17 June 2016

Built to last

Collage by Sean Eidder

Everyone, at least on social media, seems to ask if everlasting love still exists. The question has become so repetitive that it no longer is a question but a dictum: Walang forever.

I think otherwise. Happiness doesn’t get a lot of press, and if it does, it only tells the treacly portion of the story. What we fail to see in every well-lighted photograph of a couple locked in an embrace are the long fights they had just days before, the doubts in their head, and the arduous path they took to know and rediscover each other.

It’s a shame that our schools don’t teach us about making a relationship work — that it takes actual hard work, that love doesn’t simply fall on our laps and stay on fire just because we will it to. That’s why I’m going to stop here, because my knowledge on the matter is suspect. Instead allow me to send a salute to all the married and about-to-be-married couples out there by way of a playlist.

Here’s to those of you who dare commit to a lifetime with someone who was once (and still is) a stranger, and in doing so make immeasurable, and previously unimaginable, sacrifices. You are the true radicals.

—Originally published on GIST

11 June 2016

Thinking inside the black box

It’s very exciting for artists to see an empty space,” said Ed Lacson Jr. after recounting the diverse, if not divergent productions that came to life at the barely one-year-old Power Mac Center Spotlight, where he serves as theater manager.

The 400-sqm. black box theater was built to complete Ayala Land’s hip lifestyle and entertainment district Circuit Makati and complement the 1,500-seater performing arts theater soon to rise within the development. “A black box is basically an empty space that any artist can use, whether for performing or visual arts. It’s a canvas that they can transform however they want to,” explained Lacson. “Its difference from a proscenium type of theater is the seating, which can be adjusted in whatever configuration you want.”

And like the blank page, the limits of which are defined by the writer, Power Mac Center Spotlight has been utilized by creative minds in various disciplines. Other than the expected plays and musicals, the venue has hosted talks, product launches, even Christmas parties in the past. Power Mac Center Spotlight has seen artist Christina Dy celebrate her birthday with a live performance; poet Juan Miguel Severo recite verses to an army of spoken word and OTWOL fanatics; and the Manila Symphony Orchestra play unplugged.

“There’s no limit to the type of event; we even had a graduation,” added Lacson. Small and flexible, a black box theater inspires freedom while allowing intimacy — something that both performer and audience relish. Its very structure invites experimentation and forces attention that even Filipino rock band The Black Vomits chose to stage their modern rock opera The Gray Ground here.

At The Gray Ground rehearsals
Created by writer, artist and The Black Vomits bassist Igan D’Bayan, The Gray Ground follows Jan, who’s in the throes of writer’s block while desperately writing a literary masterpiece; and features a song cycle described by D’Bayan as “the band members’ love letter to the rock opera and the concept album.”

“To be honest, I wanted to stage The Gray Ground in a bar or in a small dingy space — with beer, eerie green lights, and patient ears. The play, for lack of a better word, is more dialogue-­driven and our music moves the story forward. But once I started developing the protagonist Jan and rethinking the Kafkaesque, Lynchian, Black Mirror-­like world that he lives in, we decided to stage the play in a proper black box theater, a decision that led us to Circuit Makati,” shared D’Bayan.

“The venue is a tabula rasa,” he continued. “It’s up to director Bianka Bernabe, stage designer Marco Ortiga of The Crucible, Ruel Caasi of TWA (The Working Animals), and the students of the College of Saint Benilde (CSB) School of Design and Arts to transform Power Mac Center Spotlight into Jan’s weird and wonky world. Ayala Land and Circuit Makati were very open to our ideas and have been really supportive.”

“We’re supporting The Gray Ground because it’s a unique project,” said Mel Ignacio of Ayala Land. “And we also like it when the students are involved. CSB is very near; it’s the community that we want to cater to. We want the people to stay, live, work, and play in Makati. We want the people in the area to know about the venue and that’s what Igan’s show can do.”

How the team behind The Gray Ground will make the workings of a writer’s (blank) mind a compelling drama and at the same time bring rock opera into the local audience’ consciousness, we have yet to find out. But Lacson couldn’t wait for the ride: “I was looking at their designs. It was very forward, very avant-garde. They have a mosh pit together with the regular seats. I think it’s an exciting way to use the space.” he said.

