Lockdown innovations in Philippine theater: ‘There’s no more turning back’

Are virtual readings, film, and minimalist staging here to stay?
'Is this still theater? Maybe hindi na. Or rather, hindi lang'

Tanghalang Ateneo uses Zoom to tell 'Oedipus Rex' to digital natives. (Photo from Tanghalang Ateneo)

Tanghalang Pilipino plans to create cinematic version of ‘Lukot-Lukot Bilog-Bilog’.

Director Ron Capinding blends the digital ‘Oedipus Rex’ with filmmaking.

Today more than a year after the government first called for a lockdown of the National Capital Region and other cities to fight the pandemic, Philippine theater companies are still waiting for the official announcement that they—and their audiences—will be allowed to return to give and watch live stage performances.

 The leaders interviewed here all estimate that a full return will happen in 2022, when, it is hoped, a bigger part of the population has been inoculated against the virus.  But to keep the flame alive in the meantime, they resort  either to the nearest substitutes, such as video streaming of past performances, or virtual readings of stage plays. A few have ventured beyond those platforms to explore innovations that can capture a bit of the magic of the live stage.

Audie Gemora in YouTube channel Audiscovery: ‘Theater will be back. With a vengeance’ (Photo from Audie Gemora Facebook)

The theater stalwarts themselves are the first to maintain that that would be a hard act to follow.  Audie Gemora, president and co-founder of Philstage, maintains that “live entertainment can never be fully captured on video or streams. It’s like listening to opera over the telephone. Theater’s migration to the digital platforms is a stop-gap measure.”

Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo in Repertory’s 2017 ‘Agnes of God’: ‘Online really is not theater’ (Photo by Danimei Everett from Facebook Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo)

Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo, co-artistic director of Resort World Manila’s Full House Theater Company, agrees with her colleague and co-alumnus from Repertory Philippines: “Online really is not theater, as it defeats the whole idea of immersion, experiencing the show live, and being taken into a different world altogether.”

Repertory Theater livestreams ‘The Quest for the Adarna’ May 22, 23.

At the same time, both do recognize that online streaming and virtual stage reading offer benefits to numerous artists who had been sidelined by the pandemic. Actors, musicians, and their directors, for example, have access to an arena to perform their craft and possibly earn on the side from digital platforms like YouTube and Kumu. The audience, stuck in their homes, can remain connected to the theater.

Sometimes, theater on the internet can draw new viewers, as seen in Full House’s record-breaking streaming of their hit Ang Huling El Bimbo: The Musical, which, in its two-day run in May 2020, raised more than P12 million in donations for artists and their families and had a phenomenal 7 million views.

The record-breaking streaming of ‘Ang Huling El Bimbo: The Musical’ raised more than P12 million in donations and had a phenomenal 7 million views

Aside from developing the market during this enforced hiatus, streaming of past performances can become a tool to encourage the students of today to become the artists of tomorrow. Dulaang UP (DUP) streamed not only successful past productions but also those of UP Dulaang Laboratoryo, which showcased the thesis productions of UP’s Theater Arts seniors. As DUP artistic director Banaue Miclat-Janssen explained: “Since we are an educational theater company, we want to pique the interest of young and aspiring artists to pursue a Theater Arts degree.” The school organization is also looking into projects that will help these same students pivot to a nascent online theater platform.

‘Kuwentong Musmos’ is one of the audio dramas that Tanghalang Pilipino wants to transform into film.

Tanghalang Pilipino, the theater arm of the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP), has embraced this transition, adopting a “two-pronged approach” that will develop a merging of film and theater which can share materials, resources, ideas, and actors. To TP artistic director Fernando Josef, it is a practical approach that can keep the art of theater alive sans live performances, while launching the art and its participants to new frontiers.

Fernando Josef gives talk at CCP in 2014: ‘We will go back to live theater but will most probably continue doing films’ (Photo from Facebook CCP Arts Education)

There are plans to feature stage plays on film for TP’s 35th season until 2021, to be spearheaded by the cinematic versions of Lukot-Lukot, Bilog-Bilog, a Visa-sponsored production on financial literacy; two audio-dramas based on children’s stories that the theater company did for the international agency Room to Read; and Doc Resurreccion, the Virgin Labfest entry of Layeta Bucoy.

Josef explains TP’s plans: “If in 2022, CCP venues will open, then we go back to live performances. We had already discussed the possibility of restaging at least two of our most successful past productions, which featured mainly the Actors Company: Ang Pag-uusig and Nick Joaquin’s Nang Dalawin ng Pag-ibig si Juan Tamad. But whether CCP venues open or not, we might pursue filmmaking just the same.”

