Continuing a conversation from 2020, Sandbox Fest 2023 restages Lungs and Every Brilliant Thing

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By Giselle P. Kasilag

LAUGHTER was reverberating throughout the room. Everyone was in their element — safe and secure in the knowledge that they were surrounded by supportive colleagues. It was the sandbox that the term intended it to mean — an area where children can dig and play. And it is this very atmosphere that The Sandbox Collective hopes to bring in the Sandbox Fest 2023.

“Honestly it’s been so wonderful getting back on our feet to do this kind of work,” said actress Justine Pena. “And to be doing that with people that you genuinely trust, and you genuinely feel safe around to have and discuss these kinds of conversations with. You see, the material tackles things that people do talk about but normally in their intimate moments with their partners or with themselves. And it’s so great we’re able to bring [it] back out into the light, so I think it’s going to be wonderful for people to be able to see that, especially coming from a pandemic where we’ve been so closed off from everybody else. I think this is going to be a cathartic experience for people. It has been for me, working with all of them.”

The material she was referring to was Duncan Macmillan’s Lungs and Every Brilliant Thing — the two plays that were featured in the Sandbox Fest 2020 which was cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a way, the festival will bring a sense of completion to a beloved project that they were forced to walk away from due to the global health crisis. Back then, Lungs was able to finish its run but the curtains failed to rise for Every Brilliant Thing which was set to open when the first lockdown was announced in the Philippines.

In June this year, the plays will return to the stage but will be presented as a twin bill experience. The audience members will be purchasing a single, same-day ticket that would allow them to watch both shows.

Lungs is the story of a young couple contemplating starting a family. It delves into the intricacies of intimacy, reexamining the relationship in the context of political unrest, climate change, and the many challenges faced by society in a fast-changing world.

Returning cast member Sab San Jose will be joined by Lungs newbie Reb Atadero. The second cast will consist of Lungs first-timers as well: Brian Sy and Ms. Pena. Occupying the director’s chair is Caisa Borromeo who served as the assistant director in the play’s previous runs.

THINGS ARE DIFFERENT AFTER THE PANDEMICEvery Brilliant Thing is a one-person, one-act play about a child struggling with her mother’s depression. To cope, she begins a list of every brilliant thing that the universe has to offer.

Alternating in Every Brilliant Thing are Teresa Herrera and Kakki Teodoro — both reprising the role that they first performed in 2019. Also returning as the play’s director is Jenny Jamora.

“Iba (It’s different)!” declared Ms. Teodoro when asked about how different she reads the script now after experiencing the pandemic. “Iba na iyung pagbasa. Honestly, nung first run, sabi ko sa kanila, if umiyak na lang ako, hayaan niyo na lang ako. Just let the tears fall (It reads differently. Honestly, in the first run, I told them if I cry, just let me. Just let the tears fall)!

“Iba na kami (We’re different),” she continued. “Iba na ang audience na sasalubong sa material. So when we started [performing the play] in 2018, mental health was just something na hindi pa masyadong aware ang mga Pilipino. Ngayon, it’s really part of everyone’s vocab. Everyone has their own insight and understanding of their mental health journey (It’s a different audience that will see the material. So, when we started in 2018, mental health was just something that most Filipinos were not very aware of. Now, it’s really part of everyone’s vocabulary. Everyone has their own insight and understanding of their mental health journey).”

An important concern that she raised was the issue of consent in a play that has an active audience interaction at its core. The concern comes in two levels: having the permission to physically collaborate with the people who came to simply watch and being able to interact given the health protocols put in place to keep everyone in the theater safe.

“I agree with Kakki,” said Ms. Herrera. “The world is a different place. We are all different people now. Three years is a long time to experience so many things. For me, personally, I had another baby. Coming back [onstage], it’s kind of like, bringing this baby into this world now and reading the world news — racism, school shootings — really affect me mentally because the world wasn’t like that before. It’s a different place. So, yes, there is some depth. We are gonna go there. We did say in our first meeting that, you know, I’m gonna rage in certain parts. If I do, let it happen. And it’s so wonderful working again and meeting the text again in a new space. Even in rehearsals, the lines feel different. It just hits different.”

JOHN SANTOS IN THE HOUSEThe big Every Brilliant Things news, however, is the addition of comedian Jon Santos to the cast. He will be performing a Filipino version of the piece which will be translated by Guelan Luarca.

