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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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Tuesday, March 07, 2023

entry arrow5:33 PM | In Dumaguete, The Arts Flourish Part 9: A Nest of Theatricality

It was perhaps inevitable that theatre in the pandemic—at least in Dumaguete—would be so intimate, and so closely collaborative with the other art forms that seemed to have an awakening under the full weight of social distancing, face masks, and unease. It was not without challenges.

How does one exactly stage a dramatic work that needed bodies in place and the close communion of audience members in a time that demanded restrictions in all of those considerations, and more?

Theatre in Dumaguete was probably the first type of cultural production to feel the swift and brutal changes the emerging COVID-19 demanded. [Back then, we were still calling it “nCOV-19.”] Rent, the acclaimed Broadway musical by Jonathan Larson, was about to make its first bow at the Luce Auditorium on 21 February 2020, directed by Miren Sofia Jordana—when its premiere was hastily cancelled by Silliman University authorities because of growing pandemic fears, only to be permitted a one-night-only staging a few days later, just to accommodate irate ticket holders and the producers. The show did go on—but you could feel the stress on the cast [which included theatre luminaries such as Ima Castro and local ones such as Hope Tinambacan] and the jitters of the audience members. When the company sang “Seasons of Love,” the show’s paean to counting a year in the life at the end of the first act, it brought up unintended existential considerations: Will there still be us a year later? What if the world was truly ending? It was not an ideal atmosphere for an immersive play like Rent, and after that show, the Luce would go dark for many, many months.

Still, we believed the pandemic would be over by June—so we bid our time. We began pouring into our social media, and virtually performing for each other. We discovered Zoom. But plays performed on Zoom just couldn’t hack it, and I’m not sure anyone in Dumaguete ever did try to do a form of pandemic theatre using that route, save perhaps for the Silliman University Culture and Arts Council mounting a presentation of The Story of Dumpawa’s Lullaby, a musical revue I wrote based on the works of ethnomusicologist Priscilla Magdamo, in October 2020. But it wasn’t through Zoom; it was a videotaped presentation that felt like a throwback to Aawitan Kita, the Armida Siguion-Reyna musical television special that aired for over 30 years in the country. [There was another videotaped presentation in June 2022 during Pride Month, with YATTA doing a dramatic reading of Dean Francis Alfar’s one-act play Short Time.]

There were some valiant attempts at doing theatre the old way but with new health restrictions established. I remember attending a November 2020 performance of Karen Schiff’s Breakfast with Willy, directed by Daisy Hannah Catacutan, and starring Andrew Alvarez as an elderly Polish grocery stocker with a painful past and Malka Shaver as a bored graphic designer with an unsure grasp of what she wanted—a nice blend of comedy with something important to say about the horrors of war, immigration, identity, life choices, and breakfast cereal. The performance space was an open-air affair in a small events venue somewhere near the Sibulan Airport—a place I didn’t know existed until the pandemic happened; the stage crew was kept to a bare minimum; and the audience—just a handful of people—were invitees. A few months later, D Salag Collective—composed of Hope Tinambacan, Nikki Cimafranca, Benjie Kitay, and Karen Silva, all co-directors, co-stars, and co-writers—staged Fighting the Invisible on two May weekend in 2021 at the Sidlakang Negros Village Function Hall, with similar health restrictions, and minimal production crew and audience capacity.

Pandemic theatre was small and intimate, and catered to a select few who were hungering for these kinds of performances in a time of utter lack. But it imploded the long-held notion that we needed proper performance spaces—like the Luce—to stage proper drama. The pandemic somehow democratized the artform, gave it a looser structure, allowed it infusion of all kinds of influences.

Sometime in 2022, the writer Daniella Ureta-Spontak decided to put a performance spin to the poetry she had been writing while in Dumaguete. An American with Filipino roots, she had moved to Dumaguete at the tail-end of 2019, hoping to teach at a university and pursue something creative—not knowing that her stay would soon be marked by a very long lockdown. She had earned a BA in English at the University of San Diego in the United States and an MFA in creative writing at the University of Kent in the United Kingdom, and she had already been published in multiple literary magazines and had won screenwriting contests [including at Sundance]. Dumaguete felt like a place to grow in creatively before she embarked on something else. Unfortunately, the university job fell through—and then the lockdown commenced, and she found herself concentrating on her creative pursuits full time and hosting a weekly writers workshop in Dauin to help others hone their craft with constructive feedback.

