It’s been a year since Glenn Sevilla Mas assumed the role of artistic director of Tanghalang Ateneo (TA), the university dramatic arts group that has been steadily making waves both on and off the campus scene the past few years.
Mas, known more for his plays and who also has considerable acting credentials under his belt, admits that he was faced with the challenge of stepping into his predecessor’s large shoes.
It was not just that Ricky Abad had helmed TA for almost 30 years and was a familiar face in the Ateneo faculty and studentry; Abad himself had recruited Mas while the younger educator was still taking his Master of Fine Arts Program in Playwriting at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.
Mas’ apprehension was not so much about the the fact that the job meant regular interaction with the college crowd; he spent seven years teaching theater to students at the Philippine High School for the Arts in Laguna. His jitters, he admits, had more to do with the fact that he was an “outsider.”
Mas is not an Ateneo graduate; he was never part of the TA circuit, and the TA alumni, which consisted of more than 25 batches of former classmates-cum-theater-aficionados who somehow find a way to hold reunions over the years, did not know him.
Commitments of support
Abad introduced Mas as his successor in a gathering peopled by those same TA alumni. Mas “survived” the introduction and happily received commitments of support from those in attendance.
“I was just in a corner in that event,” he remembers wryly. “But the members assured me na magtutulungan kami and everything progressed swimmingly from there.”
Abad reveals the reason for his choice: “Glenn was a playwright, he had experience in teaching theater to young people, and I felt he could bring a different perspective.”
It was not Mas’ first time to step away from the crowd and into that reclusive corner, even if he was in a place where he was being warmly welcomed. He talks about one experience while he was still studying in the US: “Thanksgiving Day is a big deal for Americans, and I was invited to attend one. But I’m not a party person. I could not relate to the kuwentuhan of the people in the gathering. I didn’t understand the history behind the holiday. I was getting tired of people coming to me and asking me to tell them stories about the Philippines; I knew they were just being polite. So I just pretended to sleep in the corner.”
Displacement, differences, departures. These are the norms that echo repeatedly in his plays, whether the ones he writes, stages or picks for the season. In last year’s season, TA highlighted the alienation of Filipino-American students in a cold private high school in the US in “Middle Finger.” The heartbreaking coming of age of a bastard rejected both by his parents and family in his small town was the focus, meanwhile, of “Rite of Passage.” Mas himself wrote the latter play.
It would probably take him a long time to stage a Shakespearean play in TA, and it is not just because he wants to veer away from Abad’s shadow. Mas wants to explore different perspectives, so if he finds himself doing something related to the Bard, he’d want it from the perspective of one of the lesser known characters.
“If I touch Shakespeare, I wouldn’t stage ‘Hamlet’ but probably [Tom Stoppard’s] ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead,’” he says.
Theater of the absurd
Also, he would take the theater of the absurd over the classics any time. “I discovered the genre in the US,” he says. “I had no one to talk to there. There were Filipinos but they were not my friends. The theater of the absurd resonates with me because it is man looking for meaning in a world without meaning.”
Fittingly, TA’s most recent production was “Waiting for Godot,” Samuel Beckett’s famous opus which Mas describes as the “mother of all absurd plays.” But this time he had multiple casts play the only two roles in the play. Each production highlighted a different perspective; the two main characters waiting for the third but powerful persona who would never come were now essayed by feminists in one version, male archetypes in another, young people in a third, etc.
Still, however he chooses his material, Mas is cognizant of one thing: The students who act in them must be able to relate to and internalize them, while in turn making them relatable to the overall audience.
“Persevere, and stay in the game even if the game does not assure us of the answers”—that’s the “message” the young people under his care can take from the play, says Mas.
The man who has won nine Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature for his English One-act Plays can empathize with his characters, like the outcast Tisoy in his award-winning “Rite of Passage.” That’s because he appropriated memories from his childhood.
He describes one experience in his native Antique which served as the setting of the play. “It was one of the most depressed places I knew of,” he recalls. “Iloilo was only two hours away. But we from Antique had to switch our language to Hiligaynon whenever we visited Iloilo. However, whenever the Ilonggos visited our world, we had to be the ones [again] to adjust to their language.”
His transformation into an award-winning playwright was something he did not expect. His first career choice was journalism. Later, he made a name for himself as a sturdy character actor who played fathers, neighbors and other supporting roles in Tanghalang Pilipino plays.
However, in one acting workshop where the performers were asked to play out one of their favorite scenes, Mas wrote his own and acted it out. The workshop facilitator was impressed at the originality of his small piece and advised him strongly to pursue playwriting, which he did.
“I was an actor who would write plays that would win the Palanca but would never be staged,” says Mas, “until the Cultural Center of the Philippines’ Virgin Labfest came about.” The Labfest gave an opportunity to young or starting playwrights to produce and nurture their material, supporting it with bonafide performers, a director, a venue and other resources.
These days, Mas has a greater hand in staging his productions, whether they are written or simply chosen by him. And his days of intellectual exploration may just be beginning.
“I like that—finding meaning in the things that I do while questioning things,” he says.