Arts and Culture

The case of the disappearing audience

DOGBERRY - Exie Abola - The Philippine Star

Whenever someone tells me that the market for local theater is limited, and then uses this apparent truth to throw up his hands as if to say, well, we’ve done all we can, we can’t do any more, I think of my students. Almost every year I teach the first year introductory literature courses in Ateneo de Manila, and each year I send them to watch a few plays, whatever I like from the offerings of the various Manila-based theater companies.

Ah, my students. A handful are stereotypically coñotic. Many are ignorant of Pinoy pop culture, sometimes alarmingly so. (I still remember the time I asked, “What if Piolo Pascual were to walk through that door this very minute?” A boy sitting in front asked, “Who’s Piolo Pascual?”) They tote the latest gizmos and gadgets as if they were cheap junk jewelry. They spend free hours studying in the coffee shops across the highway, guzzling frappuccinos while poring over their books. When I ask at the start of the school year how many have seen a play recently that they weren’t required to watch, only one or two hands go up in a class of 30. Inevitably it’s a Broadway musical done here or abroad.

So I usually send them to plays that are distinctly Filipino, exploring some aspect of our people’s experience. Many times these plays are in Filipino, a language my students often don’t love. And of course, there’s the reluctance. They’re not excited to learn that they’ll have to trek to an unfamiliar part of the metropolis on a weekend. (Terra incognita includes the Cultural Center of the Philippines, the PETA Theater Center, and even UP–Diliman’s Palma Hall.)

But after the show, they almost always marvel at what they just saw. Favorites include Orosman at Zafira (Oh, how they groaned when I told them we were watching Balagtas, the one author they hate more than Shakespeare), Atang, and Amphitryon by Dulaang UP, Si Juan Tamad, ang Diablo, at ang Limang Milyong Boto and William by PETA, and the CCP’s Virgin Labfest, an annual festival of new plays. A handful thanked me profusely for making them experience something they never had before. Some go back for a second viewing. Years later, a small few still ask me for recommendations. I bumped into one at Tanghalang Ateneo’s Sintang Dalisay at the National Theater Festival in November. She had messaged me on Facebook after I had posted the festival schedule on her class page.

When I think of them, I wonder which is limited — the theater audience, or our diligence and skill in discovering and developing it. Not that I am suggesting that we consider students from the most privileged stratum of society the typical kind of potential viewer we can turn into enthusiasts. Only that such people seem the unlikeliest converts. Once they get through the door and into the seats, the magic of theater takes over. The trick is getting them through the door.

These thoughts came to me again when I read, in the Dec. 15 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, playwright and stage actor Rody Vera’s essay titled “Where Have Our Audiences Gone?” In the essay, much more a plaint than a polemic, he wonders why local productions are playing to smaller crowds. He notes in particular his experience performing in Stageshow, a wonderful Tanghalang Pilipino production (I wrote a glowing review of it in these pages) that played to a sparse crowds in the CCP’s Little Theater just as The Phantom of the Opera was packing the much larger Main Theater upstairs. Then he explores various reasons many people offer for the disparity.

The ones he examines are all true to a certain extent (such as colonial mentality, on which he dwells longest). But I think that Rody looks too hard for the answer, because the biggest problem, to my mind, lies closer to home: theater companies have done a lousy job marketing their shows. (When I say marketing, I use it as a catchall term that includes promotion, sales, and customer care. And when I say theater companies, I mean the ones that don’t rely only on imports, usually musicals, and I don’t include those affiliated with schools.) From what I’ve seen, theater companies are haphazardly run businesses. Or rather, they’re good at one thing, poor at something else. They make an excellent product, but they haven’t gotten customers to buy it, probably because they don’t know how good it is or even that it exists.

Since Rody uses Stageshow as his takeoff point, I’ll use it too. Let’s begin with pricing. Was it wise to price tickets at P800 a pop? I’m guessing the price is too high, considering the kind of viewer who would find the show appealing: those who troop to the CCP for the Virgin Labfest, who take in the occasional show at Dulaang UP, who like watching PETA. They’re probably young, still students or recent graduates. The price point might have alienated the very people who would have watched. I’m thinking of someone in particular, an acquaintance with whom I am friends on Twitter. An alum of Tanghalang Ateneo and who still sometimes performs in their productions, he tweeted that the price was making him hem and haw over watching Stageshow despite the good buzz. If this young man who is already sympathetic to local theater hesitates at P800, how much more do others?

These are the very people who might have flocked to the recently concluded National Theater Festival (Stageshow played to a packed and enthusiastic audience then, but Rody suspects that most of them were participants with complimentary tickets). I’m still scratching my head over the decision to price the festival shows at P800 for the CCP Little Theater and P500 for the Studio Theater. Shouldn’t a festival go in the other direction, pull prices down so that droves will come to its offerings?

As for timing: Stageshow ran for only two weekends, not counting its NTF performances. That seems an awfully short time to allow buzz to build. But even the customary five-shows-three-weekends setup most companies use can be rethought. Why not consider doing fewer shows a weekend but having more weekends? Or doing fewer shows in the first weekends (when crowds are thinner) then more in the later ones? So as the buzz builds, you’ve got more weekends and shows that people will want to watch.

Speaking of buzz: since local theater companies can’t afford traditional tri-media campaigns, they have to be savvy about other marketing channels. Social media is a potentially powerful tool, yet I get the impression they haven’t figured out how to use it. Example: I was miffed when, after I messaged the Tanghalang Pilipino Facebook account a simple question about schedules, no answer ever came.

All these thoughts lead to an important prior question: how well do our companies know their audiences anyway? Do they perform or commission studies on them, create demographic profiles, ask about behavior and interests? (At an NTF session on the the problems of engaging audiences, only the PETA representative spoke of doing such studies. Tellingly, she said that they never assume they know their audience completely, and so continue figuring out what they are like. When it comes to knowing its audience, PETA seems to lead the way. How else would they be able to sustain six-week runs of new, original plays?)

Without such knowledge of one’s audience, a theater company can only do so much to develop it. And this might be the best, long-term investment a company can make: foster the growth of an audience that becomes loyal to the company yet discerning in its tastes, nurture it into a community that becomes invested in the success of that particular company but especially in the success of local theater in general.

My point is not that theater is no more than a commercial enterprise. It is that theater is also a commercial enterprise, and it’s this side of the equation that companies have neglected. That theater is an artistic enterprise our companies already know well.

After exploring the possible reasons for sparsely attended shows and finding no single one that satisfies, Rody ends on a high note. Despite bleak prospects, many new writers producing exciting work are emerging, and he affirms his desire to continue working on his art. The show, after all, must go on.

And it is, often enough, full of wonders. I believe, as many others do, that there exists a strong and vibrant audience for distinctly Filipino theater, one still largely untapped, but one that would be wowed by what it has to offer. But how to get people through the doors so the magic can do its work? That is the question that needs to be answered.

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Comments are welcome at [email protected]mailto:[email protected].












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