I was fortunate enough to get cast in Tanghalang Pilipino’s critical hit “Stageshow,” the last and most fabulous play by the late, great Mario O’Hara. Doing the show was both exhilarating and disappointing, though. Exhilarating because every time we performed it, something magical was happening to all of us. It was so irreverently Pinoy and unflinchingly human. And during every show we felt Mario’s spirit watching over us laughing, the way he probably used to do every Christmas.
His relatives told us that every noche buena, the O’Hara family would perform almost every gag he included in his precious script, which made watching it for them excruciatingly funny and painful.
But frustrating, too, because we played to a handful of audiences, half of whom were complimentary ticket holders, friends we pulled in a few hours before the shows started. We literally felt the anxiety our characters must have felt in the face of the “stageshow’s” decline.
This frustration got aggravated when the cast went out to the lobby with our usual meet-and-greets with our audience. For, at the same time we were shaking hands and having our pictures taken with our fans, the Broadway musical “The Phantom of the Opera” above us (at the Main Theater) was also having its final curtain call and, a few minutes later, this huge crowd from upstairs would come rushing down like a flash flood to drown out our paltry group of well-wishers.
We were both ecstatic that our audience loved us, and humiliated that a bigger part of the world didn’t care.
Practically the same thing happened at the recently concluded National Theater Festival (November 8-18). Theater productions from various parts of the country were playing to half-filled or almost empty seats. And even when the theaters were almost filled, everyone knew that a huge portion of the tickets was given out for free.
Where did our theater audiences go?
Over after-show coffee or during intermissions, we would count the many reasons for the dwindling number of people going to the theater. Marketing staff would air out any of the usual grievances: “It’s the sembreak.” Students have been the most consistent patrons of the Filipino language theater. Teachers know how theater productions can be powerful supplements to the subjects they are handling. This is why many theater seasons start in July and end in March.
Or, “The material’s not suitable for students.” So say the school representatives who decide which plays are appropriate. It is best to take the conservative side to avoid complaints from parents about the immorality these plays may be espousing. This is why many season repertoires are angled to fit high school or college curricula: adaptations of Filipino classics (“Ibong Adarna,” “Florante at Laura,” “Noli” and “Fili”), translations of world literature (Shakespeare, Chekhov, etc.), adaptations of novels, or advocacy plays tackling environmentalism, governance, or some current issue that may be discussed in class.
Take this huge sector out of the equation and one’s choices narrow down to about two: The company cancels shows to minimize the mounting losses, or we do adult plays featuring movie stars, with mostly gender-bending themes for that comic touch, and hope that a few skin exposures will help recoup the costs.
Then there may be other reasons why theater patrons are on the wane. Some of us blame the audience, or rather the masses. They’ve already developed such shallow tastes, having been conditioned by the inanities on TV and movies, we say. They, especially the young ones, and probably their teachers, too, should be trained to appreciate theater and art.
But a lot of young Filipinos can and do appreciate art, on different levels and contexts. One’s shallowness doesn’t necessarily cancel out his depth of understanding.
Could it be that theater prices are just too steep to even lure them to watch? I mean, a movie costs half or even a third of an ordinary theater ticket. Some ticket prices cost a lot more than a 3D movie on Imax! But then again, why would they save up thousands of pesos to see an imported Broadway musical instead?
And so, we point to the proverbial colonial mentality of the Pinoy audience. Theater artists doing both Filipino or English plays lament how Broadway “originals” coming into the country are killing the local theater scene. It’s this mentality anchored on Western standards and expectations that have wreaked damage to local performances, they say.
That may be true, too. And yet, I figured, not entirely, if one sees this as a mirror reflecting our own image. If we can blame our audience for having colonial mentality, surely, haven’t we been guilty of it ourselves?
Haven’t we preferred to stage Broadway plays to “showcase our Filipino talents?” Don’t we flock to the next “Miss Saigon” audition and pin our hopes on this once-in-a-lifetime chance? Didn’t we prime our audiences in that direction when we preferred to stage translations of foreign works? Aren’t our theater programs in schools founded on the Western theater system—from content to mode of production? And isn’t our concept of “world class” a twisted projection of it, validating our worth only if the West recognizes us?
The late great National Artist Rolando Tinio, during his finest days in theater, believed that no Filipino playwright could achieve the same status of the great Western dramatists. That is why, as his way of helping develop the Pinoy audience’s taste, he chose to stage the classics instead, but filtered through his awesome translations.
No doubt his contribution in this area is unparalleled. But I don’t think any Western playwright today could ever achieve the same thing, too. And it doesn’t reduce colonial mentality in our audiences, does it? Or is this shortcoming only an issue if it translates into empty seats while we keep denying our own culpabilities?
This, despite the exciting works of current playwrights such as Floy Quintos, Reuel Aguila, Nicolas Pichay, Liza Magtoto, Don Pagusara, Tim Dacanay, and those of the newer breed: Layeta Bucoy, Debbie Ann Tan, J. Dennis Teodosio, Allan Lopez, and an even newer crop: Dingdong Novenario, Joshua Lim So, Mixkaela Villalon, etc.
Theirs have been some of the best original works given token importance by theater companies. On them, I have pinned my hopes for Philippine theater. The legacy that Mario O’Hara left us is the dogged determination to make theater tell the stories of our lives through new, original works. That, perhaps, the audience for these works have not exactly dwindled but have only begun to grow.
“Stageshow” had its final performance as it opened the National Theater Festival. We played to a full house that night. We bowed to an ecstatic standing ovation. Everybody was raving and clamoring for an extended run next year.
And as we went out to meet and greet our audience after the final curtain call, there was no “The Phantom of the Opera” above to dampen our spirits (the musical had ended its three-month run). And yet the hint of something false couldn’t stop ringing in my mind. Majority of these ticket holders were delegates of the festival: complimentary-ticket-holding theater colleagues, who, for the rest of that coming week, performed to the same half-filled seats.
Ironically, it is in this bleak perspective that I gather the inspiring energy to do more for the theater I so love. We are compelled to take the optimistic, some say quixotic, stance, for not to do so would be to cease creating.
For, despite the problems of audience, finances and a host of other disheartening issues, it is a miracle that we have come up with some of the best works in recent decades. As we bowed on that final curtain call, we knew in our hearts that the gems we continue to shape would eventually find their audience.
Mario O’Hara’s lines ring truer than ever: Anuman ang dumating, papel mo’y gawin/ Sa tanghalan ng buhay na bigay sa atin/ Di kalahating puso kundi buong pansin/ Dalawampu’t apat na oras tuloy ang palabas/ Diyos, tao, anghel nanonood sa labas.
Rody Vera is an award-winning actor and playwright, and founder of the Virgin Labfest, an annual festival of new Filipino plays.