Oct 31, 2006

What it's all about...

In Kabayan, there’s no rush hour. Mornings are spent either taking walks or jogging around the school grounds. There’s a couple playing badminton right next to some young men playing 3 on 3 basketball. A policeman steps out the station and greets everyone good morning on his way to a few laps around the school. I’m having my first Camel of the day with a steaming cup of Kabayan coffee just outside the guesthouse, which is right across the school, beside the police station and a few paces from the municipal hall. A man asks for a light, I forgot my lighter inside so I hand him my lighted cigarette… he lights a fat joint.

The day before, we left Baguio a little after noon for the 4-hour drive to Kabayan in a rented Urvan packed with lighting and sound equipment, set pieces, props and costumes, cast and staff of 8. It was a good thing that the van only had a cassette instead of a CD player, the road to Kabayan wouldn’t allow a CD to play more than ten seconds of music without skipping. Towards sunset we were being welcomed by Kenneth at the municipal guesthouse: 2 rooms with 3 double-deck beds in each, one bathroom, a living room with bottomless jugs of coffee, a bathroom, a dining room that doubles as a workout gym for the policemen next door, and a kitchen. Men and women are supposed to stay in separate rooms, as the guesthouse rules dictate, but we decided that couples stay in one room and singles stay in the other… Freida stayed in our room even if Glen wasn’t with her.

We unloaded everything from the van and started setting up in the multi-purpose hall of the elementary school. We took a short break for dinner, and tried to finish the set-up that night so we can have the whole morning to see the town. We finished the set, positioned the props, prepared the costumes, put up the sound system and hung the lights. We were about to wire the par 38s when electricity was cut-off went out. Time to call it a night.

Not that the town emitted enough lights to obscure the sky at night like Baguio does, but the stars seemed a lot brighter when we stepped out of the hall. We spent the rest of the night drinking the carton of basi that a friend gave us.

The next morning, after that cigarette and cup of Kabayan coffee, we continued setting up. We finished with enough time to visit the museum and the cavern that held the skeletal remains of the town’s ancestors. We were back at the guesthouse by lunchtime, with enough to spare for a quick nap and a quick cold bath before the 1:30PM performance. An hour before the scheduled first show the students from the Kabayan National High School, a nice 3-kilometer walk away, started arriving.

This particular production has been touring the lowlands in the last couple of months – Lingayen, Candon, Sta. Maria – we’ve been performing it for mostly high school students and so we’ve had lots of practice performing to noisy audiences who were there because they were required by their teachers to watch, and just can’t wait for the show to be over. But we knew from the time Freida made her entrance from the back row onto the stage that this audience would be different. Not even the slapstick of Ethan and Lloyd was enough to stir up the wide-eyed students to make unnecessary noises. For the next 40 minutes or so, they sat there absorbing every word being said onstage and when the time to sing the National Anthem came at the end of the show, for the first time in a number of performances, the audience stood up promptly and sang with us.

The elementary students in the next show were no different from their manongs and manangs: they held on to every word, ever gesture, ever action on stage.

And I thought, this is what it’s all about.

With so much time to spare in the afternoon, but not enough to make a go back to Baguio without having to drive in the dark, we visited the Kabayan Youth Club’s library. We were shown the National Geographic documentary on the Kabayan mummies, which ended with a short lecture on the documentation process by Kenneth. A lot of us got excited by the library’s collection, but we couldn’t bring any of these books back with us, but that didn’t stop Boybi from borrowing Dune for the night. I went to bed with A Brief History of God and RL tried to go as far as she could with a Milan Kundera book.

Boybi didn’t get to finish Dune, he fell asleep at around 4AM with only a fourth of the book left.

I didn’t stay up that long on our second night, the 4-hour drive the previous day and the two performances earlier forced me to sleep early. I woke up to the smell of breakfast and coffee early the next morning; the teachers who’ve been taking care of us at the guesthouse came in early to cook to make sure that we’d be ready to go by 7AM.

After breakfast, with everything back in the now beat up rented Urvan, it was time for the long goodbyes. One teacher said that after watching the play, she realized that truly, the classroom can only offer so much, and art truly gives us a deeper understanding of the world around us. We promised to be back.

Nah, we begged them to have us back there again some time. This is what it’s all about.

