IT was in the midst of a kerfuffle over the comments of a young indie film director (who was never quite heard from again, it seems)—that theater actors were easier to work with because they were willing to settle for “cat food and Sky Flakes”—that the Philippine Theatre Actors Guild, Inc. (TAG PH) elected its first batch of officers in 2012, after its establishment in 2011.
“Regardless of how we are treated, regardless of how the nation perceives us…regardless of how we are positioned in the hierarchy of things,” director Joey Reyes said then during the keynote speech, “we are important because we are artists. We are not only the heart and conscience of the nation—we are its soul. A nation that has no artist has no soul.”
Nine years later, theater professionals are in the midst of the more worrisome environment of the pandemic, but are determined to keep this soul alive, as TAG PH’s new board of trustees has expressed.
“I was there at the beginning, but became inactive soon after our first general assembly,” recalls actor Frances Makil-Ignacio, elected auditor, who remembers being busy with plays, taping for TV shows, and “right smack in the middle of building our house.”
Meanwhile, actor and director Missy Maramara, the new corporate secretary, had just left for graduate studies in the US. “I was very FOMO (fear of missing out), but very excited to be part of it when I got home three years later. In 2014, there was not much activity, but that was because theater was booming and people were very, very busy. Running an organization takes a lot of time and focus.”
“TAG PH has evolved,” says its new president, Jenny Jamora. “From the first year and now into the pandemic, we have seen members move abroad, pivot to another career, or bloom in the one they have here. TAG PH is learning to deal with these upheavals—to adjust but, at the same time, to remain a home for its members.”
The last few years before the pandemic clearly saw a flourishing Philippine theater industry, and TAG PH was present despite a hiatus of sorts in 2015-2019, Jamora says. “Equity was a big thing for us back then, as all these big musicals were coming into the country. When the OPM Development Bill of 2014, which was fighting for equity, lost steam, so did we.”
Things began to stir again because of Rep. Toff de Venecia and his Arts and Culture and Creative Industries Bloc in Congress, Jamora says. “We started sitting in again on congressional meetings on a Freelancer Protection Act. The great Eddie Garcia lost his life on the set in 2019, and the original reason why TAG PH was formed in 2011 resurfaced—hazardous working conditions in the entertainment industry.”
‘Eddie Garcia lost his life on the set in 2019, and the original reason why TAG PH was formed resurfaced—hazardous working conditions’
“Kalila Aguilos and the first board worked to get a decent health insurance plan for the members at the best prices,” recalls Makil-Ignacio. “In terms of negotiating for better work hours in taping and shoots, I knew this was not something that could happen overnight, if at all. It wasn’t just theater actors who were subjected to unholy work hours. It was everyone in the production. So, TAG PH’s thrust remained largely the same—to protect the rights and welfare of its members.”
And then, wham—COVID-19 brought the curtains down on the jumping theater scene.
“The onset of the pandemic was depressing,” recalls Maramara. “Some plays were just about to open; some were gaining traction. All that hard work, all the financial, emotional, and physical investments, were gone with no return of investment in sight. It really hurt us…Play after play started getting shut down, and my friends and I were losing work. I still cry thinking about all those beautiful plays gone. Thank God for improvisers! SPIT Manila and Third World Improv rolled with the punches, and Dingdong Rosales reached out to TAG PH and PhilStage to initiate fundraisers for theater people who lost their jobs and were in extra precarious financial states.”
“We raised P1.6 million to give to 800 performing arts workers who lost their jobs,” recalls Jamora. “Personally, I’m still reeling from the loss of live theater. Now, I still grieve the old form, but I’m excited to see how the medium will evolve. My creative juices are running a bit dry, but my advocacy work has intensified. I need to focus my energies on assisting the community as we adjust to new challenges every day.”
Makil-Ignacio had actually made a decision to step away from the stage for a bit after the death of her mentor Tony Mabesa in October 2019, but “the pandemic took care of my leave for me. I never thought the whole world would step back, as well.”
