Biographical Notes on Theater Audience in Indonesia: The Fragmented and Animated

Alia Swatika


During the recent years, I realize how I have very much enjoyed moments when I watch performances. I like watching plays, dance performances, concerts as well as traditional performing art (particularly during my childhood). Sometimes I feel sad and disappointed when a performance fails to impress me. It is only recently, however, that I came to realize that in addition to what happens on stage, I’ve always enjoyed the moments when I merge with others that are collectively called “audience”. I really enjoy being part of the laughing crowd when there is something funny on stage, applaud at the end of every show, and feel upset when a performance fails to meet our expectation.

Against such background, in 2003 I did a research on audience reception. I chose the cases of the audiences of Teater Garasi’s “Waktu Batu #2 (Ritus Seratus Kecemasan dan Wajah Siapa yang Terbelah)” at Societet Militer in Yogyakarta on July 16 & 17 and of Teater Gandrik’s Borok at Purna Budaya in Yogyakarta on September 30 through October 1 the same year.[1] This writing is based on some part of the result of my research. For a more specific context, and for the sake of brevity, this essay only deals with the audience of Garasi’s Waktu Batu #2. My reason for this is that during the performance I saw it clearly how the audience’s position was being marginalized; “audience” simply remained an abstract idea, mostly because they have hitherto been bereft of the right to speak in the theatrical field in Indonesia. In short, this essay is a story about audience, a group that has many times been marginalized in performance studies. I think what an audience has to say needs to be attended, since it may tell us what performing art means in people’s daily life.


Tales of Audiences in the Waiting Room

Societet Militer, Yogyakarta, July 16, 2003.  It is almost seven o’clock.

Inside the building, actors and artistic team were busy making preparations, while outside was a different view: the hectic and relentless traditional market. Many say that the market location has repelled them from coming to watch performances inside the former Dutch colonial building. The reasons are not only the cramming traffic, but also the unfriendly smell commonly marking traditional markets (not malls or supermarkets) in Indonesia. The bazaar and the Societet theater building discordantly, even ironically, stand face to face.[2]

Didin, a respondent in the research, has this to say, “Sometimes I feel too listless to go and see a performance here. My house is located in the north, so to reach this place I have to pass a cramming traffic. Add the stinking and muddy market. But there is no choice, for an art performance this place is still the best. And the seat is so cozy”

Didin is a student of architecture who is in his last year of study in one of Yogyakarta’s private universities. He is 26 years old. I think Didin’s statement represents the opinion of most young people in Yogya:  “great” and “cozy” are among their criteria for today’s theater buildings. Didin says further that Societet is really gorgeous, mainly due to its elegant stage, what with red carpet and seats — which Didin finds cozy “like inside a movie theater!” while breathing out an ambiance of olden times (referring to things related to antiquities or the past). He continues by comparing it with Purna Budaya— another art venue run by Taman Budaya Yogyakarta, like Societet—which architectural style, in Didin’s words, is more “Indonesian” if not “Javanese”. Purna Budaya does not have permanent seats so it is not very comfortable.

Several people already arrived in the lobby but they seemed to delay buying the tickets. They chose to sit outside in the terrace, chatting or doing other things. From my observation, some among the audience, that I know, came from various groups: artists, art foundation directors, some fellow students of mine, high school students, theater people from other groups, etc.  The rest, the number was bigger, were people I had never seen before; their faces told me they were very young.

Several young couples were sitting and waiting at the lobby benches, reading booklet copies which contain information about the performance. Reading booklets is one of the most frequent activity done while waiting for a performance to start. An event booklet generally contains a review about the performance, introductory remarks, players’ biography, and sometimes added with an essay or critic from a renowned figure (analyst/researcher/academician) concerning the theater or the discourse the performance offers.

Next to them some people did not seem to bother to open the booklet; they even used the copies as fans. Perhaps because it was indeed quite hot. Some others were talking about various topics. A couple of youngsters sitting next to me, in trendy outfits for their age—a couple of “anak gaul”[3] – were deeply taken into a conversation about movies. The boy was telling about a movie he had just seen while the girl was seriously listening.[4] The girl would at times interrupt him with questions. Watching the theater, like going to a concert or the cinema, has – I think – become a medium for dating among the youth.  This trend went back to the mid 70’s, albeit limitedly, when women (especially those who were privileged with highest education) were beginning to gain easier access to go out at night.

From my experience, most theater audience does not like the idea of going solo. They tend to find someone, a boyfriend, a girlfriend, or some group, to go to the venue. I think I also did the same thing back in my college years. Planning to go to a theater also meant making an arrangement with whom I would go. And the invitation should be done long enough before the event, so should a prospective company cancel the appointment I could still find someone else. It was, perhaps, because there were only few persons I knew and I didn’t feel like being a lonely stranger at the venue. I felt I needed someone I could talk to while waiting for the show to open. Perhaps given the fact that no one will go alone, the idea of going by myself got to my nerves.  Notice how every time we arrive at an event—the first question addressed to us would be: “Hello, are you with whom?” or, when you are apparently by yourself, there will be someone asking “Why going alone?”

