Long May Philippine Theater Reign
We spoke to theater artists about the future of their industry, on what can be lost, and what can—and will—be saved
This past March was to become one of local theater’s most vibrant seasons yet, with a number of new shows opening each weekend, from Ballet Philippines’ Rama Hari to The Sandbox Collective’s rerun of Lungs and Every Brilliant Thing. Just a week before that, Repertory Philippines’ season opener, Stage Kiss, had concluded its run. By the first week of March, the highly anticipated original London production of Matilda had rolled into town. Dekada ’70 was playing to sold-out audiences, extending for a few extra shows to accommodate the demand. And then the lockdown orders came.
I had been in Matilda when the government announced that all of Metro Manila was to be placed under quarantine beginning March 14. The novel coronavirus had started claiming the lives of Filipinos, with more and more cases being reported each day. Watching the show in a near-empty theater while the threat of a pandemic loomed outside is a desolate feeling; witnessing the closures that followed even more. Three new productions—Anna in the Tropics, The Band’s Visit, and Top Girls—closed before they were even able to open. Shows scheduled for much later in the year had to be cancelled as well: Atlantis Theatrical’s Oliver!, slated for June; Bit by Bit Company’s Maxie the Musical, set for July; and Rep’s Carousel, set to open in September.
Watching the show in a near-empty theater while the threat of a pandemic loomed outside is a desolate feeling; witnessing the closures that followed even more.
“It was heartbreaking,” says Missy Maramara, theater artist and director of Ateneo Blue Repertory’s Next to Normal. The student-led production, accompanied by professionals like Cris Villonco and Jef Flores, had to cancel its shows, all of which had been sold out. “That emotional crash was tremendous—not to mention the financial crash on companies,” she adds. The closures were quick, but the industry was even quicker.
In a matter of days, Philstage, the alliance of professional companies in the theatrical arts, transformed their Facebook page into a repository of resource material for displaced artists, performers, and creatives—many of them freelancers who live paycheck to paycheck, show to show. Not long after, the organization, headed by Audie Gemora and Toff de Venecia, launched Open House, an online fundraiser for the benefit of the performing arts community. They needed to act immediately if the Filipino artist was to survive; in the absence of shows, “our freelancers have become very much vulnerable,” says de Venecia, vice president of Philstage and managing artistic director of The Sandbox Collective.
On their Facebook page, they mounted dozens of online activities, workshops, roundtables, and even full-length performances, with all of the proceeds of their efforts going to the most vulnerable theater artist, to those stricken the hardest by effects of this pandemic. Theater is an industry that needs physicality and live audiences to survive, much like concerts and other events-based businesses: weddings, debuts, publishing. With the onslaught of the pandemic, these businesses—of which, whether we realize it or not, theater is part—are gravely being endangered. But theater’s lifeforce, its artists, are made to last, and they won’t take no for an answer.
Since the start of the lockdown, there has been a rapid shift to online spaces. Numerous shows and productions have been made available for streaming, from Dulaang UP’s The Kundiman Party to Full House Theater Company’s Ang Huling El Bimbo. There is clamor for more, and by the looks of it, there will be more shows available to stream. But what could that mean for theater, seeing as the very fabric of its being rests enormously on the need to be in the moment? How does an art form survive if it cannot soar where it’s supposed to? The entire foundation of the medium is being challenged. “Dance is of the moment,” Alice Reyes once said. “If you miss it, you miss it.” theater is no different; it’s ephemeral that way. Nothing is repeatable, no matter how hard one tries, and nothing beats the feeling of experiencing something under dim lights with changing (or unchanging) sets, actors mere feet away from you, and deafening applause during curtain call.
That, for the longest time, has been one of the theater’s biggest draws; something that had made it distinct from other forms of art. You watch something unfold before your very eyes, among a crowd of people who are all experiencing something similar to you—and yet the experience is never the same for anyone, even if you happened to catch the same matinée together. In a world where physical touch feels like contraband and where mass gatherings start fading into obsolescence, how does theater sustain itself?
In a world where physical touch feels like contraband and where mass gatherings start fading into obsolescence, how does theater sustain itself?
Those who can are at the forefront of the fight. The discussions are quick to progress: “Our group has migrated the conversation from palliative measures of fundraising towards sustainability of the industry moving forward,” says de Venecia of Philstage. The organization has begun working with various government institutions, including the Film Development Council of the Philippines, the National Commission for Culture and the Arts, the Cultural Center of the Philippines, the Department of Health, Department of Trade and Industry, and Department of Labor and Employment to draft safety protocols as industries transition into a low-touch economy, or the new normal.
