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Jennifer Goodlander

January 17, 2013

Meet Jennifer Goodlander, professor and puppeteer.

Goodlander is an assistant professor of Theatre History, Theory and Literature in the IU Bloomington Department of Theatre and Drama, part of the College of Arts and Sciences. She’s also a master of an ancient Balinese art form — wayang kulit, or shadow puppetry.

Goodlander became interested in traditional Balinese shadow puppetry while studying for her doctoral degree on a Fulbright Fellowship in Indonesia.

Watch her give a performance, and you’ll see only the puppets through a thin cloth screen. That’s because the show is meant for the gods. As part of the human audience, your eyes are allowed to see a mere shadow of the story.

“I’d only intended to spend a little time in Bali,” Goodlander says. “But I ended up not leaving.”

She went back the next summer, when she met renowned “dalang” (master puppeteer) I Wayan Tunjung and became his student. Tunjung followed in his grandfather’s footsteps, and his heritage includes more than 200 intricately carved puppets represented by myriad different figures. Such an heirloom collection is particularly important to a dalang because the older a puppet, the more spiritual power it contains.

Goodlander and Tunjung became fast friends. When the opportunity arose for Goodlander to perform at a festival, Tunjung insisted she undergo the ritual initiation necessary to become a dalang herself and helped her establish her own set of puppets.

Performing wayang kulit is a complicated process that might seem confusing to inexperienced audiences. The dalang not only physically manipulates the puppets and gives them voice, but also cues the orchestra while creating and narrating the entire plot, which might follow the storyline of a Hindu epic, a Balinese myth, or another historical tale.

Goodlander describes a typical performance as “mostly improvisational” while following a set structure: “Scene one might include the laying out of a problem, while scene two introduces the bad guys. Scene three would be the battle.” Puppets that enter the stage from the right tend to be righteous characters, while puppets that enter from the left are evil, monstrous, or somehow less refined.

The end result isn’t so much good overcoming evil, as a Western audience might expect, but more about “the world coming into balance,” Goodlander says. “You can’t have good without evil, so it’s really about these two things co-existing and creating a harmony.”

A full performance by Goodlander in the United States might go on for more than an hour. But in Bali, where audiences are less constrained culturally to stay in their seats  during a performance, a show can go on for several hours. Regardless, a single show is a full mind and body workout for the dalang.

“It’s really good exercise,” Goodlander says with a chuckle. “I’m usually drenched in sweat when I’m finished.”

Goodlander has performed wayang kulit in Bali as well as New York City, Michigan, Kentucky, Illinois, and Ohio. She’ll perform in Bloomington on March 3 at the Mathers Museum of World Cultures.

With degrees in arts and theater from Ohio University, University of Hawaii at Manoa and Kalamazoo College, Goodlander is in her first year with the IU Bloomington Department of Theatre and Drama, where her research area includes Asian performance as it intersects with gender studies, ethnography, performance studies, postcolonial theory, visual culture studies, and transnational circuits of performance.

She’s currently writing a book, tentatively called Women in the Shadows: Gender, Puppets and the Power of Tradition in Bali. The project draws on her own experience as a dalang and interviews with other female dalangs and artists. Goodlander posits that “tradition” in Bali must be understood as a system of power that is inextricably linked to gender hierarchy.

Goodlander is also a fellowship recipient in the first round of funding to IU Bloomington faculty from the Mellon Innovating International Research and Teaching grant program, funded by $750,000 from the Andrew Mellon Foundation. She’ll use her faculty felllowship to conduct field research in Indonesia and Cambodia, studying how the arts, especially shadow puppetry, functions in the formation of Southeast Asian national identity.

The original version of this story, by Bethany Nolan, first appeared in the Jan. 10, 2013 issue of the Inside IU newsletter


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