Indonesian Theater Summary – History, Arts, and Development

Theater is the other name of “drama”, but with broader definition. It presents real or imagined stories, sometimes taken from a book, myths, or folklores at front of live audience in a specific place, usually a stage.

Theater may use combinations of song, gestures, music, speech, and dance to communicate with the audience.

The place where we can see the performance is also called “theater”, derived from Greek word “theatron”, means a place for viewing/observe.

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Theater has been developed since prehistoric time. It blended with cultural traditions and flourished across the world, even in prehistoric time. Almost all cultures in the world includes theater in their folk arts, includes Indonesia. Theater was also performed in ancient civilizations, such as Ancient Egypt, Ancient Greek, and Ancient Rome.

Theatre was probably developed from ritual activities. Pagan rituals often included entertainment or pleasurable elements, such as costumes, masks and skillful performers. As societies became more complex, these elements began to be performed without ritualistic conditions, purely for entertainment or pleasure.

A. European Theater

  • Ancient Greek: In Ancient Greek, theater mainly developed in Athens, then spreader to other polish. The theater consists of 3 types of drama, which is still used until now: comedy, tragedy, and satyr. The Greek theater would later dispersed through Europe, North Africa and West Asia by colonization of Alexander the Great.
  • Ancient Rome: Roman theater consists of the Hellenistic theater (same like Greek theater), sometimes accompanied with street theater, nude dancing, and acrobatics. In Ancient Rome, the type of drama is usually comedy.
  • Middle ages: During middle ages, the theater mainly consists of biblical stories. These drama would later developed into Liturgical Drama, often played in the church during big ceremony, for example Christmas and Easter.
  • Renaissance: In Renaissance, the theater stories come back to Greek mythologies and Roman stories, for example plays of Shakespeare.

B. Ancient Egypt

The oldest Egyptian theater script was found in  2000 BC, written by Egyptian priest, I Kher-nefert. That time, Egypt were already very civilized, they already could bild pyramids, irigation, and callendars.

In early Egypt civilization, most of the theatres had the stories of Gods and Goddess, and performed as religious rituals. After being colonized by Alexander the Great, Egyptian Theater adopted Hellenistic style too.

C. Asian Theaters

  • Indian theater: Consists of Sanskrit drama, with stories from Ramayana or Mahabharata epics. The drama started to emerge in 2 century BC. During Islamic conquest in 10th-11th century AC, the dramas were forbidden. The modern Indian theaters started from English colonization, adopting European style drama.
  • Chinese theater: It is first dated in Shang Dinasty, 1500 BC. The theater involved music, clowns, and acrobatics.
  • Japanese theater: It is first dated in 1330. Japanese theater were usually short, sometimes vulgar comedies.

D. Indonesian Theater

In Indonesia, just like other parts of the world, in the beginning theater has functions for:

  • Calling ancestor’s spirits
  • Picking up ancestor’s spirits to come to the stage
  • Calling good spirits to kick away the bad spirits, for example for healing sick people
  • To remember their ancestor’s greatness by performing bravery / heroic plays
  • As complementary in ceremonies

Even until now, these functions still exist in traditional theater. After colonization of the Dutch, modern theaters started to develop.

See also: Indonesian Cultures – Most Watched Indonesian Movies


In Indonesia, we can find 3 types of theater: traditional theaters , classical theater and modern theaters. Traditional theaters are influenced by cultures of each ethnic groups. While modern theaters are influenced by European cultures, the story is more about the life of common people, and use musics and lighting just like modern European theaters. Classical theaters are based on the life of royal families adapted to Hindu epics, the Ramayana or Mahabharata.

See also: The Largest Mosque in Indonesia – Gamelan Facts

A. Traditional Theaters

Traditional theaters have been existed along with the cultures of each ethnic groups. It often cannot be separated from traditional and religious ceremonies. It means, traditional theaters are only performed in some particular ceremonies, for example circumcision ceremonies, wedding, benedictions when moving to new homes, etc.

The host (a family who holds the ceremony) pay all the expenses, so the theaters can be watched by all the guests and people around the house. The stages can be put anywhere: front yard, gardens, village meeting hall, terrains, etc.

Here are some of the most known traditional theaters in Indonesia:

1. Wayang Orang

Image result for wayang orangWayang Orang, or Wayang Wong in Javanese, is a traditional theaters native to Central Java and Yogyakarta. Until now, this performance art still can be seen in many places in those regions.

