Thursday, September 16, 2010

“, floating in the solid mountains and in the space between your ears"

Sadly, but really - to a lot of people in Baguio, a bookstore means a place where one can buy almost every imaginable school or office supply, but not books. Ok, some do have text books, and there's that one bookstore at the mall that actually sells books. So the news that a bookshop that will actually sell books was opening in a resurrected Baguio icon near the top of Session Road was a very welcome one.

From a photo by Marta Lovina
Sisters Padma and Fifi Perez opened Mt Cloud Bookshop last August 29, 2010. We arrived about an hour into the party and could hardly walk through the throngs who filled every inch of space inside and out. The bookshop is the newest addition to the coolest watering hole in town that is the newly-renovated Casa Vallejo - aside from providing cozy accommodation at reasonable rates (the rooms smell of old Baguio!), it also hosts Mitos YƱiguez's new restaurant, Hill Station, and Lala Gonzales' North Haven Spa.

“Two reasons for the bookshop,” says Padma when asked why they put up Mt Cloud.  “First is a dream, and second is faith.” A dyed-in-the-wool bookworm, Padma is, and according to her, “what bookworm hasn't dreamed of opening his/her own shop that answers the needs and addictions of fellow book-lovers? When we learned that Casa Vallejo was going to be revived, and that Hill Station would be opening there too, we knew that this was the right place and the right time to try and make this dream come true and we jumped at the opportunity.”

And while there are people who doubt the viability of a bookshop as a business venture, Mt Cloud is there to prove otherwise. Since its opening barely two weeks ago, the bookshop has continually enjoyed a steady flow of people. “We believe that people in Baguio love to read, want more things to read, and are ready and able to invest -- whether it's with a student's allowance carefully saved up or a professional's well-earned salary -- in good books,” declares Padma. She adds, “Baguio is a university town. Shouldn't every university town have at least one, good bookshop that caters to the life of the mind?”


SISTER ACT: Padma & FIfi with mom,
Laida  Lim (photo by Rudi Tabora)
Aside from books, brand new and pre-loved (yeah, second-hand), Mt Cloud also offers alternative and independently-produced music CDs and videos on DVDs and the occasional objet d'art. [insert shameless plug here: our documentary on the history of Baguio, “Portrait of a Hill Station,” is available at Mt Cloud] And if the money in your wallet isn't enough to buy a particular find, you can ask Padma to reserve it for you: my 8 year-old son Aeneas has a book or two reserved in his name. 

While Baguio brings to mind images of mountains and clouds, I had to ask, why Mt Cloud? And Padma says,  “Mountain cloud, Mount Cloud, Mt (empty) Cloud, is a play on words. People can read it and say it as they wish. It's also a statement on where we are -- here, floating in the solid mountains and in the space between your ears.”

Thursday, August 12, 2010

A masterpiece in "Master Class"

“Maria Callas is teaching a master class in front of an audience (us). She is glamorous, commanding, larger than life and drop-dead funny. An accompanist sits at the piano. Callas' first "victim" is Sophie, a ridiculous, overly-perky soprano, dressed all in pink.

"Sophie chooses to sing one of the most difficult arias, the sleepwalking scene from “La Sonnambula,” an aria that Callas made famous. Before the girl sings a note, Callas stops her she clearly can't stand hearing music massacred. And now what has started out as a class has become a platform for Callas. She glories in her own career, dabbles in opera dish and flat-out seduces the audience. Callas gets on her knees and acts the entire aria in dumb show, eventually reducing the poor singer to tears. But with that there are plenty of laughs going on, especially between Callas and the audience. Callas pulls back and gives Sophie a chance to use what she's learned. As soon as Sophie starts singing, though, Callas mentally leaves the room and goes into a sprawling interior monologue about her own performance of that aria and the thunderous applause she received at La Scala. Callas wakes up and sends Sophie off with a pat.

"The next two sessions repeat the same dynamic, only the middle session is with a tenor who moves Callas to tears. She again enters her memories, and we learn about Callas' affair with Aristotle Onassis; an abortion she was forced to have; her first elderly husband whom she left; her early days as an ugly duckling; the fierce hatred of her rivals; and the unforgiving press that savaged her at first. Finally, we meet Sharon, another soprano, who arrives in a full ball gown. With Sharon singing, Callas is genuinely moved, for the young singer has talent, but Callas tells her to stick to flimsy roles. Sharon is devastated and spits back every nasty thing you've ever heard about Callas: She's old, washed up; she ruined her voice too early in her career; she only wants people to worship her, etc. Sharon rushes out of the hall, and Callas brings the class to a close with a beautiful speech about the sacrifices we must make in the name of art.”

- Synopsis of Terrence McNally’s “Masterclass”


I was introduced to the great Maria Callas years ago when, as a typical struggling, broke young theater artist, way before pirated CDs can be bought at every street corner, I was browsing through a stack of audio CDs on sale in some record store. I simply wanted to get my hands on anything that can augment my very lean music collection on CD (cassette tapes were still an option then, and a much cheaper one at that). I chanced upon this album with a portrait of a beautiful woman on the cover called, Live! by Maria Callas. Together with two other CDs on sale - a Vivaldi and a Bach, my hard earned chump change got me three discs. What started out as an attempt to simply boost my CD collection became a love affair with classical music that lives on to date, much thanks to Callas’ powerful, engaging... ah, who am I kidding - her voice is indescribable, you’ll just have to hear, nay, experience it.

