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The magic of theater |

Arts and Culture

The magic of theater

PENMAN - Butch Dalisay -
As a member of the board of trustees of Tanghalang Pilipino, I was happy to learn that TP is now opening its doors to a new crop of applicants wishing to join its Actors’ Company for its 20th theater season. I’ll post the details below, but allow me for a minute to recall a bit of my own life in theater – something that’s almost a distant memory now, but which was an important part of my growth as a writer.

Few people know this (and why should they?) but I began my writing life more as a playwright in Filipino than a fictionist in English. It was in high school, in the late ’60s, where my senior batch encountered one of those young, gifted teachers who can turn gravel into fairy dust; her name was Lorli Villanueva – not even out of her teens, herself – and she introduced us to the magic of theater. Under her tutelage, we mounted the staples of the period such as Paul Dumol’s "Ang Paglilitis ni Mang Serapio" (a great vehicle for playing the pulubing baliw, which we all thought was the acme of acting), and later wrote and directed our own short plays (predictably replete with more madmen and madwomen). Lorli’s lifelong gift to about half a dozen of us was to push us to join a summer class with the Philippine Educational Theater Association (PETA) in 1970 – one of those summers you never quite forget, a summer full of songs and pretty girls and midnights under the Fort Santiago moon.

We breathed art; we learned the rudiments of acting, directing, playwriting, lighting, and stagecraft and design; we sold tickets, ushered, watched in awe as professionals strode onstage and became someone utterly different for one enchanting hour. Very early on I realized that I was about as talented as an ironing board as far as acting was concerned (I had one line as the Waiter in The Good Woman of Setzuan: "Would you like another cup of tea, Mrs. Yang?", for which one less-than-deathless line I had to rehearse and stay up late like all the others); neither did I have the stomach nor the patience for direction; so I gravitated back to my early love, writing, and resolved to become the next Pinoy Brecht or Chekhov.

My first moment of glory came when, still a high-school senior bent on crashing the big and endless dinner party that the world of theater seemed to be, I picked up a copy of a teleplay for "Balintataw" – then on Channel 5, a dramatic anthology that provided breaks for such later luminaries as Lino Brocka, Elwood Perez, and Joey Gosiengfiao, among many others. Never having even seen a television play before, I was astounded to discover (in the brazen simplemindedness of youth) that all it took to write one was to divide a page in half between the visual and the audio parts – plus, of course, the little matter of a good story and good dialogue. A scene taking place in one locale or as one dramatic unit was a "sequence," which could either be interior or exterior, day or night, etc. In short, I wrote a teleplay – a melodrama about a street urchin titled "Bethlehem" – and earned the enormous sum of P250 for my labor.

That started me on a two-decade run of plays, teleplays, and screenplays, nearly all of them in Filipino. The stage plays I wrote for the art and the wonder of the thing; the teleplays I wrote for the economy (with two cameras and two or three sets at most to use, you learn dramatic economy and discipline pretty quickly); the screenplays I wrote for the money.

Over the years I came to understand that theater, television, and the movies may be related in some basic way, but were also very different in others, and that the loneliest life among the writers of all these genres was that of the playwright for the stage. That playwright has at least three major anxieties to deal with: first, that of writing a good play; second, that of getting the play produced; and third, that of reconciling the finished product with one’s original vision or conception.

It’s almost unavoidable for that vision to change and to be changed; the marvel of theater is its very mutability, its ability to be this play of that same title (such as "Romeo and Juliet") yet be completely different from one version to the next. The mutability derives from theater’s nature as a collective and collaborative effort, with the playscript being no more than a printed recipe far removed from its final flavors. Individualists as we are, many writers have a hard time subsuming our ideas and perceptions to those of others, especially people we never heard of or don’t know.

