Sometime in the first few months of 1967, Carmen “Baby” Barredo received a telephone call from her former classmate Cecile Guidote: Would Baby be willing to join in a new theater company that was being formed, envisioned to be the National Theater and which would be called the Philippine Educational Theater Association (Peta)?
Baby politely declined, as she had previously committed to help Zeneida “Bibot” Amador establish what was intended to be the first professional theater company presenting a regular season of plays in the country. That company would be known as Repertory Philippines (Rep).
As they say, the rest is history. Both Peta and Rep presented their inaugural productions the same year. The late theater director Behn Cervantes once said that contemporary Philippine theater can be reckoned from that point forward.
(Coincidentally, it was also during that period that Rolando Tinio premiered his Filipino translations of “Death of a Salesman” and “The Glass Menagerie,” which shocked Manila theater audiences not used to hearing cusswords in the vernacular on stage.)
Rep’s vision was to help make theatergoing a social habit in Manila. Its first production was August Strindberg’s “Miss Julie,” starring Ella Luansing and Tony Amador, with Filipino translation and direction by Rolando Tinio. As the story goes, only seven people were in the audience on opening night.
As a result, Rep decided to concentrate on English-language plays, presenting them without fail at their home venues—Insular Life Auditorium (1967-1992), William Shaw Theater (1992-2002) and Onstage, Greenbelt 1 (2002 to the present)—as well as in larger venues such as the Cultural Center of the Philippines, Meralco Theater and what used to be the Rizal Theater.
It has presented over 400 productions with more than 6,000 performances, and not once has it canceled any show for any reason or catastrophe or calamity, man-made or otherwise.
Amador was Rep’s president and artistic director from its founding until her death in 2004. “Bibot wanted theater people to concentrate on doing theater and not have other jobs,” recalls Barredo. Amador’s exacting standards, which she imposed on the cast and crew of every Rep production, were legendary.
This resulted in Rep being rightfully credited by theater historian Doreen Fernandez for its special contribution in the “training of actors in the modes of the Western theater,” as proven by the success of many of the company’s actors in roles in London and other western theater capitals. Lea Salonga, Monique Wilson, Junix Inocian, Jon Jon Briones and Sheila Francisco are just some of the examples.
But it was not only acting that those who go through Rep were trained in. Aside from providing onstage work, Rep also afforded valuable experiences and training for many practitioners in various aspects of the theater. It was one of the very first companies to have full-blown marketing and audience development units.
As a result, many “Repists” gained enough knowledge and experience to equip and enable them to head or establish their own companies. A list of those who spent their early theater years with Rep includes former and present artistic directors and theater managers such as Menchu Lauchengco Yulo and Michael Williams (Full House), Bart Guingona and Dodo Lim (Actor’s Actors, Inc.), Audie Gemora and Jaime del Mundo (Trumpets), Robbie Guevara (9 Works Theatrical), Monique Wilson (New Voice Company), Dennis Marasigan and Liesl Batucan (Tanghalang Pilipino), and Ana Abad Santos, Cris Villonco, Topper Fabregas, Jenny Jamora and Rem Zamora (Red Turnip).
Guevara recalls his days in Rep: “While I started out as an actor there, it was also in Rep that I learned to do backstage work, from lights to sound to stage management.”
In celebration of Rep’s 50 years, a gala homecoming for all past and present Rep alumni is set for June 11 at The Theatre at Solaire, with a team of eight directors led by Bart Guingona overseeing the preparations.
“Rep has accomplished the objectives it set out to achieve,” says current Rep president Mindy Perez Rubio. Loyal Rep audiences can still expect the regular season of five plays, including a production specifically for children and a big musical every year.
Hopefully, Rep can also have its own theater by 2020. “We also hope to expand our workshops into a performing arts academy,” adds Perez Rubio. “We will continue the Rep legacy.”
Peta was established by Guidote (eventually Guidote-Alvarez) to concretize her proposed “national theater framework.” Among the venues for its first productions was Paco Park, until it gained access to a portion of Fort Santiago which it transformed into the Raja Sulayman Theater. In 2004, it inaugurated the Peta Theater Center, becoming the first Philippine theater company to have its own theater structure.
From the beginning, Peta’s pro-people bias was well-known. That philosophy dictated its choice of materials to produce, as well as its chosen language for performance—Filipino and other Philippine languages. It encouraged the writing of original works as well as translation of world classics, especially those that reflected and resonated with the social climate of the times.
Using theater for education, Peta went all over the country to train theater practitioners from various sectors—students, workers, farmers and fisherfolk, even sex workers and people in areas of conflict. Its members continually immersed themselves in various communities, particularly those oppressed and marginalized.
These resulted in the creation of a nationwide theater network, as well as the writing and production of theater works deeply rooted in the experiences and sensibilities of Filipinos.
As such, a typical “Peta play” would be characterized as a well-researched piece based on real-life events that portrays contemporary social problems with accuracy and insight, combining realism and nonrealistic styles (particularly the use of a Chorus) to convey to the audience the immediacy of the situations presented, and the necessary actions that need to be taken.
Malou Jacob’s “Juan Tamban” and “Macli-ing Dulag” are famous examples. Many other plays are now considered as part of the Philippine theater canon, such as “Hanggang Dito Na Lamang at Maraming Salamat” by Orlando Nadres; “May-i, May-i” (1979), also by Jacob along with Eman Lacaba and Al Santos; and “Buwan at Baril sa Eb Major” by Chris Millado.
For some, Peta’s influence has affected personal beliefs and philosophies.
“At first, I wanted to get myself out of poverty, to be rich; and I thought being in theater would be the first step,” recalls Fernando Josef, current artistic director of Tanghalang Pilipino. “Instead, it was in Peta that I became deeply aware of inequality in society, and that theater can be used to educate and even transform the lives of people.”
Through its productions and training programs, Peta has clearly affected and helped shape Philippine Theater. Fittingly, the celebrations for its 50th anniversary in 2017 are not only focused on performances.
“Peta is not only about the productions, and we will be focusing on all the other aspects of our work,” says current artistic director Maribel Legarda. A recording of music from some of its landmark plays has been released; also in the works are a thanksgiving concert, a “Festival of Windows” that will bring together various groups and partners, and an immersive experience in Fort Santiago.
For the last 50 years, Peta and Rep have never wavered in their commitment towards producing outstanding works, and the training of committed theater practitioners. As a result of their efforts and those of the other theater companies that have come after them, never in the history of theater in the Philippines has there been so much variety and excellent choices afforded to Filipinos.
We are all the better for their brave, pioneering work. —CONTRIBUTED
Dennis N. Marasigan is a director, writer, lighting designer, actor, producer, teacher and learner. A member of the theater arts faculty at MINT College, he finds time to mentor young artists even as he continues to work extensively in theater, film and television.