‘Massacre of memories’: What Dulaang UP lost to the flames | Lifestyle.INQ

OCTOBER 27, 2022

ALEXANDER Cortez, Dulaang UP artistic director: “Theater is a public art; you have to learn to accept criticism.”
ALEXANDER Cortez, Dulaang UP artistic director: “Theater is a public art; you have to learn to accept criticism.”

On a recent night, student dancers garbed in sculptural yet evocative costumes performed precise yet vigorous choreography, then exited the stage. Acclaimed thespian Roeder Camañag, together with Andoy Ranay, Gwyn Guanzon and student Jon Abella, acted out the story and reaped applause on a stark yet effective set wisely lit. Joining the cast onstage afterwards was director Alexander Cortez.

It was Dulaang Unibersidad ng Pilipinas’ premiere of Shimizu Kunio’s “The Dressing Room” at the Wilfrido Ma. Guerrero Theater in Palma Hall of UP Diliman—another successful production from the country’s preeminent school theater company.


In this moment of elation, audiences and artists may forget that they are all survivors of what soprano and librettist Fides Cuyugan Asensio has proclaimed as nothing less than a “massacre of memories”—the burning of the UP Faculty Center, and with it a historic legacy of Philippine theater: the Teatro Hermogenes Ylagan, P1.3-million worth of precious costumes, antique set pieces, a priceless archive of handwritten directors’ notes, working scripts, predigital photos, videos and newspaper reviews of all of Dulaang UP’s 40 seasons from 1976 to present, as well as the theses and seminal works of students who are now Philippine theater’s luminaries: Irma Adlawan, Shamaine Buencamino, Floy Quintos, Nicolas Pichay, Chris Millado, Joy Barrios, Luna Sicat, Harlene Bautista, Al de Leon, Roderick Paulate, and so many more.

Shocking sight

On April 1, at past 1 a.m., fire gutted much of the Faculty Center. The catastrophe has devastated Cortez, Dulaang UP’s de facto archivist. He was the institution’s managing director for 13 years and artistic director for eight years, and is now a guest lecturer for the Department of Theater Arts and a member of Dulaang UP’s advisory board.

Like many in the faculty, Cortez was alerted by students and came over to see the conflagration for himself.

“Immediately I saw my room, I saw the department, all gone. And in the second floor was raging fire. I went to the oval on the other side and there was the chancellor, the dean, and all the Dulaang UP kids. This was not a sight I really wanted to see. So I just sat there, lost and forlorn. I was in shock,” he recalled.

“I was sort of the appointed [archivist] because I like to store things. I managed to collect all the programs, all the press releases, and all the reviews of Dulaang UP’s 40 seasons because my thesis was about three decades of Dulaang UP.”

Partial tally

He gave a partial tally of what was lost: “I collected posters with all their dedications, the pictures from 1976 until the present of all the plays. In the other office, I had all my videos there of Dulaang UP in Betamax, VHS and Betacam. There was a room where we stored our beautiful costumes. Those were expensive. I didn’t place them in our costume board at the Guerrero Theater where they could get wrinkled or wet. There were the original scripts of Dulaang UP, even some handwritten by Rolando Tinio. I had a furniture piece that I kept in my room, about which Tony Mabesa had said: ‘This thing has appeared onstage more times than all of you combined.’ My director’s notes, my working scripts of all the plays I’ve done, they’re all gone. Even my thesis, my dissertation is gone.

“I was thinking, ‘One of these days, these will be very valuable. One of these days, it will be on exhibit.’ I’m very sentimental when it comes to those things. I also felt obligated to keep them for future generations. They’re all stuck with computers, but it’s different with the actual items. I’m traditional and old-fashioned, maybe.”

Cortez was on the cusp of turning over the treasure trove to the library staff when the fire struck. “What is really sad is that all these files were in boxes already. So I had my books packed. I had those papers put in nice big plastic containers.”

Days later at the curtain call on the first night of “The Dressing Room,” Cortez betrayed no hint of sadness. He said he was advised to postpone his opening for a week,  but “the show must go on, and that’s a good thing.” Years ago, he also went on with his show at the Cultural Center of the Philippines even as an attempted coup d’état was raging across the city.


Part of life

For his part, Dulaang UP founder Tony Mabesa calmly accepts the tragedy as part of life onstage, and said he isn’t grieving.

“It’s ephemeral. After a line has been said, it’s done. Unlike film where there’s a record of it, with theater it only matters for the moment. The great philosopher [Georg Wilhelm Friedrich] Hegel says that the theater always will die but will always come back. It’s been like that for centuries. So likewise the theater will go on.”

Mabesa concedes that Dulaang UP and the UP Playwrights Theater, which he also established in 1986, will have to adapt to the circumstances. The loss of Teatro Hermogenes Ylagan, UP’s black box theater, as well as the transition to the K-12 educational system, will have profound effects on the upcoming theater season for school companies.

“For the moment, we will lose the flexible theater, and for the next season, they will introduce the K-12 program. There will be fewer students. We cannot do more productions. If Dulaang UP did four productions a year, now there will be two Dulaang UP and two UP Playwrights Theater productions, and they will all be staged now at Guerrero Theater. Economically it’s more feasible and profitable, more logical to do—so that’s the plan for the 26th season of UP Playwrights Theater and 41st season of Dulaang UP.”

The black box theater served as a laboratory for thesis students—a more intimate and more flexible performance space that sat 120 to 180 people compared to Guerrero Theater, which sits 300 people and has a higher upkeep.

Crowdsourcing memorabilia, fundraising

Dulaang UP artistic director Dexter Santos has appealed on social media to alumni and friends, posting, “Help us build our archives once again by donating your old scripts, posters, souvenir programs, photos, videos and other substantial memorabilia.”

A fundraising event is also in the works.

“Even before the fire, Dulaang UP has had a plan for a benefit dinner since last year in celebration of its 40th anniversary,” said Santos. “So it’s a benefit dinner, a reunion and a homecoming, which is supposed to happen on June 4 at the Bahay ng Alumni. The fundraising event is open to everybody—all the alumni, the guest artists, the students and their parents, and all other friends of Dulaang UP. This will be a nice way for everybody to help.”

To help rebuild Dulaang UP’s archives, upload digital files to www.facebook.com/groups/ 777411519056959 or e-mail them to [email protected]. Hard copies can be dropped off at the DUP Office, Palma Hall 136, UP Diliman. Call 0927-2447132.

“The Dressing Room” runs until April 24 at Guerrero Theater, 2/F, Palma Hall, UP Diliman. Call 9261349, 4337840, 981-8500 local 2449 or visit facebook.com/DulaangUnibersidadNgPilipinas.

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