September 18, 2019


Lab Teater and the Suffocating City

Bambang Prihadi

by: Raka Ibrahim

How does art respond to the city in which it exists? An answer was offered from the banks of the Pesanggrahan river, Jakarta – from the “Hutan Kota Pesanggrahan, Sangga Buana”, to be precise.

Hardly anyone would have guessed that the approximately 120 hectare-forest would become a new space for Lab Teater. Bambang Priadi, director and leader of Lab Teater, tells of the troupe’s activities within the last year, in identifying and analyzing the problems surfacing in their new space, and working with community leaders to map solutions  to these problems.


Lab Teater is over 10 years old. As the name suggests, it often conducts creative experiments through research, observation, discussions and workshops involving various resources from various backgrounds.

The themes taken on by the troupe cover the dynamics occuring in modern society, especially urban society. They like doing new things.

Thus, Lab Teater did not refuse when the Jakarta Arts Council (DKJ) asked them to participate in a research program titled Kota yang Tenggelam (The Drowning City) in 2014. According to them, as recorded on the website, the program is the arts activist’ effort to find solutions to Jakartans’ crucial problems.

As theater artists, they would like to participate in the discussion, and not merely sympathise. Accordingto Bambang, they realise that: “A complete theater with its actors should not stop at performing art in the streets, voicing things that offend certain people.”

Thus began their acquaintance with Hutan Kota Sangga Buana. At first, they were interested in learning how to take care of the river. They met Chaerudin, or Babeh Idin, as he is fondly known as. Babeh Idin has built a fine reputation for restoring the Pesanggrahan River, which traverses the Hutan Kota Sangga Buana. He encouraged them to become involved more in the activities of the Sangga Buana communities.

In October 2014, they moved base from Ciputat to the urban forest and they began nesting in a house that has been around since 1997.

“When we came here, the number of the local farming community members was diminishing, and yet this vast land needs caretakers, who also conduct their activities here and make use of the land,” Bambang explained the reason behind the troupe’s fondness for the forest, where they have remained to this day, even after the Kota yang Tenggelam program came to an end.

As time has passed, Babeh Idin’s principles have rubbed off onto Lab Teater, extending beyond matters related to forest caretaking, such as the importance of rivers and waste recycling. The principles now include those relating to the usage of space for the arts. Babeh Idin has a background in the traditional art of Lenong, and thus is knlowedgeable on the matter of arts.

“Why do you need to hold shows in buildings, in exclusive spaces, closed spaces. This is a theater too. You can perform here too,” Bambang recalls Babeh Idin’s words. And so Lab Teater develeoped further in their arts.

“Our priority this year is, of course, making our presence here, not only physically and by making this place a rehearsal place, more vital through understanding the things existing here and making them a part of the starting point from which we create. This includes their relationship with the local farming community and how to synergize with the locals,” Bambang said.

“The derivatives may include how we manage our physiques. In terms of acting, we told our members to think outside the usual stage box . Think local. That’s why we practice in the field, in the mud, sometimes in the durian trees. We respond to what the locals are doing and, simultaneously, we take on roles. We particpate in Earth Day or other communal events, for example,” he added.

This means Lab Teater routinely participates in community gatherings, Quran recitals, silat martial arts practice, and simply hanging out with the locals. The troupe wants to blend in with the space they live in as much as possible, beyond friendly chats and maintaining good relationships.

They are currently facing a big problem regarding forest maintainance. Who will follow on the footsteps of Babeh Idin when the local champion moves on? He is already in his 60s and the torch needs to be passed on.

Lab Teater is fully aware that the solution might be in the collective working pattern involving all members of the community, because that method will allow the wider community, and not only an individual, to have a sense of ownership of Hutan Kota Sangga Buana. Thus, conservation can be done collectively.

“We indeed have this duty,” Bambang said, “We are carrying it out right now.”

Indeed, the key word in both of those sentences is “us”.

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