The respondents gave a list of different reasons when I ask why they tend to attend an art event with (an) other person(s).

“I always want to take my friends when watching musical, dance or theater performances. It worries me to go just by myself, especially on the way back home. A performance usually starts at 8 pm and ends at 10 pm. I live far from here and the streets are not really safe now. So, I usually go with my male friends, just to be safe”, said Ira, my other respondent, a 21 years old girl who studies accountancy.

Ira’s reason is more practical, which makes sense concerning the recent condition in Yogyakarta.[5] According to her if a performance lasts for two hours it will be better to begin at 7 pm; a longer one should start earlier.

Meanwhile Didin also mentions another reason, which is not directly linked with technical ones. To watch Waktu Batu #2, he came with his girl friend Maya, a 23 years old girl who also majors in architecture. According to him, Maya was not always willing to watch a theater performance. She prefers going to music concert along with her friends from campus. However, Didin continues saying, lately she is into literatures so she is more easily persuaded to come and see a play.  At first, Didin had to persistently try to take Maya with him to a theater, so that her experience would not be limited to just studying and hanging out with friends. If not with Maya, he always seeks other companions. “I don’t know, maybe it sounds weird. But I am used to go to a play or concert with someone”.

Being alone has somehow become something to avoid when attending an art event; as if the event has turned into something for collective enjoyment; this is despite the fact that in modern theater watching is an aesthetic experience more individual rather than communal. The experience of watching transforms into a collective event (not necessarily massif) only when personal reception is discussed with others, after the performance. Discussions as such, I suppose, are more focused on the attempt to get others’ perspectives or appreciations; sometimes they were means to check if others have similar perception, and this is to be followed by conversations on the discourse already represented on stage.

However, not everyone is nervous about attending a play production alone. I saw some persons who came by themselves. They quietly killed the time reading the booklet or contemplating, surrounded by cigarette smoke, or checking out the book counter installed in the vicinity. Some even found old friends and got involved in warm conversations. Others seemed fixed on his/her camera bits and pieces—perhaps a journalist on duty or simply someone with photography as his/her hobby.

We can as well see a different motive such as one stated by Ibe, a 33 years old employee from Malang who by chance was staying in Yogyakarta for some time. ‘I always come alone to performances. In Malang I live very far from the city center. It must be tiresome if I have to come with someone. We’ll have to make appointments regarding when and where to meet, and so on. Then again, I don’t see any difference between watching alone or with others. In fact, during the performance we cannot chat”.

Or, “I have no problems in being alone going to a performance. More than often will I meet friends there. Sometimes, I also make use of performances as dating events. But still, entering a theater without anyone I know of doesn’t feel too comfortable”, says Yopie, male, 27 years old, who is keen about attending art events while his profession is photography.

Being alone, in Yopie’s and Ibe’s cases, does not have anything to do with the aesthetic experience that they get from watching a performance. The impression is not very much different either they come with friends or not. This is different from Yopie’s habit of going to a live football match.  He still needs to go together to the football field. I supposed Yopie’s statement could be attributed to the football match characteristic –especially in league or championship competitions—which requires siding from its audience, so that an individual would be dissolved in a more massive, collective identity.

The statements and situations mentioned above remind me of a review on the characters of audiences and spectacles in Indonesian amid its transition from a traditional-agrarian to a modern-industrial culture. I am referring to Umar Kayam’s sociological essay on the audience of the Javanese wayang kulit or other traditional performances; he remarks that for each event people do not come with the intention to “understand” and “comprehend” the story of wayang per se, but rather to assert (for all the time more) their willingness to be accepted as a full member of the given society and cosmos. What is called as appreciation to art performance at that time, in Kayam’s view, was to evaluate their notions upon the environment, community or the cosmos to which they belonged. In the case of wayang performance, the re-assessing happens in a rather relaxed and fluid manners; the audience follow the story line while chatting with each other or even busily chewing peanuts.[6]

Fatherly, Kayam tries to observe transformation involved in bringing such traditional performances to the city. In Kayam’s observation, the city is an environment not wholly bonded by traditions, but at the same time it is also the extension of traditional environments since Indonesian cities are built upon waves of migrants from rural areas. The city that is identical with the commercial, entertaining and new mass culture develops tensions with strong traditional values as most of the consumers are people who still cherish the gregariousness of their social environment in the past. Thus emerging what is known as commercial wayang, modern ketoprak, dagelan mataram and so forth. Such art no longer functions as the medium to associate one’s identity with the so-called “cosmos”, but rather as means to form a new kind of solidarity that the city requires.

