Will the coronavirus kill Philippine theater?

JC Gotinga
Will the coronavirus kill Philippine theater?
Theater artists face a tough season as the pandemic rules out mass gatherings, but as the nation itself goes through this difficult chapter, Filipino thespians say the art of storytelling will flourish in adversity

MANILA, Philippines – On the eve of the lockdown of Metro Manila, Stella Cañete Mendoza returned to her backstage dressing room to pack the blouses, skirts, dresses, the shirt-and-jeans, and the headband she had meticulously plotted to help herself get into character.

Stella had arrived early for that final company call. Soon her two-dozen fellow actors trickled in to collect their costumes and props, too. Stripped of sets and equipment, the bare hall echoed the sounds of things being put away.

The producers, cast, and crew of the musical Dekada ’70 decided to postpone the final leg of the show’s run just before the government placed the metro under enhanced community quarantine.

Theirs was an intimate show. The Doreen Black Box at the Ateneo’s Areté arts center seated only 200 people in the audience. It made for immersive, riveting performances.

It’s exactly the thing to avoid during the coronavirus pandemic. How does one practice social distancing inside a theater? (WATCH: Rappler Talk: Theater artist Jenny Jamora on drama and storytelling in a pandemic)

Wala. You can’t. We in the cast, we embrace and hold hands a lot in the show. Then of course, the audience sits in front of us, side by side,” said Stella. She played the lead role of Amanda Bartolome, a doting mother who, by the end of the play, finds her militant voice.

In the weeks before the pandemic took hold, the crew considered setting the audience chairs farther apart, leaving alcohol dispensers at the entrances, giving every audience member a face mask, and disinfecting before and after every performance, just so the show could go on.

They realized it wouldn’t be prudent. The 4 shows on their final weekend were sold out, which meant they would have been responsible for the 800 people who would have attended.

“Of course, we were all heartbroken because we all believed in the message of the show, especially during these times,” Stella said.

Dekada ’70, based on the novel by Lualhati Bautista, is set in the martial law era of the Marcos dictatorship. Stella’s character grapples with the issues of the time through the varied experiences of her husband and sons, until she finds her own place in the struggle for justice.

The show opened on February 21, just days before the Senate passed its version of the anti-terrorism bill, a measure that casts a repressive shadow over dissent and activism.

“More than anything else – the financial loss, ‘yung udlot mo bilang artist to perform – nasayangan talaga ako that we weren’t able to reach out to 800 more people and share the message,” Stella told Rappler.

(More than anything else – the financial loss, your lost momentum as an artist to perform – it’s a pity that we weren’t able to reach out to 800 more people and share the message.)

The shows can’t go on

Besides Dekada ’70, at least 33 other major theatrical productions lined up for 2020 were either cut short or canceled because of the pandemic.

Those productions would have mounted a total of 533 performances this year. The Philippine Legitimate Stage Artist Group (Philstage) estimated its 17-member companies lost more than P269 million from these canceled shows. 

Counting other canceled productions of Metro Manila-based theatrical companies outside Philstage, the total loss in theater revenues this year exceeds P439 million.

Canceled theater projects have displaced at least 1,689 freelance performers, production crew, and creatives, Philstage said.

Most theater workers in the Philippines are freelancers. They live from project to project, for which competition can be rather tough.

Despite the global success of many Filipino thespians, theater in the Philippines itself can hardly be considered an industry in the same manner as television or the corporate world.

Stella, whose international work includes Miss Saigon and Chang & Eng, said, “We’re not an industry yet but we’re a big community.”

The broader picture: Live events

Theater artists and workers often dabble in other live events – concerts, corporate shows, trade launches, bar gigs, even weddings – when they are not part of a play or musical.

Live events, including theater, comprise a large group of around 27,000 business enterprises, mostly MSMEs, that employ some 316,700 workers nationwide, according to the newly formed National Live Events Coalition of the Philippines (NLEC).