Oct 7, 2006

Frank: A long goodbye

I met Bryan Powles in 2000, when good friend Lee Garrovillo, then an art teacher in Brent, invited me and fellow Baguio-based theater artist Ferdie to join an afternoon’s poetry reading session at the school’s newly constructed art center. In attendance were Brent students, parents and a few guests from Baguio’s art community, and Ferdie and I decided to read a couple of monologues from Eric Bogosian’s gritty and very provocative piece, “Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll.” I remember editing certain words on the spot so as to avoid offending the supposed conservative sensibilities of some of the parents and teachers present – “I used to love listening to rock whenever I AM HAPPY (get high).”

Bryan loved Bogosian’s “The Artist” and “Grace of God,” and invited Ferdie and I to do an impromptu performance a few days later at a school assembly. We did a sketch on teenage violence, and I was eventually invited to be an artist-in-residence in Brent for a few months. During my residency, I was to conduct a series of workshops for grades 3-12, and then stage a play at the end of the program. I was coming from staging “Cyrano de Bergerac” the previous year, which was almost ruined by my lead actor’s suspension after he was busted for smoking and drinking in his dorm room a few days before opening night. CJ DeRaedt took over the role and learned the part of Christian in a few record-breaking days.

Bryan and I decided that I will perform the whole “Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll” anthology of monologues as my residency’s culminating event. This was met with violent reactions and objections by some parents, particularly that year’s PTA president, who vowed to do all he can to stop the showing of the play. But Bryan, together with Lee and other Brent faculty members, plus all the senior high school students who were in my production staff as apprentices, were steadfast in their commitment to get the play to opening night. The Headmaster then, exhibiting his abilities in playing politics, tried to stay on the good side of both of the opposing groups – he started by calling me to his office to discuss the possibility of “editing the script” to address the reservations of those opposed to the production. I told him that whole it was ok to “bleep” certain words during that poetry reading session, I cannot allow the editing of the script for an actual performance. In the following weeks, Mr. Headmaster would try to several times to convince me to censor the play.

It was a stalemate for a while. In the meantime, rehearsals continued. It was decided that I would only do 1 performance in Brent – and I thought that it would be such a waste to perform a play you rehearsed for more than a month only once, so I decided that after the Brent show, I would do a full run at the BCF Theater.

The bickering went on and on and on: the pros were all over the campus posting posters and selling tickets, while the antis were all over the campus asking school officials to stop the performance and trying to convince students and other parents to boycott the performance if it actually pushed through. Bear in mind that none of those opposing the performance has actually read the play nor bothered to ask for a copy of the script at all. All these I and my apprentices were all over the campus gathering materials for our set and props – discarded toilet seats, tires, scaffoldings, etc.

At some point, the antis scored a victory – after sensing that the performance will go on despite their protestations, they asked the Head master to at least “change the title of the play.” The Headmaster asked me for a reaction, and I said, “so instead of ‘Sex, Drugs,

Rock & Roll,’ what do we call it, “Love-making, narcotics and some really loud music?”

In the end, the poster had this copy: An evening of theater with Karlo Marko Altomonte at the Griffiths Theater. And, as a sub-title, in much smaller print: featuring excerpts from the play, “Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll.”

A day before the performance, Mr. Headmaster showed up again at the theater, with a copy of the script in his hand – he said he tried editing it himself and wanted me to at least look at his bastardization of Bogosian’s script. So instead of the monologue “Dirt” opening with “Fuckin’ `ya shit, fuck, piss!,” he proposed something like “Darn it, it’s so dirty and messy around here!.” I didn’t even want to look at how he edited this line in another monologue: “I’ve got a looong, thick, well-shaped prick – the kind girls die for. You’re laughing? So what, fuck you!I know what I’ve got and the ladies? Hell, they know a lot better than I do!.

I told him that I’d rather take out whole monologues instead of alter lines from it. I volunteered to take out the one with the long, thick, well-shaped prick, altogether. NAd with it 3 other monologues, but “Dirt” will have to stay or forget about it. But Mr. Headmaster insisted on his “Darn-it-it’s-so-dirty-and-messy-around-here” opening lines.

I said ok. Yes. I’ll open the play evening’s performance with “Darn-it-it’s-so-dirty-and-messy-around-here.

Opening night. It was a full-house, it turned out that all the brouhaha raised by the PTA officials piqued a lot of people’s curiosity and tickets sold like pirated DVD’s. A parent even said that when he first heard about the play, he wasn’t that much interested, he was not exactly a big theater fan. But when several parents and teachers approached him discouraging him from supporting the production, he got curious, and bought tickets for himself and his kids.

