Twenty-eight productions of 22 companies in Metro Manila have been affected so far by the new coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic which forced the government to lock down Luzon and suspend all public gatherings.
From a public health perspective, the move was necessary.
Yet, one simply cannot ignore the economic repercussions of this unprecedented shutdown.
“Theater is time-bound and time-sensitive. Very few productions are able to circumvent the idea of ‘It’s now or never,’ which is why ‘The show must go on’ has become synonymous with the performing arts,” says Pangasinan Rep. Toff de Venecia, the managing artistic director of The Sandbox Collective. “But COVID-19 is a different monster altogether. It has caught everyone in the industry off-guard.”
Sandbox canceled 14 performances of a 16-show repertory run of “Lungs” and “Every Brilliant Thing,” its two hit nonmusical plays from 2018 and 2019, respectively.
Postponing a single weekend of shows alone, De Venecia says, would already incur a loss for the company, as it grapples with “venue availability vis-à-vis the preferences of both ticket buyers and show buyers for rescheduled performances. What more postponing the whole run.”
According to an industry insider, mounting a typical four-weekend run of an English-language nonmusical play by a non-Filipino playwright—covering licensing, salaries, production costs, administrative work and marketing—now costs anywhere between P2 and P4 million. A musical of similar pedigree costs at least P10 million.
For productions of homegrown material—without the need to pay for licenses and royalties overseas—the costs run anywhere between P800,000 (the minimum for nonmusical plays) and P2 million (the usual maximum for musicals).
To break even, or recover expenses, a production would have to net at least 15-20 percent return of investment. This translates to 50-60 percent capacity for every performance—which is hardly the case in the local theater scene, where audiences usually start filling houses only past the second weekend, from word of mouth.
Productions by university companies cost less to mount—according to another insider, P50,000 to P200,000 for a straight play, and around P1.2 million for a musical.
Of the 28 productions sidelined by the pandemic, 13 were by student-run theater organizations or university theater arts programs.
That included Ateneo Entablado’s (Enta) “Macli-ing,” which had only the first of its three-week run; Ateneo Blue Repertory’s (BlueRep) “Next to Normal,” with a sold-out five-show opening weekend; and Tanghalang Ateneo’s (TA) “Top Girls,” which never got to open.
Collectively, they incurred P1,121,011.39 in losses, according to the Council of Organizations of the Ateneo.
Missy Maramara, director of “Next to Normal,” says: “In student-run companies, the students raise the funds, make the decisions and do the legwork. We apply for grants from the school; we don’t get automatic subsidies. The university support comes in the form of minimal expenses for the use of the venues. So our only streams of revenue are ticket sales, sponsorships and the occasional gig.”
According to Maramara, “Next to Normal” lost around half a million pesos because of cancellations. “Productions of the following year are dependent on the financial capacity of the previous year, so it’s a deficit the company will bring over to its next production.”
This snowball effect is felt not only on a micro level (e.g., detailed finances), but also on a macro scale (e.g., the planning of a company’s entire season).
Sandbox’s sister company, 9 Works Theatrical, has postponed one of two productions set later in the year for next year, says managing director Santi Santamaria.
The 11-year-old company’s original lineup included a new jukebox musical using the songs of former Rivermaya frontman Rico Blanco, and the stage adaptation of the Whitney Houston vehicle “The Bodyguard.”
No opening night
Atlantis Theatrical Entertainment Group has preemptively canceled its production of “Oliver!,” set for June. Its maiden offering for 2020, “The Band’s Visit,” managed only a couple of invitational technical dress rehearsals (March 11-12) and shuttered before opening night.
Repertory Philippines’ (Rep) “Anna in the Tropics” never got to open, while its “Carousel,” to be directed by De Venecia and originally set for May, has been postponed.
“Batang Mujahideen,” the production of Tanghalang Pilipino (TP), resident theater company of the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP), was the earliest casualty of the pandemic.
Even before its late-February opening night, it already had to cancel five of its 12 performances, as the schools that bought those shows backed out in compliance with the Department of Education’s memorandum on prohibition of educational trips.
Despite losing roughly P400,000 from those canceled shows, however, artistic director Fernando “Nanding” Josef chooses to think of TP as somehow lucky. “The onset of the epidemic happened at the tail end of our season. Our Actors Company (AC) and staff were psychologically prepared for the ‘off-season’ mood, and the show itself was well received by audiences and critics, so morale did not get too low. Plus, one of the show buyers that backed out instead transferred its reservation to the rerun of ‘Lam-ang’ in September.”
In the meantime, some reevaluation of existing structures and internal policies is needed—what Josef calls starting “a solid, sustainable program of in-depth reflection, analysis and new creative collective action.”
Strong business sense
Rep artistic director Liesl Batucan, for one, notes that “there are advantages to being a company that’s been in the business for a long time. [Late company cofounder] Tita Bibot Amador ran Rep very well; she had a strong business sense. Now we have financials—not a lot, but enough to help us not shut down the whole year—and the human resource infrastructure.”
As Santamaria puts it, “Unlike normal businesses that are accustomed to monthly income flow, theater has trained us to be naturally prudent, as we only really earn or lose income whenever we have a production.”
