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.

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