‘Acting on a stage with no one…. Just me and my voice. It really felt like how the world was’
In April 2020, PhilStage streamed live online readings of plays as fundraisers for jobless theater workers, and Makil-Ignacio was part of a pre-recorded staged reading of Floy Quintos’ Suor Clara, directed by Andoy Ranay. “We had just started learning how to navigate Zoom. Andoy decided that we should record our parts individually, and he put our videos together. The silence between my lines was deafening. It felt like I was in a dream. Acting on a stage with no one, no audience, no co-actor, nothing. Just me and my voice. It really felt like how the world was then, when everything just stopped. Silence.”
Thus, TAG PH’s new leaders, which also include vice president Rhenwyn Gabalonzo, treasurer Kyla Soong Rivera, and trustees Gab Pangilinan and Phi Palmos, have since sat down to prioritize their next moves.
“Since we can’t perform in theaters yet, we’re looking into basic things that get swept under the rug by performers’ hectic schedules (and perhaps a natural aversion to paperwork, ha ha) such as recovering and maintaining good mental health, getting registered, knowing their rights and responsibilities (like how to read contracts and file taxes), establishing networks and taking workshops,” enumerates Maramara.
“We have partnered with Performing Artists on Kumu (or P.A.K.) to further our causes as an organization—especially our urgent need to mobilize a Disaster Preparedness and Response Plan.”
TAG PH is also part of Kumu’s Bayani Festival, ongoing until September 2021, a showcase of social advocacies.
‘We realized how important a real kumusta ka? can be. Ask an actor how he/she is doing after over a year of not being able to act/work’
“It’s always been a dream to be self-sustaining in this craft,” notes Makil-Ignacio. “Now with the pandemic, this dream has taken about 10 steps back. Ouch. So, the dream now is to be able to get back to performing on stage again. In front of a live audience.”
Meanwhile, she reports, TAG PH is reaching out to affected members with a Mental Health First Aid Virtual Facilitated Training, in partnership with In Touch Community Services. “We realized how important a real ‘kumusta ka?’ (how are you?) can be. Ask an actor how he/she is doing after over a year of not being able to act/work. Ayun, kumusta ka talaga.”
“I want to see theater actors safe, earning a living wage, creating to keep creative, supported by government structures, protected by laws and contracts,” Jamora adds. “It’s a long road, but we’re working to get there. As a non-profit organization, we rely heavily on partnerships, sponsorships, and donations to help realize our vision. Therefore, we appeal to the generous hearts of our performing arts patrons around the globe.”
All three are also open to that new medium, the online performance. Is it something to do in the meantime, or has it become, as some people believe, an art form unto itself?
“It’s both,” says Maramara. “Online performances definitely can’t replace live theater, but it does take considerable amount of skill and effort to make it successful. It’s a mix of theater and film, and requires social media and technological pizzaz. It also requires self-sufficiency and lots of marketing skill. I have tremendous respect for online performances!”
Jamora calls it “an evolution of the medium. What’s happening now is only the beginning. It was an interim, but we need to accept that things are never going to be the same with COVID-19. The pandemic threw us into a future that we thought was still far away, but it’s here and now.
“I think online performances should be used to reach everybody, every single Filipino, especially the young ones. To get into people’s minds and hearts through their smartphones and computers is a great opportunity! It has worked the other way and got us into messes, but we should use it to our advantage now…But live theater will never die—not as long as I live, anyway! There is nothing like the shared experience of experiencing theater under one roof.”
“Yes, there’s always that discussion that it isn’t theater na because of the absence of a live audience, or the lack of spontaneity of a live performance,” says Makil-Ignacio. “Is it now film, or is it still theater? Does it matter? For me, it’s always important to tell the story. Right now, this world, these conditions—this is our story. We can continue to showcase our classics, but now by telling the story of the times we live in, new material specifically written for this time. If not us, who’s going to tell our stories? So yes, I think we should do what we can with what we have…We’ll continue to pray for the day our theater doors reopen and we get back to in-person performances.”
‘Filipinos are resilient. Actors thrive on drama and conflict. It’s going to be great!’
Thus, the Filipino actor is going to adapt, regardless of what themes, subject matter, and staging styles will emerge. “Filipinos are resilient,” says Maramara. “Actors thrive on drama and conflict. It’s going to be great! We’re still discovering the answer to themes, subject matter, and staging styles, though. So I’ll leave the answer to the theater historians and critics.”
