Wilfrido Ma. Guerrero’s fabled troupe gets a new lease on life as Lakbay Dulaang UP
CAN YOU PICTURE THIS? Boots Anson (the Roa comes later) onstage, acting in a play. The smart, lovely UP colegiala already exuding the star quality that will make her the Philippines’ sweetheart when she enters the movies. In the wings, handling the curtains, an intense young student named Nur Misuari. His job--to raise and bring down the curtain on Anson’s play.
Not a product of one’s imagination, but an actual occurrence in the long-ago UP Mobile Theater, which had Anson and Misuari as actors.
“Nur himself reminded me about it when we did a radio interview with him once,” recalled Anson-Roa. “He said, Boots, you might not remember this, but I was your curtain-raiser!”
“Even then,” Anson-Roa added with a giggle, “I think Nur knew he wouldn’t be a leading man because of his high-pitched voice.”
The occasion for her reminiscing was the recent launch of the revived UP Mobile Theater, now called Lakbay Dulaang UP, at the Guerrero Theater in UP’s Palma Hall.
Anson-Roa, in her opening remarks, recalled how young students like her had the priceless opportunity to tour the country’s towns and barrios courtesy of the travelling theatrical troupe that UP professor and playwright Wilfrido Ma. Guerrero had founded in 1962, on an initial university grant of P500.
Guerrero’s aim was “to bring theater closer to the people.” To this end, the mobile theater he led, and the student actors he harnessed, were prepared to endure the hardships of journeying to the country’s far reaches to bring plays “about Filipino customs, situations and characters” to ordinary folk.
This was the 1960s, when roads to towns outside of Manila were still rugged or non-existent, when amenities were few and comfort a premium in travel.
In an article he wrote for the May 1964 UP Alumni Yearbook, Guerrero laid out the template for his project:
“I felt that the Mobile Theater, to be successful, must follow the pattern of the theater during the Middle Ages, when plays were staged in the plazas or in street corners, our only concession to modernity the use of microphones, two at least but preferably three. No sets are used, only the barest furniture, but with costumes and make-up. Emphasis is on the plays and on the acting.”
In terms of the plays presented, “No morbid or existential themes are touched upon… I feel that people in the provinces have a hard enough time, so our aim is to make them laugh and cry but with a message in every play. Nothing of this art for art’s sake.”
For 19 years, the UP Mobile Theater regularly toured Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao, eventually logging some 2,500 performances.
Aside from Anson-Roa and Misuari, its alumni include Behn Cervantes, Jonas Sebastian, Joonee Gamboa, Amelia Lapena-Bonifacio and Tony Mabesa (the founding artistic director of Dulaang UP).
Guerrero was declared a National Artist for Theater in 1997.
After Guerrero’s demise, for lack of funds and leadership, the UP Mobile Theater was discontinued—until this year when an alumnus of the troupe, on the occasion of UP’s centennial celebrations, thought of reviving it.
Ignacio Gimenez, who recalled traveling to as far as Sulu in Mindanao during his UP theater days, became a successful entrepreneur later in life. Now the owner of the Buy and Sell Publishing group of companies, Gimenez proposed the idea of resurrecting the traveling troupe, with him funding it. Dulaang UP enthusiastically agreed.
“It’s just my way of giving back to UP and to the country,” said Gimenez in his remarks at the launching.
His generous sponsorship allows the new Lakbay Dulaang UP to bring on tour a troupe of 12 students, plus artistic staff, portable scenery, and resources for transport, food and accommodations. The repertory will consist of Guerrero’s classic plays as well as works by other playwrights.
“It is the intention of Lakbay DUP to bring renewed awareness of Guerrero and his works and other Filipino playwrights as well,” said Dexter Santos, who directed Lakbay Dulaang UP’s inaugural offerings--two Guerrero staples, “Laban ng Basketball” and “Wanted: Isang Tsaperon,” and a short movement interlude based on Rene Villanueva’s children’s story “Alamat ng Butiki.”
“I wanted to do ‘Tsaperon’ because it is a signature Wilfrido Ma. Guerrero play,” said Santos. “And when I read ‘Laban,’ I knew it was something we could contemporize, since it tackles the Ateneo-versus-La Salle basketball rivalry. It was a material we could experiment with, and the students of today could relate to.”
But while “Laban” was updated (with current hardcourt heroes like Ateneo’s Chris Tiu mentioned in the text), “Tsaperon” was “mounted as a 1950s-style comedy of manners (à la Sampaguita and LVN Pictures). I wanted the old to go down memory lane, while also exposing the young to the period and its values,” explained Santos.
“In both plays, the aim is definitely to entertain but with a sense of responsibility. Laugh but think, experience but question.”
Originally in English, the plays were performed in Filipino using José Villa Panganiban’s translation. Guerrero himself used this translation for the very first performance of UP Mobile Theater on Dec. 11, 1962, in “the old AGRD laborers’ area, which was decrepit and had a hundred smells,” as he recalled it.
Three plays were performed that day: “Ang Mga Babae ay Kahangahanga,” “Salarin” and, yes, “Kailangan Isang Tsaperon.”
“Mounting it in Filipino will allow us to reach a wider audience, especially in the provinces,” said Santos.
“I really hope that we can tour as many schools as possible or even tap different community theater groups in Luzon. Also, that through the entertainment we bring them, a renewed interest in the theater arts will spring from their experience.”
Lakbay Dulaang UP’s touring schedule (tentative for now) includes appearances in Rizal and Baguio this November, tours of other nearby provinces in Luzon, then performances in February 2009 for the Arts Festival Month. For inquiries, call 628000 loc. 322, 9003500 or 0928-6515670.
[Photos: Uleb Nieto]