She also turned to poetry: “I didn’t take an interest in poetry until I was 20 when a professor showed us a 13th-century poem about a guy complaining about his STD. I was so amused I started reading more. Then I found myself stuck in a class I loathed with a professor I loathed even more, so I started writing poems to pass the time. I’d written a dozen by the time the semester ended. The following semester, I had the chance to stay in Barcelona and visited countless art museums, but I noticed an urge to do more than simply look at the inspiring paintings. I began to bring a pen and paper. Fast forward ten years, and I’m still writing poems whenever I visit an art museum or gallery.”

That inclination to write poetry in art spaces brought her to MUGNA Gallery in Bong-ao, Valencia, where she would find herself penning poem after poem, prompted by the art she saw. Something was brewing in her mind. She began by hosting a body painting event at Shelter Gallery in Tabuctubig on 2 June 2022, using visiting actor Luka Cvitković as human canvas for local artist Hersley-Ven Casero, Faye Mandi, Dyck Cediño, and Cil Flores. In a sense, that was already a kind of theatre—a performance by four visual artists in a kinetic drama of putting color and shade to the human skin.

By the following month, July 2022, Ms. Spontak was ready to take the next step: use her poetry as the prompt to performance in an art gallery, an ekphratic experiment. Over two nights, she presided over Poetry in Motion, a theatrical piece essayed by Hope Tinambacan, Fionabelle Marie Cabe, Jo Camille, and Mayumi Maghuyop—all of them bringing to life pieces of Ms. Spontak’s poetry using the various spaces of MUGNA Gallery as platform to play out the resonances of the pieces, each performer interacting organically with audience members who were free to roam around the space, often interacting with the performers themselves. The magic of the piece could only be made possible with the intimacy of the venue, and the restricted number of spectators.

The success of Poetry in Motion would lead to its “sequel,” Poetry in Motion II, held at the same gallery three months later, in October 2022—this time with the performers [which included two returnees Hope Tinambacan and Jo Camille, and two new cast members Anna del Prado and Tonya Alviola] interacting with the art of Babbu Wenceslao, who was then exhibiting a kind of retrospective of his works in “Asanamo.”

If you care to notice, one common name threads throughout most of these dramatic presentations in the whole of the pandemic in Dumaguete: Hope Tinambacan—someone who has become a household name considering everything he has done, culture-wise, in Dumaguete. And known to many as poet, singer, composer, teacher, actor, director, lead singer of Hopia, co-founder of the Belltower Project, and co-founder of D Salag Collective. Originally from Oroquieta City [but with Negros Oriental roots], he came to Dumaguete in 2001 to study at Silliman University, where he finished with a degree in mass communication—which might come as a surprise to many, since his collegiate and post-collegiate life revolved extensively around theatre and music. [He would cement his academic ties to theatre eventually by finishing a three-year professional diploma program in acting at the famous Intercultural Theatre Institute (ITI) in Singapore, graduating in 2019.]

Coming to Dumaguete as a youngster was really a homecoming. “I’ve never left,” he says. “I’ve been here for 23 years. I’ve moved around more than thirty times already in that interim. My first impression of Dumaguete was really good, I was very impressed. It was intimidating but it also felt light and happy. I felt that the art scene was very active.” He would go on to join the glee club and various theatre productions while in college, which soon led to more serious headways into the local artistic life.

He has garnered a considerable following as the lead singer of Hopia and the primary instigator of the whole musical community experiment called the Belltower Project—now celebrating its tenth anniversary in 2023—but his heart remains steadfast in the theatre arts. He came into his own with various productions under the rubric of the Youth Advocates Through Theatre Arts [YATTA], the foremost community theatre company in Dumaguete, but after graduating from ITI, he felt that he had to go beyond YATTA and make his own mark in the local theatre scene.

Cue D’Salag Collective.

“I just wanted to add to the theatre scene in Dumaguete,” he says. “The idea came to me when I turned 31. That was always the dream, to create a company that was not youth-based, because I was no longer exactly a ‘youth.’ I learned so much when I went to ITI, and I wanted to go home because I just wanted to create and create theatre. So this was really the offspring of what I learned in Singapore. I wanted to apply what I learned.”

When he returned to the Philippines, the first thing he did was stage HauntXHunt at The Oasis in Florentina Homes on 21 June 2019, a two-act performance with fellow ITI graduate Ted Tac-an, where they essayed a surreal dramatization of people’s secret wants. [Before the performance, Mr. Tinambacan solicited confessional “wants” from the attendees, threading all these into a haunting monologue.] It was supposed to be the opening salvo for what he had planned to do theatre-wise—but not in Dumaguete: “When I came back, I decided, together with Ted, that we would create a theatre group in Oroquieta. Not in Dumaguete, since there was still no theatre group in Oroquieta.”