Such condition, I think, has shaped the theater audience in Indonesia. Contemporary theater in the country is a city theater because its birth and development has taken place in big cities. Theater audience is a generation that gets educated at schools in the city that teaches a new and foreign, industrial, culture. On the other hand, parents still try to familiarize the old traditional value of communal comfort to the generation.

The entrance opened; those people in the lobby immediately started to form a queue. They didn’t hassle although not quite orderly either. Of courses it would be an all different situation with the packed full of audiences lining up for popular music concerts.

Detailed demographical data of the audience, based on the returned questionnaires (374 questionnaire sets were returned, while the total of tickets sold was 430) are as follows:


  1. Respondents’ Sex:


Table 1


Sex Quantity Percentage
Male 228 persons     61 %
Female 136 persons     36 %
Blank  10  persons       3 %
Total 374 persons   100%






In the table above, we can see that the number of female audience for WB#2 is 136 people, which means an average of 45 females in the audience each night, or approximately 36% of the total audience. Due to the absence of data about other theater performances, I could not determine whether it is a high percentage or not. In most performances, the number of male audience always surpasses that of the opposite sex. Some other performances I’ve ever attended, however, involved audiences of no more than 50 people mostly women.


To be more specific, most of the female audience categorizes as students. The next in the list are professionals (including journalists, NGO activists, company employees) and female artists. Only few women fill “housewife” as their profession in the questionnaire. I suppose these data are in line with the image of Teater Garasi as “young people’s theater” or “urban theater”, which presents issues not quite interesting for housewives.

Originally, to learn about the growth of female audience, I intended to compare the result with that of the research by Lingkar Studi Teater Yogyakarta, in 1987. I discovered, however, that the research does not include sexual category in its questions. Based on this, I come to think that at that time sexual category was not seen as an important variable in the analysis—conclusively this means that female audiences were not properly recognized then.

Anggi Minarni, one of my respondents, says that her involvement in the field of art is determined by her advantageous access to education. According to her, although she has already watched TV plays since she was in high school uniforms plays, it was her privilege as a university student that brings her to an active involvement in art up to now – since her student years Anggi has been involved in theatrical productions many times. “I think the theater used to be regarded as part of men’s world. And the theater was not an exception in this regard. That time, only few female students were interested in art”.



  1. Respondent’s Age


Table 2

Age Group Quantity Percentage
13-20   y.o.a   86 persons   23 %
21-25   y.o.a 197 persons   52 %
26-30   y.o.a   62 persons   16,5 %
31-35   y.o.a   10 persons     2,4 %
36-40   y.o.a     8 persons     2,1 %
41-45   y.o.a     4 persons     1,1 %
46-50   y.o.a    —-    —
> 50     y.o.a     2 persons     0,4 %
Blank     5 persons     0,7%
Total 374 persons   100%



Viewing the above table, and making a quick glance over Teater Garasi’s previous productions, I can say that their audience is dominated by (urban) youngsters. Perhaps this is mainly because of Teater Garasi’s historical background as a campus theater and their choice of idioms which are familiar to younger generation. Table 3 will show supporting data to this argument. The age group of 21-25 years in the audience, which represents more than 50 percent of the total, generally categorizes as students. The table also shows how the number decreases sharply along with the increase in age.


These data reinforce opinions that Teater Garasi is a theater of the young people. In an interview, Yudi Ahmad Tajudin, one of Teater Garasi’s directors, admitted that his company fully realizes the many supports it gets from the community it starts from. In its later development, this community no longer refers to a certain geographical unit – to campus audience or theater audience in Yogyakarta, for instance – but to a grouping  that shares common basic concerns, namely the young. In broad lines, I categorize Teater Garasi’s audience as the urban-middle class-educated young people.


Tales of Audiences inside a Theater


Unlike what usually happens when a performance is about to begin, here the lighting on stage stays on while all the actors and actresses are getting ready. We can even clearly see some players doing some exercise around the theater. Sound of whisper is overheard, coming from the audience seat, possibly stirred by the highly unlikely activities. Some even ask whether the performance has begun. Then the performance actually starts when the lightings are gradually being turned off. The audience became silent and stopped their talking.

One scene follows another without any significant reaction from the audience. Most of the audience even did not say a single word during the whole presentation. Everyone is facing straight to the front, trying to keep up with everything going on the hectic stage. What the audience is witnessing on stage is a form a theatrical event which is rarely found on stage in Yogyakarta. The audience has to direct their attention to every corner of the stage. It is as if the audience was trying to interpret the meaning of all the stuff and props displayed on stage. A bed, a tunnel, a turtle, a canoe and so forth.

