Behind the curtains

Words by Jonathan Ray Merez

Cultural productions, such as the theater arts, have always been an overlooked field often consumed only for their entertainment value. Looking at theater with deeper and more critical thinking will reveal that it is not only a space for such but also an environment that provides a dialogue for the audience and the art before their eyes. One that urges you to move and react a certain way. 

Professor Julia Pacificador, a theater professor in UPLB and producer of The Palanca in My Mind, describes theater as a platform for communicating and forming connections with each other; a world of endless possibilities where everyone is welcome. Through theater, the audience is introduced to a foreign world that all seems too familiar, a fictional story with elements that mimic the real world. It becomes a space for enlightenment and a place for people to react to and see the reality they live in. 

With the return of face-to-face classes in UPLB, theater productions are also coming back to play. For the past few months, theater arts majors and students have finally been able to perform in front of a live stage, something that is timely as they are living through tumultuous times. 

Tragedy in Theater

When the pandemic hit the country back in 2020, theatergoers and crew members were suddenly jolted into uncharted territory. Directors and crew members now had their usual struggles twofold. However, even before the lockdowns, the theater was an already struggling and often overlooked industry.  

The Philippine theater has been constantly fighting an uphill battle against financial instability with often having no budget to start their production, especially with barely any support from the Philippine government. Campus theater productions also often generate funds through fundraising activities such as selling school supplies and homemade pastries and, if all else fails, the money comes directly from the cast and crew’s own pockets. This may be brought upon by the fact that seems to stretch throughout all art forms: art is undervalued. It’s usually labeled as a hobby or a form of entertainment. The government is not an exception as it constantly downplays the needs of the arts industry for funds, even cutting its budget by a colossal 83.9% this year.

Theater companies also have a difficult time building an audience. Plagued by the lack of theatrical spaces, the performance arts are barely accessible to the masses compared to its other competitors in the entertainment industry such as television and film. Liza Magtoto, who worked on the popular musical “Rak of Aegis,” noted back in 2014 that many theater companies have problems in marketing and bringing in an audience unless it was free of charge. Brought by low budgets which require theater companies to compensate by increasing their ticket prices, the theater often is reserved for those who have the privilege to afford it. This contributes to the common misconception that theater is only a rich person’s pastime. Some only get to watch a Filipino theater show through school field trips or if the play is staged on their campus. 

In UPLB, it was only recently that the students were able to occupy the Student Union Building for a longer period of time. Prior to the admin’s decision to give UPLB students full-time access to the SU building, the campus’ theater organizations were forced to vacate the building once the curfew began which prevented them from having the necessary rehearsals for different scenes. Ryanne Cruz, production manager of UPLB theater production Isko’t Iska, stated that they often face difficulties in finding a venue to rehearse for their plays. The production is currently adopting a hybrid set-up but usually uses the SU basement for rehearsals if they are allowed by the OVCSA. Otherwise, they resort to other open spaces such as the amphitheater, and the canteen in SU, and if there are completely no available student spaces, they are forced to rehearse online which further hinders their progress. 

Theater as a Space for Social Change

Although theater has always been acknowledged as a part of the entertainment industry, describing it as such simply makes theater arts seem shallow and strips it of its purposes in society as a space for social change and documentation of history. Isko’t Iska follows this definition of theater through their performances. Having only freshmen as their actors, they slowly introduce the newcomers to a new political environment as they enter UP. Through the creative process and the production’s story, the audience and cast members alike are exposed to socio-political issues that reflect the current state and struggles of each sector in Filipino society. Cultural productions are not simply a space for people to sit through a play where actors say their lines to each other to entertain the audience. 

During the Marcos dictatorship, theater performances contributed to his eventual, and much needed, downfall. In collaboration with the urban poor, progressive unions, and outlawed political organizations, theater groups became the source of an entirely different socio-political perspective for the masses since the Marcos dictatorship banned any oppositional media from the public. Through their plays such as Oratoryo ng Bayan, Ilokula, and Sabungan ng Bayan, often performed in makeshift stages or the street, progressive theater groups were able to disseminate their message and ideologies by portraying oppressive systems as well as using analogies to portray Marcos and the opposition in hopes of awakening the masses and encouraging them to join their revolutionary cause against the dictatorship. 

During this process, there were countless instances where the police stopped public plays and a number of actors were arrested and tortured. These people include Behn Cervantes, director of Pagsambang Bayan, Fr. Karl Gaspar, who was arrested for the protest plays he produced; and those who met their untimely and unjustified deaths during the martial law era: Merardo Arce, Leo Alto, brothers Armando and Romulo Palabay, and Rizalina Ilagan. Despite these demonstrations of abuse of power, theatrical groups never backed down from the violent censorship and even used it as inspiration to further their cause.

Now that the government is slowly lifting the strict IATF guidelines and classes are returning to a face-to-face setup, people are now allowed to freely travel and watch theater which they have been deprived of for the past three years. UPLB had just recently staged two plays, The Palanca in My Mind and Talaghay, which are the first plays with a physical audience the campus has seen in a while. 

As a common aspect of UP productions, both Palanca in My Mind and Talaghay tackles different Philippine social and political issues. Talaghay tackles how most Filipinos who travel overseas for work and education in hopes of a more paradisiacal situation, even sacrificing higher positions for better pay abroad, are victims of a system that fails them in all aspects. Each character’s situation reflects the experiences of our OFWs and students abroad who left their lives in the Philippines in hopes of better opportunities and education, yet are faced with arguably more struggles than they had back home.

Palanca in My Mind, on the other hand, talks about pursuing art while struggling to make ends meet. Emil Ricafort, Artistic Director of the said play, explains how it tackles accessibility of art for the poor. “Kung mayaman sana si Dory, ‘di niya kailangan mag-work to survive at mafufulfill niya ang dream nya to be an [Palanca] awardee,” he added. 

The play’s production manager Maya Sestoso also stated that it touches the subject of practicality over passion. The word “art” is always linked with “passion” which, unfortunately, are both viewed as only those who can afford can reach. Like in the play, there is this notion that Palanca is almost only a dream to those who belong in the same social status as Dory: the working class. The proletariat has no choice but to choose survival.

In any situation where oppression and social injustices are prevalent in society, the arts become stronger as they turn into vehicles for uplifting and encouraging the masses to fight for their freedom and learn about their present situation. With the current state of the Philippines where red-tagging, corruption, and prices of basic necessities are rising, people are in desperate need of creative mediums that can become spaces for social cohesion and engagement, a space to provoke the audience to see and face the reality that they are currently living. [P]

layout by Arianne Paas

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