“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.