The stolen stage

The art of the theater is symbolized by two masks—one smiling, standing for comedy, and the other crying, standing for tragedy. Of late, Filipino performers may be seeing more of the tragedy mask, as foreign productions flourish on these shores and local productions languish.

In an Inquirer report last week, respected actors Isay Alvarez and Robert Seña called on Filipinos to patronize local shows as much as they do foreign shows. They saw no problem with foreign actors coming over but, according to Alvarez, “the problem lies [in] Filipinos thinking that anything foreign is better than local shows.” As for Seña: “I’m just scared that we might lose our identity because of what’s happening now.”

Alvarez observed that a large portion of sponsorships from Filipino corporations was now going to the touring foreign productions: “This is what pains me the most—they give P5-10 million to a foreign show, but we can’t ask P100,000, or even P50,000, for a local project!” And while tickets for foreign shows are definitely pricey, an excellent local production may be enjoyed for a fraction of those prices, she pointed out.

The couple’s remarks are valid and timely in light of the wide interest generated in these parts by Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Phantom of the Opera.” Promoted by Concertus Manila, the Australian production enjoyed a hugely successful run in Manila, with a number of extensions as well as rave reviews for its cast, sets and costumes. But it has also drawn protest from local artists concerning equity payments.

The Organisasyon ng Pilipinong Mangaawit (OPM) and the Bureau of Immigration (BI) are bound by an agreement enforcing the Equity Rights Program, “a government-private initiative that seeks to provide assistance to local performers and producers whose livelihood and practice of profession are displaced by the influx of foreign productions.” The agreement states that the BI will issue working permits to visiting foreign artists only after they have paid a fee of P5,000 per foreign singer, backup vocalist and instrumentalist, for each performance. The money is to be used for the medical and emergency benefits of Filipino musical performers. Said OPM chair Mitch Valdes: “This is the practice all over the world. This is not something we came up [with] by ourselves. It’s reciprocity, a way of paying respect to the performers in other countries.”

In the case of “Phantom,” OPM said that the production did not pay the required fees, and that the BI, without consulting OPM, issued special working permits to the cast. But BI spokesperson Ma. Antonette Mangrobang explained in a statement that “there is no basis for the bureau to require stage actors who are not singers or musicians to submit to the equity program of OPM and secure its endorsement in applying for their special work permit.” She said there had been discussions with OPM to expand the program’s coverage but that the agreement had never been amended to include theater performers because OPM had yet to submit certain required documents.

“These theater people sing,” Valdes countered, correctly. “They dance and do everything. Theater is still music.” She also bemoaned the bureau’s unilateral definition on who was a musical performer and who was not: “Who will decide who are the singers and the nonsingers? It wouldn’t [be proper] if they do it. We want the decision to come from us.”

This is the second time that OPM has accused the BI of breaking the terms of the agreement. In January, OPM assailed Concertus Manila—which was then promoting the touring musical “Mamma Mia!”—for not making the correct equity payments. The BI had again issued special working permits to the members of the cast and charged them fees much smaller than what was required. Valdes said that while “Mamma Mia!” went on its run, OPM met with bureau officials and both parties agreed that foreign theater artists would be covered by the agreement. “After our meeting with the commissioner, he said there was no more problem,” Valdes said. “We do not understand why they suddenly changed their tune.”

It’s time the BI debunked the belief that agreements are made to be broken.

Meanwhile, it’s certainly a good thing that Filipinos are flocking to watch theater and stage productions in this Internet Age. Hopefully, this interest will extend to local productions by way of patronage and sponsorships. Local shows need that boost. Alvarez’s words are both plaintive and cutting: “Just give us 10 percent of what you’re giving foreign shows and we’ll be happy.”

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Tags: BI , Bureau of Immigration , editorial , opinion , OPM , theater

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