Several scenarios have been presented to theater’s stakeholders. There, for example, is the issue of physical distancing when it comes to seating. “An initial draft from the Department of Health shows that our audiences and patrons would have to be seated at least two seats apart from each other,” he adds, “which effectively decimates the seating capacity of our theaters—both film and performing arts—by two-thirds. It has yet to be clarified if this policy also applies vertically, meaning two seats apart in front or behind an audience member, which could then possibly decimate seating capacity of theaters by four-fifths.”
“I fear the economic struggle of our colleagues who have been displaced due to the pandemic,” says Stella Cañete-Mendoza, seen most recently onstage as Amanda Bartolome in the Dekada ’70 rerun. “Theater practitioners are part of the lowest paid workforce in our country. Most artists are not eligible for the current monetary aid programs provided by our government.”
Theater practitioners are part of the lowest paid workforce in our country. Most artists are not eligible for the current monetary aid programs provided by our government.
After all, eighty to ninety percent of the workers among Philstage member companies are freelancers. “With most shows and productions postponed until 2021, where might our freelancers who have dedicated themselves to the craft be able to derive their income?” asks de Venecia. While Open House has certainly been able to help (they’ve raised a total of over Php 1M, assisting over 600 people during the enhanced community quarantine), this fix is both only temporary and palliative, as both he and Cañete-Mendoza have said.
To supplement this, Philstage has been working alongside the National Live Events coalition to lobby for wage subsidies for freelancers to help tide them over in the New Normal. “Through its private sector capacity,” de Venecia adds, “Philstage is also working alongside other organizations to come up with online platforms for our freelancers to be able to monetize their services online, whether it’s through one-on-one ballet lessons, voice lessons, acting workshops, and the like. An online marketplace if you will.”
Right now, everything is still very much in flux. Most of the world, after all, is still in the thick of the crisis, so many of the conversations about sustainability, protocols, and innovative measures to keep industries—especially those in live events—surviving are in their initial stages, and there are, at this point, still more questions than there are answers. But theater and theatermakers are nothing if not resilient and adaptable. The shift to digital platforms would require a shift in theater’s entire business model. “There would be need for provisions for high-definition and multi-angle recordings of our live shows and how these might live on well-after the experience of being inside a theater’s four walls,” says de Venecia.
“Most of our stakeholders rely mostly on ticket sales and marginally on merchandise to be able to generate revenue and recover the costs that they incur with mounting a show,” he adds. “In the absence of institutional support from both government and the private sectors, and with the additional burden brought about by the New Normal, then it might be pointless for production companies to even venture into producing shows and other forms of live events.”
In the absence of institutional support from both government and the private sectors, and with the additional burden brought about by the New Normal, then it might be pointless for production companies to even venture into producing shows and other forms of live events.
While professional theater has its own problems to contend with, student-led theater faces many of the same challenges. Banaue Miclat-Janssen, Dulaang UP’s artistic director, is concerned about the organization’s financial status as well as how students could “continue practicum requirements for DUP and the Theatre Arts program within the confines of quarantine or the banning of mass gatherings,” she says.
Ticia Almazan and Nicole Chua, company managers of Ateneo Blue Repertory and Tanghalang Ateneo, respectively, have also been working tirelessly with their moderators and officers to come up with solutions to address theatermaking in the New Normal. For both, it’s looking a lot like a deeper sense of collaboration will be taking place among the performing arts organizations within Ateneo. “I think that with the similar repercussions our organizations are facing—and are going to face—we’re going to be collaborating with each other more closely than we have in the past,” says Almazan.
“We’re currently looking at the possibility of interactive websites, episodic video content, and hybrid forms of theater,” says Chua. “We’re brainstorming ways on how to effectively utilize our talents to produce output that aligns with our political stances and artistry despite having a different format for it.”
The pandemic is changing us, our world, and our realities. It’s exposing the cracks and fissures in our systems and our structures, in our faith and our resolve. The pandemic doesn’t discriminate, and it’s clear that no industry can escape its wrath. But the internet and social media have been instrumental in this new world we’re finding ourselves in. As our world evolves, so must theater.
When Ang Huling El Bimbo, the Musical premiered online, it racked up half a million views overnight. Within the next 48 hours, it was all anyone could talk about. Have you seen Ang Huling El Bimbo? Did you watch Ang Huling El Bimbo? What did you think about Ang Huling El Bimbo? It created new fans and galvanized old ones. Those who never considered watching local plays or musicals found themselves falling in love with it, and the numbers prove it.
Theater Fans Manila, the premier theater publication in the country, has been hitting pageviews way above its usual. “In terms of viewership, TFM’s engagement has been the highest it has ever been,” says Frida Tan, founder and managing editor of Theater Fans Manila. “That’s ironic, yes, but it’s also the first time that the theater has been exposed to such a mass audience. This has been especially true since Ang Huling El Bimbo first announced that the full show will be streaming online for 48 hours. Our site has crashed multiple times since then due to unprecedented online traffic. I have never seen so many people [search for] cast announcements!”
