Back to article list

September 22, 2003


“It is my conviction that the children’s theatre is one of the very great inventions of the 20th century and its vast educational value- now but dimly perceived and but vaguely understood- will presently come to be recognized. It is much the most effective teacher of morals and promoter of good conduct taught wearily book and dreary homily, but by visible and enthusing action; and they go straight to the heart, which is the rightest of right places for them. Book-morals often get no further than the intellect, if they even get that on their spectral and shadowy pilgrimage; but when they travel from a children’s theatre they do not stop permanently at that halfway house, but go on home.”

-Mark Twain

The stage is on the ground floor of a modest house in Teachers Village, Quezon City. A hundred children clap and bounce to the music, laugh and scream, urge the hero on, boo the villain.

The actors are not merely entertaining the tiny spectators; they are teaching them courage, self-reliance, cooperation and common sense. One play tackles the abstraction of justice and truth; another teaches that power must not be abused or that even Bathala (the Creator) may take mistakes and learn from them. In the meantime, children are captivated, ensuring that the lessons will be well learned.

The “actors” are brightly painted puppets. The hidden or hooded people manipulating the rods of talking monkeys, a bird, a frog, a turtle, a firefly and a mosquito are members of the Teatrong Mulat ng Pilipinas. They employ “total theater”, integrating dance, music, and drama into one art form. The actor becomes a dancer, singer and even an acrobat. Gestures are based on a code of symbolic meanings shared by the actors and audience. The costumes and props project emotional and social states, as well as theatrical effects. The music may accompany dramatic action, establish the mood or signal the actor to move or not to move. The puppeteer moves and gesticulates, depending on the stress of the dialogue. When the puppet moves gracefully, the puppeteer moves with the puppet. The puppeteer “transfers his soul” to the puppet, subordinating himself to the puppet and giving life to it.

Little local tradition
If anyone has transferred her soul to Teatrong Mulat, it is Amelia Lapeña Bonifacio, the group’s founder, artistic director and playwright. Her pioneering vision transformed the children’s theater group from a household project in 1977 to a professional ensemble that has given 1,107 performances in the Philippines and at 15 international festivals. In a country where few children’s theater and puppetry groups last beyond 10 years, Teatrong Mulat looks forward to years and years.

Compared to puppetry groups in some countries, however, Teatrong Mulat is relatively young and has little local tradition to draw on. Historical accounts do mention the carillo ( small cart): puppet theater that entertained people on the street in late 19th century Pampanga, Manila and Nueva Ecija. Today, families of huge bamboo and papier mache higante (giants) brilliantly costumed, hands on waist, and controlled by one person inside the body, still walk the streets of Angono, Rizal, during the feast of San Clemente. But the Filipino puppeteer can point to little more than the carillo and higante as local influences.

In other countries, however, puppetry is centuries old. The earliest reference to it was 4,000 years ago, preceding even drama and human actors. In 19th century Europe and North America, puppetry became identified with children’s entertainment and was a craft rather than high art. In many Asian countries, however, where puppet theater has influenced traditional dance and drama, puppetry is a serious art form. It is from Japan and Indonesia, that Professor Bonifacio drew the influences of Teatrong Mulat.

In the Japanese bunraku three puppeteers operate the puppet which consists of head, body, arms, and legs. The chief puppeteer (omozukai) manipulates the head and right arm and hand, the second (hidari-zukai) operates the left arm and hand, and the third (ashi-zukai) the legs. The three men “must even breathe in unison”.

Teatrong Mulat’s stage is similar to that of the bunraku. It has two to three levels of wooden panels which become part of the sets and guide the puppeteers in maintaining the height of their puppets. The panels are usually covered with black cloth. The panels only partially cover the puppeteers. In bunraku, the puppeteers are clothed entirely in black gowns (kurogo) with gauze-like hoods covering their heads; black is saif to represent nothingness or absence. Teatrong Mulat puppeteers dress in black jackets, pants and head covers.

Another Japanese influences is the use of shashigane, which consists of a puppet placed at the end of a rod or stick. It is used to represent flying creatures, such as butterflies, birds, fireflies, mosquitoes and bees, and heavenly bodies such as the moon and stars.

