One of the things I really like about Hawaii is the opportunity (when I get it) to see a wide variety of culturally diverse performances. Since I have been hear, I have gone to a Gamelan concert (music from Bali and Java) and presented a show that melded traditional hula and modern dance to celebrate the arrival of a new Hawaiian island Loihi/Kama’ehu (in 30-50,000 years). (And just as an aside, there is hula that Hollywood portrays, the actual hula that Hawaiians dance and low postured, bombastic hula ‘aiha’a that originates from the Big Island. Very awe inspiring and powerful. Only time I have imagined that a hula dancer could kick my ass.)
This weekend I went to see a Randai production (search for that term on Google and every English language book and article was written by the show’s director.) Randai is a really amazing Sumatran theatre form that integrates the martial art of silak with song and dialogue. It also features wearing pants where one can stretch the fabric between the legs taut to create a booming drumming sound when struck. (And article from a production done 3 years ago can be found here.)
It is really fantastic stuff and easily accessible to Western audiences (the songs are sung in English in this production and the stories are pretty much universal) Where Western theatre is generally encompassed in 4 walls, Randai action occurs within a circle of performers (which is also how the martial art silak is taught rather than in the parallel rows you see in Japanese and Chinese martial arts)
Since the Randai form is so much a part of Sumatran life, children pretty much practice the martial arts moves from birth. The student actors at the University of Hawaii have actually been practicing the movement and drumming component 3 hours a day for 6 months in order to gain at least a rudimentary mastery of the techniques. I actually heard and audience member saying he would see the cast outside slapping their pants when he went to his morning class so they definitely were a dedicated group.
It made me a little sad though to think that it would be tough to translate this experience and dedication into an acting job on the Mainland. You look at a person’s resume saying they were part of a Randai ensemble and unless it is in your personal experience, you group their experience in with wacky fringe performance art. Nevermind the students have better control of their bodies now than most musical theatre students pursuing the “triple threat” of sing/dance/act. Without the frame of reference of having seen Randai, most directors wouldn’t know how to evaluate that experience though.
To be honest, faced with such a resume credit, I wouldn’t either. I have been excited to see it since August when I read about it in the brochure. But you don’t get show description on a resume.
Truth is, on the Mainland, Randai is wacky fringe performance art. (Actually some performance art I have seen is so derivative of other performance art, Randai would actually be on the fringe of the fringe.) On Hawaii it is actually pretty much mainstream. The university does it in a 3 year rotation with kabuki (which I really want to see!) and I believe Chinese opera.
When I say it Randai would be on the fringe of fringe, I don’t mean to imply it is “out there.” As I said, it is actually very easy to understand. I simply meant that people looking in the Friday arts listing would probably feel more comfortable going to something listed as performance art rather than taking a chance on something noted as coming from Sumatra.
Performing in the show sorta falls in that category of things that are great for you to have done as a person, but probably not perceived as having much value by others. Actors have a hard enough time making a go of it with regular performance credits to have to face someone looking at 6 months of their life as being without merit.
I certainly don’t think that it was a mistake for the students to do. Physical shows like Stomp, Cirque de Soleil, The Blue Man Group, etc, that aren’t formed around the framework of acting technique will certainly view the experience as valuable. But mainstream stage and television…maybe not so much. You can only sell to the masses (or the slim percentage of the masses that attend live performances) what the masses are prepared to consume. Casting sessions tend to be driven by this.
On the other hand, with something as visually interesting as martial arts on stage, all it takes is a rave revue of a Broadway or major regional theatre show. Suddenly Randai is en vogue and someone is developing a show for Vegas.