He also considers that this pivot just might be a permanent game-changer, and not a temporary band-aid: “There’s probably no more turning back. We will go back to live performances and theater work, but we will most probably continue doing films.”

Repertory Philippines is also doing a calculated dive into digital, “building community and engaging our audience meaningfully through our online performing arts workshops and original creative virtual content,” says artistic director Liesl Batucan.

Liesl Batucan, Rep artistic director: Still building community (Photo from Repertory)

The question remains, though, if the online audience will pay regularly for streamed theater performances a la Netflix.  Gemora studies the business model and recommends a cautious approach. “There is so much free content online. Consider that, for a price cheaper than a theater ticket, one can access a vast catalogue of great content on platforms like Netflix, HBO Go, and Amazon Prime. Unless these widely successful streaming platforms see value in investing in theater productions to be shown on their channels, or corporate sponsorships support theater online, we will need to remain conservative in our production efforts.”

Habang hindi pa tayo nakakatapak sa teatro, maybe it’s a good idea to treat the online medium not merely as a panakip-butas, but rather give it due respect as an emerging new medium of storytelling’—Guelan Luarca

Guelan Luarca, artistic director of Tanghalang Ateneo (TA), is all for investing in the right cameras, internet platforms, and frequent interactive workshops because it can mean engaging more of the Millennial and Gen-Z generations who grew up as digital natives.  TA’s digital version of the Greek classic Oedipus Rex, aka password: 03d1pu5_r3x, changed the rules by rehearsing and filming the actors and then editing the clips into one riveting narrative. Neither live stage reading nor streamed past performance, it certainly got the attention of the theater community, which mainly applauded the effort and praised the quality of the production, but was not quite ready to grant it the status of true theater.

Guelan Luarca, Tanghalang Ateneo artistic director: ‘We are keen on exploring uncharted territories’ (Photo from Ateneo de Manila University Facebook)

While agreeing with his peers that no digital form can equate the experience of a live theater performance, Luarca refuses to be bogged down by “labels” that simply dismiss online versions as a poor second until the lockdowns are lifted.

“We are keen on exploring uncharted territories,” says Luarca of TA. “We’re trying to explore the lines of interactivity, user experience, and gamified storytelling. Habang hindi pa tayo nakakatapak sa teatro, maybe it’s a good idea to treat the online medium not merely as a panakip-butas, but rather give it due respect as an emerging new medium of storytelling.

“For example: how can I adapt Hamlet’s journey of verifying whether the Ghost’s testimony is real or not and—using Shakespeare, graphic design, film, website design, and animation and whatever medium pa ang kailanganin ko—create an interactive storytelling experience?”

He muses further, “Is this still theater? Maybe hindi na. Or rather, hindi lang. It will use theater, plus film, performance, design, whatever else. I don’t know how willing artists and audiences are to explore this new form, pero kami in TA are game. We just need the support.”

Resources will be critical to rejuvenating theater, should the curtains go up in 2022. Luarca does not rule out the economic impact of the pandemic on these new productions. He points out: “I also see theater companies adopting—at least for the first couple of months or years—a largely minimalist style of staging. You can’t rake in a big audience yet dahil nga nakakatakot ang mag-gather ng crowd in an enclosed place. Mahirap bawiin ang malaking gastos ng spectacle. Tapos wala ring puhunan, so small budget muna.”

There just might be one silver lining behind this initial theater redux, Luarca says: “It gives rise to original Filpino work—walang mahal na performance rights—and mas sanay sa aesthetics na mura at tipid.”

Theater in 2022 can ‘vent out all the human emotions, movements, and voices repressed during this war against the virus’

Another positive development in the return of theater is a resurgence of new creative work from voices that had been locked down for so long. Josef describes it as an “artistic and cultural renaissance,” similar to what happened to the art form after World War II.  Theater in 2022 can “vent out all the human emotions, movements, and voices repressed during this war against the virus. Our country and our people have been so fragmented. The pandemic, the national government, the global events and realities, including climate change and the calamities brought about by it, are a huge source of stories to tell, dramatize, write about, interpret, and express in dance, songs, poetry, theater, films, and the forms of artistic expression.”

Gemora looks back on history and believes that as long as there are human beings around, theater will live. “It has survived pandemics, wars, government changes,” he maintains. “It is a dramatization of the human experience. It will be back. With a vengeance.”

Tanghalang Pilipino launches digital platform, ‘PansamanTanghalan’, showcasing the transition of stage plays to streaming videos. (From Tanghalang Pilipino)

About author


The author has been covering the Philippine theater scene for more than 30 years. Away from the stage, she does content strategy, digital marketing, and public relations.

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