Modern theater has come a long way in the Philippines since it made its arrival during the American Occupation. But challenges remain, especially the lack of financial wherewithal and support from the state. Then there’s the seeming paucity in audience.
The literary forum “Ang Teatro sa Pilipinas sa Bagong Milenyo,” organized by the University of Santo Tomas Center for Creative Writing and Literary Studies, recently featured theater artists Rody Vera, Nicolas B. Pichay, Liza Magtoto and Sir Anril Tiatco discussing the poor state of Philippine theater.
“There is a financial catastrophe that we feel in theater because we don’t have any funding, we don’t have support from the Government unless we apply for a grant,” said Magtoto, whose recent works included the hit musical “Rak of Aegis.” She said professior theater was in its death throes (“naghihikahos”).
She noted that many companies were having a hard time inviting audience to watch their shows because of the high ticket prices.
“Audience building is really difficult,” she said. “The good thing about this, however, is that many theater companies were conceived. But many theater companies are having a problem with marketing. Unless it was free of charge, it was difficult to bring in audience.”
Tiatco, who teaches at the Department of Speech Communication and Theater Arts in University of the Philippines Diliman, said that contemporary theater in the Philippines, or at least in Manila, is rooted in social criticism.
Citing critic Doreen G. Fernandez, he noted that with thematic concerns of the Filipino playwrights, directors and actors, “the vitality of theater is in its urgency.”
“[Filipino playwrights] do not need to hear the strengths in writing techniques in order to want to write a play in like manner; instead, their themes invade their craft and they reach for techniques,” he said. “By urgency, Fernandez said theater in the Philippines used to represent social concerns of the time and therefore provide a commentary on the state of things at that time.”
Tiatco stressed that contemporary artists behind the staging of current productions “worked on the same tradition of social activism which might be viewed as a call for resisting certain social and cultural threats while the real are imagined.”
In the same vein, Vera noted the tradition of well-known Filipino playwrights such as Reuel Aguila, Rene Villanueva, Al Santos, Malou Jacob who wrote because of the “urgency of the time”.
“It was important for them to say what they wanted to say more than how they could say it,” said Vera, who was inducted this year in the Palanca Awards Hall of Fame. “It was clear to them what they wanted to send across their audience.”
Writer-lawyer Pichay, who wrote “Maxie The Musicale,” noted the rise of musical theater.
“We have a musical culture,” Pichay said. “We are a karaoke nation. We have a theatrical tradition with moro-moro, zarzuela and vaudeville.”
Pichay noted that the Filipino people’s penchant for musicals came around in the 1980s when the whole world began to notice then 17-year-old Lea Salonga, who played Kim in the musical “Miss Saigon.”
Meanwhile, Magtoto, who wrote the musical “Care Divas,” noted the rise of theater-goers in the country because of musical productions, but she said that the theater did not always have to show musicals.
The gay sensibility in musicals has long been a heated discussion in queer theories.
But what is gay sensibility?
According to Pichay, it is the way in which the world is viewed through the eyes of a gay person. However, he said that this was hard to signify because one cannot actually define this.
Pichay was referring to an article written by Anthony Tommasini for the New York Times in which the latter argued that the notion of “gay sensibility” associated to musicals came from the fact that the earlier productions were written mostly be gay people.
“Would it help to think that that musicals have actuality that is mostly associated with the gay culture?” asked Pichay. “Masaya lang talaga ang kumanta and sumayaw, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that the person who is enjoying a musical is gay.”
Performance and literature
Vera, who was one of the co-founder of the 10-year-running Virgin Labfest, said that the festival sought to reconcile drama and literature, performativity and literary quality.
In the ’90s, playwright Rene Villanueva set up the group called Telon where Pichay, Elmer Gatchalian, Jun Lana, Tim Dacanay, Luna Sicat-Cleto were members. The group was largely built because of their belief that “the true test of a play was to be in production.”
Then, the late Charley de la Paz founded the Playwrights’ Development Program of the Philippine Educational Theater Association (Peta), which was later joined with Telon to form what would be called the Writers’ Bloc, which Vera now heads.
Vera said that it was important for them that the drama they write would be eventually translated on stage.
“In film writing, the work must be set to production before we could say that this was what had become of it. Sometimes what the actors say help to contribute in enriching the material. Not only the light and ‘literariness’ of the words, but also its stageability. This is the vision of Virgin Labfest.”
Meanwhile, Pichay said that the theater offered more engagement than did TV shows or films. He stressed that in the age of social media, TV had created a big divide among the people because it did not build a community, only consumerism.
“In the Greek times, the theater really was a community,” he said. “When you build a community, you build a theater. The theater should entertain and educate. It should address a particular audience and make people introspective and let them know their place in society. That is what we want the theater to be.”