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September 27, 2004

ROEL HOANG MANIPON

The story of a community theater is one of struggle and sacrifice. Running entirely on vision and passion, these small theater groups, usually based in the provinces, are always in danger of dissolving, mainly because of lack of support. While the Barasoain Kalinangan Foundation, Inc. (BKFI), the community theater group based in Malolos in the province of Bulacan, has its share of tribulations, its existence is a rare, if not singular, instance of governmental support and talent and passion converging in a culturally rich environment.

This year the group receives the Cultural Center of the Philippines Award for the Arts (Gawad CCP Para sa Sining), which honors artists, cultural workers and researchers, and cultural groups.

A month before conferring the award to BKFI, I met Armando Sta. Ana, one of the founders and the current artistic director. He holds office at the Hiyas ng Bulakan museum building, a gray and white box-like structure beside the provincial capitol, as assistant department head of the Provincial Youth, Sports, Employment, Arts and Culture of the provincial government. Renamed Gat Blas F. Ople Sentro ng Kabataan, Sining at Kultura ng Bulacan in February 2004 in honor of the Bulakeño writer and statesman, the building that houses the museum and gallery, the auditorium and the provincial library has undergone some constructions. The newly added offices accommodate the PYSEAC—an indication that something is on the move here.

“We are lucky that we have government support here that you don’t see in other places,” said Sta. Ana, an affable, swarthy and hefty man in his forties. “The governor has high regards for arts and culture. She sees it as an integral part in the overall development of the province.”

He was referring to Josefina dela Cruz, who once provided transportation for students from the remote areas of the province so that they may able to watch a play. Past governors had also been very supportive.

The BKFI has been adopted by the provincial government as its “resident” theater company in 1987 and regarded as “an active partner of the provincial government in its cultural campaign within and outside the province.” As thus, it enjoys the free use of the 300-seater Nicanor Abelardo Auditorium for its office and performance venue as well as an annual subsidy of 200 to 300 thousand pesos.

More importantly, BKFI has distinguished itself as one for the country’s reputable and prominent community theater groups, mounting original plays in its regular season and has been able to tour them nationally and internationally.
Not bad for a group started by seven mostly high school students, who held their meetings and brainstorming sessions in front of the historic Barasoain Church, thus the name.

The BKFI started out as a splinter group of Dulaang Malolos, a theater group started during the 1970s that mainly mounted cenakulos, passion plays based on the life of Jesus Christ during Holy Week. Artistic differences created a schism between the younger and older members.

Sta. Ana was one of the seven young members from the breakaway group. While the rest were students from Marcelo H. del Pilar High School, Sta. Ana Fine Arts was then a freshman student of painting at the University of the Philippines.
Sta. Ana had never thought of being involved in theater, much less gearing a group towards distinction. He started drawing by the age of three and thus was already thought of to become a painter. But in 1976, in his last year in high school, he watched a cenakulo and became fascinated with the theatrical process. Upon reaching college, he sought out theater groups and found and joined Behn Cervantes’ UP Repertory Company. At the same time, he joined a cenakulo group in his native Malolos.

While he started to work after graduation, usually six-month stints in offices like the National Historical Institute and the tourism of Makati City, Sta. Ana always returned to Malolos and his theater group. It was in his hometown, where began work first as a clerk in the provincial government office, then as curator of its museum and now as a principal cultural officer.

Since its founding in 1980, BKFI has been producing plays regularly. Alay sa Anak Pawis marked its first play, which was performed in demonstrations, rallies and in any instances and venues they could find. Their play, Cenakulo sa Daan, was an attempt at originality and experimentation: a passion play performed on the street instead of stage, which was seen first time in Bulacan. Using traditional techniques and styles, contemporary issues were injected into the work.

M.H. del Pilar: Pasyong Dapat Ipag-alab, which tackles the life of the revolutionary Bulacan hero and staged in 1984, was their first original full-length play. In 1992, BKFI mounted Tatlong Maria, a trilogy of monologues highlighting three women: a mother of an activitist, a laborer’s wife and a farmer’s daughter. It was based on three short stories: Rogelio Sicat’s “Tata Selo,” H.R. Ocampo’s “Bakya” and Nene Agahudo-Fernandez’s “Mariang Tabak.” Written by Noel Valencia, Aguhado-Fernandez and Sta. Ana, it was brought to the Cultural Center of the Philippines for the Unang Tagpo, the first national theater festival. The play earned good reviews and brought BKFI to national attention. This led to national tours and eventually to being invited to perform in California, USA in 2001 and 2003.

Its success owes a large part to the member’s dedication to learning the craft, which is passed on to anybody who wish to learn. In 1986, they invited stage actor Joonee Gamboa invited to hold workshops. From then on, workshops were conducted regularly all-year round.

What distinguishes BKFI’s workshops from other workshops is its relative comprehensiveness. It is not the typical three-day joint. The BFKI workshop lasts more than a year divided into three areas with four months. First workshop deals on acting, while the second on the technical aspect and the third on marketing.