“If we had a proper budget, we’d aim for something like Faust (2006) — something ordinary infringed by something gothic with lots of shadows, masked figures and supernatural reds,” shared D’Bayan. “Now, it’s more of an ‘imagined space.’ If we do our jobs, the audience­ members would really be transformed into the Gray Ground, with an area code between everywhere and nowhere.”

It’s easy to say the opposite of Lacson’s previous statement and still be right: It’s very scary — frustrating? unappetizing? — for artists to see an empty space. And this dichotomy between emptiness and creation, sharing (if not coming from) the same space is what makes Power Mac Center Spotlight and The Gray Ground quite a match. As D’Bayan explained, “What The Black Vomits will present in The Gray Ground is just one story swimming in a sea of stories. But in our tale, the devil is a blank computer screen for a man suffering from writer’s block — and space is where the next story is coming from.”

—Originally published in The Philippine STAR

08 June 2016


My elementary life was a period in history I’d rather not go back to and attending the press launch of Annie the Musical at Resorts World Manila reminded me of all those years spent with a confusing mix of girls — the shy ones, the quiet but not exactly timid ones, the loud but harmless ones, the loud and annoying ones, the bullies, and everything in between. I wasn’t looking at my former school mates, I was observing the cast of Full House Theater Company’s production of Annie.

Now a little older, you’d think I’d know how to handle myself. But children and teens will forever be a mysterious and surprising species. I had no idea what to expect being among them, and they always manage to catch me off-guard.

Case in point: Ataska Mercado, who, forgive me for the stereotype, would probably be sitting at the cool table in high school. The 14-year-old has done several stage plays in the past with Kids Acts Philippines (The Wizard of Oz, Hansel and Gretel, Peter Pan), but her early claim to fame must be through singing competition The Voice Kids, where she joined and got a three-chair turn — meaning all coaches found something special about her. She’s currently a model and has landed a recording deal with Viva Entertainment, Inc.

Good looks and talent are already a given in that room, but Ataska carried herself with a certain spunk. No wonder she snagged the role of Pepper in the musical. Make no mistake, though, she didn’t go all bossy and know-it-all on me. In fact she was as sweet and warm as can be. What converted me into a fan, though, was her intelligence and social awareness.

Here she is talking about her role, and then some.

GIST: How did you prepare for the auditions?

ATASKA MERCADO: Lots of vocalizing and stretching. We learned all four songs from Annie: Maybe, Tomorrow, You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile, and Hard Knocked Life.

What is it about Annie that makes you want to be a part of it?

I like the music and the script’s amazing. The story’s great because it talks a lot about the government during the Great Depression in America. Even if it was the Great Depression, Annie was still optimistic and positive that she will find her parents. That energy — Annie’s energy influences everyone.

How much of Pepper do you resonate with?

I’ve always wanted to be in Annie the Musical since I was younger and I wanted to play Annie. But as I grew older, I wanted to play Pepper, because she’s the cool one, the though one. And I’m really tough. But she’s a bully, so I don’t relate to that. I love everyone in real life (laughs).

Who was the first person you called when you learned you got the part?

The first ones I called were my Dadsie Vehnee, my manager and composer and my Momsie Ladine, his wife and my voice coach. I also auditioned with my best friend, so I also told her that I got the role. Then I told my grandparents, whom I love very much; my ninongs, my ninangs; my titos, my titas…

Is this your biggest role yet?

Yes, because Annie is such a big thing, it’s such a loved musical by everyone, worldwide.

Who’s your idol when it comes to acting?

Coach Lea Salonga. And I love Ms. Menchu (Lauchengco-Yulo), she really inspires us. And Direk Michael (Williams). They’re just so inspiring. They help us be the best actors that we can.

What kind of music do you listen to?

I listen to a lot of indie music.

—Originally published on GIST


Update: January 23, 2017

Meeting this girl is definitely a 2016 highlight. She's proof that age doesn't matter when it comes to human connection.

