Indonesian Stage Director ‘Bears’ His Experimental Side in New York
Amid the drama of Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale,” Sicilian courtier Antigonus is chased off stage under one of the Bard’s most famous stage directions: “Exit, pursued by a bear.”
Inspired by the absurdity and freedom of interpretation of this single line, Indonesian director Ed Sylvanus Iskandar, a newcomer to the New York theater scene, decided to start his own experimental collective by the same name, known by the acronym EPBB, with playwright Jason Williamson and dramaturg Greg VanHorn.
“[In ‘The Winter’s Tale,’] there’s no mention of a bear before the direction and there’s no mention of a bear afterward. But I love the idea that a theater artist can turn a page and see that and somehow have to figure out a way in which somebody is being chased off stage by a bear,” Iskandar says with a laugh.
Upon arrival in New York, the 29-year-old actor and director was struck by the fixed routine of the city’s theater crowd — the pre-theater dinner, the play itself and drinks after the show. He decided the whole culture could do with a good shake-up, with a dash of Indonesian hospitality.
Iskandar’s EPBB project incorporates the usual elements of a night out at the theater in New York but in an informal setting, in the director’s own midtown-Manhattan loft.
Since its establishment in 2010, the innovative project has already been lauded as “the best of experimental theater” by Wickham Boyle, former director of New York’s pioneering avant-garde theater company, La MaMa.
EPBB aims to create both a “theater gym” and a “home theater,” providing space for emerging actors to hone their skills through private workshops and by-invitation-only performance nights, including social breaks with the actors, a home-cooked meal and a potluck dessert.
When he was conceptualizing the space, Iskandar reached for a taste of home and tried to recreate, in his own way, Indonesia’s communal culture.
“There’s a real gang mentality in Indonesia. It’s really about congregating in large groups to do things together,” he said.
He also aimed to pull a page out of Shakespeare’s time. “[Back then], it never was just the play. It really was an experiential evening. You’re throwing tomatoes together, you’re having a picnic, you may be doing more licentious and illegal activities in other areas of the theater,” he said.
A recent preshow at EPBB saw actors donning costumes and finishing their stage makeup while others baked cakes, chopped vegetables or swept the floors. Iskandar padded about barefoot, checking to see if the rice was cooked as he talked with his actors.
Clad in his daily uniform of a shirt and batik sarong, reflecting his Chinese-Indonesian origins, Iskandar’s quiet manner was in contrast with the buzz of activity surrounding him.
Once the guests arrived, Iskandar and his troupe first became hosts, waiters and then ushers, before the actors took their place in the living room-cum-stage area and the play began.
For Iskandar, the inspiration for EPBB was more deep-seated than simply creating a venue to perform independent productions in a social setting. It was about creating a home, a community, a safe haven for the practitioners.
An emerging director himself, Iskandar understood the fear and insecurity that performing artists have about their future prospects.
“I think the biggest thing that’s missing for an emerging artist in New York is a community where you feel like you belong,” he said. “It can be very alienating. Going from a more sheltered environment, like a conservatory or a small performing arts team, and moving into this huge pond where you are the smallest, most meaningless and utterly insignificant fish is terrifying.”
Being the new guy in town is not an unfamiliar experience for Iskandar, who was sent from his home in Jakarta to a British boarding school at age 7.
“I had a profoundly unsettling experience as a young boy of leaving my home and having to make another [home],” Iskandar said in clipped tones that still remain from that time. His interest in theater began to peak in his late teens, while still in England.
“When I found theater, it became very obvious to me that one of the primary and most beautiful things that theater could achieve was that it could bring people together in a communal way that I wanted,” he said. “I think it was inevitable that I would find my way to the one form [theater] that would allow me to make, in a more transient way, the kind of roots that I was craving for myself.”
At 18, Iskandar relocated to the United States to study for a bachelor’s in modern thought and literature at Stanford University in California, which he followed up with a Master of Fine Arts at Carnegie Mellon University, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
His directing work during his university days was highly regarded by his peers, many of whom have again collaborated with him on EPBB projects.
Iskandar’s growing reputation as an innovative director has been cemented by offers for directing fellowships across the United States with major theater organizations like the Drama League, the Lincoln Center Theater Directors Lab and the New York Theatre Workshop’s Emerging Directors fellowship.
With the establishment of EPBB last year, Iskandar built on more than 10 years of experimentation in his field to create works that challenge both actors and audience.
Creating a private theater space in his home was a risk that paid off for Iskandar, with each of the workshops being fully booked within days. The privately funded performance workshops are referred to as “labs” and are free for actors and audiences — but a $10 donation is suggested.
“Making going to the theater an accessible thing is a huge part of my agenda,” Iskandar said. “A key part for me is that they haven’t already bought a product by purchasing a ticket. So they can be open to anything that the space is giving them.”
The workshops so far have ranged from adaptations of Pulitzer Prize finalist Amy Freed’s “Restoration Comedy,” Sean Graney’s seven-play marathon “These Seven Sicknesses,” Jason Williamson’s Civil War chamber drama “Lesser Mercies” and a five-hour performance of Shakespeare’s “King Lear,” set within New York’s drag queen subculture.
EPBB’s inaugural season culminated in August with “Arok of Java,” an Indonesian folk tale adapted by Williamson, starring New York-based Indonesian actor Ruy Iskandar (no relation to the director).
In each lab, participants craft a self-guided curriculum focusing on a specific genre or style of theatrical work using a text or conceptual approach not seen before in New York. Theater, according to Iskandar, is about making a home for the audience as well as the artist.
“I think the job of an artist is to be generous,” he said. “Generosity is the most important thing in life because it is the only thing that can make somebody lower their guard enough to let something in.”
His approach resonates with actors like Emma Galvin, who said she was seeking a sense of belonging and a creative safety net.
“Being a young actor in New York is a scary [experience],” she said. “I can’t imagine if I didn’t have a home base like this to ground me. A place to explore my craft with no critics.”
Choreographer and actor Antwayn Hopper said that before EPBB, “I wasn’t getting fed as an actor. Ed’s going to challenge you. That’s why we work here for free. I can practice the chops given to me. Ed sharpened my tools and I feel more ready to conquer any role now.”
Others taking part in the labs have included Broadway performer Billy Porter and television regular Paloma Guzman.
At the beginning of each lab, Iskandar explains to his guests the EPBB concept that there is no separation between the actor and the audience. He leads by example, working the room and entertaining guests with his troupe.
“What being with the guests allows the actors to do is give them an idea about what the energy of the room is. By the time they come out to perform, it’s not suddenly ‘let me turn on the show for you,’ which is what a lot of performance culture in New York really encourages,” Iskandar explained.
“What social and communal engagement for the actors is designed to do is make them realize that every part of the audience is as human as they are and vice versa.”
Iskandar is already dreaming up new plays to direct for EPBB’s next season, and wants to see it in a more commercial setting. Perhaps in someone else’s house. Though one thing is for certain: “Theater should be able to create a space as unique as the play itself,” he said.
“That was the foundation of a lot of the ideas that I’m experimenting with now with EPBB, which is the pure reflection of every culture that I’ve experienced as an individual.”