By Michelle Anne P. Soliman, Reporter
IT WAS exhilarating, exciting, but quite nerve-wracking for the theater actors as they returned to rehearsals for the first time in two years, and the ghost light* on stage took its rest.
“During the rehearsals, even until the opening show, somehow, it felt like I’d forgotten how to act and all my onstage fears resurfaced,” said actor and Tanghalang Pilipino (TP) associate artistic director Marco Viaña of his experience returning to face-to-face rehearsals after the pandemic lockdowns. “After being isolated and away from the stage for two years, the presence of my co-actors and the live audience was overwhelming.”
TP returned to the stage in September, presenting Rody Vera’s musical adaptation of National Artist for Sculpture Abdulmari Imao’s short story “Anak Datu.”
“It was only during the third week of performances that I was able to explore and enjoy being onstage again,” said Mr. Viaña.
“Artists need some time to relearn and reintroduce ourselves to all the necessary skills to be good storytellers again.”
It had been 28 months from the start of the pandemic before the theater company was able to return to the stage for their new performance season.
REVENUE LOSSESAccording to the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), the local creative industries incurred an estimated 90% loss in revenue when they had to halt operations due to the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic lockdown in 2020. It said that employment declined by 55% in the early lockdowns, and 61% of firms in the arts and entertainment sector stopped operations, with 21% closing permanently (https://www.dti.gov.ph/archives/archived-speeches/keynote-secretary-creative-industry-summit-2021/).
In a survey by the Philippine Legitimate Stage Artist Group, Inc. (Philstage) which represents 16 professional theater and dance companies, live theater’s potential revenue loss was close to P100 million for ticket sales alone from March 2020 to the end of 2021.
As of this writing, Philstage has yet to determine a figure of its members’ revenue losses for 2022.
But things are starting to look up as the curtains rise again.
RETURNING HOME TO THE STAGEAfter the two-year shutdown, the live events sector was allowed to operate at full capacity in March 2022. Still, theater groups were cautious, opting in some cases for a hybrid set-up which mixed on-site and online performances.
From June to July, Tanghalang Pilipino, one of the resident companies of the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP), implemented a hybrid setup for the 17th Virgin Lab Festival (VLF), a theater festival of brand new one-act plays. The first leg of the festival was performed with a live audience, and its second leg was streamed online on a pay-per-view basis.
“The reality is that stage-to-stream shows cannot compete with mainstream streaming platforms,” Mr. Viaña admitted in an e-mail to BusinessWorld.
But they noticed that there was a demand for live performances — the VLF shows were sold out within two weeks of announcing the availability of tickets. “We were not really expecting a huge turnout of viewers for the streaming, but VLF and TP still pushed through with doing stage-to-stream shows as we see it as an opportunity to reach audiences who are still afraid of going out or simply unable to visit the CCP,” says Mr. Viaña.
The first full stage production after the lockdowns was Trumpets Inc.’s rerun of its musical Joseph the Dreamer (JTD) in July. The musical was the last theater production to finish all its scheduled shows before the first lockdown in 2020. Many theater companies back then had to stop productions in the middle of their theatrical runs or never got past rehearsals.
The return to live theater felt “absolutely awesome,” said Trumpets Inc. President Audie L. Gemora.
“It’s uncanny how in the story of Joseph there is a seven-year famine and his faith in God is what saved Egypt and his people. Bringing back JTD while the Omicron variant was still around was a leap of faith,” Mr. Gemora wrote in an e-mail to BusinessWorld.
SAFETY PROTOCOLSStringent safety protocols are now in place during rehearsals: antigen testing is required for cast and crew members, and mask wearing is mandatory. To ensure the safety of operations, a safety officer is also present at rehearsals and shows.
As an advocate for safety in the theater and film, veteran theater actor and director Jamie Wilson officially earned his certification as a safety officer from the Department of Labor and Employment (DoLE) two years ago.
