“Come to my parlor,” said the spider to the fly. The latter, rather naïve, obeyed, and was swallowed up by the cunning spider.
The scene was from a presentation at the Ateneo de Manila in Padre Faura, Manila, eons ago. A grade school pupil, I was the unfortunate fly while a heftier classmate played the spider.
It was my debut in campus theater. And also my last appearance on stage; there were no more starring roles.
The Ateneo, then an all-male college, was a haven of the English language and English literature and drama. The school had a solid reputation in theater, the intent being to form character and not necessarily to produce professional actors. The Jesuit critic-historian Fr. Miguel Bernard wrote all about it in a book titled “Dramatics at the Ateneo de Manila.”
Then Onofre Pagsanghan, our dear Mr. Pagsi, founded Dulaang Sibol and suddenly Tagalog (which we couldn’t speak without being penalized) was fashionable.
I trace my love for English literature and drama to high school days (by now in Loyola Heights, Quezon City). In particular, the Jesuit mentors and lay teachers were keen on Shakespeare. There was one teacher who was crazy about Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” and he would play it over and over again, until we memorized the speeches.
Then the film version was shown in the old Gaiety Theater in Ermita, and I thrilled to the familiar speeches of Brutus (James Mason) and Mark Antony (Marlon Brando).
St. Paul College in Herran (now Pedro Gil) also had a formidable reputation in theater, what with all those musicals directed by Fr. James Reuter.
I remember June Keithley as Maria in “The Sound of Music,” and Baby Barredo as Queen Guinevere in “Camelot.” And there was a memorable production of “Showboat.”
I would leave the Fleur-de-Lis Auditorium my mind soaring, thrilled by all that music, voices in harmony and the magic of theater, wanting perhaps to be a playwright like my uncle Wilfrido Ma. Guerrero (alas, I never did get to write plays, and had to settle for the short story).
Peta and Rep
By the late 1960s, two seminal theater organizations were founded: The Philippine Educational Theater Association (Peta) with Cecile Guidote-Alvarez at the helm, and the Repertory Philippines of Zeneida “Bibot” Amador.
Guidote-Alvarez envisioned a national theater, therefore in Filipino, while Amador championed English. Both drama companies soon developed outstanding talents who later went solo, formed other theater groups, trained other talents and, out of loyalty or for old times’ sake, appeared in their alma mater when needed.
At the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP), Tony Espejo directed prize-winning plays in Filipino while Rolando Tinio mounted translations in Filipino of the world’s classics. When February 1986 and Edsa I came, a new dispensation took over the CCP and Tanghalang Pilipino was born.
In the early 1990s, “Miss Saigon” in London, with Lea Salonga and Monique Wilson alternating in the lead role, soon paved the way for the globalization of Filipino talent in musical theater. Filipino singing actors were appearing on the stages of the world, and foreigners were impressed by the Pinoys’ skill in singing, acting and dancing, not to mention facility in English.
These days, the animosity between the English-speaking and Tagalog partisans is over, with Peta at one point staging its hit “Care Divas” at Rep’s bailiwick in Onstage, Greenbelt 1, something that would have been unheard of in the past.
Performers now also switch from one company to another, from one language to the other. And there are so many new theater companies, and still counting—though it appears that English-language companies still outnumber, or at least are more visible than, the Filipino ones.
So, live and let live seems to be the motto of Philippine theater today, which is not only alive and well, but more vibrant than ever.