The story is taken from Wayang stories, an Indonesian adaptation of the epics Ramayana and Mahabharata. The story should follow the Wayang stories strictly, even the costumes and backgrounds should be the same. That is why some people call Wayang Orang “Teater Pakem”, a theater which has strict stories and cannot be changed.

Wayang orang  is also classified in Classical Theater, as it is often performed in Yogyakarta Palace and uses the story from Mahabharata or Ramayana.

The music is usually Gamelan, a Javanese traditional music consists of saron (a Metallophone played by mallets), kendhang (a series of hand-played drums), bamboo flutes and rebab (a bowed instrument).

See also: Largest Cities in Indonesia – Best Airports in Indonesia

2. Ketoprak

Image result for ketoprakKetoprak is a traditional theater founded in 1925 and developed in Yogyakarta. The story is usually about the life of Keraton (Yogyakarta palace) and noblemen, often about romance of the royal family members.

It differs from Ludruk, which uses contemporary setting and the story of common people. It is also differs from Wayang Orang, where Ketoprak is more free of improvisations such as speech, jokes, popular language and dances. Ketoprak is often performed in celebrations, such as wedding, circumcision, and Independence day.

Ketoprak groups may have their own stages or rent a performance building, or the groups might travel from one village to another. Ketoprak Tonil or Ketoprak Tobong is a ketoprak group who travels from one village to another. The crews often sleep in “tobong” , a kind of traditional caravan.

The music still uses Gamelan, but now modern instruments such as drums, violins and keyboards may be added as well. Recently, we can see Ketoprak in TV show, the “Ketoprak Humor”, a comedy and action performance which is aired in Indonesian national television.

See also: Biggest Stadiums in Indonesia – National Library of Indonesia

3. Ludruk

Image result for ludrukLudruk is a traditional theater from East Java. All the performers are males, even the female role is played by males. The stories are about the daily life of common people and their economic struggles. The dialogues are mostly comedic. It is usually performed in celebrations, such as wedding, circumcision, or Independence day.

The typical ludruk performance begins with Remong Dance by an actor. It is different from Ketoprak of Central Java, since Ketoprak tells story about Javanese history, legends, or the life of Javanese nobles.

See also: Indonesian Democracy – Indonesian Language

4. Lenong

Lenong is a traditional theater from Jakarta. It derived from a Chinese trader’s name, Lien Ong, who often called actors and actresses to perform comedy dramas in his house. The dialogues are in Betawi language. The actors are called Panjak, while the actress are called Ronggeng.

It uses various stories, from adapted folklores such as The Tales of 1001 Nights, and common people’s life. In general there are 2 divisions of Lenong: Lenong Denes and Lenong Preman. Lenong Preman stories focus on the exploitation of common people by the nobility, the rich, and powerful people. Lenong denes stories focus on commoners or folk heroes, such as Si Pitung.

There is no script in Lenong, so the actors and actresses have to remember the story then improvise it. Now, schools in Jakarta include Lenong as  extracurricular activity, along with sports and other type of arts. Thanks to Arifin C Noer, an Indonesian actor and theater director, now lenong is also aired in TV.

See also: Deforestation in Indonesia – Biggest Earthquake in Indonesia

5. Randai

Image result for randai minangkabauRandai is a traditional theater of Minangkabau, West Sumatra. It incorporates music, singing, dance, drama and silat (traditional martial art). Randai is usually performed in traditional ceremonies, and the complex stories can be divided into some episodes, performed every night. The stories are based on Minangkabau legends and folklores. It was originated in 20th century AD.

Male performers originally played both female and male roles, but since 1960 female performers have also been participated.

The music is typical Malay music, with addition of Rebab (a traditional bowed instrument), Puput Batang Padi (a traditional flute made of paddy twigs) and Talempong (small gongs played with mallets).

See also: Indonesian Martial Arts – Indonesian Traditional Trasnportation

6. Barong Performance

Image result for tari barong bali Barong performance is traditional dance-drama that uses masks and costumes which describe Balinese mythology. According to Balinese people, Barong dance is a sacred fine art, which also has mystical side. It also has moral values.

Typically, there are 2 types of Barong dance: the sacred one, usually performed in Pura (Balinese temple) or streets in Balinese ceremonies. The second is the pure art performance, usually performed almost everyday in Gianyar.

