While I sat quietly in the front row of the Cultural Center of the Philippines’ Tanghalang Huseng Batute, still reeling from the mix of amusement and shock at the opening scene of Joy Ann Icayan’s “Last Ten Minutes,” my seatmate muttered, “writer na naman” when it was revealed that Eric, the protagonist in this dissection of sadness of promiscuity set inside a motel room, was an author of romance novels.
That evening’s set of three plays opened with Kevin Tabora’s “Mapagbirong Haplos,” where an angry screenwriter and creative writing PhD student dreaded a confrontation with her father, a former convict and child abuser. The set was completed by Eljay Deldoc’s riotous “Ang Goldfish ni Prof. Dimaandal,” a comedy about a stubborn old teacher, the unresolved death of her pet, and the distractions that tend to draw us away from our original intentions.
As I left the theater that evening, I realized I was rather distracted by what my seatmate said. It was my first evening in this year’s Virgin Labfest, and I began to wonder, as I returned to CCP the succeeding nights, hoping to complete the festival, rushing straight from work for the 8 p.m. curtain, how much of the playwrights’ personal lives, dreams and desires were written into the plays and their characters.
I would not have arrived at a similar conclusion if I had not heard my seatmate say it. I know enough of the creative process to disagree—that writers draw their material from a variety of sources, and they aren’t subtly writing even just shadows of themselves into their work.
But that statement bothered me more than I would care to admit, as each time I took my seat at Huseng Batute, I began to think about the “inspiration” of each of the playwrights: What prompted them to begin writing a script, to conceive an idea for a play, and whether personal circumstances were inserted into the story, or if details of their lives and experiences somehow landed in the dialogue?
I took out my festival booklet to read dossiers about seasoned and first-time playwrights and their diverse backgrounds to test the idea. It is more apparent in some plays than in others.
IT professional Dingdong Novenario returned to VLF this year with “Wendy Wants to Be a Housewife,” where a young and brilliant IT professional shows up at her friend’s/manager’s office and reveals during her exit interview that she’s quitting her plum position in the company to pursue her dream of becoming a housewife.
Then there’s Reya Laplana, at 16 years old the youngest among this year’s impressive list of playwrights. And her characters in “Sa Lilim,” about a reunion of two friends that takes place under the shade of an enormous tree, are roughly the same age as her.
In “Betang,” meanwhile, veteran stage actress Sherry Lara luminously portrayed an old woman’s daily wait for love and death while in the company of a bottle of rum, a walking stick and her transistor radio. The play and the main character are named after playwright J-mee Katanyag’s grandmother.
Herlyn Gail Alegre, who is now in Japan as a research student, tackled the travails of Filipino overseas workers slaving away in Tokyo in “Imbisibol,” which is among three plays restaged this year from last year’s Labfest.
My seatmate actually did not accuse the playwrights of staging their autobiographies through these short plays. He merely made an observation about characters having similar backgrounds. Certainly, it isn’t possible to completely refuse the suggestion that personal experiences influence the work of writers. That would be a denial of the nature of the creative process.
Even in very imaginative pieces such as comic book artist Carlo Vergara’s “A Missing Peace,” about a future where a world still obsessed with beauty pageants is teetering on widespread conflict, the playwright could not have been unaffected by current events: This year proved to be the Philippines’ most successful campaign in the international beauty contest circuit.
Even Vergara’s restaged “Kung Paano Ako Naging Leading Lady” from last year highlighted the value and contribution of Filipino domestic helpers to the households they work for, which in this case only happened to be peopled by superheroes.
In “Anonymous,” seasoned playwright Liza Magtoto deftly dramatized familiar and recent news of one-night-stands turning into nightmares when a woman gets blackmailed by a former lover over a sex video.
Although Magtoto’s revisited “Isang Daan” tackled a different theme from her contribution to VLF 10, the humorous one-act play about a town mayor’s delusions and our poor sense of history finds even more relevance this year in light of scandals about public funds being plundered by lawmakers, our inability to appreciate the lessons of the past, and a growing national concern about threats to our sovereignty.
The festival has become an annual event for faithful theater fans eager to witness fresh and emerging voices, as well as new and recent work from otherwise experienced writers with credits that could overwhelm the small stage.
The VLF’s allure is that the plays are collaborations between mostly raw (sometimes first-time) playwrights and veteran stage directors, actors and artists working behind the curtain. The format has become a wellspring of discoveries, and many VLF alumni who launched their careers at the Tanghalang Huseng Batute have gone on to even bigger stages, wider audiences.
In “Sa Pagitan ng Dalawang Kahong Liham,” VLF regular Layeta Bucoy introduced us to the troubled and tragic relationship between Tart and Cards, as the lovers remind each other of old and still lingering feelings by digging out and reading letters kept in boxes.
Fellow VLF returnee Allan Lopez covered a period of five years in the lives of Meg and AJ in “Sa Isang Hindi Natatanging Umaga, at ang Ulap ay Dahan-dahang Pumaibabaw sa Nabubulok na Lungsod,” creatively suggesting the passing of years and the changing of scenes by shifting lights and moving a frame on the stage.
Maynard Manansala and U.Z. Eliserio’s “Bago Ilibing” analyzed strange Filipino customs involving the dead, and the secrets that we bury with them.
And OFW Raymund Reyes’ “Ang Naghihingalo” presented a tragicomic drama about siblings unable to decide what to do with a brother languishing in a hospital after a stroke, as they are distracted by years of resentment toward each other. The play had a rough beginning and jarring, sometimes inappropriately formal dialogue, but crescendoed into a beautifully loud and suddenly quiet ending.
Along with Deldoc’s “Goldfish” and Tabora’s “Mapaglarong Haplos,” VLF’s returning fans will be reacquainted with “Ang Naghihingalo” next year, which means there is still an opportunity to smooth the edges of what is otherwise good material from a first-time playwright.
This is the gamble of each year’s VLF: To bring to the stage untested and untried works from playwrights of various persuasions. The result is not always as stellar as the cast of actors and directors, but it is never dull, and certainly gives fans reasons to celebrate the present that is Filipino theater.
After completing this year’s festival—something I’ve always hoped to do—I realized it is unimportant whether playwrights borrow liberally from their personal lives. Because, as an audience member, I also read much of myself into their plays.