Cherie Gil as Maria Callas

For the last few weeks, I kept on getting invitations and reminders about those invitations from a good friend to make a trip to Manila to experience Terrence McNally's 1996 Drama Desk Award and 1996 Tony Award Winning Show, “Master Class.” I had no idea what it was, but I wanted so bad to make it to one of the performances if only to be there when two of Baguio's best theater talents go on the legitimate stage alongside other renowned performing artists.

I did all I can to make time for it, but sadly, previous commitments prevented me from making that trip to Manila. So I did the next best thing: I interviewed that good friend, Kay Balajadia-Liggayu, who plays soprano “Sharon Graham” in this production and had her walk me, us, through the whole thing:


Me: How did you get the part?

Kay Balajadia-Liggayu: I auditioned to be part of the cast. I actually auditioned for the role of the tamer soprano, Sophie de Palma who sings Bellini as I felt the aria “Ah! non credea mirarti” suited my voice more. But the director (Michael Williams), although he sounded happy with my reading and singing, asked me to audition for the not so tame-nervous wreck-high strung soprano, Sharon Graham. I told him I didn't know the aria. And he said, “study it and come back in two hours.” I did just that and got the role.

Me: So tell us, what is this play all about?

KBL: I think the material is brilliant. It is reflective not only of Maria Callas and her feelings, frustrations, fears, pains, ambitions, and principles as an artist but also of Maria Callas as person. The Maria Callas portrayed offstage is more vulnerable, more real, a person who was heartbroken. Her passion was for everything that she did and she didn't care if she got hurt in giving her all. And in this sense, artists and non artists can relate to how such consuming passion can be both fulfilling and destructive.

The material is semi fictional because it was based on actual masterclasses held at the Juilliard School and which the playwright Terrence McNally witnessed himself. There is actually a DVD of those masterclasses held by Maria Callas.

Me: Your role?
Kay Balajadia-Liggayu

KBL: I play the role of Sharon Graham, one of the students of Maria Callas, who sings the aria “Vieni T'affretta,” the aria of Lady Macbeth form the opera Macbeth by Verdi.

Sharon Graham is extremely nervous facing Maria Callas so that she actually throws up because of her fear of the legendary dramatic soprano. She ends up performing well and is complimented by "La Divina" but Maria Callas, unpredictable as ever, puts her down in the end and tells Sharon that she does not have the voice for the aria she chose. Sharon's anger gets the better of her and she screams hateful words at Maria Callas.

Me: Walks us through the process of putting this show together.

KBL: At the start, we had several readings to get used to the flow of the words and to try to "cure" some accents. We studied the thoughts and actions behind the lines because the director wanted the interactions between the actors to be as real and direct as possible. "NO ACTING" was the motto. The theatre was supposed to be like the venue at Juilliard and the audience should be part of the masterclass. Later in the period of rehearsals, interrelationships were analyzed and approaches refined. Workshops were held.

Me: How would you compare local performing artists to the artists you're working with in this production?

KBL: I always tell people everywhere that Baguio Artists are extremely talented and can compete anywhere in the world. Even with the dearth in opportunities for artists in Baguio, the talent and ability still shines. If “Master Class” was staged in Baguio, we would have a cast that can be comparable to the cast we have in Manila now.

Me: Allow to digress a bit. What do you think Baguio theater needs to produce a masterpiece such as Master Class?

KBL: Baguio theatre needs funding. The Baguio performing arts scene needs to be supported and promoted by the government. The performing arts should be appreciated and seen not as a hobby but as a professional undertaking that deserves no less than proper compensation and respect. Maria Callas says in the play something to the effect that what we are doing is art and art is beauty, and we should be paid for what we do, and properly paid for it. She also aptly describes the state in Baguio: We bare our hearts and souls as artists and what do they say...they say "huh?"

The passion and commitment is also in the lines "Ho dato tutto a te:" I gave everything to you and there is nothing left to give.


I can’t help but think that this play seem to tell the story of local artists here in Baguio.

If you want and do have the time to journey down to Manila for a life-changing evening of masterful theater, you may still catch Ms. Balajadia-Liggayu perform in the last performance of “Master Class” which features Cherie Gil as the great Maria Callas, with another Baguio artist, tenor Juan Alberto Gaerlan as Anthony Candolino on August 15, 2010 at 3:30PM at the RCBC CARLOS P. ROMULO AUDITORIUM, Gil Puyat Ave. cor. Ayala Ave., Makati. Also in the cast are Florence Aguilar as Sophie de Palma, Ana Feleo (who alternates with Ms. Balajadia-Liggayu), Francis Amora as the pianist Manny, and Chino Veguillas as the stagehand.

For inquiries, call/text 09162613452 (Jay) or 09175100527 (Kay).

The cast of "Master Class" with director Michael Williams (center, in red)

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Getting there... from day one to opening night

An audience of a thousand elementary pupils in one of
Open Space's performances in Candon, Ilocos Sur 
One of the biggest challenges that a community-based theater group faces is performing to an uninitiated audience. In the last decade or so, while we obviously love performing for Baguio's theater-going public, we have had to interrupt a few performances when the audience got to be too unruly thereby making it impossible for a performance to go on, particularly matinees filled with elementary pupils and/or high school students.

The late Philippine theater pillar, Rolando Tinio, a playwright, director and actor, was also notorious for interrupting performances. And when confronting the audience in such instances, he would essentially let them know that with all the hard work that artists put in a production, they deserved some respect.

