gone through some hard times in terms of balancing resource management and maintaining artistic exploration according to its standards. Nevertheless, Garasi’s perseverance makes it stand out among other independent arts organization of its generation, and has helped it to do so for the last 20 years.

Its achievements of the past two decades were validated by receiving the Prince Claus Laureate Award in 2013, a merit-based award given by the Royal Kingdom of the Netherlands in recognition of outstanding figures or groups in the arts.

Furthermore, in celebrating its 20th anniversary, Teater Garasi presented an event entitled “Bertukar Tangkap dengan Lepas” (Playing Catch with the Fleeting), which consists of a series of programs including an exhibition of archives and artifacts of past performances, a series of reenactments of plays performed by a number of performer groups within Garasi’s theater, music and visual artists networks and performing arts workshops.

The event is being held at Ark Galerie Yogyakarta, from Jan. 12 to Feb. 8, 2014 (the nightly performance series ran for a fortnight, until Jan. 26). The range of artists and performers who contributed to the performances were, to name a few, Surakarta-based all-female theater group Sahita, Jakarta-based musical duo Endah and Rhesa, comedian and local arts patron Butet Kartaredjasa, Yogya hip-hop artist Muhammad Marzuki and Papermoon Puppet Theater.

The recognition from the award, the positive support from the arts scene, and the dynamic response to the anniversary event are all great news for the collective and also for the arts scene in general — as they reflect the endless anticipation and ever-growing interest in the development of contemporary theater, as represented in this case by Garasi.

However, it also marks a new phase in Garasi’s journey. Today, the public, sociopolitical situations and the nature of the arts scene itself have all changed and evolved into something completely different to 20 years ago.

It is a challenge for Garasi — in maintaining its role as a laboratory for the contemporary performing arts — not only trying to survive in years to come, but also continuing to thrive in new ways, with new audiences.