Later on the stage extends to audience “territory” as a video image is projected to the wall on the right side of the audience. At once all heads are turning to grasp the images cast on the wall; occasionally they turn their eye back to the stage to see what is happening there. Tossing sights are inevitable, shifting from right to front. When the actors enter and act amid the audience, the dim lighting do not seem to stop the audience from following the actors movement. They pursue every source of sound and light. On some scenes, the border between actor’s and spectator’s territories gets blurred. The audience who initially acted rather passive towards the theater space is provoked to explore and interact with the existing space. The audience gazes and projects their memories to the wall, something that at first plainly seems to be a confining barrier. Therefore, the space mobility intensifies in this dramatic event: from a space so-called home, the road space en route to the venue, the waiting room accentuated by friendly conversations, the theater space which is dark yet personal despite the presence of others, the hectic stage up front as well as the stage that encircles the audience.

Watching this performance, I could not help but wondering about the meaning of (being) Javanese and what history meant to me. While the performance was based on Javanese old texts, the Java being represented on stage doesn’t seem to be ordinary. The Javanese people in WB#2, in the words of Afrizal Malna, are “funk wayangs” and they do not reflect the stereotyped Javanese. My references on Watugunung and the characters being played on stage: Kala, Uma, Durga, Kali, Syiwa, Sinta, do not help much. Apart from that, the play also includes numerous historical texts which are quite familiar. The fall of Majapahit Empire, the early spread of Islam in Indonesia, colonist ships at the waterfront, and other historical event; all these reminds me of my history teacher during high school years.

I don’t know if memories of high school history teachers also get the chance to interfere with the mind of the other people watching the performance. What does history actually mean for those who were present? Touching on this subject, it is interesting to bring up Afrizal Malna’s categories of “first theater” and “second theater” in a theatre event. The first theater is a series of events actors perform on stage. The second is a theater which is reflected by the audience, an experience in the past that relates to audience memory, a hypo-gram of stage performances. I can relate to the performances after my experience of watching wayang, reading a wayang comic book, listening to the high school teacher. According to Malna, another text outside the stage is becoming a way to watch a theater; this is done through an inter-textual correspondence between the one being performed on stage and things outside it.[7] Each person in the audience has one’s own second theater not visible to others. The performance has deconstructed my past, my conception of history and Javanese identity, a textual projection of what I am watching on stage. I have become, once again in Afrizal Malna’s word, a fragmented audience.

In the early part of the play, three teenagers -all are male, sitting next to me – sometimes raise questions and rhetorical remarks.  For instance, when an image is being projected to the background, one of them commented: “Wow, this theatrical performance uses sophisticated technology!” His friend asks: “what’s the meaning of this image?” a few moments later; when a love scene between Siwa and Uma begins, I overhear someone saying: “Hmm, here comes the sex scene”. Some other remarks also come from the seats nearby me, but I could barely hear them. All I hear is someone saying:” The actresses are gorgeous”. Approaching the middle part, the comments are less heard. I suppose they eventually gets tired asking questions that no one is ready to answer, so they prefer to sit still and just watch.

As soon as the performance ends, the hall is filled with applause. Quite loud, but not quite earth shaking. The audience sits still until the light is on, then people fill in my question sheets. Then I can see of the three guys who sat to me, they have a certain bright expression on their faces. “Really progressive, wasn’t it?” said one of the three in Javanese. His friend responds:” I think this belongs to the absurd. A performance hard to understand”. The third one adds,” But I really like it. The scenes were marvelous” The trio start to the exit.

I elaborate the watching experience to give an initial illustration on the ambiance inside the performance space, particularly in the spaces that has hitherto been reserved for the audience. Whatever happens there, the popped-out comments, however vague and slight, show in certain ways how an interaction between the creator and spectator is built. How does the audience react to (or receive) the so-called “watching event”? I think it is important to underline that at a certain point, a conjuncture between the creator and the spectator is achieved—that a theatrical performance is not something to be comprehended in passing, but needs to be perceived as a one whole idea (of course this does not necessarily mean that it has only one single signification).


An Overlook on Theater Garasi’s Audience Reception

In the case of Waktu Batu performance, the dialectical process that occurs between the artist (as the creator, in a theatrical production this means the entire creative team) and the audience has provided rich and interesting details. Does the dialectic process occur in a positive sense, meaning that audience can objectively and conceptually correlate to the discourse that the creator has offered? From some media reviews and series of discussions, be it formal or not, it is apparent that the new approaches attempted by Teater Garasi have sparked confusions and problems among its audience in trying to identify clearly the message of the performance. Here is my starting point to go into the issue of “concrete audience” and “abstract audience”.

Who belongs to the first category and the latter?? Citing from Kurniawan Adi’s study on cinema audience in Indonesia, the media has somehow transform the audience into “audience”.[8] In his essay, Adi explains that the term audience refers to a concrete and actual concept of audience: in a movie situation, people who are queuing for tickets, those who write readers’ letters in newspaper concerning one’s opinion or impression towards a certain film. Similar things go for theater audience: people who buy tickets, those who clap their hands or jeer after the play is over, those who read the performance booklet and so on. While the latter, be it in movie or theater, refer to a huge entity imagined by directors, actors, theater companies, journalists, critics—whose presence is functionally needed for the sake of certain justification. Without concrete examples, I am afraid that we will continue treating the audience as an abstract idea thus overlooking the existing individuals within it. On the contrary, without posing cases involving specific theater groups, the relationship with this concrete audience cannot offer sufficient help to illustrate how audience contributes significantly to the field of the theater.

