Independent evaluator Dr Jessica Mordsley talks to writer and director Geinor Styles who shares her experience about undertaking multilingual theatre work in Indonesia
In November 2019, award-winning theatre company Theatr na nÓg based in Neath, South Wales spent three weeks in Makassar, Indonesia, sharing and devising a new version of their acclaimed play for young people about the nineteenth-century Welsh naturalist, Alfred Russel Wallace.
Wallace came from Usk in South Wales, but it was in eastern Indonesia that he developed his ideas about biodiversity. He wrote his most acclaimed work, The Malay Archipelago, while living for eight years in the region that now bears his name, Wallacea.
In 2017 the British Council initiated ‘Wallacea Week’, an annual festival of inspiration, education and arts, held in Makassar, to celebrate this shared legacy between Wales and Indonesia and the science and diversity of the Wallacea Region.
To mark the 150 anniversary of the publication of Wallace’s book in 2019, the British Council invited Theatr na nÓg to take part in the festival with their play You Should Ask Wallace, originally developed in 2008. It has been performed across Wales and the UK, as well as in Brazil, translated into Portuguese. But this was the first time it had been taken to the actual place where Wallace formulated his ideas, a region which remains one of the most biologically diverse on the planet.
For this project, Welsh writer and director Geinor Styles and actor Ioan Hefin teamed up with Indonesian artist Abdi Karya to create a new version of the play to be performed in both English and Bahasa. Working with Indonesian actors, Yosua Raharjo Pilli, Vicran Iskandar Putra and Hildawaty, they added new Indonesian characters to the play, based on Wallace’s assistants, Ali and Baderoon. They also ran workshops for young people.
After hugely positive responses from audiences, Theatr na nÓg and their Indonesian partners are keen to license the new version of the play to tour Indonesia.
Geinor tells us about her experiences of Indonesia and what she learned about undertaking multilingual theatre work:
When we first started doing the play, in 2008, I was always amazed that someone in the 19th century had essentially walked out and travelled to the other side of the globe to find the answers to his questions. I found it amazing and exciting, and especially that no one knew about him.
I’d always had this idea of following in his footsteps, in a nerdy way, trying to perform the play in the places where he’d been. We did this throughout Wales and the rest of the UK, and then, through connections with Dr George Beccaloni, curator of Wallace’s collection at the Natural History Museum, we had the opportunity to take the play to Rio de Janeiro, where Wallace had also spent time.
We’d always wanted to go to the Malay archipelago [a region of over 25,000 islands that now includes Brunei, Singapore, East Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and East Timor] where Wallace wrote his theory; it was the holy grail for us. We’d been to Singapore but what was really important to me was not just taking the play somewhere, but really connecting Wallace with those places.
When the British Council had a delegation come over from Malaysia and Indonesia, I was desperate to meet them because I wanted to make that connection. I met with Paul Smith, Director of British Council Indonesia, and discovered that he is also passionate about Wallace.
It’s easy to get carried away working with the British Council and thinking about all the possibilities of where you could go, but it needed to be meaningful; there needed to be a real relationship with that place, a genuine match.
A big part of it was working in schools, trying to connect education and art. In Wales we do that perfectly, it’s intrinsic to our work, so we find that a really easy fit. It’s about the play, but also how that play can connect through learning. This opportunity was perfect for us.
Language and culture
I didn’t know Abdi, [Karya the Indonesian artist] at all before this project. The connection was made by the British Council, who knew theatre artists in Indonesia and were able to suggest him, I wouldn’t have known where to start. The British Council brokered that relationship for which I am eternally grateful.
What’s so good about working with the British Council is that it’s not just about coming over and performing your show in a new place. It has to be truly embedded in the culture of that country. That is really exciting for me because that’s what Wallace did; he didn’t just pop up in these countries, but really integrated himself into the culture and the language. It’s in the spirit of Wallace. For me, if the British Council needed a poster boy it would be Alfred Russel Wallace. He learned the language and the customs of those places. That’s what we wanted to do.
Developing a play bilingually
At Theatr na nÓg, we work bilingually in Welsh and English, but I don’t speak any other languages. I warned Ioan, the actor playing Wallace, that he might need to learn the script in Bahasa. He didn’t learn the whole script, but he did learn a fair bit of the language. When we had Skype calls before we went out there, Ioan was able to greet Abdi in Bahasa. Those little gestures are really important; people feel like you are taking them seriously. It makes a difference from the outset.
Luckily, Abdi’s English is amazing, so that did help. But the rehearsals were all bilingual. This was a massive learning curve for me. We’re really proud of speaking Welsh and having two languages but going to a place like Makassar where they have four different languages, and they can all speak or communicate in those languages, was a real eye opener for me. There are about 700 languages in Indonesia, so multilingualism isn't a barrier for them, but a plus.
