Endangered Theatre: A Philippine Notebook

Katrina Stuart Santiago*


This is a critical assessment of Philippine theatre in Manila based on ruptures in its status quo of silence over fundamental divides based on language and privilege, as well as important issues of neo-coloniality, inequality, and injustice. The essay argues that the surfacing of these crises at specific moments in the past decade, including in the time of pandemic, reveals the precarity of the sector, its workers, and its creativities, which in turn necessitates movements towards more urgent and essential transformations in its mode(s) of production.

Keywords: Philippine theatre, cultural labor, privilege, pandemic, precarity

The Philippines is a country steeped in denials and silences. Difficult conversations are rarely had, and instead are typically set aside. We acknowledge our problems and then quickly, sometimes willfully, we ignore them.  Because we face so many other urgencies, what is set aside finds itself at the bottom of an ever accumulating pile. It is possible that the status quo soothes us into forgetting, yet what we fail to confront is usually what endangers us: what we cannot discuss is precisely that which puts us at risk.

In 2019, in a panel on writing on arts and culture, we were asked to identify the most important insights we’ve gained over the years as observers of Philippine arts and culture. The answer which came most easily for me is that these sectors exist, survive and thrive on silences. We subsist on a refusal to discuss critical issues of wages and abuse, rights and labor, fairness and justice that shape our creative work.

This notebook on Philippine theatre is a rejection of that refusal, an insistence on having the more difficult and unwelcome conversations, and a hope in the possibility that we can flourish through the theatre in the post-pandemic world.

The Pandemic Present: Notetaking in Crisis

The act of notetaking can take on greater complexity for the critic when, instead of writing a chronology of shows, she takes the opportunity to historicize based on critical moments that define, to some extent, local theatre. This is informed by the word crisis, (from which the term critic has evolved), originating in Latin medical terminology that refers to the turning point of a disease.

For me, this approach is most productive for the act of taking stock, as it allows us to study historical moments, with ruptures and breaks, when a turning point surfaced, was addressed, dealt with and resolved. The reactions, repercussions, outcomes and echoes are equally important as the ruptures themselves.

The limitation of this exercise parallels the limitations experienced by the critic. My vision of Philippine theatre is limited by the geographic space that is Manila, both the capital and the center, where so-called mainstream arts and culture reside. By acknowledging this limitation, I recognize that any interpretations so developed might not apply to theatre and performance in other parts of the country. However, it is also possible that critical analyses from Manila will engender a deeper understanding of arts and culture within more specific local contexts.

This socio-historical juncture also harbors multifarious anxieties, the most pressing of which is how to identify succinctly what is past and what is present, and contingent upon both, what to expect in the future. Given the current crisis, theatre venues have been the first to close and the last to reopen. Consequently, it is likely that the theatre we speak of here is already in the past and cannot return; when live theatre resumes, it will already have changed.

As such, this is to some extent a post-mortem. This is not to say that theatre is dead, but rather to insist that the theatre as we know it no longer exists. Philippine theatre as spoken of here is a relic from our collective pre-COVID-19 past. It is a space from which we might learn about the present and imagine a path for the future, a complex entity that we might approach with honesty and humility, given its current state of precarity and instability. It is a dynamic center from which we might imagine ways to resolve this crisis if we are seeking solutions at all.

The Status Quo of (Neo-)Colonialism and Inequality

I grew up on the fringes of Philippine theatre. My older brother worked in theatre, so I could attend most of the shows in which he participated. Consequently, when his professional center moved from Tanghalang Pilipino (TP),[1] the resident theatre company of the Cultural Center of the Philippines, to Repertory Philippines (Rep), the longest-running English-speaking theatre company in the country,[2] so did my spectatorship. The shift from Tagalog productions to English ones—as with Philippine literature, TV and music—is part of our cultural norm: this split defines our lives in a country where the colonial past is in our neo-colonial present, one that necessarily informs our creativities.

With respect to language, the Tagalog-English divide corresponds to additional bifurcations: two very different classes within the theatre sector, two distinct niche audiences and, sometimes, even two very different sets of actors. When I returned to the theatre as an arts and culture critic, I took this divide with a grain of salt. I appreciated the English-language companies that staged foreign texts for what they were, as a medium for accessing performances I would otherwise not see at all; I appreciated the Tagalog-language companies for promoting original material, no matter how difficult the text or limited the audience.

