But Can You Get a Job With That?

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.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker (artshacker.com) website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


3 thoughts on “But Can You Get a Job With That?”

  1. Great to read your comments on randai and how it is placed/viewed in our kind of societies. I am an Australian writer and director of contemporary Neo-Randai as one scholar put it(Matthew Cohen Look At the Clouds:… NTQAUg2003). I take it you were audience or participant? I have written several new scripts in English for the skills in which you /they have been training, my first show was in 1996 and I sustain an ongoing small core troupe and reinvent randai in different cities in Australia. Whilst I get supported to produce major shows myself it is very hard to get the work out through the gatekeepers of contemporary performance – it is not avant gard enough for some and not television enough for others. I wonder if you’d mind if I used someof your comments to quote in my Masters Thesis on the practical work I have been doing. If youd like to know more about me, I have an article in Australasian Drama Studies Journal Oct 2004 cowritten by Doug Leonard and Adrian Sherriff, in which I discuss my work, you can find other bits and pieces on a google name searche specially if you add randai to it. I have been corresponding with Kirstin Pauka the director you refer to since 1995. I appreciate the dilemma for actors who really just want to be Hamlet when they graduate, but these asian physical skills are, i think more and more appreciated in Australia on one level, if the dramaturgical model is not. If Anybody would like to work in a new major randai show I have some scripts that would love a second airing and I also work with groups to develop their own story in the form. Surprising isnt it. Cheers Indija

  2. I am a graduate from UHM – and a theatre director. I stumbled across your blog while doing some research. Actually there are lots of uses for the Asian performance arts… including “out there” randai on the mainland. I even directed a randai influenced “Bacchae” at a theatre in NYC that was very well recieved. Also – directors on the mainland are VERY interested in performers with Asian theatre training… and who can move well. It is an amazing program and I have gotten a lot of professional theatre work from my “odd” experiences there. Never fear – and I hope you enjoy the other productions!

  3. Jennifer i heard about your Bacchae care of your colleague Jennie who also graduated from uhon with Randai . Would love to ask y more about it and want to know how to reference it in my thesis
    Please look me up on randai.co@gmail.com if you chance by this blog again. Cheers indija.


Leave a Comment