Derivatives, Entanglement and the Dramaturg: Contemporary Theatre in Manila (Part One: Derivatives)

This essay originally came out in Philippine Panorama: Sunday Magazine of the Manila Bulletin Volume 44 (12): 8 – 11, 2016. [Cover Photo: Mailes Kanapi as Mephistopholes and Jack Yabut as Faust in Dulaang UP’s production of Faust, adaptation by Rody Vera, directed by Jose Estrella; Courtesy of Dulaang UP].

Every time I encounter the question “What is the state of our theater today?” or “What is contemporary Philippine theater, particularly the theater in Manila?” I find myself conflicted. How, realistically, should one go about answering these questions? Is it a matter of cultural identity? Is it answerable by pointing out a particular theater form, analogous to the bunraku (traditional Japanese puppet theater) of Osaka, wayang kulit (shadow puppets) in Java, or kathakali (Indian dance drama) in Kerala? Are there markers that make it peculiarly Filipino? A more pressing issue here is the referencing of Manila Theater as a singular entity, is it one? 

One way of answering these questions is by listing the current theatrical activities happening in the country. In Manila, there are a number of commercial, professional, and semi-professional theater companies. If we survey their most current productions, there are notable genres. The musical is one genre that these companies are currently staging. Most of the musicals staged in Manila are imported from Broadway or the West End. Claude Michel Schönberg-Alain Boudbil’s megamusical Les Miserables is currently onstage at the Theatre at Solaire with Rachel Anne Go performing the role of Fantine.

The Tony Award winning musical The Bridges of Madison County was staged by Atlantis Productions in November 2015 under Bobby Garcia’s direction. Nevertheless, local artists in Manila are also staging original musicals such as Philippine Educational Theatre Association’s (PETA) staging of The Care Divas in 2010 (with restaging in 2011 and 2012) and Stages Production Specialist’s musical extravaganza based on the songs of Vehnee Saturno Chuva Choo Choo: The Mr. Kupido Musicale staged at the Power Mac Center’s Spotlight in Makati in 2015.

Other current musical performances staged in Manila are adaptations of other cultural texts (both foreign and local) such as Cris Martinez’s adaptation of Carlo Vergara’s graphic novel Kung Papaano Ako Naging Lady staged at the PETA Theatre in Quezon City by the newly formed Dalanghita Productions in 2015.

Straight plays are also some of the favorite genres staged in the city. There are those written by foreign dramatists (especially American and English playwrights) like the plays produced by Repertory Philippines, Red Turnip Theatre and the university-based and semi-professional theatre company Dulaang UP and those written by local playwrights such as the many plays in Tanghalang Pilipino’s regular theatre season.

There are also a number of stage adaptations of Western Classics and other literary materials from local and foreign sources such as Tisoy Brown: Hari ng Wala, Rody Vera’s adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s Peer Gynt for Dulaang UP under José Estrella’s direction. Children’s theater productions are also stable in the seasons of local theater companies. Repertory Philippines (Rep Phil) and PETA include at least one children’s play in their respective seasons. This year, Rep Phil is staging Hansel and Gretel as their offering for its children’s theatre program.

Given all these current theatrical activities in the metro alone, a simple and basic word that may sum up the current state of Manila’s theatrical scene is diverse. But despite diversity, there is a kind of limitation on what counts as contemporary Manila theater. The theater scene in Manila is undoubtedly interesting since several theatrical activities are happening. Also, it is composed of distinguishable patterns or trends, an indication that these theater productions are indebted to certain Western dramatic traditions. In particular, the pattern is a construction of a linear-dramatic narrative where the theater wants to tell a story or wants to construct a fictive cosmos and let all the stage represent an alternative world intended for the imagination of the spectator to follow and complete the illusion. This in scholarship is known to be the theater of drama or the dramatic tradition of doing theater. Generally, Manila’s theatre scene is “derivative” of certain trends found in modern Western culture. Because of this, there are aspects of contemporary Manila theater that provide reasons for circumspection especially since this notion of “derivative” brings forth issues of inauthenticity and cheap imitation.   

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