Production designers, light and sound engineers and technicians, and equipment suppliers also form part of this sector. Collectively, live events contribute roughly P199.6 billion in annual gross revenues to the national economy, said NLEC.

With all mass gatherings prohibited or restricted until a vaccine for COVID-19 is available, live events are practically obliterated. Even without those restrictions, limiting audience sizes to observe physical distancing would either cut earnings from show tickets or raise prices.

For an industry just beginning to cultivate its audience, theater producers find neither option feasible.

NLEC was formed in late March by live event professionals as a response to the pandemic. The group expects the industry to lose some P131.8 billion this year. Canceled events will leave more than 284,000 freelancers jobless.

On Friday, June 5, the Philippine Statistics Authority said the arts, entertainment, and recreation sector saw the largest drop in employment because of the pandemic. More than half of its workers lost their jobs. From 436,000 in April 2019, there were only 200,000 workers in live events left in April 2020.

All in all, the Philippines posted a record high unemployment rate of 17.7% in April, as 7.3 million Filipinos lost their jobs because of the health crisis.

‘Advanced mag-isip’

Behind every hit play or musical is a capable stage manager who runs the show from the control booth. In the no-cuts-no-edits world of theater, it’s the stage manager who makes sure a show’s gazillion moving parts are working properly.

Lani Tapia is one of the local theater and live event industry’s most sought-after stage managers. While many freelancers cross their fingers at the end of every month waiting to be hired for a project, Lani, in January, was already booked all through to October.

Although Lani started out as an actress in 1996, she found her niche backstage when she signed on as a dresser for the Manila run of Miss Saigon in 2000.

For 8 months, she observed how an international theatrical production worked. She absorbed the professionalism and work ethic it took to sustain a long-running show. Since then, she was never out of a job, and she started commanding a higher talent fee than her peers.

“Word of mouth – that’s how you become known. You will have good connections if you work with a lot of people, and if you know how to respect even the utility man or the janitor,” she told Rappler.

She was already rehearsing a show for the birthday of a bookstore owner scheduled for March 18 when President Rodrigo Duterte declared the lockdown on March 15.

That show was canceled, as were the other projects she had lined up. Lani saw it coming.

“Mukhang mangyayari ito nang pangmatagalan. Nag-sink-in agad sa akin ‘yun. Advanced ako mag-isip – stage manager ako eh,” she said. (Looks like this will go on for a while. That sank in with me right away. I think in advance – I’m a stage manager.)

Not wanting to dip into her savings, Lani is doing what she has never done before: think of a life outside theater.

“I’m thinking I need to change career. I’m looking around for a job I can do, perhaps at a call center or online stuff. Lahat naman kasi napag-aaralan eh (Everything can be learned anyway), I believe,” she said.

If Lani, an industry veteran, must now hustle to survive, then how about the stage hands who get paid only P1,000 for every show they help manage?

“I’ve always told them to save up and pay their own SSS, PhilHealth, and all that because as freelancers, we never know where we’ll wind up. So I’m more worried for them than for myself,” Lani said.

BACKSTAGE QUEEN. Veteran stage manager Lani Tapia at an event for Madame Tussaud's Hong Kong. Photo courtesy of Tapia

Nowhere to turn

Theater and live event workers are in a blind spot for government assistance. Having no regular employers, they don’t qualify for the labor department’s subsidy for displaced employees. Not exactly indigent either, they also don’t qualify for the emergency subsidy from the social welfare department.

So the theater community rallied to help their own. Their best talents gathered to mount online shows and stream videos of their past productions to raise funds for their needier colleagues.

One such effort is the Open House Fundraiser, which first set out to raise P1 million to give P2,000 to some 500 displaced theater and event workers.

With online performances and masterclasses throughout the lockdown, Open House was able to raise P1.3 million from donations, and will be able to extend cash assistance to 650 displaced workers.