Next is a table comparing remarks on “audience”’s reception and audience reception as collected from individual interviews:


Table 3


Reviews In Media Audience Reception
“To represent all that has happened, Yudi chooses fragmentation. A rather problematic decision whereas the audience is well-accustomed to linear plot…Complexity is becoming the objective goal or flooding the audience’s mind.. Everything is being stuffed, as if threatening the audience sense to keep selecting…The audience is free to relate with the scenes to their own liking or sensing Such freedom which perhaps do not fit to the audience …” (Koran Tempo)[9]


“… All things happen in a dynamic tempo making it hard for the audience to take some distance—despite the clear-cut gap between the stage and the auditorium. It seems that Teater Garasi does not intend to let a single gap left opened for the audience to grasp what is happening. The audience is exposed, and for them the only thing to do is to accept the whole thing: like it or not. To audience the onstage event has been determined, thus indisputable. At this point, Teater Garasi has quite succeeded in dragging its audience into a schizophrenic situation (Iswadi Pratama, Lampung Post).[10]

“Discerning Waktu Batu performance, it is almost impossible for an audience—even to those who is equipped with enough reference on Javanese mythology — to fully comprehend the problem based on the dialogues of actors. Problems being confronted on stage have subversively succeeded in disturbing the audience to share in the suffering of schizophrenia; however this is not without risking an element of the performance. It will leave the audience with only a few possibilities: either to try enjoying the rest of the performance while extracting ideas between the muddle of words, or brushing them aside once and for all and treat them simply as sound effects. (Ags Arya Dipayana, Tempo magazine)[11]

“I find that the most interesting is the overlapping stories and characters. I don’t see it as a distraction, because just the idea of making a multi-layered play itself I think is already something outstanding. I saw Waktu Batu Video when it was being screened here (- in his school, int) then I knew that the story itself is absurd so I do not try to understand the storyline.  .” (R-1)[12]


“Perhaps because I have seen the first performance I already have somekind of a hint on how to watch WB#2. Since the beginning I am not looking for an understanding of the story. I really came here to enjoy the performance and Garasi’s exploration on theatrical convention and historical texts.” (R-2)[13]


“To tell you the truth I’m still confused about what is Garasi trying to say with the performance. But I don’t really care as long as I like the performance, especially its visual presentation, choreography, and the stage set.” (R-3)[14]


“What is quiet overwhelming and absorbing in the performance is the abundant texts which sound more like oration to me.   Indeed, it is not always urgent to understand what a performance wanted, but I think text is still an essential element.” (Mela Jaarsma)[15]


The table has shown a clear distinction between position of audience and of “audience” in media perspective. All texts made by journalist and critics could be consised in the following statement: the complexity offered by the performance has succeeded in rendering the “audience” powerless vis á vis the text, confusing them and  dragging them into schizophrenia, while offering a presentation that visually spoils the audience. In critics’ perspectives the line between the individual and the collective concerning audience is wiped out. Audience’s sentiments, impressions and standpoints are confined inside their own minds, remaining as silenced, unrecorded voices. The claims made on audience, its being transformed into “audience”, is the journalists’ way to prove commitment to the issue of the “audience”’s capacity in understanding a performance as such.

In general, results from the questionnaire sheets distributed among WB #2 audience show that most of them stated that they like the performance (in my notes they represent 82.6% of the audience- see table 4 for the details). This is despite the performance being rendered as somewhat complex or, as stated in reviews, uncommon for theater public in Indonesia. As matter of fact, it is precisely the distinctiveness or irregularity that serves to please audience. In the Teater Garasi performance, audience has gained an estethic experience that is somehow different from those given by other performances in the past. Added by responses to questionnaire items related to the performance elements pleasing to the audience, it could be said that most of the audience do like the performance, especially in terms of the visual and acting presentation.


Table 4

Do you understand what the performance is about?

Option Voters Percentage
Understand      172 persons     46   %
Don’t understand      153 persons     41   %
In between        27 persons       7,2%
Blank        20 persons       5,8%
Total      374 persons     100  %

(n = 374)


Table 5

Do you like the performance?

Option Voters Percentage
Yes  309 persons      82,6 %
No    39 persons      10,4 %
In Between    18 persons        4,8 %
Blank      8 persons        2,2 %
Total   374 persons       100  %

(n = 374)







Tabel 6

Which element(s) of the performance interesting you most?