The workshop is open to anyone and the fee is at 100 pesos for out of school youths, 120 for students and 150 for teachers and other professionals. While students constitute most enrollees, teachers, doctors, government employees, and even tricycle drivers and farmers have also enrolled.

After the workshop, a full production of a play served as culmination, which is also the offering of BKFI for its first theater season. The second production of the second season is mounted by full members and is usually a major, original play.
To become a member of BKFI, one has to undergo the workshop after which the person can be invited or apply for membership. The applicant though still has to undergo interviews and deliberation by members.

This system somehow ensures that the future member will be dedicated to the group as well as to the craft. Although, said Sta. Ana attitude and a good working relationship rather than craft and talent play an important role in an applicant’s acceptance.

While such a workshop, it can be said that a BKFI member can work in any theatrical aspects from script writing to lighting to directing.

Presently, the BKFI has 12 full members, which is called Uhay. With Sta. Ana as artistic director, the rest include Joseph Cristobal, company manager; Neth Gamboa, finance chairman; Lita dela Cruz, production manager; Melandro Pascual, assistant artistic director; Gilbert Buniel, technical director; Percy Estrella, human resources and management officer; Jose Ruel Pagulligan, Allan Sta. Ana, Joseph Rejoso, Tupher Adriano and Crisanto dela Torre, members.

Joonee Gamboa was invited to become BKFI’s artistic director in 1987 and introduced a theater with a regular program. From then on, BKFI began producing to four productions a year.

Later on, with Sta. Ana becoming artic director in 1994, the BKFI saw the need to professionalize the community theater in order to sustain it. We want them to see the community theater not just as a hobby or something they can do when they don’t something have to do; they can earn doing theater, said Sta. Ana.

Although, they have seen issuing tickets, which cost from two to five pesos, early on, they strengthened the ticketing system. A ticket to a BKFI production now costs from 60 to 75 pesos, the same admission price to the movies. They cannot raised their prices higher than those of the movies, which is generally considered theater’s biggest competitor.
By 1990, they were able to pay artists however modest. In 2002, with the income earned from a production, they were able install air-conditioning in the auditorium.

BKFI also formed a board of trustees with members coming from the academe, government and other sectors. This is also a way of drawing support from these sectors.

Eminent poet, critic, professor and National Artist Virgilio Almario is currently the chairman of board of trustees, a position previously held by Nicanor Tiongson, a well-respected and noted cultural researcher. Dr. Mariano de Jesus, the vice president of the Bulacan State University, acts as president.

The company’s desire to produce original plays reflective of Bulacan culture and history intensified. They have began mounting plays depicting the lives of artists and heroes who are from the province. So far, they have mounted plays about National Artists Nicanor Abelardo (music), Guillermo Tolentino (visual arts), Francisca Reyes-Aquino (dance) and Gerardo de Leon (film). They are now preparing another play based on the life Ernani Cuenco, National Artist for Music, called Bato sa Buhangin.

Bulacan is the only province with an admirably large concentration of National Artists. Aside from literary giants Francisco Balagtas and Jose Corazon de Jesus, the province produced National Artists Amado Hernandez (literature) Virgilio Almario (literature), Francisco Santiago (music) Antonino Buenaventura (music), Honarata dela Rama (theater) and Jose Joya (visual arts).

Bulacan is also home to many patriots and revolutionary heroes, notably Marcelo H. del Pilar and his brother Gregorio del Pilar. Many major historical events happened in Bulacan including the drafting of the Malolos Constitution and the inauguration of the Philippine Republic, also known as the Malolos Republic, with Emilio Aguinaldo taking oath as president in 1899.

Sta. Ana rejoices in this richness from which BKFI can drew inspiration. With folk poets and a number of cenakulos during Holy Week vivifying the cultural landscape, “Who cannot be creative in this kind of environment?” he commented.
Indeed, there are 13 visual arts groups, 20 choral groups, 11 folk dance troupes, 15 brass bands, two architectural associations, two literary groups, 12 museums, and numerous percussion bands and modern dance groups.
Sta. Ana noted that this is not possible without the intervention by the provincial government, which is keen on the whole cultural development of Bulacan.

While Sta. Ana was glad about the cultural progress his community is making, he nurtures a grand personal dream. Ensconced in his new white office, with a still-life he recently painted beside him and Josh Groban playing on the stereo, he wished that someday an entire cultural complex will be established in Bulacan with different resident artistic companies and an exclusive school for the arts. “Ultimately, there will be a cultural industry here in Bulacan,” he said. “So that artists can earn a living through their art. Eventually, people will see culture not as entertainment but as a way of life. That is how it should be. That art is part of every Bulakeño.”

It is a monumental task. But if the support is sustained and intensified and the passion and vision do not wane, they may achieve it, and a story of a community theater that concludes with joy and success may for the first time be told.