Eventually, we found out that these unfortunate interruptions happened to other groups too in Baguio and wanting to avoid such confrontations, we racked our brains for ways to avoid them. We came up with a pretty simple yet so far effective solution: information. Before a play starts, we would have someone go up on stage to do a preamble that includes some background on the material being presented and basic theater etiquette (we must admit that the latter would also include a mild threat that anyone disrupting the performance will be escorted out of the theater). Then at the end of each performance, we would hold an open forum where the audience can interact with the artists and technicians – the director, designers, actors, stage managers, etc. Doing this somehow helped, for since we started doing it, we have never had to stop another performance.

In these open forums, one of the most asked questions is, “how long did it take you to put this play together?” I usually jump at this chance to let the audience know about our production process -

Musical Director Ethan Andrwe Ventura leading music
rehearsals in this 2006 production of  "Once on this Island" 
PRE-PRODUCTION – is basically the planning stage and making preparations before rehearsals begin. Once the script is chosen, the ball gets rolling. In our group, staging a play would basically involve two groups of people – the artistic staff and the production staff. The former is headed by the director and is made up of the creative team, i.e. the actors, designers, etc. and the latter by the executive producer, who leads the production team including the production manager, the marketing team, etc. The director and the producer would meet to discuss the feasibility of staging a particular play - the director would give the producer a general idea about his concept for the play, and based on that, the producer would then come up with a production budget. Sometimes it'sthe other way around – the producer presents the available budget for a production and the director would have to adjust his concept accordingly. With the amount of time, energy and money it takes to stage a production – a middle ground between artistic integrity and commerce is necessary.

Questions we usually ask ourselves when choosing a script, aside from its artistic values, are – does it fit into our theme for that particular theater season? Is it relevant to our target audience? Given our available artists, can we put together the cast for the production? Do we have the right venue for it? Can we afford to stage it?

But, though we know that commercial viability must be taken into consideration, one of Open Space's biggest folly is not letting this get in the way of staging what we believe is a good play. If the revenue projections aren't promising, but we believe that the play must be seen by our audiences, then we go ahead with it with eyes closed.
Once the director and the producer agree to go on with a production, a stage manager (who works directly with the director) and a production manager (who works under the producer) are hired for the production. The first production meeting is held between them – the two managers are briefed about the production – both on the artistic and financial aspects of the production. From there, the stage and production managers would work together to come up with a Master Production Schedule: from the next production meeting all the way to opening night. Also in that production meeting, the director would name his choices for the design team – lights, sound, set and costume designers (plus a musical director for musicals, and a choreographer if the play requires choreographed dancing). The managers would arrange a second meeting, this time with the designers, where the director can give them his concept for the play, which is going to be the basis for their respective designs.

From the time the script is chosen to this second meeting usually takes two weeks. A week is given for the designers to come up with their designs, and barring any revisions called for by the director, then casting and staffing begins.

The cast helping set up lighting and sound equipment in this
performance of "Tonyo/Pepe" in Candon, Ilocos Sur. (2006)

Staffing involves putting together the rest of the production team – the stage manager would usually get two assistants, and so would the production manager. If the director hasn't pre-cast the play, then auditions would be scheduled, which is organized and handled by the stage manager and his assistants. Auditions can run for a few days. The first part would be the general auditions where the director would narrow down his choices. The callbacks, or the ones who make it to the director's shortlist, would be asked to come back again for another round of auditions. An audition for a straight play usually involves having actors read a scene from the script, and one for a musical would have them singing a song. Staffing and casting usually takes a week or more to accomplish.

PRODUCTION PROPER - so roughly three to four weeks since the script was chosen, we are ready to go into the actual production of the play. We usually reserve the first day of rehearsals for the first general production meeting with everyone involved present. Here, everyone is introduced, so that everybody knows who they're collaborating with. The final set design is also presented to everyone. After that, a reading of the script is done. The director can ask for anywhere between one to five readings before going into the next phase of the rehearsal. So after more or less a week and several readings of the script, actual rehearsals begin.

We start with blocking where the director directs the movement/positioning of the actors onstage. In our production of Manifest Destiny, a one-act play with 12 scenes with a total running time of about 90 minutes, it took us about 3 days to block, then review, then polish each scene. So to block, review and polish all scenes in a one-act play may take roughly 40 days. In these 40 days, the following also took place:

1. Set and props construction (which, in our case more often than not, is also done by the actors and whoever else is free and willing).

2. Pictorials – for photos that will be used for publicity.

3. The lighting, sound and costume designers have watched the run-throughs (or rehearsing a scene or segment from start to finish without stopping) and have done their respective designs accordingly.

4. Costumes were put together based on the costume designer's specifications.

5. Public relations campaign is ongoing (traditional tri-media and online advertising, posters, flyers, etc.) and letters have been sent to various institutions such as schools, companies, etc. inviting them to watch the play.

Performer Rosaline Niwane getting ready for an outdoor
performance of Kafagway at the Rose Garden,
Burnham Park, Baguio City.
Once the play is blocked, the actors, with the director, can now work on making flesh and blood out of the characters they're playing – also called as characterization and internalization. It is also during this time that the actors get to wear their costumes for the first time, a couple of weeks or so before opening night, so should there be any piece of costume that needs to be adjusted, there's more than enough time to do so. More run-throughs are done after this, and after maybe another couple of weeks, everything is brought into the actual performance space.

