Myth, magic and money

Don Mamouney

SAWUNG GALING kembalinya Legenda (BLACK ROOSTER the legend returns), Bandung, Indonesia Tagor Siagian

SAWUNG GALING kembalinya Legenda (BLACK ROOSTER the legend returns), Bandung, Indonesia Tagor Siagian

Sawung Galing depicts a wild and fantastic world where despots sow confusion and cultivate prejudices amongst the people to maintain their power and justify war. Into this world is born Joko Berek, a young girl raised as a boy, who with the help of her magical black rooster reconciles the warring kingdoms of Fazzar and Crazzar. Sawung Galing (Black Rooster) was adapted from the popular Indonesian Sawung Galing myth from East Java, an inspirational story about the struggle against Dutch colonial rule. I was immediately attracted to the story because I saw it essentially as a critique of leadership. The Sidetrack production maintains the mythic dimension but develops new angles on the story.

Sawung Galing had its first performance in September 2004 in a fallow rice field beside the village of Nitiprayan. It was rehearsed for 6 weeks in Yogyakarta (Central Java), mainly at a wonderful place called Joglu Jago where we ate, slept and rehearsed. In the final 2 weeks of rehearsal we moved to Nitiprayan on the outskirts of Yogya where we were able to rehearse and at the same time trial the show. It was there that the production really took shape. Each night we would rehearse and up to 200 people would turn up to watch, giving us invaluable feedback and practice at finding the tempo and energy necessary to make the show work.

The performance team comprised 12 performers and 5 musicians lead by Sawung Jabo, my co-creator and musical director, plus production and support personnel. Six of us were Australians. Rehearsals started at 6am with voice and choreographic work and training in Pencak Silat (an Indonesian martial arts form which we used as the basis for the show’s fight scenes) lead by our fight director Pepen. There would be a short break for sarapan pagi (breakfast) and work on the play would resume until makan siang (lunch) at 1pm. In the hottest part of the day we would rest and then rehearse from 4pm through to prayer time at 6pm, returning to work for a further 2 hours from 7.30pm. The day would end with a half-hour yoga recuperation session.

Getting Sawung Galing to its opening performance took around 4 years. It began with a casual remark from Sawung Jabo as he was exiting the Sidetrack Studio Theatre following a performance of The Promised Woman; “How would you like to make a show like that for Indonesians in Australia?” I remember replying something to the effect that I would love to make a show with him, but not an Indonesian version of The Promised Woman. It would have to be something different. I had no idea what that was but we agreed to discuss it.

There is always a degree of audacity in making a completely new show. There is never enough money, never enough time, and a deadline is set which then conditions everything. You start with a vision splendidly contained in a series of ‘what ifs?’—expansive, heady, glorious, perfect. The rest is a story of compromises. Sawung Galing was indeed an audacious project seriously compromised by shortages of money and time. But it was also a work in which a collaborative team from Australia and Indonesia defied compromise and extraordinary difficulties to turn what should have been a creative development project into a major performance that toured to 5 cities in 2 weeks.

When we started rehearsals we knew we only had enough money to get the first show on. We had been living with this awful fact for sometime. Back in April when I had gone to Indonesia to cast the show and obtain real costings on the technical equipment and tour, I almost cancelled the project. The deficit seemed impossible. We were more than $50,000 short. The expensive part was touring this large production to 5 cities. Even though the initial aim of the project was simply to develop and trial a show, we couldn’t cancel it as we had already obtained large amounts of funding and sponsorship by promising a tour across Java.

One very late night in Bandung at Rumah Nusantara, the arts space managed by our production manager Tompel Witono, Jabo, Tompel and I talked over the problem until the early hours of the morning. The later it got the more pessimistic I grew. Then Kurt Kaler, an American who grew up in Indonesia and who now runs a music production business, joined the discussion. “Have you got enough money to get the first show up?” he asked. “Yes if we cut the rehearsal period to about 7 weeks, we could have an opening night, but that’s it” I said. “That’s enough” he said, “you can do it, push ahead, this is Indonesia, the place of magic and miracles, all you need is faith and courage and to find a few more sponsors.” Kurt’s enthusiasm and conviction that others could be found who shared the desire to foster a living example of Indonesians and Australians working together somehow made it all seem possible. So we resolved to push on.

And eventually the sponsorship came. Perhaps it was a miracle or maybe it was that the show had something important to say about the world, articulated with energy, joy and laughter by a joint Indonesian-Australian team. It was certainly also the product of the relentless search for sponsors by Jabo and Tompel, Kurt and Sue Piper, using all their contacts and local knowledge to find companies who wanted to share in the making of Sawung Galing.

The night of the first show in Nitiprayan was certainly magical. The audience arrived early, sat on the ground, stood, or climbed onto what ever they could to catch a glimpse of the 2 hour, 20 minute show. Later Heri Ong, the village leader and main organiser of the Nityprayan festival, told me he estimated the crowd to be about 3,000 people. He was ecstatic with its success. I have always dreamed of theatre drawing large community audiences, but the huge crowd that night, made up of people from all age groups and walks of life exceeded even my wildest dreams.

We then took what was a show of circus proportions on the road; 5 trucks and 2 buses journeyed to Solo, Surabaya, Bandung and Jakarta. With the exception of Jakarta we played to huge audiences. This was especially so in Surabaya (the home of the original story) where it was estimated that the audience exceeded 4,000. In Jakarta the show played to a meagre 600 or so, as the performance space was a sports field only a few hundred metres from the Australian Embassy, which had been bombed exactly a week before. That night, the then President Megawati decided to mark the tragedy with a visit to the Australian Embassy site, causing a traffic jam of Jakarta proportions and leaving us with a comparatively small audience, half of whom were police, the bomb squad and our own security people (all “black belt” members of our fight director’s Silat group).

We started the show late, partly in the hope that more audience would find their way through the traffic, partly for security reasons. By the time the show started the only people who seemed to be taking their job seriously were the Silat group; the bomb squad had relaxed and were enjoying the show. Clearly Sawung Galing had become community theatre of a different kind.

So stage one is complete. Now we have the challenge of getting Sawung Galing to Australia.

Sidetrack Performance Group in association with Wot Cross-cultural Synergy, SAWUNG GALING kembalinya Legenda (BLACK ROOSTER, the legend returns), writer/director Don Mamouney, musical director Sawung Jabo; performers Sawung Jabo, Fajar Satriadi, Gusjur Mahesa, Sri Erita, Desiandari, Nunung Deni Puspitasari, R S W Lawu P.U., Agus Margiyanto, Anton Obelix Triyono, Wrachma Rachladi Adji, Yoyojewe, Indrasitas, Donny Sawung, Abdul Syukur Paembonan, Sept 4-16, 2004, various venues, Java, Indonesia

RealTime issue #65 Feb-March 2005 pg. 32

© Don Mamouney; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 February 2005