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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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Saturday, December 19, 2015

entry arrow12:05 AM | The Way of the Kite: YATTA at 10

The passing of the years can astound you in the act of retrospection: it flattens everything into a single instant that you simply cannot believe all those years have indeed gone by. We ask silly questions such as, “Wasn’t it just yesterday when we were doing this or that?” or “Wasn’t it only the other week that I first saw you in this or that?” The answer, of course, is that it wasn’t yesterday or the other week. It was a full ten years ago, but our minds simply recoil from the realization that time may be insanely static in our perception but is in reality insanely fluid in unfolding action.

It has been ten years since Dessa Quesada-Palm, the doyenne of Dumaguete community theatre, founded the Youth Advocates Through Theatre Arts—YATTA to the rest of us who have followed its development over the years. It grew organically from a series of theatre workshops—then called Lambigit—that Dessa was doing for the community after having newly arrived in Dumaguete sometime in 2003. In her recollection of those early years, the Lambigit workshops should have ended with just a final theatrical activity for everyone involved—but seeing the faces of the young participants, she felt a sudden calling for doing something grander, something that went beyond the original purpose of that workshop. She remembered telling the participants: “Would you like for this to go on, if you feel like it?” The response from them was an electrifying yes—and YATTA some came to be.

Rev. Colby Palm, Dessa’s husband, remembered those years in a tribute: “In the beginning we had so little of everything but [we had] so much of fun. Every YATTA gathering felt [like] a Christmas Party. I remember because we had no office, no creative space, and everything happened at the house. The big gatherings would begin with parlor games, and the small gatherings with an exercise warm-up video… When it was time to perform we [also] had so little. I would watch YATTA pack sets, costumes, and bodies into one tricycle, [which would] rumble to the [event venue]… When performing, we had so little, and I would watch YATTA creatively share one single microphone for a whole performance… Then we would all return to the house [and] gather around the TV, all excited to watch the video of our show. [There’d be] heckling and teasing at every mistake [and] every blooper… In the beginning everyone did everything. Everyone had to act, had to sing, had to make sets, had to help write the script the songs.”

The first YATTA show I saw was Kikay Kalaykay, their small musical production about growing up dreaming of a good future while living in a dumpsite. This play first saw staging at the Fleur de Lis Hall at the Saint Paul University Dumaguete campus, which instantly became memorable for its anthem, “The Four Rs”—a rousing anthem, staged in Broadway spectacle, that quickly became a useful mnemonic for better garbage control: “reduce, re-use, recycle, recover.” That was back in 2007, but it might as well have been staged only yesterday. Where do the years go?

Last December 18, celebrating YATTA’s 10th anniversary at The Spanish Heritage, we were reminded by YATTA Board of Trustees member Glynda Timtim Descuatan that the troupe’s symbol—emblazoned proudly in its logo—is a bunch of young people flying a kite. “The kite soars,” Ms. Descuatan said, “but it soars high and constant in the wind because it is grounded by helping hands that tug at it.” In a sense, it is flight that’s molded by the hands of people who know keeping things grounded is necessary for the flying to succeed. That is YATTA’s existence in a nutshell.

For the anniversary, we were treated by YATTA’s current members to a theatrical production in vignettes, recalling some of the group’s greatest hits. It began with one of its first efforts in 2005, Koko Kaka, a small children’s play—really a monologue—that illustrated the virtues of kindness and cooperation. It ended with a restaging of the finale from Scharon Mani, its crowning achievement in 2015 with, a jubilantly composed jukebox musical which sprang from a collaboration with the indie musicians from the Belltower Project and the Silliman University Cultural Affairs Committee or CAC.

Along the way, most of us in attendance were eagerly reminded of our suddenly remembered participations in some of YATTA’s merry shenanigans. In my case, I was reminded I had been part of Kisaw, our three-year effort—between 2009 and 2011—at making the National Arts Month happen in Dumaguete. I had also actually designed their poster for Leon Kilat and Other Short Plays, their first collaboration with the CAC that saw them conquer the Luce Auditorium stage. That was one of two gentle reminders we got about YATTA. That it is about its friends and supporters being able to gather and give back to the community, and indeed we have seen how YATTA has touched many lives beyond its members, coming to involve many of Dumaguete’s brightest and most talented in the pursuit of using theatre for a social purpose.

The second reminder—and perhaps the more important one—is that YATTA is about empowering the community’s youth to get engaged in societal issues with strong imperative. This is its greatest strength. Junsly Kitay, one of its older members, is the perfect example of a YATTA success story—a young boy who hails from one of the city’s slums, whose very life at a young age seemed designed to follow the usual trajectory of failure because of poverty. Theatre, through YATTA, gave Mr. Kitay a ticket out of that arc.

He first heard about the Lambigit workshops in 2002 while watching television and saw Ms. Quesada-Palm inviting young people of all stripes from all over the city to join in. “I remember telling myself, for some reason, that someday I’d be part of that,” Mr. Kitay said. In 2006, four years later, he finally did—ending a long drought in his childhood when every avenue of artistic expression he tried to participate in—the visual arts, dance, choral music—seemed to close off on him. “You will never have to force anything that is truly meant to be,” Mr. Kitay admitted. “And yes, there is a plan, and your soul knows what it is. The world is a big machine, and you are part of it with a singular mission to fulfill—you just have to learn and be patient enough to find it. YATTA helped me find mine.”

For Mr. Kitay, what YATTA taught him is that there can be many good reasons for participating in the arts—one of which is advocacy, and having faith that young people like him can indeed do their part for society through artistic expression. “What first made us feel invested in YATTA is the way it helped us get rid of the fear of performing. And then it got us to do our little part in making costumes and making sets, all practical things that built craft and camaraderie. And then, finally, it got us to think that what we were doing was for a bigger cause beyond any consideration, even that of financial gain. Truth to tell, we were happy with just being given fare and food—as long as we were performing for an advocacy we believed in.”

In his final reflection, Mr. Kitay said: “If I had not joined YATTA, the probability would be that I would be part of the problem that you will have to solve. Now, I am only too happy to be part of the solution instead. It’s true that theater is life—through our performance, we can practice what we wish to happen and we wish to see in our society: for peaceful community, for respect for one another, for working for the good of everyone.

“In the end, I have to confess that I still have many struggles in life. I’ve seen better days, but I’ve also seen worse. I don’t have everything I want, but I do have all I need. My life may not be perfect, but I am blessed with my YATTA family. I may not be there yet [in the road to the fulfillment of all my dreams], but I am closer to it today than I was yesterday [because of YATTA].”

The 10th anniversary event ended with a touching song in Cebuano, sung by everyone clasping hands in a tight circle, which riffed on the simple theme of thankfulness and friendship. “Salamat, higala, sa inyong panahon,” the song went. “Salamat, higala, sa pulo ka tuig. Nabati namo ang inyong paghigugma’g pagtagad. Salamat, higala…”

And rightfully so: the message of that sentimental song is the very foundation of the past ten years of YATTA. Congratulations, Dessa and everyone from our little community theatre troupe that could. What you do—this is how you make a difference.

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