The influences of Indonesia’s wayang golek and wayang kulit are also obvious in Tearong Mulat productions. Most of the puppets are patterned after the wayang golek, or the rod puppet, which is supposed from below by a rod held in one hand, while the other hand operates the rods attached to the puppet’s hands. Teatrong Mulat modifies the constructions of the puppet depending on the movements and physical features of the character. Puppets may be as small as a foot high and as tall as ten feet or more.

The traditional wayang kulit or shadow puppets are made of leather and painted on both sides with vegetable oils. The puppet is usually supported by a long rod while the hands are moved with sticks. Teatrong Mulat, however, fashions its shadow puppets from plastic and paints them with acrylic paint.

Bilingual Audience
Teatrong Mulat did literally start as a household project: props were made from odds and ends in the Bonifacio home; household employees were recruited to assist in productions; and the Bonifacios dug into their own pockets to fund productions.

Soon, however, schools were sending their pupils to Teatrong Mulat performances. The group brought their plays to orphanages, hospitals, disaster-relief centers. It attended festivals in Asia and Europe. As its reputation spread here and abroad, Teatrong Mulat began receiving support from the University of the Philippines (tuition-fee waivers for members and later, an allowance), the Cultural Center of the Philippines, the National Commission for Culture and the Arts, funding agencies in Japan and Sweden, and even a Japanese labor union.

Teatrong Mulat was born of Abadeja: Ang Ating Sinderela, a puppet play based on a Visayan folktale about the Cinderella-like Abadeja. It was written and directed by Professor Bonifacio who acknowledged influences from Bali, Malaysia and Thailand. It was performed in cooperation with Dulaang UP, the theater group of the University of the Philippines Speech and Drama Department. Children’s story, Rene Villanueva wrote, “Like the Fairy godmother in the story, Amelia Lapeña-Bonifacio dresses the Philippine maiden with Asian theater techniques and marries her off to a bilingual audiences whose closest brush with puppetry in Sesame Street.”

Moved by the student’s enthusiasm and spurred by her own long-standing dream of forming a children’s theater group, Professor Bonifacio founded Teatrong Mulat ng Pilipinas. “Mulat means to open, to awaken; hence, a theater to awaken children to the beauty and richness not only of their own culture, but of still unfamiliar Asian and African cultures.

From Folk Tales to the Pasyon
Most of Teatrong Mulat’s plays are based on fables and folktales. In 1985, however, Professor Bonifacio departed from the plays populated by animals and plants and wrote Papet Pasyon, the first puppet Passion play.

A pasyon is versified text chanted before an altar during Holy Week and is based on the accepted traditional tunes of the community. There are two types of pasyon: Pasyong Genesis and Pasyong Kandaba. Papet Pasyonis more akin to Pasyong Genesis which narrates the life and works of Jesus. The sinakulo or dramatic presentation of the life and sufferings of the life and sufferings of Jesus Christ is performed for seven to eight days of santo-santo or during the Holy Week. A performance begins with the Linggo ng Palaspas (Palm Sunday) and ends with Linggo ng Pagkabuhay (Resurrection). It starts at 9 in the evening and may end at 1 or 2 in the morning.

Papet Pasyon was born of disappointment. In 1980, Professor Bonifacio was in Oberammergau, Germany, hoping to watch the live Passion play which is performed once every 10 years. She missed it, and her frustration drove her to write Papet Pasyon. To create the right atmosphere for writing, she read Philippine pasyon, a children’s bible and the English translation of the Oberammergau Passion play: she pored over illustrations and even bought art pieces- a marble sculpture of the Pieta and a reproduction of the crucified Christ.

Papet Pasyon squeezes the most important events into an hour and a half with the help pf illuminated screens as backdrops. The shadows in the background move the narrative forward when there is a need to delete the less pertinent features of the passion story. The play tones down the grisly nature of the crucifixion because, as Professor Bonifacio puts it. “Violence is a reality but we should first build the virtues of hope, kindness and tenderness before we introduce the bad side of life.”

