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

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 Bilanggo ng Pag-ibig, adaptation by Rody Vera, directed by Jose Estrella; Photo courtesy of Dulaang UP].

Theater in the Philippines is often conceived to be a theater of the director. Most of the time, we acknowledge the director as an important figure in threading the different elements of a play. In this final section of the essay, I introduce the dramaturg whose role in theater is to help the director in threading different elements of the performance in the creation of a harmonious if not a unified whole. 

Dramaturgs are theater people who tirelessly contribute to the historical accuracy of plays, provide a contextual understanding, help the director in search for transitory devises for scene changes, develop audience relations, and provide staging techniques for experimental works.

Some theater companies in Manila have already started practicing dramaturgy as they develop new plays. Sipat Lawin Ensemble and Kolab Company are two of the rising contemporary theater collectives in the city whose works are initiated by a collective dramaturgy by its members. As an academic institution, Dulaang UP has always included the dramaturg as an important member of the artistic team. Tanghalang Pilipino also frequently hires a dramaturg in staging original works and adaptation of classics. Giselle Garcia (dramaturg for Macho Dancer: a MusicalDer KauffmanJuego de Peligro), Bryan Viray (dramaturg for Umaaraw Umuulan, AdarnaTisoy Brown: Hari ng Wala), Vanessa Banta (dramaturg for AdarnaUmaaraw Umuulan), Jem Javier(dramaturg for Arkipelago, Tisoy Brown: Hari ng Wala), Katherine Sabate (dramaturg for Orosman at Zafira, Arturo Ui), Kristina Stuart Santiago (dramaturg for Kleptomaniac) and Erika Estacio (dramaturg for Teatro PorvenirMga Buhay na Apoy) are just few individuals that I give my full applause for providing the necessary theoretical life of plays. 

Dramaturgy denotes a comprehensive theory of playmaking. As a creative aspect of the theater, it is a reference to a process of arranging various dramatic actions in a meaningful and comprehensive order. For a long time, dramaturgy and playwriting are linked as one and the same. In the Greek period, dramaturgy is also used to refer to a dramatist. Today, the difference is in the dictum that writer, dramaturg, and theater scholar Magda Romanska pronounces in her introduction to the Routledge Companion to Dramaturgy announcing that everyone can be a playwright (or at least, everyone can write a play), but not everyone can be a dramaturg—that is, not everyone will actually know how to fix it. With this pronouncement, the dramaturg is a distant eye to a play being staged. As a distant eye, he or she possesses analytical skills of discerning and deconstructing all elements of dramatic and theatrical structure.

The dramaturg is the resident expert on the physical, social, political, and economic milieus in which the action takes place, the psychological underpinnings of the characters, the various metaphorical expressions in the play of thematic concerns; as well as on the technical consideration of the play as a piece of writing: structure, rhythm, flow, even individual word choices. The dramaturg may make files of materials about a play’s history or social context, prepare program notes, lead post-production discussions, or write study guides for schools and groups. These actions can assist a director in integrating textual and acting criticism, performance theory, and historical research into a production before it opens. Generally, his or her responsibilities include but are not limited to researching, studying, summarizing, focusing, articulating, writing, communicating, questioning, guarding and/or protecting the play in production.

In conclusion, the everyday life of the Filipino people, especially the Manileños may be characterized by a seemingly chaotic entanglement: the traffic jam, flood due to heavy rains, social disparity, noise in public spaces, population density, crimes, political and religious wars but to name a few. With this, it may be concluded that the Philippines is a highly unstable and unsafe place to live. Here is a picture of imperfection. But amidst this emblematic chaos, there are structures that hold together these disparate elements. The international media proclaims that it is the resilience of the Filipino people that keeps everyday life going. Nonetheless, to accept that it is in the nature of the Filipino people to be resilient is concluding that the Filipino psyche is fatalistic: instead of solving their problems, simply accept that these problems too shall pass. In my view, these structures amidst chaos are significant in a more nuanced discussion of entanglement. These may also render a discussion of the practicality of entanglement in doing theater. Perhaps, we can start to think of this paradox of robustness in chaos as a starting point for the understanding of the state of contemporary theater in Manila and to some extent the entire archipelago. In my view, this will enable us to look at entanglements that are even more complex than those characterized by juxtaposition, combination, ensnaring, or muddling. In practical terms, this direction may provide a reflection on how entanglement makes sense for local artists, especially since chaos is seemingly the context of the world they live in.  

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