02 June 2016

Designated jazzmaster

Rave was — and to some extent remains — an unfamiliar ground to me, and that’s because my participation in activities involving one has always been at a minimal. I first encountered the term in college, circa 1999, when Malate could practically be named Street Party District. My curiosity (and outgoing friends) led me to the “in” clubs and “it” crowds, but my inner homebody found no reason to stay.

Fast forward to 2012: EDM artist Zedd came out with Spectrum and Find You, two mainstream ear worms that had a “feat. Matthew Koma” appended to their titles. Later on I’d see the same name featured in dance tracks I would play on repeat. It turns out the man is a singer, songwriter, producer — and a DJ to boot — who gives soulful acoustic performances.

Matthew Koma served as a Northern Star when it came to negotiating my way through the loud and variegated world of electronic dance music, leading me to more interesting artists and soundscapes that made me want to linger. His songs, whether he sang, wrote or produced them, made clubbing at first a tolerable and eventually an exciting experience. It became similar to watching a concert — there’s the music to look forward to.

Thanks to Gerard Lopez for capturing this moment with Matthew Koma.
(This can be an inadvertent advert for the Vivo V3 Max. Ha.)

“I think it’s always been a huge genre. Commercially it’s become viable, especially in America in the context of radio, because it’s evolved into something that is song-driven, and the production has become super interesting as well,” offered Matthew when asked why EDM has flourished over the past half-decade.

As to whether or not the genre gets the respect along with the attention it deserves (EDM is often associated with mindless beats), Matthew said, “It’s always hard to talk about music or art in relation to respect. They all deserve respect. It’s people pouring their hearts into whatever it is they do, whether it’s painting or making music.”

Speaking of heart, his own creative process is a sort of romance — at least that’s how I’d like to interpret it. I’ve always wanted to know if singer-songwriters are ever jealous of their songs and for Matthew, the answer is no. “You fall in love with every song during the process of creating it. It’s not until a week or three years later that you realize your relationship with it, whether you love it eternally or you hate it eternally, or you’re indifferent,” he explained. “So I never feel very precious about it. They all kind of have lives of their own. It’s a ‘what will be will be’ sort of mentality. Let some songs go and fly with other people, and let some be yours.”

Matthew has worked with a diverse group of artists (a collaboration with Shania Twain is next on his list) and if there’s one thing he learned from them, it’s openness. “The coolest thing I’ve seen in artists who have the most integrity, the most sense of self, is that they’re always students. They’re always open to challenging what they do or know, and it’s not in a way that makes them inauthentic but in a way that allows them to grow,” he shared. “That’s a cool thing to remember, that it’s okay to try different things, and that it’s okay to succeed in some of them and not succeed in some of them.”

The 29-year-old musician has been in the industry for quite a while, but he only decided to release his own record early next year. “It kind of decides itself when it’s ready and when it’s done. A record is a snapshot of time. When there’s a body of message to deliver, you’ll know when you have to put that out and move on to the next chapter,” he said, adding that his presence in the scene is a blessing and a curse. “I have a lot of songs out that people have this perception of who I am and what I do,” he continued. “‘Does it live up to that? Does it feel like a continuation of that? Is it separated enough?’ There are so many things that go through people’s minds before even hearing the album. You have to take the extra step of having to overcome that.”

He reminded us how it felt to get high on music and dance when he returned to Manila on May 27 to spin at the Chaos Nightclub, City of Dreams. It was almost 2 a.m. and while I still had the stamina of a 20-year-old, I was anxious to see him perform. When I was no longer conscious of waiting, he came. There were no introductions, no dramatic darkness, no long, tormenting silence. Next thing I knew, Find You was playing and I — we — lost it.

That collective dizziness once the DJ drops that song — here you are among strangers, for a brief moment speaking the same language, surrendering to the same force — nothing beats that. From thereon he labored as if desperate to please (or was it to possess?) his audience. If we didn’t know the song, he made us like it.

He brought the house down, and did so with neither the fancy light works nor the mind-blowing graphics — the impressive productions Matthew spoke of — which define current EDM parties. Hours before his show, I asked him out of fun what “DJ” stands for and he retorted rather quickly, “Designated Jazzmaster.” That night, he might have shown me what he meant.

—Originally published in a different version on GIST.PH

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