This divide is rooted in the history of Philippine theatre as we know it, a by-product of colonialism, whereby the colonizer and educated elite sought foreign texts and productions, while local playwrights and actors built productions for the local mass audience.[3] In contemporary theatre, this class-based divide has continued, creating niche audiences for certain kinds of texts and particular theatre companies. This divide, rarely discussed, also contributes to the silences that we nurture and preserve, so that each has his own audience, each profits economically and each is fairly successful.

The pandemic, however, provided the historical break to this status quo, revealing as it did a divide based on hierarchy and inequality that is painful to observe, much less acknowledge. When the theatres first closed, the impulse was to raise funds for the majority in sectors which lacked savings or security to survive the crisis, and for this purpose wealthier actors, playwrights and producers rose to the occasion. Not surprisingly, after the first cash distributions, these efforts quickly dissipated, and with it the opportunity to discuss cultural, wage and labor issues in the theatre.

These issues that now drive the precarity in the theatre sector were also present long before the current pandemic emerged. The reluctance to address them explains in part why the majority were so deeply affected.

The Case of the Missing Audience

Linguistic and socioeconomic distinctions in local theatre also influence the composition of audience. A defining incident occurred in 2012, when a foreign production of Phantom of the Opera[4] was staged in Manila and enjoyed fully sold-out shows, even though tickets cost four times that of local productions. These developments were not surprising, given the underlying colonial mentality which shapes the predisposition of the audience for foreign texts and which motivates the existence of English-language theatre companies. Significantly, the huge success of a foreign production occurred during an especially productive year for Philippine theatre,[5] with Lea Salonga headlining a local production of God of Carnage (Atlantis Productions and Singapore Repertory Theatre) and Shamaine Centenera-Buencamino and Nonie Buencamino starring in one of the best original Filipino musicals, Stageshow[6] (Tanghalang Pilipino). But such a response to a fully foreign production underscores the unwavering influence of a colonial mentality in defining audience viewing preferences.

In 2012, while important, original Filipino musicals such as Tanghalang Pilipino’s Stageshow were staged to empty theatres, a foreign production with expensive tickets played to sold-out audiences. Here, lead actor Nonie Buencamino danced on an empty stage, to few audience members. Photo: Courtesy of the author

This result prompted a necessary but fleeting conversation about the audience for Philippine theatre.[7] One side criticized the audience for choosing to watch TV and film instead of theatrical works,[8] expressing the familiar but unjust critique of popular entertainment that does not prompt deep engagement but rather presents more easily accessible themes, as opposed to theatre, which presents more profound and intelligent material. Another side blamed theatre companies for not investing in more extensive marketing to ensure that quality productions reach a wider audience.[9]

However, both arguments miss the point that creating an audience is never achieved solely by delivering quality shows, but also requires working consistently and consciously on audience education, which few theatre companies, if at all, can undertake. Foreign shows prove that people are willing to invest in expensive tickets; local theatre companies all have niche audiences. Clearly, the audience exists. The question rarely asked is whether or not we are retaining these audiences by developing them, by offering them works that are challenging and difficult, works that go beyond what we presume they want to see.

The answer to the question posed above is in the negative, revealed during the pre-pandemic years as theatre companies scrambled to produce shows based on popular discographies of singers and bands, with the primary goal of simply bringing the audience into the theatre. Scant attention was paid to ensuring that stories were well-told, new, or relevant; the point was solely economic gain. The audience were viewed, not as participants in the discursive practice of watching theatre, but simply as spectators whose enjoyment is the primary goal. Ironically, the Philippine Educational Theatre Association (PETA), which typically excels in audience education and development, has also followed such a pattern. In the years before the pandemic, PETA often staged discography-based musicals that sacrificed narrative depth; it also continued to capitalize on staging repeat performances of the one production that has gathered the largest audience.[10]

The Philippine Educational Theatre Association is at the forefront of audience education, presenting popularized texts that do not sacrifice narrative depth. Until it decided to focus its energies on fully profit-oriented material, such a rerun of its more famous discography-based musical. This teaser is from Haring Lear (King Lear) (2012)

In July 2020, an annual festival of new one-act plays, Virgin Labfest,[11] prevailed despite the closure of theatre venues. Plays written for live performance were transposed for live streaming on Facebook, framed by the festival as a defiant response to the pandemic: we will do this, no matter how new or difficult. During live streaming, festival organizers encouraged the audience to comment on and like shows as they were being streamed, to show their appreciation for the productions and to create a sense of community. This transformed the audience into a mere cheering squad, as their responses were necessarily limited to appreciation and praise. As such, the discursive exercise was removed altogether from the experience, and the deeper conversation about the plays themselves were unwelcome. This approach allowed a rarely expressed sentiment to surface about how little thought is given to audience development, and how little the audience is valued pushed as they are towards specific responses, their understanding of the material framed for them by the theatre festival itself.

