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A Mindanao Theater Experience: Issues and Prospects

June 14, 2004


Much as I would like to begin this talk with the history of theater in Mindanao, I feel inadequate with precise data simply because I am not a historian. My entry in Theater was coming from the back. I did not learn theater formally in school. I started as a participant of the Basic Integrated Skills in Theater Arts Workshops (BITAW) in the early ’80s. Neither did I belong to the “Catacumba Theater” of Fr. Dong Galenzoga and “Theater of the Oppressed” of Karl Gaspar in the ’70s being much younger that the famous Joey Ayala, Agnes Locsin, Nestor Horfilla and Fe Remotigue.

            As a product of the Mindanao Protest Theater in the ’80s, I feel that my observation of theater in Mindanao reflects the aspirations of the people and the artists of Mindanao. Long before us and even before Karl Gaspar and Father Dong, The people of Mindanao before the colonial period had their own theatrics that were distinctively reflective of their time.

            The native inhabitants of Mindanao did not succumb to foreign colonial culture. However, They went to the hinterlands and preserved their culture that we regard today as culture of minority. The cultural communities or the so-called “tribals” were the first inhabitants of Mindanao. These are the Manobos of Agusan Surigao provinces, Higaonons of Iligan, Talaandigs of Bukidnon, T’bolis and B’laans of Cotabato, Mandayas of Davao, and many others.

            They, too, had their own genre of theater which is part of the complex web of their culture. Their theater was manifested in their oral tradition, ritual, ceremonies, healing, and even the installation of their datus or political leaders. Thus, to a large extent, theater occupies social and cultural dimensions among these communities.

            The multi-cultural background of peoples in Mindanao as evidenced by the existence of the tribals, Muslims and Dumagats (lowlanders and seafarers) permutated various social spaces for theater. My talk has two parts: the first describes the shifting faces of theater in Mindanao, the second explains my observation on the current situation — issues and prospects — of writing reviews in theater.

Theater as a Social Movement

            Theater in Mindanao can be defined as an integral part of a social movement. It is a human form of communication that intercepts events in the society. Especially in the ’70s up to the late ’80s, theater in Mindanao has been utilized largely as a means of advocating for reforms or changes in the society. Popular plays during this period were called “protest plays”. Examples of these kinds of plays were some productions of Kulturang Atin Foundation (KAFI) in Davao City, and the numerous plays performed by various parish-based groups in some provinces of Mindanao.

            Theater practitioners coined a catch phrase to refer to the main function of their plays: “Breaking the Culture of Silence”. No matter what, theater had to speak about social issues, such as poverty, sufferings and inequality. The plays were presented in significant community events like Independence Day, Labor Day, when usually a play as part of a program would start after a parade.

            The style of presentation had to be simple, the story had to be less complicated, and was usually dramatized through simple songs and dances. The popular forms of this kind of theater genre were the so-called dula-dula (a style using chants, songs and dances), the presentational or expressionistic type, and absurd. It was the social climate that shaped the content and style of theater.

            The Mindanao theater movement has also resulted in organizing networks and cultural institutions to serve as back-ups or catalyzers of community cultural actions. These are the Mindanao Community Theatre Network (MCTN), KAFI, Educational Discipline for Culture and Arts Development Services. (EDCADS) and parish-based theater based groups.

            Since the late ’70s, Mindanao theater has shaped reportory companies such as the Kaliwat Theater Collective, Sining Kambayoka and Integrated Performing Arts Guild (IPAG).

The Creative Process

            On the other hand, the pedagogies and teachings of theater in Mindanao are culture-based. Mindanao is rich in culture with more than 50 ethno-linguistic groups contributing to the development of theater genres, species and forms. Most of the stories written are drawn from people’s experiences which are expressed in popular languages. The Sinalimba and  Lawig Balanghai are two monumental productions that vividly harness ethnic elements. Lawig Balanghai, written by Fe Remotigue about the colonization of the native, is in dula-sayaw (sing and dance) fashion. Such treatment is reflective of the Manobo way of telling a story, and takes off from their ritualistic celebrations. The critically-acclaimed Sinalimba of Nestor Horfilla also share the same treatment utilizing Bagobo and Maguindanao Elements.

            Mindanao has theater that is not presented but rather is evolving dynamically fusing elements. After all, there’s no theater production that is purely ethnic. An ethnic story, dance or music, once put on stage, is no longer authentic in its truest sense. Much more so if the play with ethnic elements is performed by non-ethnic actors. Hence, one cannot argue on aesthetic values of pragmatic and puric approach in theater  because each approach has distinctive functions.

            I have encountered theater in various fashions. I have experienced the Boal type, the Brechtian style and so-called indigenous forms. I can distinguished one theater from another. This is the most important task in writing a review. One should be discerning or able to grasp what is original, adapted, fused, constructed or deconstructed.

            My theater experience has taught me confidence and a deep cooperation of the subject of poverty. This is an experience that, in my understanding , differentiates Mindanao theater from theater Manila or theater at the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP). The simple theater presentations with no elaborate costumes, expensive sets and state-of-the-art lighting are characteristic of aesthetics of poverty. These productions may come out physically poor but may be rich aesthetically. Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder.

            The Creative Process that I was exposed to is one that follows an O-A-O concept:

            O Orientation (what is to be  presented?, why should it be presented?)

            A Artistry (how should it be presented?)

            O Organization (who should present?)

            The germination of creative ideas is a collective process. The writer, director, actors and everyone in the group, all are participants in the creative process. Thereby the intuition-expression process is shared and presented to the audience (see Figure 2: Feedback Loop model). Thus, collective creativity makes a theater person a general practitioner, one who is capable of doing anything in the production either as an actor, a technical person, or a combination of all possibilities. One has to go through the process of what we call Actor, Trainer, Organizer and Research (ATORSHIP).


The Current Theater Situation in Mindanao

            Theater in Mindanao is developing a distinctive sophistication rather than shifting its identity, maybe from a pure theater as a social movement into legitimate staging. Because the social climate has changed, the taste of the audience has also changed. Therefore, theater styles must evolve.

            Theater in Mindanao is limited in resources. Because of this, some productions have become resource-driven. There is a question on how whether theater has to be market-led or market-driven.

The Need to Review a Theater Situation

            There is a need for anyone who intends to write theater reviews to understand the underpinnings of a theater movements and its target audience. Since reviewers objectivity describe their reactions/feelings about the theater performances, they must remember that:

           Theater is form of art that involves and cannot exist without an audience;

           Theater is an unfinished product; it leaves the audience in catharsis, a state that enables the audience to integrate or reject a learning in their lives;

           Theater is about life, some that the audience can relate with; and

           Theater as form of art is a product of a collaborative process.

           The reviewer’s role, which includes the following, is important:

           Can increase theater appreciation of the public (especially those who have not seen a theater performance in their lives);

            Can set standards in theater;

            Can set a trend, or even an alternative lifestyle;

            Can validate messages, events or facts of life;

            Can help sustain theater organization and make it alive in the community.

            How do we review a theater performance? There is no fundamental principle I can cite, however, I can give practical suggestions. We can look at theater performances in the following ways:

            In emic (subjective) and etic (objective) points of view;

            In highly specific theater functions like examining crafts (well-done, well-made, and well-thought plays);

            From the artists’ perspective;

            From the audience’s feelings;

            Applying the formula: Powerful Content + Powerful Artistry = Powerful Play

            Writing/reviewing theater performances, we must consider ourselves part of the creative process. We contribute to the shaping of theater as we evaluate the (taste and understanding of ) audiences.