By Ann Lee
When can you call yourself a playwright? After a three-act play? After one or two drinks? When you have an agent? When you’ve made theatre for years, but never sat down to scribble something solo? When you become the Prime Minister of Czechoslovakia?
These questions came to my mind as I signed up for the 7th Triennial Women Playwrights International Conference, held in Jakarta and Bali from November 19 to 26, 2006. There was another question, G-spot hot and G-string fitting for these Gender and Sexuality-dripping years. Why ‘women playwrights’, and not ‘playwrights who happen to be women’?
This question didn’t seem to matter to the 186 participants (from 23 countries) who attended the conference. They had other concerns. Conference chairperson Ratna Sarumpaet, the most well-known of Indonesia’s few women playwrights — and once imprisoned under President Soeharto for being too vocal — said she was “not interested in the arts for arts’ sake,” but, rather, in “using theatre creatively to address humanitarian concerns.”
Keynote speaker and award-winning Egyptian writer Nawal el-Saadawi, now aged 75 — once imprisoned under President Anwar Sadat — said: “People should not be divided by their genitals; this is racism!” She spoke at length about creativity and dissidence (in English, though she preferred Arabic), and was full of polemic one-liners, said with a flashing smile as bright as her flour-white hair: ”Make-up and high heels are the post-modern veil!” she cried. “God is justice! We know this by common sense, not clothes!”
Meanwhile, voices sang alto and soprano every day at the conference’s main venue, Galeri Nasional Indonesia, roaming free around the former Dutch colonial building’s long corridors and crooked corners, asking: “Di mana tempat makan siang?” and “Where’s the toilet?”
It should be noted that Indonesia’s two Ratnas — the other being Ratna Riantiamo, of Teater Koma, a stalwart of modern Indonesian theatre since the 1970s — have led this cycle’s WPIC organising committee into achieving a quiet but extraordinary feat. Having held playwriting workshops in the two years running up to the conference, there were 112 women and five men — from 25 provinces, from Aceh to Papua — in Jakarta that day.
That’s over 60% of the total number of workshop participants, playwrights who had never existed before 2004! (Just imagine gathering even just 50 Malaysian playwrights in one room.) Jajang C Noer, superlative Indonesian actress and sometime director, reckons that only five or six of these new writers will become recognised as playwrights — still, as they say in women’s sewing circles: Hope for the Future.
With gender, racial, religious, national and international agendas like entwined roots, the WPIC provided an all-encompassing shade for like-minded women to address perhaps the most important question of all: “What are you writing about these days, and how have you done it?”
The Conference was damned dense. I felt like I needed a parang, crawling through the undergrowth of sub-themes like ‘Identity, Community and the Role of Diversity’, ‘Language, Culture and Structure’, and ‘Dramatic Performance Text, Cultural Context and Intertexual Practices’, from 9am to 9pm. There were daily drama sessions, workshops (for writing, acting, film, wayang golek, topeng cirebon, yoga, and silat, among others), late afternoon and evening performances (of both traditional and contemporary genres) in different venues all over Jakarta and, later, Bali.
Where got time to gather in threes? I wanted to hear playwrights: from Aceh to Zamboanga, Victoria to Vancouver, Tehran to Toledo — but I had only one body. Actor, playwright and director Jo Kukathas was the only other Malaysian there, so we dispatched each other, like Special Branch naturalists, to sight other birds…
What a menagerie.
I’d give the Bird of Paradise award to Noelle Janaczewska, of Australia: a fiction writer, essayist and playwright for the stage and radio, she delivered a stunning paper called ‘X-Words’ that dealt with language, culture and structure. Her themes include the history and philosophy of science, but at the conference Noelle spoke of her first memories of English (“the scrabble of subtitles” on television), learning German and Korean (via “a kind of osmosis”), and the discovery of her favourite letter (“X”). It was amusing and moving.
Most moving when Noelle condemned an Australian citizenship test, first introduced to discriminate against undesirable immigrants under the White Australia Policy. This test forced new immigrants to take a language exam — and when Czech writer Egon Kisch landed unevenly on that fatal shore, he was tested in Scottish Gaelic! Kisch wrote: “My English is broken. My leg is broken. My heart, that is not broken.”
However, I’d award the Golden Turkey Prize to a performance of Jean Genet’s The Maids. A difficult play for its complex power dynamics between a madam and her maids, the director unfortunately opted to start with histrionics. There wasn’t anywhere to go after that — and, after a while, many walked out.
But on to a fleeting caress of some other playwrights and their pet themes.
Mumbi Kwaige, Kenya: ”No more angst about the loss of our culture to colonialists, we are moving on.”
Beverly Andrews, the USA and the UK: “I focused on the relationship between a British Asian man, Amir, and his girlfriend, Star, and set it in a subway train, in order to look at 9/11.” Her latest play is Septimus Severus, Rome’s African Emperor.
Lena Simanjuntak, Indonesia: heads Teater Budaya, a group of former sex workers who perform in villages to warn of the tricks of sex trafficking recruiters.
Glecy Atienza, the Philippines: “Pataya Patihaya (Make a Bed, Make a Bet) addresses community prostitution and basketball betting.”
Dea Lober, Germany: Praca Roosevelt is based on the poor, elderly people, drug dealers, prostitutes and transsexuals of a street in San Paolo, Brazil.
Naghmeh Samini, Iran: “I write about the feminine and the local — but it is difficult to express the local in a global context, when the global has so many misunderstandings about Iran.”
Pornrat Damrhung, Thailand: “I like to express traditional stories in new ways.”
Marili Fernandez-Ilagan and Dessa Queseda, the Philippines: “Banta kay Bai Bibyaon is about a woman leader of an indigenous tribe in Mindanao who finds herself on the wanted list of the military (known as the OB or Order of Battle).”
Conatsu Yoshida, Japan: “I write about families because they are the basic units of modern Japan.”
Cornelia Hoogland, Canada: “In this play, the women are from a country that no longer exists, an ex-country”
But in all the addressing, there was no undressing.
Apart from the bed-ridden woman in Canadian Erika Batdorf’s striking Poetic License, Singaporean Eleanor Wong’s mention of lesbian lawyers, and a dominant theme of forced prostitution, there was no sexual desire. Perhaps this aspect of life was like Sleeping Beauty, locked away in a proverbial anti-pornography chamber?
I asked a panel: What place for sexual desire in their work? Only Julie Holledge, from Australia, replied. “We have to draw the line somewhere,” she said. She had just talked about sex trafficking — still, it was an odd response. As if the question of one’s sexual desire was irrelevant in women’s playwriting, down there, somewhere.
Later, another playwright from Australia joked: “We’ve forgotten where those parts are, you see!” Perhaps sexuality was a theme for another conference. And yet it was a week-long meeting of minds that emphasised liberty, diversity, and power!
In all the work presented at the 7th Women Playwrights International Conference, sexual desire was one last terrain of shame, one lost treasure to mine.
First Published: 13.12.2006 on Kakiseni