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

This essay originally came out in Philippine Panorama: Sunday Magazine of the Manila Bulletin Volume 44 (12): 8 – 11, 2016. [Cover Photo: a scene from the children’s play Umaaraw, Umuulan, Kinakasal ang Tikbalang, a children’s story by Gilda Cordero-Fernando, adaptation by Rody Vera, directed by Jose Estrella; Photo courtesy of Dulaang UP].

Considering these issues of imitation and this commentary on inauthenticity, I felt at first that our theater had little to contribute to knowledge of theater internationally. But looking closely at these issues, I realize that our theater scene is more complex. Some social commentators remarked that the performing Filipino, for instance, is a master imitator. At the same time, these commentators assert that the imitation is almost the same as that which is imitated (or almost a perfect replica). With this, the praxis of mimicry is not just a simple imitation but also a complicated strategy of aesthetics and poetics. 

Considering all these scenarios, I believe one should think of Philippine contemporary theater as entangled. Besides, entanglement is looming in the nation’s socio-historical and socio-cultural dispositions. At the same time, entanglement is also found in its geographical surroundings.

Entanglement is a condition of juxtapositions. It is about the blending or mixing of different elements together. On the surface, theater artists in Manila for instance are engaging in techniques of mixing and matching performance genres and forms ranging from Western (colonial) influences to archipelagic encounters (or the traditional performance genres from other regions). Simply put, many theater artists in the metro are putting different elements together in their theater works. 

A good example is Dulaang UP’s Rizal X staged at the Wilfrido Ma. Guerrero Theatre in 2011 for the sesquicentennial celebrations of Jose Rizal. This performance is an entanglement of performance genres and other art forms based on what the production’s director Dexter Santos described as “fragments.” Another example is the 2013 staging of José Estrella’s Adarna where the narrative of this corrido, adapted by Vlad Gonzales, combined puppetry, singing, and dancing. 

This is not to say, however, that local theater artists are intentionally captivated by the poetics and aesthetics of mixing and matching as part of their creative strategies in creating theater. Looking at the works of many local theater artists, there seems to be a degree of comfort with entanglement, even if they do not intentionally recognize it as part of their artistic endeavors. Nonetheless, the complexity of entanglement possesses a danger of being entrapped in a muddled situation, often producing a sense of disorder and even chaos. With this, the idea of entanglement often carries a negative connotation. Despite the promise of entanglement as a possible key concept toward the identification of the state of contemporary Philippine theater, entanglement has its own limitations, especially since many artists unintentionally overuse entanglement (i.e., pastiche, fragments) in their theater making. Because of such complications, there is a tendency for theater works to unintentionally sensationalize their chosen subjects. 

Many contemporary theater works in the Philippines are social dramas touching social issues and realistic in approach. In the book PalabasDoreen Fernandez has provided an overview of what she considers the state of Philippine theater today. She notes that it is Philippine life that fires our playwrights. She is convinced that local theater artists do not need to hear of the latest trends in writing techniques or directing techniques in order to want to write and stage a play in like manner. What’s important for theater artists in the country is to thematically write anything that represents social Filipino reality.

Fernandez is reinforcing the fact that dramatic tradition dominates the theater scene in the metropolis or anywhere else in the country. Following this line of inquiry, the primary conditions in doing theater are coherent narrative and representations of social life. Fernandez also adds that in the thematic concern of Filipino playwrights and players (directors and actors), the vitality of theater is in its urgency. By urgency, Fernandez notes that Philippine theater is used to represent social concerns of the time and therefore provides a commentary on the state of things at that time. On a more discursive reading of such plays, these productions may sometimes easily be identified with television shows because they present topical issues (such as migrant workers, poverty, homosexuality, the disintegrating family, to name a few) and such issues are somehow editorialized.

Because of this, many artists engage in dramaturgy or the study of dramatic composition in order to look for problems imbedded in the performance, especially since local plays seek to perform a coherent narrative and representations of local social life. Dramaturgy is an emerging creative field in Philippine theater. Often, Filipino theatre artists associate dramaturgy with academic research. This is why dramaturgs are popularly thought of as researchers who introduce the play through program notes called dramaturgical notes. While this is one of the many responsibilities of the dramaturg, his role is more than academic. He is also a creative leader, responsible for several artistic decisions that a director might consider for the betterment of a play. In the words of performing arts curator Gideon Lester, the primary task of a dramaturg is to make theater better. 

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