Theater, nation and Peta
You’ve heard the expression “it takes a village to raise a child,” which kept coming back into my head as I thought of what I could write about the Philippine Educational Theater Association or Peta, which will be one of the recipients of the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award tomorrow.
Then it all came together, this relationship between Peta and our village-nation. Allow me a long historical detour about theater in the Philippines to better appreciate Peta.
The Philippines, taking after Mother America, tends to leave the development of the arts to private businesses and philanthropies. This hands-off attitude is so different from the European tradition, which was passed on to their colonies as well, where the national governments (and, in countries with monarchies, royal patronage) took on a major role, by way of funds and infrastructure, for the development of the arts.
If the arts were neglected, it was much more glaring with theater and is exemplified by the sad history of the Manila Metropolitan Theater or the Met. Built in 1934 by the American colonial government, it saw all kinds of productions, from zarzuelas to vaudeville and opera. The bombing of Manila during “Liberation” resulted in heavy damage to many of the grand colonial buildings, including the Met. Left on its own, parts of the Met complex, including Mehan Gardens, was used, at various times, as a boxing arena, ice cream parlor, motel, gay bar, basketball court and an informal settlers’ community. The “Met” was revived from 1978-1996 but the building remained in disrepair. Recently sold to the National Commission for Culture and the Arts, there seems to be hope that it might be finally rehabilitated.
All through the postwar period then, and even into the present, “serious” theater had to be done in private auditoriums like Meralco and Philamlife, and was expensive, with a mainly western fare.
Yes, Imelda Marcos did build the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) in 1969, starting out as a modest project with initial funds raised from a staging of the “Flower Drum Song” in the University of the Philippines, the costs eventually ballooning and drawing criticism in Congress from a senator named Benigno Aquino Jr. for its extravagance.
The CCP and Peta could well have been siblings, in a relationship similar to Cinderella and her stepsisters. CCP was created by a presidential proclamation in 1966. Peta was founded in 1967, the vision of 23-year-old Cecile Guidote who had described her vision in a Master’s thesis, “A Prospectus for the National Theater of the Philippines.”
Guidote built Peta through its first six years transforming parts of her vision into reality. She received a Ramon Magsaysay award in 1973. Shortly after, she left with her husband Heherson Alvarez and her family for 13 years of exile in the US, to escape arrest.
Fortunately, she had built a team that continued her work.
Peta’s name says it all. It was to be educational theater, bringing theater to the public, especially the young. It had no real home initially, staging plays in Fort Santiago with the blessings of National Parks chairperson Teodoro Valencia. Fort Santiago remained a tourist place, but serious theater grew within those grounds in the Dulaang Raha Sulayman, whose spaces were reconfigured according to the needs of each production.
There were all kinds of initiatives along this concept of educational theater, all the way up to the use of television. Older readers will remember Balintataw, a weekly television drama production.
Peta built up a loyal following. I was part of the Dulaang Raha Sulayman generation transported into magical worlds with each production in that wonderful outdoor theater. When Peta had to move, its fans fretted about its survival. At one point, Peta was working out of a tiny house in Cubao and had to keep finding venues for their productions. In 2005, with the support of local and international philanthropists (I just have to mention Ramon del Rosario and the Phinma group of companies), Peta inaugurated its own Theater Center, designed and built specifically for their needs. There’s a small, cozy theater good for 400 people, with the rest of the building providing lots of rooms for training activities, including the summer theater workshops for young people that Peta started many years before.
I’ve been privileged to sit at one time on Peta’s board of directors, and was part of a training team for a Mekong Partnership program sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation that went around Southeast Asia using theater to advance issues around gender, health and sexuality. This personal involvement has convinced me that a nation loses when it neglects theater. More than entertainment, more than education, Peta’s mastery of theater shows the possibilities of firing up imagination and creativity, indispensable ingredients for a nation to innovate and to develop.
The Mekong project showed how Peta had grown. Its reach expanded, out of Manila and into every corner of the Philippines, and then crossed national borders. The educational agenda has evolved, too, tackling all kinds of issues from urban poverty to environmental protection to human rights, with special advocacies for all kinds of groups, from overseas workers to special children (I love the name of that project Bumubulaklak).
Always, the “P” in Peta was paramount. Whatever Peta did, it was theater for the Philippines, it was theater shaping the Philippines. Peta was born at a time of dissent and protest, of a nation in search of itself. It interacted with the radical theater movement of the 1970s, but developed its own genres and styles, drawn from traditional Filipino cultures, emphasis on the plural. Peta “alumni,” some of whom started out with its summer theater training workshops, are now to be found everywhere, from schools to the movie industry, the broadcasting networks and even in its stepsister, the CCP.
Each Peta event, whether a play or an anniversary celebration, has become a reunion of kindred spirits who can laugh and cry, who can cheer or retreat solemnly into silence, in and out of the theater. When the Ramon Magsaysay award was announced, there was a flurry of joyful texts, as well as some sad ones remembering Soxie Topacio, one of Peta’s stalwarts, who had passed away just recently.
Maybe it was just as well that Peta had minimal state support and had to struggle to survive. Heavy state subsidies would have meant its becoming beholden to the whims and caprices of politicians. Against all odds, over 50 years, through the efforts of thousands of people, it took a Peta to develop national theater in the Philippines.
(Visit petatheater.com for information on its many activities and productions. Its Theater Center is on Eymard Drive in Quezon City, where you can buy their CDs and books, including “A Continuing Narrative on Philippine Theater: The story of Peta.”)
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