Agus Noor: Living out his childhood dream

The thunderous applause coming from the audience at the end of a dress rehearsal of Teater Gandrik's latest play, Sidang Susila, the Trial of Susila, brought a smile to Agus Noor's face.

"I'm happy. People like it," the playwright said without trying to hide his satisfaction. "The concept of my happiness is simple, it's not measured by having (material things) or billions of rupiah. I'm happy if my work is appreciated."

With a career spanning more than 20 years, Agus is not the old-fashioned image of theater persona; he came to the show dressed casually, with a laptop and cell phone in tow.

The 43-year-old is grateful for technology, which makes his life easier and helps him write.

"Back then, when I was still using a typewriter, I had to wait until the whole idea was complete before typing. If I made a mistake, I had to write all over again ... really tiring," he said in a thick Javanese accent.

"Now, I can record my ideas on my cell phone, not on scraps of paper like I used to."

Gandrik's latest play is one of many works produced by the man, who has found a creative chemistry with the celebrated monologue and theater actor Butet Kartaredjasa, who is known for his clever and wickedly funny impersonations of the country's past and present leaders.

In this latest play, which draws attention to the concept of decency, or susila -- in blunt criticism of the deliberation of the pornography bill -- Agus collaborated with author Ayu Utami, who had prepared a monologue script. He added his signature touches, bringing to life the Yogyakarta teater troupe's spirit and signature style to the stage.

Agus said the play's main challenge was to revive the theater group's unique style and energy, blending humor and drama to deliver the message, as it had not performed for five years.

Building up the drama was necessary -- too much humor would be dangerous, turning the play into an ordinary comedy show.

"But Gandrik has successfully brought the story to life," he said.

The play may be deemed another success, but Agus, who is not lured by Jakarta's charm and chooses to continue living in Yogyakarta with his family, is not yet at peace.

In the back of his mind, he has started juggling ideas for Butet's next monologue, to be staged next year. The upcoming monologue, set to be titled Musuh Nomor Satu (Enemy Number One), will be about an honest man.

"I imagine that in a certain time in Indonesia, an honest man could become public enemy number one. It will be a tragic comedy," he said.

The process of turning an idea into a complete script, he added, is a difficult task and takes a considerable amount of time -- as it did when he wrote Matinya Tukang Kritik (Death of a Critic), which was staged in 2006. Ideas for the monologue stayed in his mind for two years, as he had many unanswered questions.

"Once the idea is ready in its full form and becomes a (complete) obsession (of mine), the writing process might only take a week," said Agus.

It was different, he said, when he wrote based on orders -- for television series or sinetrons, made-for-TV films or for an event where he was hired as the artistic director, to meet the required deadline.

However, making a play, he said, is for a classic reason; his personal satisfaction. As a media, he finds theater unique -- a space where he can freely express his ideas, using his own words.

"In theater, it's possible. I realize a theater audience might be smaller compared to a sinetron or film audience, but a theater audience is like the English League -- the ratings might be low but the fans are loyal," Agus said.

He likens his love for the theater to eating a burger: "We might be happy to have it but since deep down inside we really like tempeh, in the end we will look for tempeh."

The man, who used to write based on his mood but now believes in his self-prescribed discipline mantra, said when writing a play, he needed to first have an artistic concept of the performance. Without it, he believes his works would be mere closet dramas -- something which might be fun to read but not interesting when performed on stage.

However, reality is not picture perfect. For financial reasons, he has worked as a ghostwriter for many sinetron productions and made-for-TV films, producing scripts for, among others, 76 Detik (76 Seconds), Puisi Pucat Pasi (Pale Poetry) or Dua Cermin (Two Mirrors) and was even offered the chance to make a now popular horror flick.

"When I was offered to write the script for a horror film, I stepped back. I didn't want to ... not that I'm against it, but there are many other writers who can do it," he said.

With sinetron and film in the mainstream, he believes there will always be place for theater.

"Every media has its own characteristics. Theater might have a smaller audience but fans are 'militant', loyal to the shows. If they like it, they will keep looking for it. They come because they need something fresh, something they don't see in sinetrons or films," he said.

His love affair with writing and theater started during his early childhood.

The Central Java native from the town of Tegal said he first made a script for a play when he was in the fourth grade. At that time, he prepared the play for his class show performed at the school graduation ceremony.

The lure of better opportunities saw him leave his hometown for Yogyakarta, the home of many great writers and artists, when he was in junior high school.

But his real move to go public occurred when he was in senior high school, when he began to write short stories and had them published. Now, his short stories have been published in numerous newspapers and magazines and have won him many awards.

His venture into his real love, the theater, started when he was studying at Yogyakarta's Indonesia Arts Institute.

"Right now, it's like I'm living out my childhood dream," said Agus, who has three children with his wife of six years, Asrining Puri.

"I'm lucky to have found a community to stage my works. I think many playwrights, like those winning play-writing contests, found their works could not be performed since they did not meet the needs of those in the theater. Their plays might be good on paper, but not on stage."

He contributed his survival in the theater to constantly adjusting to performers' needs and having continuous discussions with actors and directors to learn of their problems.

When he wrote Sarimin, a monologue staged by Butet during Art Summit Indonesia last year, he had no knowledge of legal parodies and sought the help of lawyer Pradjoto. "I also read law books, learned legal terms and searched loopholes that I could develop ..."

But he was hit by writer's block just two weeks before Sarimin was to be staged. "I took two days off to finish it ... on one side, there's a deadline while on the other side, there's the need to feel satisfied."

Despite being surrounded by friends and family, as a writer he still feels lonely and rarely understood.

"Just like when my child was asked, 'doesn't your father work in an office? Other fathers do', simply because I was still at home at 9 a.m.," he said.

He said he also felt there was a lack of appreciation for writing as a profession, as seen through the small financial rewards offered to writers compared to that offered to film actors -- unlike in the U.S., where a recent writers' strike almost paralyzed the film industry.

"Logically, a good film comes from a good story. But there is no writers' association here like there is in the U.S., with strong bargaining power. Here, we're single fighters. We have to deal with everything on our own."

Source: The Jakarta Post

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