Indonesia has a long and vibrant history of puppetry.
But since 2006, the Papermoon puppet company has taken a modern twist on the tradition.
This December Papermoon hosted Pesta Boneka, an international puppet festival in their hometown of Yogyakarta – showcasing the best puppets they have found on their travels.
Nicole Curby met Papermoon founder, Ria Tri Sulistyani to find out more.
A blue sausage dog, an old man, and two children are brought to life.
Puppeteers Ria, Irwan, Beni, Anton and Pambo are cruising round the stage on stools with wheels, breathing movement and life into their characters. They move the heads and limbs of puppet dolls with artful gestures that open up a world of emotion.
The Papermoon troupe is telling the story of an elderly man that collects old books, and children that are captivated by them. It’s a story they recently created in a workshop with children in Bangkok.
The puppets are about a metre tall, and made from natural materials and simple techniques. They’re quirky creations with big heads, home made clothes, and a kind of old-world charm.
“We make the structure out of rattan, bamboo or wood," Papermoon founder Ria explains.
"Then we cover it and for the head we are using paper mache technique. It is very simple. In terms of the technique there is nothing complicated. And the joins we use rope or webbing, or something very easy to find in our environment."
She continues, “for us the materials are already speaking about something. So if you want to show something is very fragile, thin paper is maybe the best material.”
For puppets that speak no words, and have just one unmoving facial expression, it’s incredible how emotionally expressive they can be.
Ria says that gestures and movement are crucial.
“We are thinking that the first language for puppet is their gesture because they don’t have voice. But we also find that through movement.”
“The rehearsal is quite tough though, because sometimes it’s easier to say ‘I’m sad,’ rather than to show people that you are sad, and it’s not that YOU are sad, it’s the puppet that is sad. So it’s another level.”
Indonesian shadow puppetry has a long and vibrant history – of night-long puppet shows and carefully obscured political meanings.
For the decades under authoritarian rule, the intricate use of shadows, light, and fictional characters was the medium through which politics were communicated to the people.
“Sometimes people need a medium to talk. Sometimes talking to an object for example, it makes someone more comfortable rather than talking directly to another person. So we found that with puppetry we could be that bridge.”
Papermoon’s puppets are a far cry from traditional Javanese shadow puppetry.
But they too can be a means through which the unspeakable gains expression.
“Some of our performances have a background about the history of Indonesia. So talking about the darkest part of the history of Indonesia, which not everyone could tell about it loudly or freely we found that puppetry becomes the medium that in silence you can actually do something.”
Papermoon’s show Secangkir Kopi dari Playa tells the true story of a young couple separated by political violence in 1965, when half a million suspected communists were massacred across the country.
After their separation, she continued to live in Indonesia; but he could never return. Keeping his promise to never marry anyone else, Pak Wi lives alone in exile in Cuba.
The story is an intimate take on what is still a politically sensitive issue.
“The play is an amazing process for us. It’s not only about the clap on the stage. We go to someone’s life deeper. We go to someone’s experience they kept as a secret for 50 years, because the lady never told the story to anyone.”
For Ria, the childlike magic of puppets draws out the audience in ways that other kinds of theatre can’t.
“If we bring puppets to a market or public space, suddenly people would love to gather, love to take photos, love to touch, would like to get closer, and they’re getting closer to it.”
At the festival, the audience don’t waste any time in getting up close with the puppets and their makers, taking photos and playing with the puppets.
Photos 1 &4 courtesy of Indra Wicaksono