They understand that they need to communicate and get on with one another, so they adapt. It made me realise: why do we see language as a barrier, when it definitely isn’t?
Even though I didn’t speak Bahasa, it wasn’t an obstacle.
When we first went out there, there was an awful lot of English in the play, and Abdi and I talked about how we needed to integrate the Indonesian language more into the play.
A lot of the rehearsal process was dedicated to finding ways to do that: introducing new characters, working out how to do it. I wrote new bits in English; Abdi would translate it into Indonesian and the two actors would learn those pieces. I had to be mindful of how much they could learn in a short time.
The audiences were so respectful of other cultures; they were listening to people perform in English, but they didn’t reject it because they didn’t understand the language. We also had moments in the play in Bahasa as well, which helped them to follow the story.
It was an interesting way of working. I’ve never worked like that before. It’s given me so much confidence, now I’ve come home, in doing shows in multiple languages. We’re about to do a show in Italian, Welsh and English, and I’m far more confident in embracing it. You don’t have to translate every single thing. People should be mindful and respectful that some people speak a different language.
A language and culture will never develop if we don’t start embracing both cultures. It was only through being in Indonesia and seeing how they worked that I’ve got the confidence to do that now.
Workshops for young people
I was overwhelmed at how generous and respectful the Indonesian people were. We went to do a session with drama students. I would talk in English about how we created the play, Ioan would do bits in Bahasa, and Abdi would translate, and they would ask questions in English or Bahasa. They are so keen to develop their English language skills. The language just wasn’t an issue. I think it’s because they are so used to other cultures within their country. We’re not used to it in the same way. We’re not confident enough to go with the flow.
I think, going forward, looking at the state of this country now, the plays I will do for the very young audiences will throw them in at the deep end so that they have to embrace other cultures. Not saying “I don’t understand it”; we can’t have that attitude any more. I’m really keen to explore that more with children in this country.
We went out to Indonesia thinking we knew a lot about professional theatre, but I learned so much about humanity. It was so striking in that respect.
Theatre for children in Indonesia
There isn’t really any theatre for children in Indonesia. In Jakarta there is more professional theatre, but in Makassar, which is two hours away by air, there’s nothing. Makassar is very different; it’s an urban environment, a dock really. It’s not a tourist destination. People fly in and fly out to Bali, etc. People couldn’t understand why we were there for three weeks. I liked that we were bringing something new to them.
The creative sector
You can’t just have a career as an actor in Indonesia, you need to have other skills and roles. Abdi makes textiles and does different types of work. He has so many strings to his bow. It’s like a creative industry as opposed to one particular career path.
From my perspective, because I’m publicly funded, I have a responsibility to the taxpayer, if I’m employed to create a piece of work, I will create it. I’m very mindful of how those public resources are used and the responsibility that comes with it. It’s very different in Indonesia. So I had to run the rehearsals to ensure that we delivered the work on time.
British Council support
We were lucky that Wallacea Week was happening in Makassar. There’s no British Council office there, but the staff all came over from Jakarta. We worked with Annisa [Fauzia] and Camelia [Harahap] from the arts team and they were phenomenal. Anything we needed, I just emailed them and it was sorted out. We had a week where we were researching and getting used to the country, they looked after us along with the production manager.
There was also Abdi who was like a minder; he’d pick us up, take us for food, look after us completely.
With British Council Wales, it felt like I had them ‘on tap’. What was lovely was Natasha [Nicholls], the arts manager didn’t step in, but she guided me really well. I felt in control of it, not like I was just being sent out on a mission. I couldn’t fault the support I received. It was brilliant from beginning to end.
Preparing for a collaboration project
Prepare yourself for learning the basics of the language. That’s really important. You’re in someone’s home; people love it if you can greet them in their own language. Those little gestures go so far.
The language issue is not insurmountable. But making the effort to have the basics is beneficial. Never see language as a problem, especially for people who are monoglots; don’t see it as a barrier, but as a tool to communicate.
I think sometimes in theatre, we think that if the audience doesn’t understand the language, then it needs to be physical theatre and we can’t have text. But these are countries where people really want to immerse themselves in the English language. They see speaking English as getting on in the world. They want to listen to it. We shouldn’t ignore or dismiss that. They want to speak our language as much as we want to be part of their culture, and it’s worth taking the time to find that out.
Try to have Skype conversations before you go there. I had two good conversations with Abdi before I went out there, and it was obvious we were going to get on. Abdi is so warm, so generous, he speaks so passionately about performance and telling stories, that came through the Skype call. It’s different from a phone call; you can see people smiling. Those are key moments; the warmth comes through. You have to connect with your partners on a personal level.
And finally: take gifts out. People were so appreciative, they loved learning about our culture, so anything you can share from your own culture is brilliant.