And then the pandemic happened.

“So the pandemic really affected my plans,” he continued. “I was still so fresh from theatre school, and I really wanted to do something. So I told my friends, like Nikki Cimafranca, that I really wanted to do something, because I really wanted to create—and they really liked the idea.”

The next step involved figuring out what to do: how to exactly start a theatre group, how big it would be, what its name would be, how to put it together. Mr. Tinambacan focused on the idea of a nest, a word that also constituted his first name, “Earnest.” For him, it was a symbol for safety, haven, creativity, industry, nesting, “pag-aalaga,” a safe space for artists to explore, an awakening, a birth. They soon focused on the Bisaya word, “salag,” and since he wanted to make the group a collective, the name became “Salag Collective.” He also put the “D” in there, because he wanted to indicate “Dumaguete” or “drama.”

“What matters to us,” Mr. Tinambacan says, “is what the artist has to say, what he feels, what he can create, and what he can envision. That’s why most of our performances are all about what we know and what we feel, and what we are driven. We really want to give life to local stories, personal stories, stories of people who matter to us, stories of people whose stories are not told, those who cannot speak for themselves, or who are not heard.”

He continued: “What is important to us is ‘animal energy.’ Our group specialize in using the human body, maximizing the capacity of the animal energy of the human being to create, to convey a story, to communicate. This is why we do everything: our music, sound effects, our props, our lighting, and others. This does not mean we don’t embrace technology, but we use technology to support our stories, and not the other way around.”

The members wanted to call it a collective, because they wanted the decision-making to be done by the individuals together as a group, not just having an administrator deciding on everything. “What we want to emphasize is that the artist has to have a say in the decisions of the group,” Mr. Tinambacan says. The group’s growth was also vital: “We also do reading sessions and discussions, to enhance not just our skills but also our philosophy and theory.”

Armed with all these, D’ Salag Collective first performed “Tianggue Laments,” a research performance they did at the local public market. “We went around the tianggue to observe people and happenings, and maximize our senses to hear, to feel, to touch, to see,” Mr. Tinambacan said.

Their first big production was Fighting the Invisible, where they felt they had to showcase that the group was born in the middle of the pandemic, and thus “was an expression of us and the people around us. It described how we started, and described who we are, and showcased what we can do as a group.”

It wasn’t easy to stage the play in 2022. “Dako kayo ang impact sa pandemic,” Mr. Tinambacan said. “But first, there was the impact on our drive—the want, the need, the cravings, the urge to create. Second, when we started, we couldn’t find a venue, and people were not welcoming of us. We went to the park, to the market, to Silliman Beach, to practice, anywhere na lang. Third, in our first performance, we incorporated the mask and the face shield as props. So these became part of our history.”

I asked Mr. Tinambacan what D’Salag Collective hopes to contribute to the artistic life of Dumaguete, and how they plan to reach out to the larger community beyond just the artists. He responded: “We follow this principle we learned from Tadashi Suzuki: ‘To counter this debilitating modernization of the actor’s craft, I have strived to restore the wholeness of the human body in performance, not simply by creating variants of such forms as the Noh and kabuki, but by employing the universal virtues of these and other pre-modern traditions. By harnessing and developing these enduring virtues, we create an opportunity to re-consolidate our currently dismembered physical faculties and revive the body’s perceptive and expressive capacity. Only by committing to do so can we ensure the flourishing of culture within civilization.’ We believe that beyond the spectacle and entertainment, theater should be about the human capacity to communicate, affect, and create change through creative expression and storytelling. Mao na ang among gusto na dalhon sa Dumaguete. Performances and training that would emphasize and maximize the human body’s perceptive and expressive capacity.”

And what’s in the future of the D’Salag Collective? A regular annual calendar of performances and trainings. A capacity to do research-based studies, especially of the traditional forms of performance. A studio. And international performances. “The ultimate goals,” Mr. Tinambacan continues, “is to really be helpful and useful to local theatre. Researching, understanding, and promoting what’s local and traditional, and sharing it with international platforms. I also hope to create a community.”

The group continues to do its part in building community-responsive theatre, hoping that its fledgling beginning in the pandemic gets strengthened as normalcy returns—and theatre, as we have always known it in Dumaguete, thrives again. But this time with groups like D’Salag Collective firmly in its embrace.

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