Once rehearsals move from the rehearsal hall to the actual theater, the one thing that must be ready when everyone arrives for the first day of rehearsals is the set. The stage managers, together with the stage crew, usually arrive much earlier on that day to rehearse the set changes and transitions. Then with the actors, a set-adjustment rehearsal. Here, the actors get to move around the actual set for the first time, and they need some time to get adjusted. After that, a run-through of the whole play is done. While the lighting and sound designers have had their designs ready much earlier, this is also the first time that their seeing the actual set with the actors on it. The next day will be their day – technical rehearsals. Earlier on that day, the lights would have been focused and plotted. A sound check would've been done also. When the actors arrive for rehearsals later that day, everything must be ready for another run-through. This is usually one of the longer rehearsals to allow for adjustments in the lighting and the sound. This usually happens a couple of days before the actual performance.

The day before opening night is usually reserved for the dress rehearsal – here, everything that's going to happen on opening night, minus the audience, happens. Everything is rehearsed – from what goes on onstage and backstage, to front-of-house management, or ushering. This is usually the time when we invite the media, friends and relatives to watch so the ushers also get to rehearse controlling a crowd.

So, at the very least, for a non-musical, one-act straight play, from the time the script was chosen to the time you, our audience, showed up with your ticket, takes roughly three months of hard work, and lots of fun. Give another couple of weeks if it's a full-length play. Add another month if it's a musical to allow for music rehearsals. Another couple of weeks for choreography if the play calls for it.

It is definitely not a work in the park, so to speak, but despite all the hard work, the bond formed by sharing the same vision... the intensity of those 90 days... and the applause of a respectful and appreciative audience when we finally get to opening night... make it all worthwhile.

A scene from "Kafagway: Sa saliw ng mga Gangsa," Open Space's tribute to
Baguio City on its centennial year.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Scripts, pencils, pain reliever, coffee... anyone? (or the Art of Stage Management)

I was 14 when I was introduced to professional theater. I was cast in the Cultural Center of the Philippines' Tanghalang Pilipino's production of Paul Dumol's “Fancisco Maniago.” As a neophyte, I was in awe of everything happening around me then – the way the actors conducted themselves during rehearsals, the Zen-like calm that enveloped our director, Nonon Padilla, the professionalism of the proceedings (I was coming from a few years of working with my mother's ragtag theater group, Workshop for Creative Survival). But one particular group in the production intrigued me the most: they were the ones who dressed in the most interesting way, acted the busiest and who seem to be the ones responsible for almost everything and anything the rehearsals needed – from copies of the script to props to coffee. I knew then that in my next production, I wouldn't be onstage but backstage with the coolest people in theater: the stage managers.

It never fails to shock me to learn that there are certain production groups that continue to regard stage managers as nothing more than gofers who make coffee for everyone in the production. Different theater companies, different directors may have different ideas of what a stage manager really is and does, but there are certain standards that define the fundamental responsibilities. Once, I was called to help out with the technical concerns of a major musical produced in Baguio and I couldn't believe that the production didn't have a stage manager! Why was that shocking? Well, let me give you an idea about what a stage manager essentially is and does:

Imagine a large office with many different departments each having its own telephone. If anybody wants to know what's going on in a production, he would first need to know which department to call and who exactly to look for. Or he can easily call that office's trunk line – one number manned by an operator who can connect him to whichever department he wishes to contact. The trunk line is what stage management is essentially about, and that operator is the stage manager – he acts as the liaison between the director and the rest of the members of a production.

Just like a large office, a theater production involves a number of people belonging to different departments – you have the artistic staff that includes the director and the designers; the production staff headed by the production manager; the technical staff headed by the technical director; the front-of-house management staff that includes the ushers; the marketing staff that includes the marketing manager, ticket office manager, etc. While the stage manager works directly with the director, he or she must know everything that's going on in a production. Basically, if anybody wants to know anything about a production, you ask the stage manager, the person responsible for the smooth running of the production process – from pre-production to post-production:

PRE-PRODUCTION - The director works with a number of different artists in a production – cast, designers, technicians – quite a headache if he would have to directly communicate with all of these people when he needs to. His alter-ego, the stage manager, takes care of that. From the time a play was chosen to be staged and a director was hired for the production, the stage manager must already be there, and together with the production manager, coordinate that nest to play production: the first production meeting between the director and the designers.
When casting, the stage manager prepares the venue and coordinates the audition process.

PRODUCTION PROPER - The stage manager ensures that the rehearsals run smoothly – making sure that the venue is prepared for it, all actors have their scripts, the rehearsal schedule is followed, all temporary props are ready. He will do everything to make it easy for everyone in the production to their job – and would not hesitate to walk the extra mile to do so (and that's probably why they're often seen making coffee for the director or the cast for he or she does whatever it takes to make a production a success). He puts together the bible of a production: the prompt or stage manager's script which contains all the information needed to run the show – from blocking to cuing.

He makes sure that the different departments are in sync with the rehearsal process – the actual props must be ready by the time the director has finished blocking the play and is beginning to conduct run-throughs; that the costumes are being made not only according to the actors size but also to the way the actor will be moving onstage; that the sets will be ready by the time they move in to the actual performance venue; the lighting and sound designers are prepared in time for the technical rehearsal, etc.

He takes note of everything the director says – from blocking to acting directions, to lighting and sound cues. He needs all these for he will be the one to run the show once it opens.