An important point was the design of the puppets. How were the characters to be portrayed? Like the blond and blue-eyed Spanish images of saints in churches or like Hollywood actors in the biblical-epic movies? Professor Bonifacio rejected these popular images and approved artist Bernadette Solina’s dark skinned and pug-nosed puppets: the first Filipino Jesus and Mary.

Reviewer Ernie Hizon wrote, “Papet Pasyon is truly a landmark in Philippine children’s theater, or even Philippine drama as a whole, because it sows the seed for distinctive, synthetic, inter-disciplinary puppet tradition in the Philippines.” Another critic, Julian Ann Hallazgo, pronounced the play worth seeing ”because it is not only the product of one woman’s passion for the Passion and for the puppetry that she has infected a band of precocious kids with. It is also a singular and phenomenal meld of Filipino, the Asian, and the Christian in the arts.”

Puppet Therapy
Teatrong Mulat has taught thousand of children by entertaining them. It is less well known, however, that the group’s art has helped thousands more heal themselves.

In 1990, a terrible earthquake struck northern Luzon. The loss of life and property shocked the nation. Relief workers at evacuation centers reported that may children could not speak or laugh. The University of the Philippines sent teams of psychologist and psychiatrist to assess the mark left by the disaster upon the children. A medical-team member sought the help of Teatrong Mulat, hoping the puppets would “make the children laugh again.”

Teatrong Mulat agreed to help in the only way it could: by performing for the children on disaster areas. In some countries puppetry is used as a matter of course to help children cope with illness, operations and hospitalization. If puppet therapy worked for pediatric patients, it might work for young traumatized evacuees.

Supported by a Swedish government grant, the group traveled through Cabanatuan City, Bongabon, Laur, Gabaldon ( the epicenter), San Jose, Rizal and Cararangalan.

In 1991, Mount Pinatubo, dormant for 600 years, erupted and buried vast tracts of central Luzon under ash and lave. The Swedish government extended its grant to Teatrong Mulat and the troupe resumed performing in fields, plazas, market places, schools and evacuation centers in Manila, Nueva Ecija, Zambales and Tarlac.

The puppets helped the children banish their fear at least for the few hours of the performance; in some cases perhaps the healing was more lasting. After performance the children, playful once more, sent the troupe off with waves and cries of “Bumalik pa kayo dito! (Come again!)”

Teatrong Mulat has four things in common with Asian theater. Its being “total theater” has been mentioned. It entertains and consciously educates its audiences. It improvises, depending on the audience’s reaction; the storyteller seeks the level of the audience. Lastly, it has a religious component.

Performing to please the spirits is still widespread in Asian theater: the priests are the actors and the believers the spectators. In Indonesia, watching the wayang kulit is thought to keep the audience safe from harm during and after the performance.

Teatrong Mulat offers flowers and a prayer before each performance and ask for guidance, safety and good health, not only for the performers, but for the audience as well. The show is an offering to the children- who are our future-in the hope that they will learn to love their own culture. The prayer does not refer to a particular God or to any specific religion.

Panalangin/Sa ngalan ng Panginoong mahabagin/ matulungin at mapagkumbabba/ Ang kapayapaan ay sumainyo.
Aba! Mga Bathala ng sandaigdigan/ batid naming ang inyong pinagmulan/ Hinihiling ko sana/ang inyong pagkalinga.
Huwag ninyong tulutang masakop/ ng masasamang espirito/ ang tanghalan at pook na ito/ ang panalangin namin ay dingin ninyo.
Gabayan niyo kami/ sa aming adhikain para sa kinabukasan/ ng ating kabataan/ at sa lahat ng aming pagtatanghal/Siya nawa/Mudeng garla/Perkataan ku.

A prayer/ in the name if the Lord so merciful, helpful and humble. / Peace be with you.
Oh! The Gods of the universe/ who know our beginnings/ I request/ for your guidance.
Do not allow evils spirits to rule/ this theater and place. / Hear our prayer.
Lead us to our vision for the future/ of our children and for all our performances./ So be it.