The Theatric Repertoire of Southeast Asia | Where Passion Meets Profit

Theatre producers are acutely aware of the known fact that they rarely ever perform for the same audience twice. The patrons of each show are a highly variable factor in the dissemination of their stories and in the collection of their profits. This is due to three factors: the time, the place and the reason for the performance. Furthermore, theatre troupes have to adjust their style to suit the sensibilities of the audience.

During peak periods, theatre troupes experience a flood of patrons from foreign places–both in the form of internal as well as international tourism. The price of the performance may vary based on the venue where it is being performed. Performances in rural regions tend to garner a fraction of what is received for performances in urban areas. Matinees are known to be inexpensive in comparison to evening shows.

In Southeast Asia, it is common for the audience to communicate with the actors while the performance is in progress. Members of the audience may whistle, shout, clap and so on. People may even get on their feet and begin dancing. Actors do tend to respond to audience participation as it allows performers to establish a more intimate rapport between the cast and the audience.

Requests during the course of a performance are not unusual, either. A gift–of either money, flowers or the like–may be placed on stage during the performance or the intermission. Performers may be requested to do an encore or re-perform a particular routine.

It is not uncommon for performers to receive lavish gifts from their patrons; and nor is it not uncommon for a more intimate relationship to develop between the troupe and its audience.

The History of Southeast Asian Theatre

In Southeast Asia, theatre performances have their roots in the ancient tradition of placating and communicating with the Nature Spirit of a particularly locality. Drama in the region first developed out of prehistoric rituals in which the spirits of the land and the ancestors of the community were contacted through the performance.

The old animist spiritualism espoused the idea that the spirit lives on after death. The spiritual source from which mankind emanated resided in everything. Through either theatrical performance or meditative austerity, man could tap into this spiritual power for the protection of the land and its community.

From expressing gratitude to the spirits, to asking the spirits for protection–theatrical performances in Southeast Asia have their roots in communicating with The Other World: the world of nature spirits, ancestors, deities and unborn children. It is even believed that helping and hindering spirits attend these performances and seats are kept ‘reserved’ for the visitors from The Other World.

The otherworldly nature of these performances–where reality is temporarily suspended and we allow ourselves to imagine the unimaginable–is a hallmark of theatrical productions in Southeast Asia. It is neither fact nor fiction. It is both. It has elements of ordinary life and elements that force us to imagine what lays beyond this world.

The theatrical tradition of Southeast Asia has its basis in both worship as well as entertainment. It was a way through which culture was created, solidified and re-birthed.

Indian culture–which was brought to Southeast Asia by traders, missionaries and scholars–would go on to leave its legacy in the theatric tradition of the region. Indian influence on Southeast Asia, while strong and penetrating, has never been described as ‘colonisation’. Why? The military remained largely uninvolved. In addition to Hinduism, Buddhism also arrived in Southeast Asia, reinventing this relationship yet again.

This ancient melting pot resulted in a theatrical tradition that has no other parallel anywhere in the world.

The Power of Dreams

Dreams have always spoken to us. What are the symbols that populate our dreams? Who are the people, the deities and the ancestors that appear to us? Do we recognise the signs and symbols that are given to us? Do we awake only to call it a dream–or do we recognise the language of the unseen world?

Writing a screenplay, coming up with an invention, composing a piece of music and bringing it to life in the form of a theatre production–these were the creative aspects of the business journey of the troupe. It required the ingenuity of the human imagination in bringing the unseen world into the material world in a tangible form.

In the Norse Myths of Scandinavia, it is said that Creator Beings needed resourcefulness and planning to bring a world into existence. They also needed raw materials with which they could construct a new idea and a new vision. In the Abrahamic worldview, however, the world is created through the Word and through Light. In other creation mythologies, the feminine aspect is honoured in its role as the one who gives birth to creation.

There are a myriad of creation myths out there and they exist in every storytelling tradition. Some traditions have more than one creation myth. Regardless of the creation myth we come to believe and hold dear–one aspect that they all share in common is that there exist ‘worlds’ beyond our world.

Snakes and dragons feature strongly in creation myths. In some myths they are our allies and friends; in other myths, they are our sworn enemies and foes. But the fact that the symbol of a serpentine figure features so strongly in all mythologies cannot be a coincidence.

The dragon, with its wide array of mythological abilities, is a creature that is notoriously hard to tame. But one of the more intriguing reasons for a dragon behaving with animosity towards humans is because the creature is in charge of guarding treasure. The dragon is fated to remain at one place forever, guarding one particular treasure, ensuring it doesn’t fall into the wrong hands.

The dragon–or snake–is a spirit of Nature that can never be tamed; and must forever be placated. In the Southeast Asian tradition, they were viewed largely as guardian spirits, although if disturbed; they could wreck much havoc, indeed.


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