OPENING NIGHT AND BEYOND - Once I was asked to describe what a stage manager is, and I said that he or she is a negative thinker in a positive way. And that's because a good stage manager anticipates anything that can go wrong in a production, and already have a solution for it – no matter how seemingly ridiculous that problem is. He or she must know exactly what to do if a lead actor with no understudy is absent during a rehearsal (or worse, a performance); or if the power goes out during a show; an impossibly rowdy audience high school students; an earthquake; a fire; a terrorist attack! He is the one person everybody will turn to when something goes wrong. He must have an answer.

Once the dress and technical rehearsals are done, when the play opens, the job of the director is over and it becomes the stage manager's show. All cues come from him or her, from the go-signal to open the house to cuing the fading of the house lights down to half for the National Anthem to all the light and sound, entrance and exit cues during the show. If he did his or her job well during the rehearsals - taking notes properly, the job of running the show will be easier. He or she will also rely on those notes to make sure that every performance goes according to the director's vision. I always say that the Number 1 rule in stage management is: WRITE EVERYTHING DOWN.

POST-PRODUCTION - And since the stage manager is the one person who knew everything that went on in a production, he is the one tasked to compile the production book which chronicles what went on in a production from day one to the last performance (even the cast party, if you will). This will make it easier for the company to re-stage any particular production in the future.

I mentioned earlier that I was intrigued by the way CCP's stage managers dressed. You would know if a stage manager is making his or her way down one of the corridors of the Cultural Center of the Philippines without looking just by listening to the jingling and jangling sounds he or she makes. The stage manager is usually dressed in the most comfortable attire possible – comfortable enough to do all the things that the actors do during rehearsals and rugged enough to be able to get down on his or her knees to hammer a nail here or there yet presentable enough to command the respect of everyone in a production. The accessories would usually include a role of masking tape on one arm and duct tape on the other. A stopwatch would hang from his neck. His belt bag is a Pandora's box that contains any imaginable thing that might be needed – Swiss knife, pain relievers, pens and pencils, markers, highlighters, cutters, scissors, etc. What cannot fit in that belt bag will be contained in his ridiculously huge bag. It took me months and months from the time I was given the chance to be a stage hand to the time I stage managed my first production to complete what is called the Stage Manager's kit, and even then I always thought that there's always one or two items missing in my kit.

In her handbook for stage managers called, “Stage Managers Do Make Coffee” (, Carissa Dollars lists down her “10 Golden Rules of Stage Management” as follows:
1. Learn From Mistakes. No one is perfect. We all make mistakes as we practice our crafts. The best thing anyone can do is to analyze these situations and learn how to avoid making the same mistake again.
2. Don't Panic! Always remain calm, cool and collected. Never, Never yell. All Stage Managers should know the difference between raising their voices to be heard and yelling. If the Stage Manager loses it, everyone will panic.
3. Safety First! The cast shouldn't set foot on the stage unless you would walk on it barefoot. Inspect the set daily for potential problems. Are all stairs and platforms secure? Are all escapes adequately lit and glow taped? Do you know where the first aid kits and fire extinguishers are located? Who is certified in CPR and First Aid? The SM should be!
4. Plan & Think Ahead. What can be done to avoid problems? How can the Stage Managers make life easier for everyone?
5. There Are No Dumb Questions. It is better to ask and fell silly for a few seconds than to cause a disaster later.
6. Prioritize Tasks & Delegate Authority. One person can't do everything. Why do we have assistants if we don't use them?!
7. Early Is On Time. The SM should always be the first person in and the last person out of the theatre for a meeting or rehearsal. I always try to show up about 15 minutes before I really think I need to be there, just in case traffic is bad or any problems or delays occur.
8. Put Everything In Writing. In other words, be a communicator! Dated daily rehearsal notes aid in communication and help to avoid conflicts over when requests or changes were made. (Voice mail and email are also great forms of communication! Get a pager or cell phone so you are easy to reach at all times!)
9. Please & Thank You. Use these word everyday, especially when you are working with volunteers.
10. Stage Managers DO Make Coffee. They also do a million other menial tasks that are meant to make people happy and boost morale. Buy donuts, bake brownies, make sure birthdays are recognized, and hole-punch all paperwork. These little things are really appreciated by everyone.

Not too many people realize it, but the success of a production relies heavily on the efficiency of its stage manager. I was even told once that in Broadway, there are instances when a play is patronized specifically because of its stage manager. As my stage management guru, Lambert de Jesus of Tanghalang Pilipino, used to always stress to us newbies then: Just like Directing or Acting, Stage Management is a craft! And not everybody can be one! And I agree with him 100%. I have worked with countless stage managers in my career, but I can only count with one hand the stage managers whom I believe knew what they were doing and did it well.

As a stage manager, remember that it is never about you, the production always comes first. Your director will bow on opening night, you won’t. Your cast will be written about in the papers, you won’t be. Audiences will ask for everyone’s autographs, except yours. But you would know, deep in your heart, if you did what’s expected of you and what you’re really supposed to do - make it easier for everyone else to do their job - that the production would not have been a success without you.

And that feeling is priceless.


Thursday, July 8, 2010

Painting three dimentional pictures... onstage

I remember picking up this book that featured a collection of plays in a bookstore once while passing the time. There were about eight or 10 plays in it and I remember browsing through the first few lines of each play and how the last play in the collection, itself a collection of monologues, caught my attention. I remember ending up reading the whole script right there and then, and eventually buying the book and re-reading that script over and over again at home. I remember how I exasperated my best friend then talking endlessly about that script and how wonderful it was. I have been acting onstage professionally for four or five years already at the time, and I thought of giving copies of the script to actors, producers and directors I knew in the hope that they too will fall in love with it, just like I did, and stage it so I can see it come alive onstage. While a lot of them were amused by it, none of them were amused enough to want to stage it. So I did it myself, for I thought that the story must be told. And my life as a director began.


