Just recently I had a question from high school student in Roxas, a small city in south of Manila, Philipines, the question is actually a quite simple: “What is the different between art western theatre and Asian theatre? I think the answer can’t be simple. That question had been around for decades- for Asian artist especially, and maybe there is no easy or simple explanation to describe the different between western and Asian theatre for a high school student.

When I study history of modern theatre in Indonesia, there is one theory that describe Indonesian modern theatre is born with modern play that written in Bahasa Indonesia. The theory then erasing all the traditional performing art that is based on oral language and the kind of theatre that used local language. Most of written play in Indonesia are following the realist drama convention form Western theatre tradition. Only in the 1969, when Arifin C. Noer write Kapai-kapai (The Moths) that he introduces a modern theatre play that develop his own style, mix of absurd theatre and traditional performing art. Arifin C. Noer’s The Moths actually are criticized by many artists and scholars at that time because its lack of structure and not closely following drama convention, but the play is now considered as one of the most performed modern theatre play in Indonesia (and Malay speaking neighbours) till nowadays. Arifin is considered as one of few artists that makes the breakthrough in the Indonesia modern theatre and literature aesthetics, and open the door for the next generation artist that create their original works.

I’m sure Arifin C. Noer is only one from so many example we can find in Asia, artists that breaking the convention of western theatre and creating their unique approach of theatre. The next generation of artist further questioning the western theatre convention, and new approach on social science such as postcolonial theory is opening the chance for the artists (especially in colonized countries) to deconstruct their cultural and art history. But as I said in the beginning- the question of what is the different between western and asian theatre is still around.

Asian Playwrights Meeting (APM) is only one means to documenting the various approach of Asian playwrights to tells story. The publication consisted of six plays from six playwrights from Southeast Asia and Japan. All of the play are offering the playwrights and directors view on the problem unique from each region, and every region had their own “taste” and “aesthetic” that is unique from each other. This is also the case with terms “Asian theatre” it generalizing the whole region into one character- while Japanese performing art different with India performing art, Thailand have their own characteristic different with Philipines, in the country as big as Indonesia it will be difficult to describe the general character of the performing art since its very different in the western part of Indonesia from the eastern part of Indonesia.

The plays here can simply organized as Asian plays, because all of the play are written by Asian, and all of the plays talks about specific context of their origin. Certainly we can further discuss the play on this publication on the relation between western and asian theatre discussion/debate. Nophand Boonyai “Taxi Radio” for example shows how modern urban Bangkok are still influenced by traditional mythologies, Nophand shows his wit by depicting traditional gods as common human being, with common human relation problem that affecting how they use their super power. While Guelan Luarca “The Happiness of Nelson” picturing Philipines urban life under the shadows of Catholic beliefs- the holy saints are the moral compass of the characters in the story, they are the only hopes of the poor people in the plays - as all of the human power are corrupted.

Jean Tay from Singapore, give us an exploration of Asia as region, focused on Asian economy crisis in 1997-1998. and then give special focus to riot in Jakarta Indonesia in the peak of the crisis. Jean put the perspective of newscaster in Singapore, and a young Chinese-Indonesia women living in Jakarta to tell the strong narrative. Ibed Surgana Yuga giving a different perspective on Balinese culture and mythology, a family drama of a Balinese people with background of the bloody event in Bali a few decades ago.

Ridhwan Saidi brings the dystopian future where insect use technology to command human, an Orwellian community where the past and the future controlled by a group of insect that erasing a word every day and by that erasing the past. Suguru Yamamoto introducing new strategy to use text as the guidance for the play, but also text to represent a character in the play. Suguru use screen projector that display the character dialogues in the screen, as we are now use smartphone screen to communicate by text with each other.

All of the plays in this publication are representation of the Asia theatre nowadays, but each had their own trajectories of the past and the future of their own local context. The history of playwriting and modern theatre in each country is differs, Singapore and Malaysia have more play publication than the other countries in Southeast Asia, while in other countries it might difficult to find play published. In general, playwriting publication is not as popular as modern literature, so this publication is also a chance to exchange knowledge in the region and to promote Asian plays to the region.

We hope to continue the Asian Playwrights Meeting platform and to promote exchange between playwrights and theatre director inside Asia. I hope the readers can also find the answer of the question from one high school student that I mention in the beginning by reading this collection and also by looking to theatre and performing art around us.

Muhammad AB
February 2020