Night events during the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival (UWRF) 2007 were creams of the crops. All of them are packed with high doses of fun. Even when I was one of the performers.
No, I'm not being humble. Like the Israeli politician Golda Meir said, "Don't be humble. You're not that great." Honestly, some of us write because we know that we're not good in anything else. So when I was told to perform at the Writer's Cabaret, my first natural reaction was shouting, "Are you NUTS!?"
Thank God they informed me by email.
So I read the event brief. It said, "Writers sometimes harbor secret skills..." Well, that's good, I thought. At least, after my performance, the audience will realize that some skills are better off when they remain secrets.
I reread the schedule. I was told to perform one of my flash fiction stories. A fable about a goat who became a stand-up comedian. Uh oh. Don't get me wrong. I love the story. And I enjoy speaking in public. But performing is a different kind of ball game. To make things worse, the last time I performed a story was during elementary school days. And during those times, the audience were parents, who are--by nature--easy to please.
Trust me, talk to the nearest parents. They'll squeal and smile broadly everytime they describe how their kids "can say 'poo'" or "fall over from the bed" or "stab his mother with a fork." Parents have expectations as low as sinetron audiences.
However, I'll be performing at a cafe. There will be REAL audiences. And on 20:30 at that. Those people will still be sober!
I shared my concerns to the host, Nury Vitacchi. He waved it off, saying, "Don't worry. You'll be performing in front of writers. We're like one big family."
He shouldn't have said that. I mean, it was a nice gesture. But he didn't know that I come from a Sundanese family. And Sundanese family members support each other by putting them down. We have this crazy notion that we can prepare anybody for failures, by humiliating them beforehand. And afterwards. And many years after that.
I'm not kidding. I can't speak proper Sundanese because when I wrote a Sundanese story at the age of seven, they read it out loud in front of the whole family, guffawing at every sentence. I lost interest in Sundanese and started learning English, which eventually got me here. A simple "ironic" can't describe how I feel about that.
Back to the problem at hand, I turned to Labibah Zain, an experienced theater performer, for help. She's worked with more theaters than the number of times I've performed a play. After several discussions, I finally got some confidence to do it. I've worked on the script. Practiced the expression. Even incorporated some of Miles Merrill's voice acting into the play. So I stepped into Mozaic, ready to face the challenge. Only to be told, "You're supposed to be at the Jazz Cafe."
Fortunately, every venue in Ubud is "near".
It was still forty minutes early when I got to Jazz Cafe. And that was when Nury relayed the bad news. "I think we need to scrap the play. The audience won't listen to you reading a script."
"Ohkay," was the only intelligible thing that could come from my mouth.
"How about stories?" suggested Nury. "You're a very good storyteller. Why don't you just tell some stories about being a writer or something?"
I was torn between jumping in joy, "Really? I could just do a stand-up?" and slapping my head, "With fresh materials in forty minutes?"
"Well, it's up to you, y'know," shrugged Nury. "If you prefer reading the story--"
"No, no, no," I said. That got my mind made up. So I spent the next forty minutes frantically trying to come up with a good fiver. Naturally, I spent the next thirty minutes writing rubbish. And then finally came up with the materials at the last ten.
Tara June Winch, a wonderful Wollongong-born writer who won the David Unaipon 2004 award for her short story collection, Swallow the Air, gave me a supportive company while I rehearsed my material. "I can see your nervous vapors coming out of your head," she said.
Manuka Wijesinghe went first. A talented playwright, writer, actress, dancer, teacher, Manuka's also a linguist fluent in English, Spanish and German. Thankfully, she's very down-to-earth in person and easy to talk to.
She danced the traditional Sri Lankan way with grace. (One of the crowd in the background seemed unimpressed--but I suspect that woman, who wore a pink dress, ate a fly. And not by chance.)
My turn was next. My five-minute bit was about a free, fantastic offer of cultural tourism: just crash a muslim wedding party. I focused on three traits that they could learn. Punctuality, for instance, "Suppose the wedding vows were scheduled at nine AM, to be punctual you'd have to be there exactly at ten." Upon delivering the third trait ("The success of a wedding vow depends on three things..."), I spotted a caucasian man took notes. I hope he didn't take that advice too seriously.
Afterwards, Shashi Tharoor, the charismatic diplomat and writer whom Nury introduced as one of our planet's greatest treasures, killed the audience with his stand-up jokes about UN and world issues.
Then came Cyril Wong's turn. This courageous poet and counter-tenor uses his works and performances to fight for gay rights in Singapore. He's also a practical person who isn't shy of laughing at himself. After singing his first song, he said, "Now, I'm going to do my drag-queen number." And then proceeded to sing Whitney Houston's I Will Always Love You. He managed to do it effortlessly.
Up next, was Angelo Suarez. A performing poet who loves his advertising job. No, scratch that. He's very passionate about advertising, as much as a cannibal to meat. His performances are often arts in themselves. And he likes to involve his audience in his acts. Not this time, though. He knew the audience would be impossible to involve in. And the stage was very limited, he couldn't do much with it. So he just performed one of his poems... and banged his head several times to the wooden pillar so hard, I was afraid the roof were going to collapse.
Far from least was Ann Lee and Kam Raslan, two Malaysian writers who brought along a professional comic who got onto the stage as the Malaysian Minister of Culture, Arts, and Heritage, YB Datuk Seri Utama Rais Yatim. The Minister gave a speech on why the next Ubud Writers and Festival should be held in Kualalumpur. He also gave examples how open-minded Malaysians are. He, for instance, loves to absorb other cultures. He said, "So when I visited countries like Australia and was offered beer, I absorbed it."
Afterwards, it was free-for-all dance floor. Although the Jakartan rush hour traffic was more like it. It got so crowded, somebody bumped and spilled beer on my right shoulder.
"You're awfully sweaty, Man," said somebody whom I can't recall. And it was no use explaining, as if he figured I were dancing by only flailing my right arm around. Which would've been a novel dance move. I should call it the "Crashing 'Copter."
But if you actually use it at a muslim wedding party, don't mention my name.