A Simplified History of Traditional Theatre in the Philippines (Part 2)

Most of the dramatic troupes in the islands came from Spain through the Galleons. Since the colonial era, actors or performers are what we call human resources. Human resources were (and still are) expensive. Back then, performers of comedia were the celebrities of the time. They were the KathNiels or the JaDines or LizKen of the colonial eras or the likes of Katy Perry or Lady Gaga or Calum Scott performing concerts in the nation’s biggest cities – Manila, Cebu, Angeles, and Davao. In short, they were the biggest and most celebrated celebrities during the colonial eras.

The Philippine-Mexico Galleon Trade (Photo: Simeon Abaya, 1970 via Filipinas Heritage Library)

Celebrities will never travel alone. Say for instance, when Katy Perry did a concert at the MOA Grounds, she brought with her a team of dancers and a team of musicians. That being said, these celebrities travel with them, what we call in popular culture, as their respective entourages . Nevertheless, international celebrities also hire local artists to perform with them as back-up singers and dancers. Artists from abroad commonly do this for practical reason: to lessen the expenses. The same strategy happened during the heyday of commedia as a form of popular entertainment in the islands. Hispanic troupes had to hire local performers. 

Incidentally, the local performers were fast learners and excellent mimics. In fact, cultural commentator Pico Iyer mentioned that the mastery of mimicry of the Filipino people is note-perfect as the original. In the annotations, It even came to a point where the troupes did not need any Hispanic performers to perform the comedia

Eventually, even the members of the creative team were dominated by Filipino artists. One well known artist was Francisco Baltazar who learned the craft of the writing, conceptualization and the staging through apprenticeship. Baltazar started as an assistant to a Hispanic director who eventually became an apuntador or a dictador, the captain of the ship in the localized comedia turned into komedya.

Francisco Baltazar (photo taken from a popular postcard sold in the Philippines)

Philippine artists like Baltazar learned that a comedia narrative was typically derived from metrical romances in Europe. The Philippine komedya on the other hand, was a combination of the moro-moro and the Hispanic capa y espada. Moreover, the komedya was a combination of three or more metrical romances set in imagined European kingdoms. In short, the local artists showed high interest on the foreign elements of the narrative. It was an ingenious way of an intercultural performance where the stories were based on several narratives consolidated by the vivid imagination of the dictador or apuntador establishing a unified plot entangled by the general theme of the star-crossed lovers due to their religions.  

The apuntador of the Arakyo in Jaen, Nueva Ecija, seated in the middle and holding an orihinal (a komedya script) (Photo: SAPT)

The komedya is written in three to five acts, with sainetes or what we call today as intermission (something that will break the ice after an act of the performance). The climax is the moro-moro, a war dance, usually in the tune of March music and accompanied by the community brass band. The moro-moro was later called the batalla, a closer jargon to the actual scene on stage: the battle between the Christian and the Muslim troupes. The delivery of the lines were sing-song like called diccio. Performers need not memorize their lines because the dictador is always there to provide the lines as the performance proceeded. However, performers had to familiarize themselves with the required movement conventions of the batalla because audience members usually asked the performers to repeat the war dance over and over again.

An excerpt of a contemporary performance of the komedya by the Don Gabo troupe in Parañaque

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