But theater is its own compensation. Even if there’s hardly any money to be made in it or from it, at least for playwrights, there’s still nothing quite so aesthetically and even emotionally rewarding as watching your own play and then watching the audience watching it. Tears are fine, but laughter is heaven-sent. You could die (or kill) for an audience rolling on the floor because of something you wrote at your kornik-strewn and roach-infested desk one loveless Friday evening. Short of laughter, there’s that glazed look of sheer transport that comes over that viewer whom you instantly recognize as The One You Wrote the Play For. When I watch my plays, half the time I’m watching the audience, scanning their half-lit faces for that glimmer that is my prize; at the same time, a knot forms in my stomach whenever an actor flubs a line or breezes through it in blithe ignorance of its nuances. Theater-going, for the playwright, can be both an exhilarating and harrowing experience.

Given the great expense of producing even the simplest plays, it’s a successful play in this country that gets more than one production and one run. For most Filipino playwrights, there’s no such thing as a second chance – unless your name happens to be Nick Joaquin, Rene Villanueva, Boy Noriega, Malou Jacob, Tony Perez, or Paul Dumol. You could get lucky enough to be produced, but a bad production could also be your first and last one.

I haven’t written a play for the stage since "Mac Malicsi, TNT", "Aninag, Anino", and "Ang Butihing Babae ng Timog" in the early ’90s; the seductions of fiction and the instant gratification you get from finishing a story have just proved too strong. Much earlier than that, I shifted to writing stories in English, partly because the late great Boy Noriega – a good friend, fraternity brother, and officemate at NEDA – kept trouncing me in the Palanca and CCP playwriting contests, and one day I decided that I’d had just about enough. (This Harvard-trained economist, on the other hand, confessed to dreaming of writing a novel in English, to the point of briefly enrolling in our PhD English program at UP.)

Sometimes I miss writing a crisp exchange of dialogue or working out a scene just by moving people around without the benefit of long descriptive prose passages that are, for me, among fiction’s best pleasures. But my exposure to drama, I feel, helped my fiction along. It taught me to make my characters speak only when they needed to; it taught me that the best dialogue conveys more than surface information; It taught me the value of physical, nonverbal action, as well as of setting. In other words, I learned (or thought I did) the potential power of every square foot of the dramatic stage, which was for me to mine. All the world’s a stage, indeed, and I try never to forget that, even in fiction.

* * *

Now, for those of you with fervid dreams of acting onstage, you might want to audition with Tanghalang Pilipino, one of our country’s best theater companies.

Auditions will be on May 13 and 20, 4 to 8 p.m. at the Bulwagang Amado Hernandez (Conference Room), Upper Basement, CCP Main Bldg. You have to be at least 18 years old, and you’ll need to prepare a three-minute monologue in Filipino from a published foreign or local play, any song of your choice, a short movement piece, and a joke. Fifteen scholarships/apprenticeships are available. To learn more, call the TP office from Tuesdays to Fridays at 832-3661 or 832-1125 local 1620/1621.

* * *

Just a note to say how glad I was to stumble – on one of my periodic forays into the Megamall – into the opening last Thursday of the latest exhibit of paintings by art critic and advertising executive Cid Reyes in Soler’s gallery at the Artwalk.

Reyes had two series of abstract-expressionist (I hope I got that right, Cid) works running alongside each other – the first, in broader strokes and cooler platinums and golds; the second, much more colorful splashes and squiggles or reds, yellows, and whites. I found myself contemplating two forms or planes of energy.

What was unique about the exhibit was Cid’s pairing of each of the "warmer" pieces with the poem that inspired it – not his, but classics written by such poets as Carlos Angeles, Tita Lacambra Ayala, and Raul Ingles. Such "interactive" projects often fail because of the relative weakness of either the writer or the painter – more usually the former, when the exhibitor goes for puerile poetry or prose; in this case, by choosing only the best poetry to work with or work off, Cid Reyes set and met a suitably high standard – for any artist, the only standard worth going for.

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E-mail me at and visit my blog at

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