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Theatre of Discovery and Transform: Borrowing from the Balinese

Barong mask

As you probably know, I believe profoundly in the ability of performance to spark and facilitate discovery and transformation. As artist and teachers, sometimes our own arts practices need a boost of discovery and transformation as well!

I recently came across a Bali module I had created for schools, and looked at the introductory concepts with my "right now" eyes. Although I continue to use large paper and topical imagery in my regular practice, I had forgotten the importance of 'the swirling river of spirit' and the idea of everyone as participant, even those we do not see, even those beings that are bugs or dogs. The way the ideas of 'far away' (Bali) and 'here and now' are connected is also a practice I plan on revisiting! 

So below, please enjoy a slightly modified excerpt from the Bali Module introduction. Don't worry -- it's short!

Ciao until next week!


The Balinese are primarily concerned 1) with the integrity of the characters' intention and 2) that the simultaneously joyous and intense relationship between the performers and the audience remains unbroken; the minute details that are the data of a story/plot are less important. These are essential qualities, perhaps because Bali is a world where 'you are me and I am you' means that on a thousand levels we give and receive impact, like a tangled ball of 'ripple effects', if such an idea is imaginable. The Balinese are also always aware of being a part of the swirling river of spirit that carries along the entire village. The "entire village" includes people who are not at the performance, whatever gods or demons are watching, the spirits of the ancestors, those channeling the spirits of the characters (the actors), those buoying up the spirits with their chanting and singing, the priests and medicine men that consecrate any Balinese performance, and those whose joy, shrieks, terror, and ecstatic participation feed the performance (the audience).

The masks are conduits and conductors of this overarching phenomenon.

Set the stage by using a reflective process from the start (you may wish to write down ideas and responses on large paper).

Begin by introducing some ideas and imagery about Bali; I recommend beginning with something similar to the following and adding in that which intrigues you the most. My suggestions of what to say aloud are in bold.

Bali is an island far away from here, but pretty close to Australia. It is near to the equator and is about 80 degrees Farenheit year round. The tallest mountain is Genung Agung, which is also a volcano! 'Genung' means 'mountain'. The top is often shielded with clouds, and the Balinese say that when this happens, "she (Agung) is hiding her face." Pasar Agung, the temple on Genung Agung, means "The Marketplace of Spirit". What are the different things that might mean?

The students will probably think of money, buying and selling. Continue to reflect on this question throughout the curriculum and keep track of their shifts in perspective.

How do we think about performers and performing in this country? In this community? In this classroom? Why do we do shows or performances of any kind at all?

This would be an excellent opportunity to look at the distribution of wealth in our country, generally or specifically with regard to the arts. In the arts, there is a very distinct ratio between the social value of a performance project and the amount of money people receive: drama therapists and people who use drama to engage disempowered communities, Youth at Risk, et cetera are paid very little, a fraction of what they would get for doing a series of personal product commercials, for example. Why?

In Bali, the performances are for the performers and the audience equally, as members of a community. What keeps things balanced in daily life? How can people notice what they do, how they think, how they view and treat other people?

Further reflection may include questions about how people here notice whether they are being disrespectful to themselves, their community, their ancestors and gods, the act of living itself, in various stages of life or in various places.

In Bali, this is the job of the performers. Performers do their part to maintain balance and make daily life possible just like everybody else (offering makers, basket makers, moms, farmers et cetera). Art is not separated from life, from the NECESSARY process, the ONGOING process of healing and giving and growing; it is not a superior thing, nor an inferior thing, but a necessary thing.
We and our communities need constant tending, like a garden!

A nice way to end might be to share the traditional greeting and departing gesture: one puts the hands together in front of the face, fingers upright and palms flat as though in prayer, and bows slightly, saying "ohm swasti astu", which means "I honor your spirit."

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