“We’re going to adapt by being more prepared, looking ahead a bit more,” Jamora seconds. “The pandemic is one huge lesson in ‘We can’t just be reactive all the time.’ We need to care for others more.
“We also need to get back to our roots. Spectacle isn’t necessary anymore—rather, it’s human connection. I don’t care if you have harnesses and a revolving stage, I just want to watch a gig again! I just want to read a script and see actual eyes looking back at me!”
It’s no exaggeration to say that that among them, these three actors have covered many of the most important roles in theater, whether classical or contemporary, global or Filipino. Jamora graduated from the University of the Philippines (UP) Diliman magna cum laude, with a degree in—wait for it— Food Technology, and even has a master’s degree in the field. “After working three months in a food manufacturing company, I was done. I needed to go back to what I loved in high school: theater.”
It’s been 21 years since her debut in New Voice Company’s VDay 2001 for The Vagina Monologues; “Monique Wilson was my mentor, and from her I learned how advocacy can dovetail with creative work in theater.” She pursued further studies in London at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) and The Actors Centre, and considers, among her most memorable roles, Tita Mitch in Floy Quintos’ The Kundiman Party for Dulaang UP and Charlotte in A Little Night Music for Atlantis Productions.
In 2012, Jamora joined Ana Abad Santos, Topper Fabregas, Cris Villonco, and Rem Zamora in forming Red Turnip Theater. “I loved directing Moises Kaufman’s 33 Variations. That was certainly a high point in my career.”
Maramara began acting “seriously” when she was cast in Dulaang Sibol’s Macbeth under Onofre Pagsanghan, no less, and was one of the first students of Theater Arts at Ateneo de Manila University, training with Ricky Abad in Tanghalang Ateneo. She was a college junior when she was cast in Tanghalang Pilipino’s Hamlet as Ophelia. Like Jamora, Maramara worked on VDay with New Voice. “We would eventually play the women all over the Philippines, and Monique directed us in Stop Kiss in 2003, a play we would reprise, swapping roles, in 2019.”
Maramara has worked with virtually the entire pantheon of Filipino theater directors, including Tony Mabesa, Anton Juan, Loy Arcenas, and Alex Cortez, and even got into improv theater. She earned her Master of Fine Arts in Drama (Performance) from the University of Arkansas on a Fulbright Scholarship.
Makil-Ignacio was a UP baby through and through, earning a degree in Theater Arts, and beginning her backstage training in Dulaang UP productions, specifically as Tony Mabesa’s hardworking costume mistress in M. Butterfly in 1990. Thus followed a slew of roles, including a critically acclaimed lead performance in Anton Juan’s production of Medea. She’s done Albee, Shakespeare, Chekhov, as well as Filipino playwrights Nick Joaquin and Floy Quintos.
In 2011, she won an Aliw Award for Best Actress in a Non-Musical Category for her performance in Repertory Philippines’ The Joy Luck Club, and most recently, was Mayen in The Kundiman Party, 2018-2019, and Bernarda in The House of Bernarda Alba, 2019, both for Dulaang UP.
And no, it wasn’t lost on them that the new TAG PH board is dominated by women. “We lack men in theater,” says Makil-Ignacio. “Ang katotohanan kasi naman talaga ay kulang ng leading men sa teatro. Parati na lang yan problema, estudyante pa ako. (The truth is there’s a lack of leading men in theater. That’s always been the problem, even when I was still a student.) This has started to change. And then the pandemic happened.”
“It means maraming chikahan (there’s a lot of talking)!” says Maramara. “By that, I mean madaming nurturing advice. Our gents on the board are heavy lifters, too, and the board has LGBTQ members. Siguro best to say na naniniwala talaga kami sa kakayanan ng bawa’t tao, ano pa man ang kaniyang kasarian.” (We really believe in every person’s ability, no matter what gender.)
‘At the end of the day, though, what I want and what we need are people who care and who work’ – Jenny Jamora
“I think it’s fantastic,” concludes Jamora. “The theater community has always embraced gender equality, and that’s still apparent now. We’ve definitely overthrown the patriarchy in this group! At the end of the day, though, what I want and what we need are people who care and who work. TAG-PH’s new core values are integrity, compassion, accountability, respect, and excellence. Anyone who keeps that is good in my book.”