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This is the blog of Ian Rosales Casocot. Filipino writer. Sometime academic. Former backpacker. Twink bait. Hamster lover.

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Wednesday, February 04, 2009

entry arrow4:17 PM | Theatrical Stirrings

I don’t exactly remember when I started loving theater, and most especially musicals. Local theater producer Hendrison Go of Little Boy Productions is surer of his own memory. He writes in a Facebook note: “My love of theater I got from my mom. As a child, during bedtime, she would tell me the stories of Chinese opera, and sing some of the songs. It was all from memory, how she remembered them, and she was quite theatrical in the telling, hand gestures and all. One opera would last a few weeks, as she was in the habit of ending each ‘episode’ with a cliffhanger.”

For me, I think it was the first time I saw The Sound of Music on the big screen for the first time. They were showing it in 1985 in Park Theater (which is now a shell of its former self, transformed into a shopping center of the cheap variety). This was around the time they were exhibiting it all over the world for the film’s 20th anniversary. I still remember that moment of introduction well. The theater was packed with people, SRO, and I had to stand at the back—but there was no denying the electricity of watching Julie Andrews cavort in the romantic glow of night with Christopher Plummer, each singing “Something Good” to each other. I was enchanted by the very magical quality of its story-telling. I was ten. I had already seen my share of movies—but of this kind? Never. People were singing! People were falling in love in graceful abandon! Children my age were traipsing around the beautiful Austrian countryside singing “Do Re Mi!”

Years later, I would rediscover the very influence of that musical on my life when, during a road trip with a bunch of close friends, we found ourselves singing, at the top of our voice, the entire range of “I Have Confidence,” lyrics all remembered. How was it possible to remember all those words, after all those years? Only if it is embedded in your soul.

I have recently rediscovered a love of theater again, after a strange hiatus of half-a-decade that saw me completely ignorant of what was going on in Manila, in West End, in Broadway. (Don’t ask why.) In the past few weeks, I have discovered new theatrical gems to treasure, mostly via Hendri, who has been egging me to download one cast recording after another. (To my count, I have already downloaded and have been humming the songs of Avenue Q, In the Heights, The Last 5 Years, and Spring Awakening...)

I particularly love Spring Awakening. I have been listening to its songs nonstop for weeks now, and each day I have grown to appreciate more the subtlety of its material. (And I can’t wait, in fact, for the local production to be staged in Manila this September.) I have a proprietary obsession over it, and it delights me. The last time I went crazy over a musical, it was for Rent, and that was ten years ago. But it almost saddens me to note that perhaps I will always look back at Spring Awakening—one of the best new musicals to come out of Broadway—as the soundtrack of a part of my life that cradled heartbreak. Still, there’s no stopping the obsession. Because there is almost a wistful tenderness in its story of youth gone wild, unanchored by an uncaring adult world. Every song, written by Duncan Sheik, throbs with a delight and sensuality that set them apart from the usually unformed recitatives that make up most of Broadway’s fare. (I was listening, for example, to the cast recording of In the Heights, which shares with Spring Awakening the distinction of having won the Tony for Best Musical, and I remember thinking—I love the Latin beat, but is any song here a “song”? It is the same reserve I have for Avenue Q, which, while truly delightful (in a Sesame Street kind of way) falls away, as a staged spectacle, merely as a piece of irrelevant musicality: its brand of cutesy, heard on record, becomes irritating, and you get away from the listening wanting to kill all talking puppets.) In Spring Awakening, however, every song is memorable, and can stand out as an independent ballad of love and angst—although taken altogether, they transform a story into a powerhouse of drama.

I’m thinking about things theater because of some winds of change, drama-wise, in Dumaguete. It’s almost peculiar, how a different sense of theater has descended the way it has on Dumaguete’s landscape lately. It is something different because it is—in a manner of speaking—new. And anything “new” is always a welcome thing, given most Dumagueteño’s persistent tendency to try and retry the classic, the proven, and the doggone tired—to the point of cadaverous repetition.

That the repetitious actually sell in this city is beside the point. If art must be an extension for how we learn to be more human and engaged in an acute refining of our sensibilities, then the real point is to chart new grounds, to find new expressions, theater-wise, for the complexities of all that we are. A patronage for the recycled is understandable: Dumaguete is really a city full of people lost in nostalgia—those hankering for the innocent tartanilla days and all that—and so, for the longest time, the only kind of theater we seemed to be churning out are of the Rodgers and Hammerstein variety. And why not? They’re familiar. They’re comfortable. We know the lyrics already. Going to the theater becomes an instant sing-along.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with that. I must profess that I love my Sound of Music as much as the next theater freak. One reason why I love Mamma Mia!, despite the schmaltz that threaten to overwhelm my postmodern sense of irony, is the way it engages theater furiously and unapologetically into a communal act of delight. Everyone knows his ABBA, and all come away from the experience fulfilled with that one promise popular entertainment sometimes misses to do: to let people come together in the name of joy.

My only misgiving springs from the fact that, in the pursuit of the tried-and-true, the fresh and the groundbreaking is often left off, simply because they are unfamiliar. And there is nothing like the unfamiliar that rouses the hostility of many. I still remember those years when we persisted to stage Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues amidst the horrified protests of many who labeled us as pornographers—which is testament, of course, to how even well-intentioned (and educated!) people can be led astray by sheer ignorance of the material. Because these materials are edgy, they are mostly left untouched by a community afraid to rock the boat, any boat. Which is to our detriment—because how do we grow, how do we fully engage a changing world (and it is changing fast!) when we refuse to acknowledge the presence of new dynamics and new realities? Even Tevye in Fiddler in the Roof acknowledges that: tradition, yes, but sometimes even the deep-rooted ones can be swept away—whether we like it or not—with the unforgiving wave of new things. When we are not ready because we are not fully engaged, the end is a painful uprooting.