The (Un)necessary Critic

When I started writing theatre reviews, most every broadsheet and online media portal had at least one reviewer. From this group, a pool of reviewers was created by Philstage, an organization of theatre companies. Philstage reviewers were entrusted with the responsibility of deciding which of Philstage’s members would win annual performance and production awards through Gawad Buhay. An outsider to this exercise, I disengaged from the trappings of this relationship between critics and productions. I didn’t attend the press lunches; I didn’t conduct the pre- or post-show interviews; I didn’t socialize with those from the theatre sector. Instead, I would arrive at show time to watch a play and would leave the moment it was over; the point was only to watch the show and write about it afterwards. This distance, I felt, was crucial to the kind of writing I wanted to do. The personal would necessarily impinge on the critical, and it was the latter that defined the focus of my work. It was only a matter of time until it became clear that maybe this kind of critique is not welcome.

In 2014, I attended the Gawad Buhay Awards for the first time as audience. That year, the president of Philstage won the award for Outstanding Male Featured Performance in a Musical, and his theatre company won Outstanding Production for Children and Outstanding Original Musical. That these awards were given by Philstage itself, to its President, is a crisis in itself. The expressions of self-deprecation about how organizers were technically granting awards to themselves was there, but no one challenged this status quo.[12] Even more problematic, the critic-judges were also technically chosen by Philstage and had become part of the small ecosystem of theatre companies, producers, actors and critics. The deliberate smallness of this exercise, where an organization creates the means through which they might give themselves awards, and the contingent silence about this crisis, astounded me.

In the late 2010s, the focus shifted from theatre reviews to pre-show interviews and press releases, and the critic became a mere writer to sell the show via click-bait titles and soundbites from the production. This coincided with the rise of influencer culture, where influencers on social media became partners of productions in spreading news about the shows, their praises and raves now more preferred than detailed critical analyses. It was only a matter of time until the raves would confront actual criticism.

In 2018, the musical Ang Huling El Bimbo, one of the aforementioned discography-based musical productions, opened to a massive marketing strategy of social media adoration. My review of the play[13] was received negatively, with the cast and production engaging in hate and vitriol on social media comments threads, and sending private message which somehow found their way to me. As opposed to engaging with the criticism itself, their response was formulated as an attack on my person. This is not surprising if we consider that for those who believe in and bask in their own press releases, any form of critique is interpreted as an attack.

The same hate and vitriol resurfaced during the Facebook-streamed Virgin Labfest 2020, when I questioned the practice of beginning each play with the playwright’s summary of both the play itself and the motives for writing it. The backlash was quick and effective, as call-out culture encourages such practices on social media. The responses were also mindless and superficial, recommending that one could simply mute the video in that part of the stream, or fast forward to the show itself. It was also implied that organizing the festival was an extraordinary feat given the pandemic and, as such, did not deserve this kind of critique.[14]

These instances revealed a lack of interest in and dismissal of criticism unlike any I had witnessed before. Whereas my earlier publications of theatre reviews would receive feedback and expressions of appreciation for even the more exacting critiques, as a new generation took over, this happened less frequently. The younger set of theatre professionals seem less open to criticism and use social media platforms to pushback against critics, discrediting what they say by questioning who they are, what they do and who their friends are. We all know cancel culture can kill many things; criticism is one of them.

The Status Quo of Staying Small

The limited size of the theatre sector is related to its composition. We produce graduates who study theatre from the same universities, and new actors are nurtured in the theatre through familial relations. Actors are more diverse for Tagalog productions, as many come from the regions, taking their chances in Manila. In a country such as the Philippines, the presence of talent is never an issue: it is often said that talent here is a dime a dozen. The key issue, instead, is that the cultural systems function as closed networks, and these are dependent on who controls the operation of these systems. As the goal of cultural production is to utilize the theatre for economic gain, it would be difficult to extricate such a system from capital. Hence, in this system, the producers hold most of the power: what is staged, who is cast, and whether or not the systems are equitable remain under the control of a wealthy minority.