Option Voters
Acting    171 persons
Story theme      80 persons
Directing    141 persons
Plot      41 persons
Visual presentation (lighting, stage set, video images, costume, etc)  


252 persons

Music     105 persons
Blank         6 persons

(n= 374. Respondents may identify more than one elements)


Collected research data and media reviews reveal that journalists (critics) and audience have different perspectives regarding “theater event”.  As we can see, most of the time audience’s responses to theater performance become secondary when compared to reviews made by critics whose opinions claim to speak for the majority of audience.   Media commentaries on theatrical productions are written by an individual, be it a journalist, a critic or a researcher, who has a certain authority – which is of course cultivated from certain struggles- in the field of theater. Such individuals are then supposed to have the competence for assessing and interpreting a certain theatrical production. Artists as well as the wider public of theater has apparently failed to provide enough rooms for the concrete audience’s opinions, which are often more honest and unpretentious, despite their absolute position in any theater event.

I think by making such comparison I could also show that there has hitherto been a certain sterotype of “audience”, especially in terms of their taste and reception towards a performance. However, is there any difference at all between the journalist/ critic and audience in perceiving a performance? Certainly, there is.  Contemporary social theorist Pierre Bourdieu says that an aesthetic experience, which is obtained by an individual so that it functions as a guide in his/her mode of reception[16], is not something outside of social and cultural constructs. The experience is one of the cultivated dispositions from individual struggles in the field of cultural production. Any art reception involves a conscious or unconscious deciphering operation. This act of deciphering is plausible only in the situation in which the cultural code that enables the act of deciphering is immediately and completely mastered by the audience. Whenever these specific conditions are not fulfilled; misunderstanding is inevitable: the illusion of comprehension leads to an illusory comprehension based on a mistaken code. What Bourdieu addresses as “comprehension” is a condition in which a person could read and signify the cultural code—including the aestethic experience—he/she is confronting, although her/his understanding of it is different from what the code maker intends.

Among the students of reception theory themselves, fundamental debates occur around the question whether the act of reception forms a spontaneous response or is it an effect of some learning process. Without ignoring the factual values of learning process, most theorists—especially those with psychology as their backgrounds—state that organized reception process tends to reflect more of the elements in human’s brains. This means that a visual stimulus will be recognized accordingly by human brain through the use of eyesight. Meanwhile, social researchers that also study or adopt reception theory believe that responses are influenced by phenomenons of nurture regarding an individual’s relationship with the outside. They even go further by saying that it is the social system outside an individual has more bearings on the individual’s pattern and process of reception.

What about the reception of works of art? It is a part of an aesthetic experience. According to Immanuel Kant, someone with aesthetic experience does not treat an object of enjoyment as a medium or means to satisfy his/her curiosity or a means to get something flimsy. Kant proposes that an aesthetic experience enables one to see an object as the object per se with all its intrinsic worth and “deprived of any other interests”.

In contrast to Kant’s approach, Bourdieu observes that since most people are absence of the perception that works of art are already coded, one unconsciously applies the code which is good for everyday reception, for the dechipering of close objects (not in terms of physical distance) as to function a different condition. Therefore, the aesthetic experience becomes exchangeable and is positioned not far from other experiences in the daily life. Aesthetic experience is not “distanced” and “free” – this is how Bourdieu’s and Kant’s theories differ.

Answers given by the respondents, added with some informational background, have led me to bring up another concept introduced by Bourdieu, i. e the concept of habitus. In social sciences, the concept of habitus is considered as a concept that reconciles the duality of the individual and society. Bourdieu defines habitus as a conditioning system that derives from class-spesific dispositions. The homogenous habitus in a single class constitutes the distinctive life-styles in society. While life-styles here could be defined as popular taste, systematic beliefs and practices which characterize a certain class, which include political interests, principles, aesthetic choices as well as food, fashion and culture (Bourdieu via Haryatmoko). In short, it is habitus that forms a certain cognition map within the audience of art, including theater audience; a map that will guide them to receive and interpret texts.

In Yopie’s case for example, his deep attachment to Teater Garasi since he was a university student has encouraged him to keep up with any of the company’s productions. Aside from participating in the student outdoor club (in which he came across a member of Teater Garasi) he also associates with his friends who are members of pop bands, and he watches Hollywood movies. Everyday he spends time around his friends, talking about music, films or trivial things. For as long as he can remember, he understood that Teater Garasi is a serious theater company that always offers intense discourses. However that does not discourage his enjoyment of Teater Garasi’s performances. He even thinks that as a spectacle, the play is “cool”, especially in its visual presentation. He does not find the non-linear plot a problem, as he has been familiar with the ideas which are similar to what appear in movies. He does not see any point in recapturing the objective meaning as proposed by the creator.

Hence, claims made by media about the audience needs to be reconsidered;especially when what they describe as “audience” remains to be anonymous.The concrete audience’s reception is attributed to their historical backgrounds, habitus and cognitive maps. It is precisely this reception which most of the time is considered trivial by the media reviews; perhaps it is considered not promising enough to be in the mainstream discourse.