The story is about the battle of Barong (good spirit) and Rangda (evil spirit). During the performance, Rangda would use black magic to make male dancers do suicide by stabbing themselves with Keris (traditional weapon). Barong would prevent the suicide by using white magic to  make the male dancers immune of sharp objects. At the end, Rangda runs away and Barong wins the battle. As Rangda is not dead, it gives the moral lesson that the goodness will win over evilness, but evilness will always happens alongside of goodness.

There are other traditional theater of Indonesia, such as:

[toggle title=”7. Reog Ponorogo”]

This is a performance art from Ponorogo, East Java. The distinctive feature in this performance art is the application of massive masks, which spans about 2,5 meters long and 40-50 kg weigh. The mask is recognized as the biggest mask in the world, resembling a fan of peacock (with real peacock feathers) and a lion’s head.

There is no dialog in Reog performance, but its dances and movements can be categorized as a traditional theater. This performance has mystical elements, where in the peak performance, the dancers are often possessed by spirits.

See also: Endangered Animals in Indonesia – Sumatran Tigers

[toggle title=”8. Ramayana Ballet”]

Ramayana Ballet is an Indonesian ballet, using the story of Rama and Seeta from Ramayana epic. Ramayana Ballet combines dance and drama without any dialogue. It is often performed in the Hindu temple of Prambanan since 1961, Yogyakarta. It is also performed in Bali, with Balinese style dances and costumes.

Some people also call it Sendratari Ramayana, an abbreviation of Seni Drama dan Tari (Drama and Dance Art). In Prambanan Temple, we can watch the Ramayana Ballet every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.

See also: Indonesia Religion – Indonesia Military Power

[toggle title=”9. Mendu”]

Mendu is a traditional theater from Riau archipelago. The story is about God Mendu of Natuna. The story is usually performed in 7 episodes. Just like Lenong, the stories have no script, so the performers have to memorize the outlines of the stories.

The music is typical Malay traditional music, with Gong, Gendang (hand-played drums), Beduk (big Gendang), Tins, and Violins.

See also: Bird of Paradise – Luwak Coffee

[toggle title=”10. Sanghyang Performance”]

Sanghyang is a traditional sacred theater from Bali. It is a dance without dialogue. It involves mystical elements, calling spirits to posses the performers. It is a mix between animism and Hinduism, often performed in Pura, the Balinese temples. The dancers are pre-pubescent girls.

[toggle title=”11. Calonang Dance “]

Calonang is a theatrical dance from Klungkung, Bali. The performance art began to be popular in 1825. The dance is often used in religious ceremony, especially to cast away disasters. The dance is based on Calon Arang book, which tells story about an evil witch called Calon Arang.

When angry or displeased with people around her, Calon Arang often make disasters, such as floods, extensive dry season, and volcanic eruptions. She has a beautiful daughter, but nobody in the village wants to marry the daughter because they are afraid of the evil mother. In turn, Calon Arang is even more angry and makes more disasters. The story ends with Calon Arang is defeated and the daughter is married to a noble of Kediri Kingdom.

See also: Volcanoes in Indonesia – Indonesia Flag

[toggle title=”12. Mamanda”]

Mamanda is a theater from South Kalimantan. The story is based on the life of Sultan Banjar’s family. The performers use glamorous ornate costumes. It mixes music, dance, and dialogues. The music is Malay style.

See also: Dayak Tribe – Most Expensive Universities in Indonesia


B. Classical Theaters

This theater is often performed in Palace or 5-stars hotels. The story is usually around royal family’s life and good values of the king, since this theater is usually patronned by royal family. Usually, the story involves the Hindu epic of Mahabharata and Ramayana, but already adapted to the royal family’s life.

This theater includes Wayang Kulit (leather puppets), Wayang Golek (wood puppets), and Wayang Orang. The stories of those wayangs are the same, the difference is only the mediums (puppets or person).

C. Modern Theater

Indonesian modern thereat is a mix of many genres. It still mostly uses traditional stories, but uses modern style music (sometimes mixed with traditional music) and modern background (modern furniture and modern paintings). The performance is more in order, since modern theater has a director.

Modern theater in Indonesia started in 1920, where the performers use both European style performance (from the Dutch) and Asian style performance (Chinese, Japanese, traditional Indonesian). Later, these styles are mixed together. The story can be about the life of common people, adapted stories from European literature (such as Shakespeare’s plays), Chinese legends (such as Madam White Snake), etc.

Here are some modern theater groups which give big contribution of development of Indonesian modern theatre.

