By CHEESE MENDEZ
In recent years, Philippine theater has been on the rise. But the age-old question remains: “What makes your production relevant?” The mere fact is that it is theater. If you watch Some Like It Hot on DVD today, it would be the same film that it was during its debut 60 years ago. It would have the humor, stigmas, and reflections of the realities of 1959 because it is a product of its time. But each time a theatrical production is staged, it contains modern concepts, opinions, and a thesis that the company wants to put forward at a particular place and for a specific time.
It is impossible to remove a theater from the constraints of the present. It must be devised, performed, received, and critiqued with the lens of today.
Citizen Kane, regarded as a great film when it was released in 1949, is still heralded as a great film today. When you stage a theatrical piece that was heralded in its time generations prior, with no attempt to connect it to the realities of the present, the lack of relevance will be sorely felt and the piece will be criticized and rejected. An example of which is Repertory Philippines’ 2017 production of Hair. While the show was revolutionary when it first premiered in 1967, praised in the age of more non-linear, rock musicals, and managed to bridge a generation gap, its reiteration 50 years later failed to connect with the audiences of today.
Nothing in theater has any meaning before or after. Meaning is now.—Peter Brook
The very nature of theater forces the creative minds behind production to keep it relevant. Shakespeare had a knack of identifying, articulating, and presenting the flaws and truths of man, and that is why his works have reverberated through the centuries. When one decides to put on a production of Macbeth, it is the obligation of the director to find the truth in the bard’s words and dutifully carry them out in a way that will be palatable to the audience of today using the wide array of tools, conventions, and elements that theater permits them under the influence of today’s reality.
[Of] all languages and all arts, the theater is the only one left whose shadows have shattered their limitations.—Antonin Artaud, The Theater and its Double
Without changing the fundamentals of what constitutes the art form, the theater has reinvented itself over the years since its earliest recorded forms 3,000 years ago. And each time it served and represented the realities, issues, and public opinion of their respective eras.
Take, for example, the Broadway musical, which is probably the most popular brand of theater among today’s theater-loving crowd—from the flourish and the pageantry of the Ziegfeld Follies in the 1900s, Hammerstein’s Show Boat, which featured the first inter-racial couple on the commercial American stage, to the musical Oklahoma in 1943, which may have left the elites indifferent, but had provided World War II soldiers and sailors a form of escapism but at the same time a hopeful reminder of what they were fighting for.
Drama is exposure; it is a confrontation; it is a contradiction and it leads to analysis, construction, recognition and eventually to an awakening of understanding.”—Peter Brook, The Empty Space
Just recently, I came from the rerun of 9 Works Theatricals’ production Eto Na: Musikal nAPO Kami, and while it, like every work of art, has its flaws, the most shocking comment I heard from an audience member was, “I didn’t like the fact that there was some political coloring; you people need to move on,” referring to the scenes where Martial Law was discussed. This audience member finished his sentiments by saying, “When I pay to see something, I want to be entertained.”
Any real thespian would know that, contrary to popular belief, the theater is more than mere entertainment.
One of the biggest musicals today shows America’s founding fathers being played by a full cast of color, features a larger than life hip-hop score, and a single lyric which floats above the rest: “Immigrants, we get the job done.”
The beauty of live theater is that it is a living, breathing art. It evolves to reflect the realities of the time it’s performed. It is assumed that there is a profound, universal, and human truth that is being delivered.
PETA’s Rak of Aegis, which is a phenomenon in itself for spurning six season runs, tells a tale of Filipino resilience in the time of calamity set against the songs every Filipino household know by heart, whether or not we care to admit it, making it a completely Pinoy innovation.
Nonon Padilla’s take on King Lear closes the show with the Philippine national anthem being sung somberly amid a staged littered with the human carcass.
Art is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it. —Bertolt Brecht
Recent years has seen an interesting development in local theater: The involvement of the audience.
In 2012, Sipat Lawin Ensemble took the daunting task of adapting Koushun Takami’s novel Battle Royal into a theatrical experience, wherein the audience were given the freedom to follow which student they saw fit around the venue, and at some point, they have even given the choice to kill one of them. In last year’s 50th anniversary production of Paul Dumol’s classic Ang Paglilitis kay Mang Serapio, director Juan Ekis has the audience choose whether or not they would show empathy for the titular character or give in to the pressures of the corrupt society he was in.
With the recent use of these unconventional breaking of the fourth wall, theater practitioners have taken the reigns and commanded their audiences to reflect on themselves, realize the truth they need to see and react accordingly.
The prevalence of art comes from truth, and the beauty of theater is in its malleability as a medium to convey truth. There are productions that have stood the test of time, such as The Phantom of the Opera, Les Misérables, and they endure because of the universal truth they convey.
Theater, much like all the other arts, convey truth. The reactions we elicit from our unsuspecting audiences when they encounter and realize that truth is what makes theater the hammer that attempts to shape reality.
While the next play you see may be anywhere between a few short minutes to long hours, theater, much like the truth you take from it, is forever.