Closing Remarks

Goenawan Mohamad (1973) notes that the young generation during the fast growing era of theater (during the 1970s) are accustomed to television, radio, cinema and other visual cultures. To this generation, consequently, theater becomes simply one alternative amidst the wide-ranging entertainments available. By watching a theatrical production, they could save up energy from reading and would immediately feel the enjoyment of sharing their experiences with others in the audience. In the latter era, during 1990’s, I also notice a similar inclination. The connotation of seeing a theatrical performance as an act of leisure instead of reflection was getting more stronger than ever; this has to do with the recent objective of young audience who wishing to be  part of the “theatrical events”, rather than expecting to get something—known as moral message—from the performance.

During the mid 90’s, I sense a certain concern— which is not that recent, I might add, on the characteristic of the current young theater audience. Many theater connoisseurs were complaining about the young people. They were accused of being television addicts who tend to think superficially and favor visual ideas, who are naïvely embracing fusion between local and popular cultures and at the same time denying the duality of ideas between West and East. Not to overgeneralize, apparently some theater figures from the 70’s generation feel isolated from the new generation of audience, while there are only few contemporary artists who can make a breakthrough over the old theatrical conventions and accommodate fresh ideas well tuned to the audience sensibility (although the new idea presented by the theater is not necessarily tailored for audience liking). Next are the words of a theater originator and observer about the changing audience:

The visible-oriented public sustains on the consumption ecstasy of materials. Its life action is hypnotized by the campaign of images… What captivate the public are commercialized language accomodations, such as  memorizing celebrities’ name, puddling in an oasis of gossips, engrossing prophecies from yellow letters tabloid. Thus the visible-oriented public only lives as a parasitic consument in the traffic of instancy inside the polluted cycle. [17] (Benny Johannes)


“The field of communication is constituted by a “mega media” (the state, market and media) which mobilize the public toward production and consumption. It is exactly within this proliferated communication that the public exist and being constructed… Concurrently, the proliferating force also works the other way around, contracting thus relativizing the central figures who has been the public main personification…”  [18](Afrizal Malna)

Furthermore, according to Johannes, there are some people who do not come to the theater to simply satisfy the mass palate, they -who fit the description as the ideal audience, are those who:

intendedly go to a theater as a conscious subversion against the principles of entertainment domestification. That is the reason why the assumption on people going to theater purely for leisure consumption is now a validation that no longer applicable. Amid the galore of entertainment domestification, by going to a theater one requires to take physical distance, away from his/her hall of domestic pleasure, along with the courage to leave out any taken-for-granted enjoyment which is offered by the digestable domestic entertainment- so, going to the theater would appear as an isolation ritual, a contradictory choice which confirms a matured spirit, more than merely a thirst for entertainment.

Theater audience which are really not that big comprise more special persons than the crowd of entertainment addicts, who dare to endure an isolating ritual, amid the scattering showcases of public entertainment. So a theater which is still clinging on the spirit of entertainment would be a theater that fails to identify the audience’s internal motive and also fails to provide mature answers to the transforming motivation in watching. Going to the theater as an isolation ritual should be esteemed as a critical action against the spirit of instancy. This is the reason why the appearance of the theater which decadently responds to the concept of enetertainment is also degrading to its audience.

In my view, Johannes has consciously positioned theater as something that is isolated drom popular taste, since a theater is a sacred space which is unspoiled by the instantiation process in the high-speed life. Theater has to be an exclusive and live in seclusion. Thus theater audience has to train itself as secluded persons. They are not common people who enjoy television programs, popular cultures and similar things which are rendered secondary. If the audience is expecting something entertaining and far from ideological interest, they are not supposed to go to a theater.

I believe that here a deeper discussion is required. Although results from my research has confirmed that  there is indeed a shift in the theater public, it is only a natural phenomenon; in fact, it only proves that the art and its public are integral parts of historical developments. Assumptions that reject or sneer at this shifting audience, in my opinion, epitomize a perspective that takes theater audience as singular. Who are entitled to the identification as audience? Do they belong to a group that has a homogenous taste or can we not see them as individuals of plural motives and backgrounds?

The young generation, cynically addressed as the “MTV generation”, and which also happens to be the majority in the theater audience of today, deem their watching experience as a form of celebratory event. For them, watching a theatrical production is no longer burdened with a mission to fully understand what they watch. Better still, they fully enjoy the experience as an “event”, something that is closely related to moment—in music it goes by the name of rave. Perhaps they are not at all the ideal audience as Johannes has imagined. Growing up in a time of confusion has eventually primed them with the capacity to accept many things in one grasp and arrange them into an “event”. Most importantly, I think, is to stop belittling the characteristics of such audience as unproductive; it’s better off to embrace their excessive passions to take part in such events. This, I believe, will benefit even more to the evolving theater. Seemingly, the media with its major effects in shaping public reception would also have to reconsider how to represent the audience. It is too often, really, that what the audience states is completely different to what we have in mind, for it is something already distorted by sterotypes.