While it is true that directors usually get hired to direct plays predetermined by the producers for various reasons – theme, commercial appeal, etc. – an inspired theater production usually begins when the director himself falls in love with the script. It’s much like seeing a movie and liking it so much that you can’t stop thinking about it after, you can’t stop talking about it to your friends, you can’t stop imploring them to go see it themselves. In this case, it’s a director reading a script and liking it so much that he or she can’t stop thinking about it and wanting to share that story to as many as people as possible – and the only way to do that is to make that script fulfill its destiny: to be brought to life onstage.


The script. After reading a particular script and falling in love with it, the director will learn what the playwright’s intention was, why he told this story and why he told it this way and his own interpretation of the play takes shape. At that point, after reading the script perhaps for the nth time, in his mind the written text ceases to be a caboodle of words on a page and begins to take shape as a three-dimensional live presentation – if a stage direction in the script dictates that “there’s a chair upstage right,” in the director’s mind he can already see that chair, what kind of chair that would be and at what angle it should be positioned, and how the actors would interact with that chair.


To me, there are four fundamental elements of theater. First and foremost, as aforementioned, is the script. And then, there’s Space. Or more particularly, the Performance Space. This, I believe, is the theater artist’s true medium: space. It serves as the director’s blank canvas where he paints the story.


While it is ultimately the director who decides what and who goes on stage, and how and why, theater is essentially a collaborative art form. It involves the creative and technical input of different artists. It is important for the director to be able to lead his co-artists into realizing his vision for the play. The playwright has told the story on paper, the Director’s job is to tell that whole story onstage, and the do that, directs his co-artists to tell their individual stories. And among those who will help realize the Director’s vision onstage are -
The Set Designer – who tells the story of the space. He creatively recreates the physical space wherein the story takes place.

The Costume Designer – who helps tell the story of each of the characters through their clothing. He has read the script and has an idea about what pieces of clothing he would need to design. He’s been informed of the Director’s idea on each character’s being – his physical, psychological and social circumstances, among others, and he executes his designs accordingly.

The Lighting Designer – he has asked the question: where is this particular scene taking place? What time of day is it taking place? Morning? Noon? Night? What would be the source of light? The sun through a window? The moon? A lamp post? He would then position the lights according to the answers to these questions – an outdoor morning scene may have bright whites with a tinge of yellow to recreate the bright morning sun’s light, or perhaps a beam of amber to emulate the light thrown by a lamp post, while the rest of the stage will be flooded in soft whites and blues like the way the moon lights up a courtyard on cloudless night.

The Sound Designer – either by doing it live or putting together recorded sound, he adds to the reality being recreated onstage by making the audience, and the actors, actually hear the sound of rain and thunder claps so they believe that this particular scene takes place on a stormy night.

And of course, The Actor/s – they will work closely with the director to create believable portrayals on stage. He has done a character sketch – a biography of the role he is playing. The play may take place in a span of just a few days or hours in the life of the character, but The Actor knows that he must be able to recreate and communicate a 40-year old character’s 40 years of existence – the events in his life that helped make him who he is – and believe deep inside him that he was the one who journeyed through those 40 years for only then will the audience willingly surrender to the suspension of disbelief, and that what results in a magical theatrical experience.

And all of the stories told by the artists above, when put together, tells the story of the play. And that’s the director’s job. He will infect everyone with his love and passion for the story he wants to tell. It is his job to motivate everyone and enable them to express themselves individually and as a group.

Once he has chosen his staff and designers and has cast actors for the roles required, he begins the production process with a reading of the script, this helps everyone acquire a deeper understanding the play. He may call for more than one reading session, and in these sessions, he begins to share his vision of the play, his concept, his interpretation, and this will guide everyone else in telling of their respective stories.

And as the designers begin to work on their creations, the Director begins to paint his three-dimensional picture onstage using his actors. He starts by blocking them on stage, or determining their positions and movement within the performance space. Step by step, he helps them become the characters they are playing. Eventually, he will add all the other elements, the creations of his co-artists – the costumes and make-up that the actors will wear, the scenery that the set designer created, the lighting and sound design, etc., and the artwork is almost done.

I say almost done for we are now down to our fourth element necessary to complete the art process – the AUDIENCE, for no art work is truly complete until it has been experienced by an audience. And once the curtains are drawn on opening night, the Director’s job is essentially done. It is now up to the rest of his collaborators – the actors, the designers, the technicians, etc. to ensure that his vision is realized in every single performance.

In the coming months, I am quite sure that local theater scene will come to life once again with various productions opening in various theaters in Baguio. Take a break from the usual and more popular forms of entertainment such as television and cinema, and spend a magical evening at the theater and experience the stories told by local directors such as Dan Riopay, the dynamic, young resident director of Tangahalang SLU; Ferdie Balanag, among the pillars of Baguio theater who directed the local production of “La Mandragola” at the Victor Oteyza Community Arts Space years ago, and more recently the musical “Bintao” at the UC Theater; Martin Masadao, also a playwright and who usually stages his production at UP Baguio and who wrote, directed and acted in the much loved collection of monologues, “Baguio Stories,” or the indefatigable dynamic duo of local theater, Atty. Dammy and Bing Bangaoet, who may just find the time to get out of their beautiful sanctuary in Tomay to regale local audiences once again with a delightful musical.