Stella lent her chops to one such online show with Agot Isidro, Joanna Ampil, Shamaine Buencamino, Cherry Pie Picache, Missy Maramara, Mylene Dizon, and Frances Makil-Ignacio – a powerhouse cast of crossover artists.

Because doing theater hardly pays for itself, most theater artists have side hustles to pay the bills. The more tenacious among them land roles in TV shows and movies, and become famous for them.

“Our reality is, it is not a financially viable profession,” said Stella, who has dabbled in TV and made investments in small businesses so she can keep performing onstage.

Over the years, theater professionals have tried to organize themselves into an industry. They’ve formed groups to assist one another in filing income taxes, getting medical insurance, and forming a lobby for government support.

In August 2019, Pangasinan 4th District Representative Christopher de Venecia filed House Bill 3951, or the Freelancers Protection Act. The measure requires clients to provide clear contracts when hiring freelancers, sets night shift differential and hazard pay, and penalizes clients who defer payment of talent fees.

The proposed law requires freelancers to register with the Bureau of Internal Revenue, and to pay their taxes yearly.

A producer, director, and actor, De Venecia is himself part of the theater community. In the bill’s explanatory note, he said freelancers often have no recourse when clients refuse to pay them, or when they are forced to work in poor or dangerous conditions.

The measure is still pending at the House of Representatives.

Because there’s a story to tell

It had taken the local theater community decades to build an audience. Ticket prices tend to be restrictive, so unless shows were top-billed by big names or movie stars, producers risked losing money playing to half-empty halls.

In recent years, the tide turned. Musicals based on local material like Rak of Aegis and Ang Huling El Bimbo became huge hits, spawning rerun after rerun. Normally, local productions only run for a month or less – and only on weekends at that.

From February to early March, productions like Joseph the Dreamer and Dekada ’70 sold out every scheduled show, and had to add performances to meet the demand.

That there would have been 33 more productions with 533 shows this year was a sign that, finally, Philippine theater was thriving.

“Sayang ‘yung buwelo kasi kahit papaano, nagkakaroon na ng interes ‘yung mga tao manood ng teatro. ‘Tapos biglang mauudlot,” Stella said. (It’s a shame we’ll lose the momentum because somehow, people were already getting interested in watching theater.)

On average, a theater ticket costs twice, even thrice more than a cinema ticket, and yet Filipinos were queuing up for shows like Dekada ’70.

For Stella, it’s because the theater offers audiences something they cannot get from the cinema or from Netflix.

“You hear them laugh, you hear them sob. Nothing beats that instant bond between a performer onstage and the audience because you share a common experience. You share that emotion and you go through it together,” she said.

That is why even if the lockdown forced many performers to bring their act online, Stella, Lani, and other theater artists feel confident the live experience will eventually return.

“Even now, with all this social distancing, people are yearning for that connection – human connection,” said Stella.

Freddie Santos, veteran theater director and writer, said professional theater with the bright lights and grandiose sets may disappear for a while as producers feel the pinch, but theater in its essence – live storytelling – will not.

“Theater did not begin as professional theater but as personal theater, and if it needs to go back there again in order to build its way onward, let it. In that regard, Theater will continue. Because someone has a story to tell,” Santos said on his Facebook page.

Stella thinks Filipinos have an urgent need to tell and be told stories in a raw, personal way. For instance, the impending ratification of the anti-terrorism bill makes shows like Dekada ’70 downright necessary.

“Will opposition, criticism, and activism be suppressed? Deep in our hearts and minds, we know the answers to these questions. There may be uncertainties, but this I know for sure: art flourishes in the face of adversity,” she said. – Rappler.com

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JC Gotinga

JC Gotinga often reports about the West Philippine Sea, the communist insurgency, and terrorism as he covers national defense and security for Rappler. He enjoys telling stories about his hometown, Pasig City. JC has worked with Al Jazeera, CNN Philippines, News5, and CBN Asia.