  1. I use two approaches in measuring audience reception in the research, i.e reception and ethnographic studies. Concerning reception, two methods are adopted. The first one is quantitative, in which questionnaire sheets are distributed among different audiences attending the two performances. I intend it to result in general and measureable data. The second method comprises in-depth inteviews with the audiences of the two performances. By means of this latter method I expect to get detailed data of audiences’ backgrounds and the ways such backgrounds influence audiences’ interpretations of theatrical performances. I use the ethnographic approach to examine audience’s attitudes and appreciation during the performance. It is important for a researcher to observe the prevailing ambiances inside the theater building, before, during and after the performance as to enable direct observations of audience’s responses.


  1. Being built by Dutch colonists, with a not so large but grand design, Societet Militer was intended as a hang out place for the European at that time, where they could socialize in classy costume and manners while attending art events. In short, it was a gathering place for the elite. To date, its function as an art venue is preserved.. And in a certain sense, people who have the opportunity to get inside the venue could be distinguished as a group of elite in the society with their politesse and sophistication. Outside the fence, is a traditional marketplace where vendors and buyers are hustling and bustling.The iron fence, which is concealed by the block of kiosks, borders two different worlds.
[3]               Recently, the use of the term “anak gaul” has widespread throughout the country. It refers to fashionable adolescents who are involved in trendy activities (such as skateboarding, joining in motor bike clubs, playing in pop music bands, etc). They hang out in such entertainment centers as malls, movie theaters, cafés etc. But the the main striking feature of this group is their stylist outfit.


[4]               As I recall, watching movies has become a very popular activity among young people, especially after the booming of VCD/DVD player technology. This activity is becoming more popular in Yogyakarta due to the lacking movie theaters after two cinema complexes were consumed by fire. Conversations about films never run out of topics and people usually find them ever interesting.


[5]               I think Ira shares this problem with her fellow females in the audience. Apart from the security issues in Yogyakarta, certain boarded houses impose a strict curfew for tenants.  The curfew applies to boarded houses for girls in particular. After a certain time limit, all doors will be locked, leaving those who return late outside.

[6] Umar Kayam, “Membangun Kehidupan Teater Kontemporer di Yogyakarta”, Basis, number 06, 1979.

[7] Afrizal Malna, “Anatomi Tubuh dan Kata: Teater Kontemporer Indonesia Sebuah Indonesia Kecil”, in Taufik Rahzen (ed.) Ekologi Teater Indonesia. Jakarta: Masyarakat Seni Pertunjukan Indonesia, 1999.

[8]Kurniawan Adi S, “Penonton dan “Penonton” di Politik Indonesia”, Kompas, Bentara supplement, December 3, 2003

[9]               “Pentas Waktu Batu Teater Garasi: Problem Identitas di Ruang Tunggu”, Koran Tempo, March 19, 2003.


[10]             Iswadi Pratama, “’Waktu Batu’: Teror dari Ruang Virtual”, Lampung Post, March 27, 2003.


[11]             Ags Arya Dipayana ,“Bangsa Tanpa Wajah Budaya”,  Tempo Magazine, March 30, 2003


[12]             Respondent 1 is a 17 years old teenager who is a senior high school student. He is actively involved in his school theater group. He also likes literature and wacthing rented VCD movies.


[13]             The respondent is a woman in her early 40’s. She is actively involved in cultural activities since her student years at a university. Currently she is director of a foreign cultural center. Her job requires her to be actively engaged in observing the development and discussions of and on art in Yogyakarta.


[14]             Respondent 3 is a 27 years-old male. He graduated from the Faculty of Social and Political Sciences at Gadjah Mada University. He has a long historical background with Teater Garasi. In daily life, he works as a member of the creative team for a marketing outlet in Yogyakarta. He is also a photographer. He is quite actively involved in cultural events that concern young people.


[15]             Respondent 4 is a visual artist, a 43 years-old woman of Dutch nationality working her ways to get Indonesian citizenship. She runs a gallery for contemporary art that is prominent in the Indonesian field of visual art. She feels the need to attend cultural events since she believes that collaboration between different fields of art is something vital.

[16] Reception is literally defined as an act of accepting, sensing and responding to something. In the context of a socio-cultural research, the practice of receiving a work of art has to be taken as a broader conduct that includes the ability to appreciate an art object.

[17]             Benny Johannes, “TEATER: Mencari Sebuah Phantom”, extracted from  www.


[18]             Afrizal Malna, in “Komunikasi Teater, Retaknya Realitas Pentas dan Gramatika Benda-Benda in Taufik Rahzen (ed.), Ekologi Teater Indonesia, published by  Masyarakat Seni Pertunjukan Indonesia (MSPI), 1999, page  38.