Thursday, July 1, 2010

And the Dionysian goes to...

In the beginning the playwright created what we call a script. And if that script is good, a director might pick it up and translate that into a theatrical presentation. He would cast actors for the various roles required by the play and collaborate with other artists for the various design concerns (scenery, costumes, lights, etc), organize all of these in a space called a stage, and invite an audience to experience what we call theater. I believe that there are only four major elements we need for theater: An idea or concept or the script; a performance space; the artists who will translate that idea or script into a live performance; and lastly, an audience.

It all begins with the script. We may marvel at the sight of a spectacular set design, or be enamored by a lead actor or actress, but all this would not exist if not for the playwright who wrote down his ideas with the intention of having brought to life on stage.

Today most people would most likely remember a play for the major stars that performed in it, or perhaps a particular special effect such as the presence of a life-size helicopter onstage as in the musical “Miss Saigon” or the heart-stopping descent of a majestic chandelier in “Phantom of the Opera,” often failing to notice where it all begins: the script.

Theater as we know it today is an art form that begins with a literary work written specifically for the stage with the intention of having this work performed onstage. This particular theater form may have had its roots in ancient Greece where they staged plays in honor of the Greek god, Dionysus. This annual tribute took on the form of a competition, perhaps the Tony or Olivier awards of that time, between communities. Though the Greek playwrights’ works eventually evolved, adding more and giving more emphasis on actors in their works, in the beginning and for a long time, the performances involved only one actor onstage who lead a group of performers called a “chorus,” who performed not raised onstage but in a pit below it called the “orchestra”.

The word with which we associate dramatic arts, “Thespian,” was derived from the name of one particular dramatist who won the competition in 534 B.C., Thespis. In this day where we are more interested on who this year’s best actor or actress would be, it is interesting to note that according to some historical accounts, these competitions in ancient Greece gave out only one award: the best playwright. And rightly so, for that is where it all begins: way before the actor “characterizes” and “internalizes,” one artist first came upon an idea that he believed may best be expressed by a theatrical presentation.

And that is probably why when theater history is discussed, particularly western theater history which is the most widely-used theater form today, we learn about the works of Aeschylus (c. 525/24 BC – c. 456/55 BC), known for his Dionysia-award winning play, “The Persians,” Sophocles (c. 497/6 BC – 407/6 BC) who’s mostly known for “Oedipus Rex,” and Euripides (ca. 480 BC – 406 BC), who wrote the plays “Alcestis,” “Medea” and “Trojan Women,” the first three of who are regarded as the five playwrights who dominated Greek drama in the two centuries that followed after Thespis’ time. We don’t know of any “actor” from that time - performances focused on the the story being told. Though the “chorus,” normally composed of around 50 people, was headed by a “choragus,” perhaps the closest thing to what we know now as “actor,” who interacted with the characters in the play, he (only male performers were allowed onstage) was not the focus of these Greek performances, but the play itself. We can only hope that the same attitude towards theater would be adopted here in Baguio, and perhaps whether a particular performance features “name actors” from Manila or equally or even more talented local thespians wouldn’t matter as much as the material being presented.

While the three playwrights above were known for their tragedies, which were given more prominence during the festival, the two other noted Greek playwrights who complete the five were both authors of comedies: Aristophanes (448-380 BC), who wrote the play, “Lysistrata” and Menander (342-292 BC), whose play, “Dyskolos,” is said to be the only work of his that survives in its entirety.

According to the Tupelo Community Theater’s website ( ) the popularity of these playwrights’ works “can also be interpreted as a comment on the role which theatre plays in society at large. Tragedy was at its height in Greek society when that society was at its height, while comedy -- an outlet for the frustrations of society as well as a diversion for the masses - was most popular during the decline of Greek government.”

In the Philippines, theater as an art form was evident in the individual histories of the country’s various indigenous peoples. During the Spanish occupation, Philippine theater took on a more Christian character with the cenaculo (the dramatization of the passion of Christ) and the moro-moro, a presentation that mostly touches on the conflict between Christians and Muslims. It was also during this time that the zarzuela, a theater form involving both spoken lines and singing, gained popularity in the country. Among the country’s famous zarzuelas were “Dalagang Bukid” and “Walang Sugat.” During our country’s fight for independence from the Spaniards, the Katipunan used theater to express the sufferings and aspirations of the Filipino, and to spread the ideals of the secret society, a practice that the revolutionary, Macario Sakay, himself a theater actor, continued when he lead the war against the American colonizers in the early 1900’s.

The advent of a new medium of entertainment in the early 20th century, the cinema, briefly affected the popularity of theater in the Philippines. But the Japanese occupation of the Philippines during World War II, which strictly censored the film industry, once again revived the local theater scene, with “guerilla performances” taking place in various communities, hidden from the watchful eyes of the colonizers, which, just like during the time of Andres Bonifacio and Sakay, once again expressed our country’s hopes and dreams of freedom.

So, in the beginning, is an idea, a concept, that one artist believed in his heart and soul must be communicated to an audience. And the wonderful art process that is theater, begins.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

And this is why we tell the story

“Why are we doing this?” I surprised the participants of the recently concluded theater workshop for teachers of the Department of Education’s Special Program for the Arts held at the Teacher’s Camp last June 10-11, 2010. They were stumped. I asked a more specific question, “why do you think the Department of Education came up with a special program for theater for high school students?” No reply. “Or even more specifically,” I added, “why do we want to teach theater to high school students?” And after a few moments of silence, a rather flamboyant male teacher raised his hand and said, “para matuto silang umarte! Tapos, sisikat sila’t yayaman!” Good luck with that. Then I proceeded to give them a real picture of what it’s really like to be a theater actor.