The rupture brought on by the pandemic and the fundraising initiatives in the early part of the lockdowns in 2020 hinted at problems inherent to this system. With the more privileged members of the industry speaking out publicly about helping those in less powerful positions, the next step should have been to focus on the system itself and to identify weaknesses and inequities embedded within the system, as well as changes needed in the post-pandemic future, so that similar expressions of insecurity and crisis do not materialize on this same scale again. Unsurprisingly, no one initiated such a conversation at the time, and no one is doing so at present. Indeed, such a closed system harbors cliques and friendships which discourage difficult discussions, especially when the goal is to identify necessary change and to call on those with power to enact that change. Thus, the status quo maintains inequity within the system, and silence is encouraged.

This system also necessarily limits theatre production to projects that are economically profitable, so that staging a quality performance is secondary to earning a profit. Furthermore, critics entrusted with creating high standards for the theatre have either been subsumed into or discredited by the system. Such a landscape is well-suited to profit-oriented theatre which had endangered theater work, long before the Covid-19 pandemic.

Built by five actors in 2013, Red Turnip Theatre trusted local audiences enough with more complex plays that, in a landscape that tended towards pomp and pageantry in the theatre, was a feat in itself. Teaser from their staging of Mike Bartlett’s Cock (2014)
Tiny Rebellions, Exciting Experiments

Despite the numerous limitations imposed by the status quo, several positive trends have emerged in recent years. For example, in 2012 the Philippine Repertory season was taken over by the younger generation of Audie Gemora and Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo, who staged shows such as Geoffrey Nauffts’s Next Fall with a blend of sensitivity and mettle.[15] Red Turnip Theatre, built by five stage actors in 2013, presented more complex and challenging plays which projected a quiet honesty, shorn of unnecessary noise, pomp and pageantry that often characterizes local theatre.[16]

Tanghalang Pilipino’s Walang Kukurap (Nobody Blink) (2012) by Layeta Bucoy was a rare, unflinching look at Philippine corruption that draws us all as complicit. Photo: Courtesy of Tanghalang Pilipino

Similarly, Tanghalang Pilipino had pretty special theatre seasons, such as when it had aforementioned Stageshow with Walang Kukurap,[17] a darkly relevant view of systemic corruption that seeps into our communities. That same year, they also staged Walang Sugat,[18] a contemporary interpretation of the seditious play from colonial era theatre. Before the profit-oriented discography-based musicals, PETA achieved prominence with the staging of original work such as the musical “William,”[19] which explores the relevance of Shakespeare to a Tagalog-learning classroom, and more experimental work such as Haring Lear,[20] a powerful interpretation of nation, violence, and rebellion. Important adaptations include Tanghalang Pilipino play, Juego de Peligro, a sobering story of love and womanhood set in the Spanish colonial era.[21] Necessary Theatre, a smaller company, staged Red by John Logan, a resonant piece that speaks to the smallness of creative spaces we are bound to in nation.[22]

Although Virgin Labfest experienced a critical failure in 2020, for reasons related to the pandemic, this festival has, through the years, managed to attract large audiences for its promise of never before staged one-act plays. While the plays are always of mixed quality, they all succeeded in presenting thoughtful stories that we might not otherwise see. University theatre is also alive and well, and in the hands of the more adventurous has produced relevant work of interest to a contemporary audience, such as Tanghalang Ateneo’s pre-pandemic performances that included Antigone VS The People of the Philippines.[23] Before the pandemic, Black Box Productions restaged Mula Sa Buwan, an original musical adaptation of Cyrano de Bergerac situated in colonial Philippines, providing a powerful reminder of the effect of socio-historical conditions on artistic production, in the past and in the present.[24]

Shamaine Centenera-Buencamino led the cast of Tanghalang Pilipino’s Juego de Peligro (2015), an adaptation by Elmer Gatchalian of Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’s novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses, dares dissect the possibilities for womanhood, love, and desire in Spanish colonial era Philippines. Photo: Toni Muñoz. Courtesy of Tanghalang Pilipino

The prominence of such lesser-known works in this list is of course a by-product of the systemic dysfunction this notebook has sought to discuss. The more successful plays in recent years were so judged according to revenues generated, and few could withstand serious critique.

While the creative work produced through the mainstream cultural system is a major focus of our efforts, other human issues are equally important. If the pandemic as rupture has taught us anything of value, then surely the one important lesson is that a more stable system is needed, one that facilitates our attempts to be fair and just, and calls into question the living standards of the majority of theatre workers who live with no security or support. If we fail to question the logic of these systems, then their inherent precarities and insecurities will lead to more of the same: a limited audience, an absence of criticism, a profit-based theatre. These imbalances will continue to endanger us all and negatively impact our creative efforts, as is the case at the present time.