Since lock-in film shootings (during which cast and crew are cloistered from the outside world to prevent COVID-19 from closing down production) started in the second semester of 2020, he has supervised production shoots for film and then, this year, theatrical productions.
“The main thing I always remind actors in particular is that (they) have the right to refuse unsafe work. A lot of actors feel the pressure to deliver, even if it’s a ridiculous demand, whether it is a set piece or situation,” Mr. Wilson said in an interview via Messenger video call.
“When we were shooting in the middle of the pandemic [prior to vaccines], kissing scenes were considered more dangerous than explosions,” he said.
Similar to when a film shoots, Mr. Wilson coordinates with a play’s creative team — the director, producer, and choreographer — to lessen the risk of injury or spread of the virus.
Factors such as a risky or dangerous prop or set, a dangerous stunt, a talent not feeling well, and the heavy load of a crew member or actor’s role in the production are the basis of whether a production will be postponed.
THE VIRUS HITS“There was antigen testing before every rehearsal. If anyone exhibited symptoms, they needed to quarantine for a few days. Masks were worn at rehearsals,” Mr. Gemora said. “However, when we moved to the venue for dress tech, the cast removed their masks.
“I think that’s when the virus hit.”
On the evening of Joseph The Dreamer’s opening, four cast and crew members tested positive for COVID-19. This meant that the entire production staff and cast had to quarantine, and the show’s opening weekend shows were postponed to the following week.
“It’s not about the number, it’s about who,” Mr. Wilson said, adding that when someone tests positive, he has to trace who the crew or cast member came in contact with, and what they were doing before, during, and after rehearsals.
Then there was the situation of Mula sa Buwan (MSB) which went onstage in September. The show was also supervised by Mr. Wilson, who said that everyone took antigen tests and was masked — actors only took their masks off during technical dress rehearsals.
“I had to tell Pat Valera (Barefoot Theatre Collaborative co-founder, and writer and director of Mula sa Buwan) to shut down his third weekend because there was exposure (to COVID) and I couldn’t track the exposure,” Mr. Wilson said.
“It’s a big financial risk,” he said, without citing any figures. “It’s also a big responsibility. But thank God we made the right call because if we push through, we do not know if actors and crew are already infected.”
For Mr. Wilson, the mindset of “I am dying; therefore I am not dead yet” and still reporting to work, needs to change to valuing health and safety first.
“We have to accept the conditions that safety is going to be a very big part of any show we put on. It can no longer be an afterthought. It has to be your first thought,” he said.
THE SWING SYSTEMAside from the focus on safety, the return to live theater also meant the implementation of the swing system for shows this year.
Unlike an alternate who shares a specific role with another actor and has a guaranteed number of shows they will perform in, or an understudy who learns a specific role to take up if the regular actor is unable to perform, the swing actor learns the lines and musical numbers of the entire show and remains on standby in case they need to stand in for any actor.
“The understudies are still in the show. The swing is not in the show; they are on standby [in case] anybody gets sick or injured. They will come in only when needed,” Mr. Wilson said.
“Hangang-hanga ako sa mga swing (I am in awe of swing actors). Imagine studying all these roles without an assurance of a show,” he added.
While it is a good system, Mr. Wilson said, implementing it involves costs. “You have to give them standby fees. You have to give them rehearsal fees. It’s very expensive to maintain it, but I think a swing system and understudy system, moving forward into four seasons of theater next year, will be completely necessary and cheaper than to shut down a production,” he said.
THE AUDIENCE IS THEREDespite concerns that postponement would scare off audiences and affect box office sales, both Joseph the Dreamer and Mula sa Buwan were able hold limited runs in November and December, respectively, with sold out shows.
“The JTD July run played to packed houses. Another re-run for November kept getting extended too,” Mr. Gemora said.
As for Mula sa Buwan, Mr. Valera said: “When we had to postpone and reschedule, apart from the internal challenges, we had to move five sold-out shows (a total of 7,500 people). We are thankful that we have supportive partners who understood and helped us during the transition. While we had refunds, the majority of the audiences agreed with the schedule change.”