Much of the reason audiences who had always wanted to go to shows but never or rarely did is due to ticket prices. Good seats cost more than double the amount of a regular movie ticket. For others, it’s because most of the shows take place in Metro Manila, possibly alienating those living outside the capital. But if the past few weeks have proven anything, it’s that there will always be an audience for theater—and locally-produced theater, most of all—it’s all just a matter of accessibility.
If the past few weeks have proven anything, it’s that there will always be an audience for theater—and locally-produced theater, most of all—it’s all just a matter of accessibility.
“I think the industry is going in the right direction right now with releasing full recordings of shows,” says Nikki Francisco, TFM’s editor-in-chief. “If that’s a tall order, then cast recordings on Spotify. Those go a very long way in cultivating and sustaining interest for musicals even before a theater fan gets to see them on stage. This might even be a good time to develop a central streaming platform like BroadwayHD. You make theater widely available, and then when curtains rise again, [audiences] may want to witness it live.”
Beyond streaming shows, online theater is also gaining popularity. “Some of our artists, like Silly People’s Improv Theater (SPIT) and Third World Improv, have begun playing with [Zoom and Facebook Live], using different angles and effects to enhance the live audiovisual experience for our viewers,” says de Venecia. “In a way, a new multimedia form of theater is emerging and we are also reaching new audiences by migrating the live experience online.” But this comes with challenges still, as the new normal calls for “optimizing technology in a way that still defines theater differently from film or television,” according to Miclat-Janssen.
And while that may be the case, the truth is that it’s just not—and will never be—the same. “As wonderful as it is, it is so bitin,” says Maramara, who is also a member of SPIT. “Nothing can replace live, tangible human interaction. What ‘online theater’ offers is solidarity and some form of solace in this pandemic, but it cannot replace the depth and fulfillment that live theater brings.”
“Theater is unreal,” muses Francisco. “It’s the first industry that shut down literally overnight, and will likely be one of the last to recover, but look at how generous it has been with sharing its art.”
I spoke to a handful of creatives and artists in the industry about what they fear the most about theater in the time of a pandemic. I asked them how this year would’ve looked like for them, and the answers were the same: stalled dreams, interrupted shows, lost income. Many of them worry for themselves and their colleagues. But I also asked them what they’re most hopeful about, and what they think their industry will look like in the foreseeable future. Their answers all resembled each other—a clear sign of a community’s collective beating heart.
I also asked them what they’re most hopeful about, and what they think their industry will look like in the foreseeable future. Their answers all resembled each other—a clear sign of a community’s collective beating heart.
“I fear mostly for those who have no other means of livelihood but their jobs in theater activities; those who go from project to project and do not derive a regular income,” says teacher, writer, and director Dennis Marasigan. This year would’ve seen him directing various shows and designing lights for more, including Tanghalang Pilipino’s rerun of Katsuri. But he is still hopeful. “I am confident that theater, and the arts in general, will survive beyond the pandemic, as it has survived for over two thousand years.”
“Hopefully there will be a renewed interest in and support for theater now that so many people are being exposed to works online through free streaming,” says actor Camille Abaya. “One of the biggest problems for theater was accessibility, and now it’s becoming more and more accessible. It’s a long shot to think that renewed interest will encourage funding. But we can hope.”
“I believe it’s the fear of not being able to create,” says Tanghalang Ateneo’s Nicole Chua. “Or at least, not being able to create the way we used to. [However], our methods may change but the spirit of theater and collaborative learning will not. New mediums will be explored and creative risks will be taken. The officers and I will help our members adapt and transition to this new medium while making sure that they are constantly challenged creatively and learning along the way.”
Cañete-Mendoza echoes Marasigan’s sentiments: “Theater will of course endure, as it has for centuries,” she says. “Artists and audiences alike will thirst for that unique and magical symbiosis that only a live theatrical experience can quench. There will be a sector in our society which can never forsake this art form. I do hope we’d still be around to contribute and bear witness to the Filipino theater scene when it bounces back to life.”
Theater’s toughest protector has always been the community it has built and nourished—the actors, directors, playwrights, technicians, creatives, designers, and audiences that have all found a loving home in the wings of its stages and the seats of its playhouses. These individuals are its life force—the very reason the medium has endured for as long as it has. In the wake of this crisis, the human spirit will emerge stronger, and stories and narratives of resolve, anger, helplessness, strength, hope, survival, existence, class disparity, violence, and love are sure to come to the fore. It would be a tragedy should theater perish before someone even gets to write those stories.
Luckily, Filipinos are tough and resilient, and theater artists even more so.