Thus, we are hopeful for innovation from smaller collectives and individual work by artists who occupy the fringes of mainstream theatre. For example, Sari Saysay’s Sining Banwa[25] based in Bicol has focused on community-based performance work, and due to changes required by the pandemic has shifted seamlessly from naked theatre to digital experimentations.

The same can be said for Langgam Performance Troupe,[26] a small collective for whom the core of highly-theoretical, process-based performance has withstood the shift to online venues, where the medium serves merely as an instrument if not an additional character in the performance. Indeed, many more such innovations have occurred within smaller communities who lack resources to promote their work widely.

Small performance collectives like Langgam Performance Troupe that are heavily focused on theory and process-based performance have been able to continue making theatre in the pandemic. This is their work Somewhere Else Instead from 2019

I am certain that the system will not change drastically once the theatres reopen; the status quo after all has prevailed because it enables what is familiar and comfortable. Clearly, in a system where profit is a high priority and friendships and relationships are integral to survival, those with power and privilege will not be motivated to implement change for the benefit of the majority.

We have, however, experienced moments of rupture when uncomfortable discussions were initiated and productions began to engage with audience and nation more directly. The hope is that we can build on these efforts to create more equitable and fair spaces for all theatre workers. The task is to look at and discuss the precarity and dangers that this pandemic has surfaced for the theater sector. The goal is to imagine and work on a future landscape in which creative freedom and intellectual roots lead us to productive conversation, dialogue, and enduring change.


[1] On Tanghalang Pilipino, see here.

[2] On Repertory Philippines, see here.

[3] Theatre scholar Doreen Fernandez discusses this at length; during the Spanish colonial era of the 1840s, Filipino actors and productions began to stage Spanish theatre upon the arrival of, exposure to, and training from professional Spanish theatre artists. This also allowed for the creation of original Filipino theatre using the Spanish form of the zarzuela, then transformed into the localized version the sarsuwela.

[4] Many were upset by this staging of Phantom of the Opera in Manila, including the Organisasyon ng Pilipinong Mang-aawit, who wanted a requirement for each of the foreign actors to pay a fee for every performance—much like what is required of foreign actors when they perform anywhere in the world. See: “OPM Spooks Phantom: All I Ask of you is Pay the Fee,” in the Philippine Daily Inquirer, 30 August  2012. These issues would be unresolved, and seven years later, the same musical would return to Manila.

[5] For notes on that year in theatre, see “The Phantom Vote in the Broadway PHL Awards,” 10 November 2012.

[6]Desire and Disappearance,” Stageshow, 18 October 2012.

[7]On the Question of a Theatre Audience,” 2 January 2013.

[8]Where Have our Audiences Gone?” by Rody Vera, 15 December 2012.

[9]The Case of the Disappearing Audience,” by Exie Abola, 24 December 2012.

[10] See PETA Theatre’s official website where the musical Rak of Aegis based on the discography of pop rock band Aegis is labelled a “phenomenon”.

[11] On Virgin Labfest, see here.

[12] See here.

[13]Too Much, too Little: A Review of Ang Huling El Bimb’ in Three Parts,” 30 July 2018.

[14] See here.

[15]Love According to Next Fall,” 30 January 2012.

[16] Notable work include Mike Bartlett’s Cock, Nina Raine’s Tribes and Donald Marguilies’s Time Stands Still.

[17]Preemptive Strike in Walang Kukurap,” 31 October 2012.

[18]Restraint and Resonance in Walang Sugat,” 3 October 2012.

[19]Why William Works,” 13 December 2011.

[20]Why Haring Lear Moves,” 18 March 2012.

[21]Love, Deceit, Man, Woman,” 15 February 2015.

[22]Rothko and Conflicts of Artmaking in Red,” 23 February 2013.

[23] See “Antigone vs. the People of the Philippines: What Inspired Tanghalang Ateneo,” by Cora Llamas, Philippine Daily Inquirer, 9 November 2019.

[24]Love, Nation, Creativity: On Mula Sa Buwan,” 22 November 2018.

[25] On Sining Banwa.

[26] On Langgam Performance Troupe. Also a review of their work “Si Medea”. 

*Katrina Stuart Santiago is an independent essayist, cultural critic, book author and opinion writer from Manila, with a decade of work in mainstream and fringe publications. Her role as critic fuels her activism, which cuts across issues of cultural labor, systemic dysfunctions and institutional crises. She is also a teacher, a small press publisher and editor of the review site gaslight.online. She’s been writing at katrinasantiago.com since 2008,  and is @radikalchick online.

Copyright © 2021 Katrina Stuart Santiago
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