One cannot make a decent living out of this. You may be one of the most sought after stage actors in town, perhaps even in the whole country - applauded and adored by many, but at the end of the day, you cannot put food on the table if you rely only on your income as a theater artist. There will be times when you’ll be working on a production for three or four months and bring home only enough money to feed you for a few weeks. And even if you’re cast in a production where the pay is really good, you’re not sure if there will be another one like it after the last curtain call. But despite all that, you will always be expected to commit more than 100% of yourself in every production. There may even be times when you will get screamed at, humiliated in front of your peers by a rather temperamental director. You may be having a bad hair day or coming down with the flu, but everyone – from the director to your co-actors to the stage hands – will still expect you to be at rehearsals that day. They’ll give you “that look” the next day if you don’t show up. Job security is a concept that doesn’t exist in this field. It’s not just about doing your best to land a role in a new production soon after finishing one – you’re never sure if there will actually be a production at all next week, next month, next year.

And so I asked, again, “so why are we here? Why is the government spending a lot of money to bring you all up here to learn about theater and how to teach it to your students if this is the kind of life that awaits them should they actually pursue a career in theater?” Nobody gave an answer this time, and I, too, did not give one. Instead, I told them a story.

Years ago in some remote town in Pangasinan, we were invited to stage our production of “Tonyo/Pepe”, two one-act plays on the lives of Antonio Luna and Jose Rizal, respectively. It has been decades since the last time a play was staged in that town. There was no theater as we know it - no lights and sound equipment, no proper seats for the audience. When we arrived with all our sets, props, costumes, technical equipment, we were led to a cemented square in the middle of a school with only a tin roof over it - no walls. There was a concrete stage on one end.

We spent the whole evening the day before the morning performance pasting together old newspapers and painting them black which we then hanged on the sides of the square - these served as walls, darkening the hall enough for our stage lights to matter at all.

After setting up the stage and finishing at around way p[ast midnight, we slept on the cold concrete floor with the empty boxes and spread-out costumes as beds.

We were up by sunrise the next morning - focusing lights, checking the sound equipment, rehearsing and by 9am, we were ready for our 10am performance. We “opened house” at around 9:30am and after letting in a couple hundred excited students, we were amazed by the sight of some elderly people from the community, dressed in formal attire - barong tagalog for the men and dresses for the women (there was even one with wearing a terno). At first we thought they were there to perform also, but when we asked one of the teachers why they were dressed so, she told us that when they heard that there was a dula being performed, they put on their best clothes for this was how they remember going to theatrical performances in their younger days.

We also saw a few tricycle drivers parking their sidecars by the school lining up to get tickets to the show. 10am is a slow hour in their trade, so they decided to pass the time watching a play.

The performance started with Rene Villanueva’s “Tonyo,” and while we were used to having noisy students for our audience, we were quite surprised by the attentiveness of this particular audience. They watched intently and listened to every line being delivered.

The second part, “Pepe,” starts off as a comedy, and the audience responded well to every punchline. Halfway through the second part and the mood changes to being serious - “Pepe” starts talking about the suffering he and his family suffered under the hands of the friars, the soldiers, the guardias civil, and how these abuses seem to still continue to this day. Towards the end, “Pepe,” using lines from the last chapter of “El Filisbusterismo,” challenges the audience: “Nasaan ang mga makabayang opsiyal ng gobyerno, ang mga intelektuwal, ang mga makabayang mangangalakal? Nasaan ang mga kabataang magbibigay ng lakas ng buhay na tumanan na sa aming mga ugat? Ng kalinisan ng pagkukuro na nadungisan na sa aming mga isip? Ng lagablab ng sigabo na namatay na sa aming mga puso? Nasaan kayo? Ang bayan ay naghihintay!”

I was the one playing the part of “Pepe,” and at the end of that line, I clutched a Philippine flag and slowly raised it with my right hand as the first notes of the Natonal Anthem faded in. And the rest of the cast, one by one, went onstage singing the “Lupang Hinirang.” I scanned the audience, who were by this time have stood up and were singing along with us, and a group of tricycle drivers at the back of the make shift theater caught my attention. Not only were they standing up and singing along with us, they had their right fists raised too. And by the time we crescendoed towards “lupa ng araw, ng luwalhati’t pagsinta, buhay ay langit sa piling mo...” I saw tears in the eyes of one tricycle driver.

And that is why we’re here.

Because of people like that tricycle driver. And that group of elderly dressed in their best to hear our story. As long as there are people out there who take time and effort to go to the theater, be it Cultural Center of the Philippines, or in some forgotten elementary school in Tayug, Pangasinan, there we’ll be. Because we know that in that one hour or so, we can make them see the world from a different perspective, enrich their souls, and change their lives forever.

We have performed that particular play countless times in the past, but that morning, it felt like we were doing it again for the first time.

As the dramatist Arthur Miller put it, “The theater is so endlessly fascinating because it's so accidental. It's so much like life.”

In the coming weeks, we shall feature articles about the workings of theater - the people involved, processes, the art and science behind it, and stories that we hope can help our readers understand this wonderful world called theater better.