1. Bengkel Teater Rendra

It was founded by W.S. Rendra, in Yogyakarta (1961) and Depok (1986). Their performances are always rave, and become barometers of other theater performance in Indonesia. W.S.Rendra himself is a very good litterateur, actor, poet, director, and scriptwriter. He made many excellent performances.

His famous works are for examples: Orang-orang di Tikungan Jalan, 1954 (People in the junction of the road); Bip Bop Rambaterata, Selamatan Anak Cucu Sulaiman (Sulaiman’s descendants’ ceremonies), Mastodon dan Burung Kondor (Mastodon and Condor), in 1972;  Kasidah Barzanji, Panembahan Reso (1986); and Kisah Perjuangan Suku Naga (the story of dragon tribe).

See also : Most Beautiful Fabric in Indonesia – Indonesian Red Cross Society

2. Teater Populer

It was founded by Teguh Karya in 1968. The development of this Theater group leads to Indonesian film industry. The members are: Slamet Rahardjo, El Malik, Christine Hakim, and Nano Riantiarno. After Teguh Karya died in 2001, the performers move to film industry. One of the members, Christine Hakim, is the first Indonesian jury of Cannes Film Festival in France. She also played  in Eat, Pray and Love with Julia Roberts in Bali, 2010.

3. Teater Kecil

It is a theater group founded by Arifin C.Noer in Jakarta, 1968. He is one of the pioneers of Indonesian modern theater. Their power is distinctive script themes which reflect the life of lower-class people, such as their sufferings, hope and integrity.

Then, Arifin’s scripts attract younger theater directors, so his works are often performed in many places. Arifin involves cultural elements in his work, such as Lenong, Stambul, Marionettes, Wooden and Leather Puppets, and Coastal Melodies of Betawi people.

His important works are: Sumur Tanpa Dasar (Well without End), Tengul, Madekur dan Tarkeni, Umang-umang (hermit crab), Sandek, Kapai-Kapai in 1970; Madekur dan Tarkeni 2nd in 1974; Sandek Pemuda Pekerja (Sandek the young worker) in 1979, Dalam Bayangan Tuhan (in God’s shadows) and Interogasi (interogation).

“4. Teater Koma

The chief is Nano Riantiarno, an ex-member of Teater Populer. It is the most productive theater group now.  It already performed more than 100 performances in stages and television. Nano Riantiarno is a very good scriptwriter and potential director. His works for examples:

  • Rumah Kertas (paper house).
  • Maaf, Maaf, Maaf (I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry).
  • Opera Kecoa (cockroach’s opera).
  • Opera Julini (Julini’s opera).
  • Konglomerat Burisrawa (Bhurishrava’s conglomerate).

5. Teater Mandiri

The chief is Putu Wijaya, a litterateur and actor from Bali. He is an ex-member of Bengkel Teater Rendra, and he is an excellent scriptwriter. His scripts are influenced from the script of Menunggu Godot (waiting for Godot) by Samuel Beckett which he ever performed with Rendra. This script was about Vladimir and Estragon who were waiting for Godot, who never appeared until the performance ended.

Fate of Indonesian Theatres Today

Today, many traditional theater groups are facing bankcruptcy. Now, the managers of performance arts need to have more sophisticated skills, not only art or directing skills. They need to learn corporate management, marketing skills, and mass-psychology to meet audience’s taste. Traditional theater artists are reduced much in numbers because many of their seniors already died.

The bankruptcy is also faced by modern theater groups. There are still some theatre artists who still continue to work in theaters although it is not promising financially. Now, many theaters are performed in schools and universities as extracurricular activities.

Although some of the cities like Jakarta, Bandung and Yogyakarta often collaborate with local governments to perform theaters in weekends, the audiences are still small, not enough to support the art itself.

Although watching theaters is said to be high-classed, young Indonesian people are more attracted to low-quality sitcoms and movies. They also turned into “alay” generation, a dumb generation who often mimics dumb acting in sitcoms, which resulted in not honoring Indonesian National Heroes and underestimate Indonesian theaters. Thanks to the sitcoms, they think that traditional theaters are only for older people and villagers.

See also: Indonesian Heroes – Poverty in Indonesia

Some of the theaters, both traditional, classical and modern ones, are often performed abroad by Indonesian students. As younger generation, we should be proud of Indonesian theatres since it reflects the rich cultures of Indonesia. It does not hurt to watch the theaters once every month. Moreover, theater stories usually contain moral teachings, not like the sitcoms which just show boring stories and just rely on handsome actors and pretty actresses.

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