There is a wealth of new (and even not-so-new) materials out there, both foreign and local, that demand our attention, and perhaps our willingness to adapt them on our local stage. Most will be, of course, unfamiliar to the locals, and some may make them uncomfortable by tackling subject matters that threaten to upset, or perhaps unmask, Dumaguete’s Peyton Place veneer. There’s, for example, David Mamet’s Oleanna, about the intricate politics of sexual harassment. Or Rene O. Villanueva’s Asawa, about the sexual darkness of marital abuse. Or John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt, about religious certainty and priestly pedophilia. Or John Larson’s Rent, about a disappearing bohemia in the Age of HIV. I dream of the day when we get the courage to stage materials such as these, and gain an appreciating patronage as well. Enough of old farces like Wilfrido Ma. Guerrero’s Wanted: A Chaperone, those old standbys. Leave them to amateur productions, if we must do them for the sake of introducing the tried-and-true for new generations of playgoers. Any theater person worth his or her salt should be a kind of trailblazer instead.

Sometimes, we ourselves are culprit to such accommodations: the Silliman University Cultural Affairs Committee once looked into the possibility of staging Altar Boyz locally. The musical by Gary Adler and Michael Patrick Walker is a satire about Christian boy bands—and we felt, at that time, that perhaps Silliman—a Protestant institution—was not ready for such material. (But later, I would ask myself: When will we ever be ready? And isn’t the point of higher education also to challenge conventional thinking and create debate? What are we so afraid about?)

The whole thing can be disheartening, given the fact that Dumaguete has always had a rich tradition of theater. We have been routinely staging Shakespeare since the Americans came over to our shores. And we have produced a steady string of award-winning playwrights—Elsa Martinez Coscolluela and Bobby Flores Villasis among them—but whose works have largely remained as file cabinet fodder instead of full stage productions. We gave the Philippines and the world such luminaries as Junix Inocian, who went on to become The Engineer in Miss Saigon; Frances Makil Ignacio, who went on to become the title character in the widely-acclaimed sarswela Atang; Luna Grino-Inocian, who went on to pen and produce the local production of The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe... What happened since the days of Paul Palmore, Elmo Makil, Amiel Leonardia, Meg Doromal, Gamaliel Viray, Rhoda Pepito, and Belen Calingacion?

But look. Things are changing.

I can’t pinpoint the exact moment when I felt that theater was changing for the better in Dumaguete. The evolution has been slow and steady—and there have been many productions over the past few years (Evelyn Aldecoa’s, Ana Borja’s, Mayah Dulnuan’s, Laurie Raymundo’s, Ronnie Mirabuena’s, Claudio Ramos’s, Naddie Orillana’s, to name a few) that kind of contributed to the whole development, but I guess I recognized it for sure when I saw the quirky Kikay Kalaykay, a locally crafted Cebuano musical about—of all things—solid waste management, in Saint Paul University’s Fleur de Lis Hall last year. A YATTA production directed by Dessa Quesada-Palm, from original material written by Joji Benitez and the cast, the musical somehow provided those who witnessed it an incentive to see that we are also capable of making our own theater, from scratch, and make something that truly hums and enchants.

And somehow, theater has become something ubiquitous, but also deeply enmeshed that we almost taken it for granted now—and this is an observation of something good—because it is just there. We’ve already had, in the past two years alone, a wealth of national productions coming to our own town—and beguiling us with possibilities beyond the usual: Repertory Philippines staging an adaptation of Mitch Albom’s Tuesdays With Morrie, New Voice Company in Eve Ensler’s The Good Body, Tanghalang Pilipino in Chris Martinez’s Welcome to IntelStar and Jose Dennis Teodosio’s Gee-gee at Waterina, Actors’ Actors Inc. in A.R. Gurney’s Love Letters and Yasmina Reza’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Art, and, just this weekend, PETA with Christine Bellen’s acclaimed Batang Rizal. That’s five institutions—stalwarts in the Philippine drama scene—descending on the Claire Isabel McGill Luce Auditorium to give Dumagueteños a dose of some of the best of national theater, cast with some of the best names in local theater—Bart Guingona, Miguel Faustmann, Monique Wilson, Juno Henares, Pinky Amador, Audie Gemora, Jaime del Mundo, Lou Veloso, Mailes Kanapi, among others. (This may be a drop in the bucket compared to the outpouring in Manila, but look -- we're a small city. How's that for ambitious.)

And in the coming days alone, we will have local productions of Chris Martinez’s Last Order sa Penguin (directed by Carl Vincent Lim), Bobby Villasis’ Demigod (directed by Jiomalee Ege), Nick Joaquin’s Tatarin (directed by Rusty Ometer), and Wilfrido Ma. Guerrero’s Three Rats and Aureus Solito’s Esprit de Corps (both directed by Claudio Ramos), all in assorted performing spaces around town.

I don’t know what happened, but I must say if this is a harbinger of things to come, then drama has found good legs in the city and it is here to stay until the last stagelight falls away.

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