30 June 2017

I’m your audience for ever

The title of the play along with its entire story escape me now, but here's what I remember: onstage is a round wooden bath tub where two men are talking. Naturally they are naked, or at least the bare torsos and the show's daring mood suggest nudity all the way down there. One of them says, "Aalis na ako" as he gestures to leave. Behind me a male voice, hushed but panicked: "Huwag!" Then a snigger of relief — from him and his companion, I assume, when the scene ends with neither actor getting up.

That was in college, when watching stage productions was a course requirement. That was also my first experience of a pleasure unique to live performances. Whatever transpires in the audience section is, for better or worse, part of the entertainment. When I saw A little night music, people were singing A weekend in the country to themselves as they wait for Act 2 (Great, the song is stuck in their heads as well). In an attempt to acquaint myself with opera, I accepted an invitation to La Boheme — didn't understand a thing, and the kissing couple in front of me wasn't helping.

What's serious becomes tense when everybody's dead silent. What's funny becomes funnier when you hear all these strangers' laughter. Enter the theater and confront a feeling that, because shared, is amplified.


In 2007 I got a full-time job at an office along Ayala Avenue. The location meant I was a building away from the Carlos P Romulo Auditorium, and at a walking distance from OnStage, Greenbelt. Which meant that I would have to appreciate in retrospect my student discount, because tickets to plays and musicals don't come cheap. A financial knot aggravated by the fact that there's a Starbucks on every corner of the district and I love coffee the same way I love theater.

But that's why we work hard.

OnStage is home to Repertory Philippines. Many weekends were spent consuming whatever they were dishing out. One Saturday afternoon in 2009, I was at the Greenbelt ticket booth. An old man came up to me and asked what was showing. "A portrait of the artist as Filipino." It was a mouthful to say but the man understood my mumbling and was rather pleased. "That's a wonderful book," he said.

I didn't count but surely there were less than ten of us watching the matinee. I've always wondered how actors feel when that happens. If it's as uncomfortable for them as it is for me. Discomfort aside, I felt right at home.

Some proof that Repertory Philippines has been taking my money in the last 10 years.

The last Rep production I saw was pretty special. Their golden anniversary concert. That night at The Theatre at Solaire they made a fond recollection of their very first performance, attended by seven people. None got paid, we were also told. It must've been hell to go through, but thank heavens they didn't stop — even if audiences were, are, and might always be hard to win.

In the same year that they staged the Nick Joaquin drama, they brought Sweeney Todd, a musical I wanted to but never thought of seeing in Manila. It was so amazing I caught it twice, on succeeding Saturdays. "They did it?" My friend couldn't believe that it was mounted here. "With the pie shop and barber shop and murdered customers sliding down to the furnace room?" Yes, yes, all the works.

I'm on the "as if nothing is a miracle" side of things. It's not the magic itself but the clockwork behind it that's magical. I admire actors for having the physical and mental toughness to perform, but they're only part of a greater whole. To this day am blown away by the chilling soundscape Jethro Joaquin has crafted for Agnes of God, as well as Ohm David’s symbolic set design for The secret garden. And to whoever made the contraption that lets Sweeney Todd's victims fall from the barber chair into their delicious death, good job.

In their anniversary extravaganza, Rep celebrated in a Pippin-inspired number theater's faceless heroes, or shall we call, magicians. Them who work behind the scenes, and even further behind. "We've got magic to do," the artists sang, and magic they did — have all been doing.

A performance of "Magic to do" in Rep's 50th anniversary concert, held on June 11 at The Theatre at Solaire.


You can't argue against what you see. Damn difficult, at least. And for me that's what makes theater powerful: actual, breathing human beings in front of you living out a story. Oh how many filters have been removed between audience and action! This quality lends not just an urgency but a realness to whatever the performers do. They can turn your suspicions into truth and convince you that the impossible is, no kidding, possible. And then shatter everything you believe in in a heartbeat.

Which brings me to what I really, really like about theater. It is that place where you can see someone like you take the spotlight. Where (political correctness aside) you can see someone ugly kiss someone beautiful or someone beautiful kiss someone ugly. Where the fat lady with her cellulite is the most seductive person in the room. Where the old and the middle-aged aren't relegated in the fringes.

For these reasons and more I keep coming back to the theater and wish a longer, bolder life to performing arts companies, especially the pioneering Rep and PETA. (Happy 50th, too, PETA! So, so sorry that you're an aside in this piece. I haven't seen much of your shows, since I live in the South; but I'm an adult now and I vow to change that because I know it's my loss.) Thank you. Don't ever stop giving us something worthwhile to talk about.

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