Friday, March 23, 2007

‘Prognosis on RP theater: Negative’

A snapshot of Philippine theater in the 1930s-1940s, courtesy of National Artist for Theater Daisy Hontiveros Avellana:

“The drama groups circa 1939 were divided into the Spanish-speaking groups like the Circulo Escenico, Talia, Arte y Caridad, and the English-speaking groups like the Community Players, the Cosmopolitan Dramatic Guild, the Players’ Guild, and the Barangay Theater Guild.

“All these organizations experienced the same difficulties. Most of the actors were working people, or students, who could spare only their evenings for rehearsals. They worked far into the night, and the realization that they would have to be up early the following morning for their various duties did not make their tempers any too sweet.

“Then, of course, there was the question of scenery, costumes, and lighting effects. How to get the best possible of these three utterly necessary items at the very lowest prices—that was a problem which made amateur producers’ hair turn gray. It was useless to expect to gain anything financially from these productions. After one had paid for the expenses, which also included rental for the theater, there just wasn’t anything left.

“Ironically, conditions in local drama circles changed abruptly for the better during the war years; the period between 1942 and 1945 might well have been the beginning of our Golden Age, theatrically speaking. We had the absence of moving pictures to thank for this; the [Japanese] occupation authorities had shut down production in local movie studios and had banned the showing of foreign films. The pictures being exhibited locally were propaganda material.

“Since man cannot live by propaganda alone, some enterprising drama groups, among them [Lamberto] Avellana’s Philippine Artists’ League, wasted no time in securing permission to stage their productions in the now vacant movie houses. It was a joy to see the SRO sign for practically all the plays presented. A production would run, give or take a few days, for two weeks. If it was exceptionally good it would stay on the boards for two or more months—with two shows daily except Sundays. On Sundays there would be three performances.

“In 1945, MacArthur returned… The traditional Filipino hospitality once again came to the fore. What little there was in the way of food was shared with the ‘Americano.’ But the average Joe didn’t much care for exotic dishes that didn’t agree with him. Joe wanted a different dish: entertainment. And that meant, for nine Joes out of ten, a leg show. And songs. Stateside. Sung badly or sung well, but still, American songs.

“And so the musical show came into its own. Old joke books were dug up; costumes, mostly on the tawdry side, were hurriedly made from whatever material was available; furniture was borrowed from trusting neighbors; a few dances rehearsed in haphazard manner. Leading movie personalities signed up for the starring roles, and the curtains creakily opened on what will probably go down in theater history as the blackest period of the local stage.

“Manila was beginning to look like a huge army encampment. Khaki was everywhere. But working on the premise that the civilians must still be around, somewhere, and that they wanted entertainment too, some of the local directors decided to present plays once again.

“The happy state of affairs did not last long. First-run Hollywood movies, exciting in their newness, hit Manila and took the city by storm. People flocked to the big moviehouses in droves. The owners of the smaller theaters where the Tagalog plays were being presented looked on alarmed. Why shouldn’t some of that good money come their way, too?

“And so the Tagalog plays were given a most unceremonious kick right where it hurt most—the box office. Prognosis on the Filipino theater’s progress in 1945: Negative.”

How far have we gone some 70 years hence?


“I’ve never forgotten what Mrs. [Jean] Edades told me. ‘There are no small roles, only small actors.’ That’s a lesson I keep telling the young ones. Even in life, it’s the same thing. There are no small roles in life, only small people.”

Any talk of legacy, of her place in Philippine art and culture, and [Daisy Hontiveros Avellana] is as modest.

“That’s for others to say… I just hope to be remembered as a good human being. And that I tried my best. Whether I triumphed in my roles or not, it’s important that I did my best.”

You did, Ms. Avellana, you did.

--from “Daisy at 90,” an appreciation.

[photo copyright © Isa Lorenzo]

1 comment:

carlo said...

It's quite sad how some people can spend so much on movies but can't shell out a few bucks more to watch a play.

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