“The estate of Duncan Macmillan, they’re so cool,” gushed The Sandbox Collective managing artistic director Toff de Venecia. “He really encourages localization, adjusting anywhere it’s set. So we’re very excited for this Guelan Luarca translation of Every Brilliant Thing. Of course, Guelan Luarca is a Palanca Award-winning and Gawad Buhay Award-winning playwright. And we’re so fortunate to have THE Jon Santos perform this Filipino version so that he can also provide the male experience, the queer experience, and the Filipino experience.”

Mr. Santos was particularly thrilled to work with Ms. Jamora once again. They collaborated previously in Dog Eaters, WTF: Wala Talagang Forver sa Malacañang, and For Better or For Worse.

While he recognizes the challenges of performing a brand-new version of beloved material, he is confident that tackling universal issues immediately makes it easily accessible regardless of the language.

He talked about having lost family members and loved ones during the lockdown. And through it all, he managed the household and supported a mental health program that saved the lives of many people struggling with their emotions. The struggles and the issues which are also tackled in Every Brilliant Thing, he stressed, are very relatable.

“Iyung mental health ko, nagdaan sa (My mental health, it went through) moments of really dark places and it’s a brilliant lightbulb moment — oh my goodness! we are resilient,” he said.

Best known for his comedic, satirical impersonations of famous people, this play gives him a different outlet. “I really, really relish… kasi sa political satire, maingat ako na magpakita ng kulay (because with political satire, I am careful not to show my colors). I just portray the stories of the different characters. In fact, lahat sila i-spoof (I spoof everyone). And tawag sa akin ay (they call me an) equal opportunity offender. But here, I don’t mind na nag-o-overlap ang aming agenda (our agendas overlap).”

A DIFFERENT OUTLOOKIt is also this sense of freedom that Ms. Jose appreciates in her unexpected return to the stage. Having performed Lungs before the pandemic and before experiencing motherhood, she now views the script with a very different outlook.

“I didn’t think I would be able to go back on stage, to be honest,” she confessed.

“So, this is a monumental emotional moment for me because I’m a new mom and I didn’t think I’d have it in me to come back and leave my child who just turned two. And it’s a very real thing for me, bringing him into the world in the middle of a pandemic, climate change, political unrest, everything! So I felt so guilty bringing him to the world, to be honest.

“So in terms of depth, I think I have a greater purpose now knowing that I have a child to raise. And I’m a completely different person. Still Sab in the core, but I think there’s more emotional weight when I read the script now ’cause we’re no longer the same people. We went through the pandemic — a collective struggle. And we’re still going through it with resilience and hope. We’re constantly just beginning again which is what I’m doing. I’m beginning again.”

Trust factors heavily in a play of only two actors. With only each other to turn to, Mr. Sy is grateful that Ms. Pena has been a very generous partner throughout the process.

“Ang sarap kasi parang napapadali ang trabaho (it’s good because it makes the work easier),” he said. “I think this is one of the few materials na na-experience na (that I experienced wherein) I could just completely rely on my partner, trust everything, and really just listen to her. It becomes this whole experience of just allowing yourself to be. Tanggapin mo na lang kung ano iyung ibibigay sa yo (Just take whatever is given to you). It’s been so wonderful so far.”

Returning to the stage, however, came with its own set of emotional baggage. For Mr. Atadero, it was all about being different but still returning to your core.

“Throughout the whole pandemic, paulit-ulit sinabi ko sa sarili ko (I kept repeating to myself) ‘the first play I’m gonna do marami akong bala’ (I have a lot of ammunition),” he said. “That’s what they say about strife. Strife creates art. But when I got into the room on the first day of rehearsals with Sab and everybody else, and of course Caisa who was very supportive about everything that we had to go through…. she understood that everyone had their own baggage coming in as an actor… so honestly on that first day, it felt like coming back home.

“It was like leaving a conversation on hold for three years and later you come back and it’s like nothing happened but somehow, you’re also different people. Iba na iyung bala mo. Iba na iyung baon mo. Iba na kung sino ka. Iba na kung paano ka mag interpret (Your ammunition is different. Your provisions are different. You are different. How you interpret is different).”

Indeed, Sandbox Fest 2023 is a return to a conversation that began three years ago but with a different perspective and, in this case, different participants, but tackling the universal experiences of life, loss, and relationships.

Sandbox Fest 2023 will run at the Zobel de Ayala Recital Hall, 2/F Maybank Performing Arts Theater at BGC, Taguig, from June 17 to July 15.