When will we get awesome theatre in Bali?


Those of you who saw the play ‘ORPHEUS’ when it toured Bali last month witnessed a rare piece of quality theatre seldom seen in Bali. Those of you who missed it, alas, passed up on a very special performance. But don’t kick yourselves too hard because you are in for a redemptive treat. ORPHEUS was such a success that the producer and the theatre companies involved have been discussing the possibility of returning to Bali again next year with some more shows.

ORPHEUS played to very appreciative audiences in several locations around the island last April. It was an accomplished two-person act, an immersive piece of quality theatre, very innovative and interactive, performed in a traverse style with actor Alex Wright narrating the story with punching, vibrant and intense text and singer-songwriter Phil Grainger reverberating the story of Orpheus with a kaleidoscope of tunes, some haunting and soulful, some catchy, hip and upbeat with a bit of rap thrown in for good measure. It was a 3-way interactive configuration between the performers and the audience, abetted by a conscious mise-en-scène that put the audience smack dap in the middle of the performance. Alex and Phil conjured up the perfect atmosphere with a casual pre-performance chat, drawing the anticipative audience innocuously into the act. The interaction between players and audience and the audience amongst themselves set the proverbial stage for what was to come. As the story unfolded Phil Grainger, an unlikely Orpheus dressed as an Aladdin-type troubadour, invited the onlookers to sing along with some well-known tunes like ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ and ‘Dancing in the Dark’ interspersed with Phil’s own compositions. The underlying theme of Orpheus’ longing and loneliness was most memorably rendered by the lyrics of ‘Dancing in the Dark’ and reflected in the haunting lyrics ‘Colour me in…so I’m not just black and white’.

It takes a mighty presence to carry off a play with just 2 actors, sans decor and 2 simple props: a book and a guitar. The book telling the story, the guitar rebounding the lyre music of the classical Orpheus who is searching for his beloved in the Underworld.

You could call it a fringe event. Though the story is a modern adaptation of an ancient Greek myth, it is not a piece of traditional theatre. The cast and producing company hail from Scotland. They are professional theatre people who do things just a bit differently. Unlike the other entertainment media like cinema, music, cabaret and the usual traditional theatre, theirs is an alternative, live performing theatre which dispels with the barrier between cast and onlookers. It’s a medium that connects the performers and the audience – and the audience amongst themselves – in a way that makes the spectators feel and think instead of leaving them passive onlookers. The interactive mode draws you in and you almost feel like a participant in the story.

The play has been touring since 2016. It was a best seller in the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and has been performed in Europe, Asia, Australia and New Zeeland, gathering lots of awards in its wake.

Marnie Silver, a graduate of the University of the Highlands and Islands in Inverness, and the play’s producer in Bali, recounts how she saw Orpheus in her first days at drama school in 2016 – just weeks after the show had been written – and felt its incredible pull. By complete chance she saw it again at the Edinburgh Festival in August 2018 and fell under its spell once again. She passionately connected with the performers after the show and when Phil Grainger later told her that ORPHEUS was going to tour in Australia and New Zealand in the first quarter of 2019, she saw the opportunity as totally divine and jumped in with both feet. Marnie created a producing company called ‘They Sent Me To You’ and began the work to bring the act to Bali where she has been an expat resident for the last 10 years. ‘After all’, Marnie said, ‘a play about ancient gods, performed on the island of the gods seemed like it really was meant to be’.

Her goal, in first instance, was to share this awesome performance with as many people as possible. She wanted to see others have the profound experience she had when she first saw it. In the process of producing Orpheus on Bali, another goal emerged. That of bringing more performing acts from Scotland to Bali and perhaps to export Balinese performances to Scotland. Her vision is to create a crossover exchange between two vastly different cultures and break down barriers between them. The name of her producing company ‘They Sent Me To You’ seems a good fitting name for such an operation.

As an expat for many years, Marnie feels intuitively that if done right, there could be a thriving expat theatre scene here on the island. ‘I have some plans and ideas to tour a couple more shows either towards the end of this year or end of April next year’ she mentioned. ‘I think it’s best to start small and be consistent. I think it will grow from that and I hope that there will be some great venues to jump on board and make it all happen. The venues are key.’

I’m all for it and all in. Back in 2014 I wrote a feature article in Bali Advertiser entitled ‘The State of Expat Theatre, Drama and Comedy in Bali’ and my conclusions are still the same today. In contrast to the vibrant state of theatre in Balinese and Indonesian culture, theatre mounted by expats is in dire straits, even though most if not all expats come from countries with their own diverse and rich theatre culture and theatrical traditions. Actually, today, it is even worse than 5 years ago as the 4 groups profiled in the previous article are no longer in existence. Amateur theatre groups in Bali did not survive, probably due to busy schedules and the ephemeral transience of expat lives in Bali. Even the popular Bali Comedy club which showcased paid acts has left the building. However, the idea of hosting travelling theatre groups or acts may be a more sustainable art form for Bali. In this rich cultural environment a revival -with a twist- of expat theatre may just be able to take root. It’s open terrain for a newcomer with bouncy zeal in her step, a far-reaching gleam in the eye, loads of enthusiasm and a menagerie of great performing acts. The possibilities are there for the success of alternatives like fringe or cafe-theatre. It’s really a matter of someone taking the ball and creating a resounding path to a vibrant and alive theatre culture.

Finding venues is not a problem. The featured venues on the Orpheus tour, Deus Ex Machina in Canggu, Power of Now Oasis in Sanur, Paradiso in Ubud, Joshua District in Kedunggu and Drifter Surf Shop in Uluwatu were very keen to host something different to the usual offerings of Bali nightlife and were firmly on board with transforming their spaces for the night to make everyone have a real theatre experience. Marnie said that she would be delighted to work with all of these venues again and is on the search for other places that have a special magic about them. Bali already boasts professional studios capable of hosting small to medium audiences and there are places like Betelnut and Bar Luna. In addition, most of the big hotels have ballrooms or function rooms with a greater capacity. Open-air locations like the gardens at the ARMA museum, the Museum of Masks and Puppets or many hotels provide a stupendous natural environment ready-make for great outdoor theatrical backgrounds.

It was such a pleasure to see professional actors ply their craft. There is something about live, especially immersive theatre that tickles the senses in a way that passive entertainment like movies cannot satisfy. It is, as Marnie says, a way to think, to feel, to emote and to interact with the play and your surroundings which no manner of passive viewing can approach.

I’m looking forward to the day I will see an announcement for a play called ‘A Three-headed dog named Cerberus’, a restage of ORPHEUS or a sequel, which will give centre stage to the viewpoint of the other half of the star-crossed lovers.

 

By Ines Wynn

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