It’s this ephemeral nature of local theater that De Venecia sees as both boon and bane. “It’s a kind of cushion in that we don’t have tremendous overhead, as opposed to those who maintain facilities or have regular employees. But as arts organizations, our engagement with audiences is seasonal and transactional. We put up a show, engage with paying audiences and disengage soon after—which is maybe why theater companies work so hard to scream in a crowded market to attract fickle audiences.
“As producers, we can’t not look ahead; we still have to make plans and provisions for future programming. But if anything, this pandemic has compelled micro-, small and medium enterprises such as ours to start thinking medium-term rather than short term—to think of plan B or C in light of force majeure.”
Moving forward, after all, is not as easy as it sounds. Rescheduling canceled shows must consider the availability of venues, that of artists and behind-the-scenes personnel.
There is also the emotional toll the sudden forced closures have inflicted on the artistic community.
“Our circles are not just tightknit, but also concentric,” says De Venecia. “Workers in the industry vacillate between capacities and capabilities—one actor in this show is a producer in the next, and so on.There is literally one degree of separation within Philippine theater.
“When we announced the postponement of Sandbox’s shows via Viber, ‘It is what it is,’ said most of our team with sad emojis. We couldn’t even have a proper face-to-face company call because by then, Metro Manila was already on community quarantine.”
Maramara says “Next to Normal” was already looking into adding shows because it had sold out its three-week run. “People tell us, ‘At least you got to open.’ That is true, and we are grateful, but that doesn’t diminish the intensity of the loss. This isn’t a contest of whose pain is greater.”
No doubt, it’s an even more trying time for freelancers—artists who earn on per-project basis—who constitute majority of the community.
As Audie Gemora, Philstage president and Trumpets artistic director, puts it, “The initial disappointment over the lockdown was frustration over not being able to perform after having prepared for months.
“Then came the realization that it meant loss of income, with no clear view of when this crisis will be resolved.”
“COVID-19 has brought the plight of freelancers into play and provided a startling new viewpoint into their vulnerability,” De Venecia says. “Before Congress adjourned last March 11, we tackled an Occupational Safety Bill about the performing arts, known as the Eddie Garcia Bill. It is now in the technical working group (TWG) stage.
“There is a need to find out how many artists there are, and how the pandemic has affected them, since many are not covered by formal employer-employee contracts, and thus, the recent Department of Labor and Employment assistance of P5,000 for displaced workers, for example.
“The displacement of creative workers is an economic reality that the Creative Workers Welfare Bill that I refiled in the 18th Congress hopes to address, by providing access to secondary livelihoods for our affected stakeholders. I’ve also filed a Freelancer Protection Bill, which is now in the TWG stage.”
Taken up the cudgels
In the absence of concrete legislation, theater artists themselves have taken up the cudgels to raise funds for creative workers most vulnerable to this lockdown.
A coalition involving Philstage, Artists Welfare Project, Silly People’s Improv Theater-Manila, Third World Improv, Ticket2Me and Theater Actors Guild has put up Open House, an online serial fundraiser whose programs have so far included classes on movement (with Jack Yabut) and hurdling auditions (with Rony Fortich), an episode of the 5-year-old cabaret series “One Night Stand,” and even a song interpretation workshop delivered by Gemora himself.
Another group—made up of JK Anicoche, Laura Cabochan, Jopie Sanchez, Komunidad, Sipat Lawin and the Concerned Artists of the Philippines—has set up #CreativeAidPH, which has gathered much-needed preliminary data on the specific extent of the lockdown’s financial toll, from a pool of nearly 500 respondents.
“We have also reached out to CCP and the National Commission for Culture and the Arts to realign their budgets for the displaced workers,” says Gemora.
And within companies themselves, the wheels are already turning.
In the case of TP, Josef says it “should continue its research-oriented programming of theater,” citing the company’s recent partnership with the Asian Institute for Distance Education (AIDE) as an important cushion for these down times.
Under AIDE, TP has launched an online certificate-granting workshop in performing arts led by Remus Villanueva, under its Kamalayang Pilipino Workshop in the Arts program. “We can develop more modules for scriptwriting, production design, etc., and employ not only the AC, but other artist-teachers who are temporarily out of work because of the pandemic,” says Josef.
Preexisting coalitions among university organizations have also proven beneficial, as evidenced by the Ateneo theater companies. Starting last year, TA, BlueRep and Enta have collaborated on TresPass, a season pass for their productions running simultaneously toward the end of the school year.
“When the pandemic hit, and everyone’s morale plunged, we turned not only to members of our own organization, but reached out to other companies, as well,” says Maramara.
“It was the officers of all three companies who worked out logistical and financial concerns with the university’s Performing Arts Cluster and Office of Student Activities.
“The companies are now competing with compassion. The students talk to each other, which is the best way to learn what each of us can offer.”
As with all industries wrestling with this global crisis, the Filipino theater community is starting to come to grips with changes that can permanently alter the landscape. To paraphrase De Venecia: “More than moving forward, this pandemic is forcing us to restrategize and contend with the reality that sometimes, the show cannot go on.” —CONTRIBUTED