He added that almost 32,000 people watched Mula sa Buwan in 2022.
“This turn-out shows that not only does the audience return [to the theater] but there are new audiences ready to watch and support the theater,” Mr. Valera said.
LESSONS LEARNEDForPhilippine Educational Theater Association (PETA) Artistic Director Maribel Legarda, the pandemic has taught them to make do with what they had. While they could not present live shows, they were able to pivot to steaming existing work and original works online.
In March 2021, PETA’s video documentation of the late Soxie Topacio play 1896 was streamed online as part of the PETA Click and Play Stream Series. In May, they streamed the video of their hit jukebox musical, Rak of Aegis, and in November 2022, Batang Rizal.
“From now on we will be shooting our plays diligently and well as as professionally as we can afford so that we can put it online,” Ms. Legarda said in an interview.
In February, PETA will stage a new original musical, Walang Aray, an adaptation of Severino Reyes’ classic zarzuela, Walang Sugat.
“We decided to go for a play that’s light, happy and energetic to kick off the season,” Ms. Legarda said. “We recognize that coming from the last three years, people’s spirits may be a little bit down and we thought that this is the kind of air we’d like them to breathe in first before we introduce them to the rest of our season.”
During the pandemic, Christopher “Toff” De Venecia, artistic managing director of The Sandbox Collective and congressman of the 4th district of Pangasinan, learned how not to take opportunities for granted, and that “we need to be braver and bolder and move towards a sustainable theater in the new normal.”
For 2023, Mr. De Venecia said that his theater company is “mulling” over whether to mount its Sandbox Festival in the second or third quarter of the year. The festival will feature a rerun of Duncan Macmillan’s Lungs and Every Brilliant Thing, as they still have the rights to those intellectual properties.
“However, we need to ascertain many things moving forward,” he said.
After the successful four-weekend run of its postmodern take on Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel, Repertory Philippines (REP) is hopeful as it approaches its 55th year of shows.
“You can expect a fresh, progressive, and dynamic spirit behind relevant and intelligent theater,” said REP artistic director Liesl Batucan in an e-mail.
“It will be an exciting year ahead for REP as we build upon the success of our return-to-live-theater milestone production of Carousel and continue to take REP forward to a new generation of theatergoers.”
REP also hopes to safely reopen the theater to young audiences, depending on the Department of Educations’ guidelines and policies for educational systems next school year.
Snow White and the Prince was the REP Theater for Young Audiences’ show for its 2020 performance season which was halted by the pandemic.
“We would love to safely mount it in 2023 and finally welcome our young audiences back home to REP,” Ms. Batucan said.
As for Tanghalang Pilipino, its 36th theater season will see the restaging in February of Jerry Respeto’s Ang Pag-uusig, a translation of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. It will be directed by the CCP’s new Artistic Director, Dennis Marasigan, and will feature the new batch of the TP Actors Company. With the closure of the Cultural Center of the Philippines’ Main Building for a three year-long renovation, the show will run for four weekends at the newly built Tanghalang Ignacio Gimenez or Black Box theater.
“I look forward to the abundance and diversity of works to be produced next year as an antidote to the abundance of lies and the spread of our false history,” Mr. Viaña said of the upcoming productions for 2023.
Meanwhile, Full House Theater Company will return with the jukebox musical Ang Huling El Bimbo at the Newport Performing Arts Theater in Newport World Resorts.
As Philstage president, Mr. Gemora said that the organization is planning a Philstage fund raising gala as well as the return of the Gawad Buhay Awards.
“People seem eager to watch shows live. This is a good opportunity for the performing arts to build an audience,” he said.
*As per theater tradition, aghost light is an electric light that is left open on a theater’s stage when it is unoccupied and would otherwise be completely dark. While a safety feature to avoid accidents from people fumbling around in the dark theater, there are a number of superstitions about the ghost light including appeasing or scaring away theater ghosts. During the COVID-19 pandemic, many of theaters which were forced to close left the ghost lights on as a way of indicating the theaters will re-open.