A Repertory Philippines season typically has four productions; this year it has only three—two plays and one upcoming musical—sparking concerns from theatergoers at what might be happening to one of the country’s premier theater institutions, now on its 48th year.
Rep is quick to reassure, however, that the kink all came down to not getting the rights on time to produce the plays it wanted to do for this season.
“We will be going back to three plays and a musical by next season which starts in April of next year,” says Rep stalwart Joy Virata. “This year, we only did two plays because we could not get the rights in time for our opening. And because we could not get the rights, we had to get another play and then get the rights of that play.”
The domestic farce “Run for your Wife” enjoyed good word of mouth during its run last April, and the poignant homecoming drama “4000 Miles” garnered its fair share of good reviews. The upcoming musical “The Secret Garden” will complete Rep’s truncated season this year.
Virata promises that the 2016 season will see a far more stable lineup. While some things still have to be finalized, others are already in the can, she says.
Friend and colleague Anton Juan, who is directing “The Secret Garden,” will return to direct a classic drama. Virata is similarly enthused about John Cariani’s “Almost, Maine,” a string of small plays that tackles intimacy and the intricacies of falling in love. “It requires an appreciation of literature,” she says.
Rep’s roster of plays are chosen regardless of the season offerings of the other English-language theater companies that have sprung up in Manila, many of them established by former Rep actors mentored by its legendary founder Zeneida Amador and the current artistic director, Baby Barredo.
“I don’t think what we choose has a bearing on what they do, and what they do has no bearing either on what we choose,” says Virata.
“Almost, Maine” might be classified as Rep’s “thinking man’s play” for the next season. There has to be one classic, a Shakespeare or an Arthur Miller, in every lineup. Aside from the big musical, a comedy has to be present as well. And all of them, says Virata, have to be “family-friendly”—the hallmark of Rep’s brand of theater-making.
Although, she does add, “If we think that a [radical] play is good, we [might] do it. It has to be something that will stretch you.”
Stretching beyond one’s comfort zone and surprising audiences appears to be the name of the game in the much more competitive theater landscape these days. Philippine theater seems to be enjoying a resurgence, with at least a dozen active companies drawing in paying audiences. A younger generation of viewers can easily access theater material on the Internet and raise their expectations of a local theater production months before they enter the venue.
Bart Guingona, who cut his teeth with Rep and who now heads his own theater company, Actor’s Actors Inc., says: “We should always evolve and grow. We can’t have this penchant for rehashing past hits. I wish Rep would challenge itself with new, unseen and unheard-of material that would shock and provoke people.”
The need to evolve is a challenge all theater companies, and not just Rep, face today. Virata believes that the “best thing that can still win people is word of mouth,” though the ways to reach them may have changed. “[We’ve been told] social media is the No. 1 way to do it now,” says Virata. Rep has tried to keep up with the times by creating a social media presence and hiring a PR firm to maintain its relations with media and bloggers.
It can take a lot to fill seats these days. Virata says one of the challenges that did affect Rep’s audience turnout in recent years was the transfer of venue from Edsa Shangri-La Plaza to RCBC Makati and to the current one at OnStage Greenbelt. The move might seem a simple jump from one business district to another, but since each district or location had its own niche audience, a new crowd had to be won every time Rep moved.
“And let’s not forget the traffic,” she point out. “If a member of the audience takes two hours just to get to Makati from Ortigas or Quezon City, he might think twice about watching a play. And then he has to take another two hours to get back home.”
Director Jaime del Mundo, another artist who grew up with Rep, echoes that the choice of venues has also had an effect on marketing and publicity.
“The plays do change with the venue. There would be a bigger need to fill a bigger venue. When Rep was still doing plays in Insular Life, we only had to fill 250-300 seats. A 250-strong audience would pack in the house. We were turning away people at the door.
“But given another venue which has 800 seats, an audience of 300 would not be enough. And when people come into that venue and see only half the seats filled, they would have a different impression of how the play is being received by their fellow audiences.”
One thing Rep has always banked on is its deep bench of talent. Word of mouth is reliant on excellent performances and competent production values. The actors and artists who have honed their chops with Rep make up a Who’s Who of Philippine theater today. Many of them—Guingona, Audie Gemora, Robbie Guevara, Ana Abad Santos—while busy running their own theater companies, still make the occasional trek back to the Repertory home ground either to act or direct.
One way that Rep tries to maintain its tradition of discovering and honing local talent is through its Children’s Theater, which runs for three months. Newbie actors are encouraged to audition and, if need be, attend the summer workshop. They have to hit the ground running and are required to learn the ropes while performing, essaying a talking animal or a cartoonish villain, for instance, in front of children watching a theater production for the first time.
“When you are in the chorus, you have to play the part as if you were the lead and it’s not just a walk-on,” says Virata. “There’s no such thing as a bit part. We get these actors from all over when we make the call through the workshops or social media. They take the summer workshops and then they audition for the bigger parts in Rep plays.”
Guingona affirms that intensive training during their Rep years helped him and his peers hone their craft in a way that would be difficult to recreate these days.
“Our generation of artists was lucky,” he says. “We were constantly working and we were in every single show. Hasang-hasa kami. Today, these young performers go from one company to another. Sometimes, they don’t have work for stretches. They don’t have the same kind of intensive training that we had.”
Guingona, who returned to Rep to direct “4000 Miles,” also welcomes the stability and machinery that the company provides its artists. “You don’t have to think about how your set will look like, because the set constructor is there. In other productions, I am thinking of everything because I have to be the leader. But Rep has established systems. It’s just nice as a director to be artistically creative. Rep has the resources to allow you that.”
Still, despite what the season hiccup this year might imply, the theater company is not relaxing its guard, says Virata.
“You can’t rest on your laurels. Many people don’t realize how much work it is to put up a theater production, but we do it because it is what we want to do. And I don’t think we can sit back and relax just yet.”