Anthem over, I was wrapped in garbage bags and carrying a plunger, all ready for “Dirt.” I peeped from the sides and saw Mr. Headmaster right there at the front row – looking so eager to hear his brilliant choice of words spoken on stage. I enter murmuring, almost inaudibly, my first few lines as the lights slowly faded in, and, just as the lights went to full intensity, I was standing right at Stage Center, I looked Mr. Headmaster in the eye and said, “Fuckin’ `ya shit, fuck, piss!”

A lot of those who watched that night eventually also watched the following performances at the BCF Theater – where I performed all the monologues. The PTA President who also headed the crusade to ban the performance was sent invitations to both performances, but he never came.

I and the graduating class of that school year, my staff, got close, and later that year they nominated me as their top pick to be their graduation speaker, which of course the Headmaster vetoed. Among those students was that year’s valedictorian, Mads, who up to know is still a devoted and much-treasured member of our group, Open Space Projects.

Bryan Powles invited me to Brent School again after that – to perform a monologue on Rizal’s life, and to direct the play, “An Actor’s Nightmare.”

I held auditions for “…Nightmare,” where I met a young man who has been watching me from the sidelines since I started my whole Brent episode, and who has been wanting to join my productions, but was too shy to approach me or anyone about it. I had two choices for the lead character. One was Bryan, who seemed to have a natural talent for acting, and the other was Frank, whose personality seemed to fit the lead character’s.

Frank was a shy young man, who, during the auditions, can barely be heard as he read excerpts from the script. But I saw in his eyes a strong desire, his determination, to bag that role – so strong it looked almost like a plea: he wanted to be given the chance. Later he would tell me that he admired the way I fought for and never waivered for what I believed in, and that he wished to be like me when his time comes. I was really flattered.

Also, in his eyes, there was a certain sadness, that seemed to show itself despite his effort to hide it. Told that there would be two performances, I cast both Bryan, for his innate talent, and Frank: I wanted to give him a chance, an opportunity to realize his potentials.

They both performed really well, but I was admittedly happier for Frank – watching him take that bow at the end of his performance, he scanned the whole auditorium with a look that seemed to scream out, “I can!.” He came to me right after the show and gave me a really big and strong hug and just looked at me, he couldn’t utter a word. He didn’t have to.

At the end of that school year, Bryan Powles, the hard-headed English Department Head, got in touch with me to ask for my help: Frank has been kicked out of the house by his father and had nowhere to go; he had only one year left before graduating. I volunteered to take him in, while Bryan raised funds to pay for his tuition for Frank’s last year in Brent.

We were living in this tiny apartment in Bakakeng then. It had three rooms: ours, Mama’s, and the helper’s. We had an attic, which served as a stockroom, I offered that to Frank.

Frank called me Sir, but it didn’t feel like the kind of Sir you use to address a teacher, it felt more like the kind you use to address a father you have so much respect for. I didn’t know Frank quite well until then, although he seemed like such a proper young man in school, I had no idea what he was like at home. I prepared myself for late night drinking binges on weekends, and sermons at the breakfast table while he nursed a nasty a hangover. I was really amazed, even embarrassed, to realize after a couple of weeks that Frank was Frank, in school or elsewhere.

A typical day with Frank in the house: I’ll wake up to find that Frank has prepared coffee and breakfast for everyone. He made sure that, if I came home late the night before and we didn’t get to talk, to ask me the next day how the previous day was and if there was anything I wanted him to do or anything he could do to help at all around the house. He would say goodbye to every single one in the house before leaving for school. On days that I’m home early, he’d arrive from school, greet everyone in the house, go straight up to the attic to change, and then join me for coffee to talk about how the day has been. He would then help out in the kitchen to prepare dinner. Right after dinner, if he’s now washing the dishes, he’d playing with Leon. After a while he’d apologize and excuse himself to start doing his homework. He’d ask me for help every now and then with his schoolwork.

He did go out with friends every now and then: but he made sure to ask for my permission, and he never failed to come home at the time he said he would.

I heard from Byran that he’s really been having trouble getting along with his parents. Many times I wanted to talk to Frank about his troubles with his parents, but I wasn’t sure if he really wanted to discuss it, so I never brought it up and instead just waited for him to say something about it if he felt like he needed to talk to someone about it. He did on occasion, but he didn’t say that much about it – but from what he did let out, I was able to paint a picture of what it’s like at home

After a few weeks, Bryan Powles informed me that he was able to secure enough support for Frank that would enable him to stay at the dormitory of Brent.

A long goodbye followed – Frank said he really loved staying with us, but at the same time he didn’t want to cause anyone anymore trouble. He promised to stay in touch. I was really glad.

He graduated that following year, and was introduced to Edgar, who ran an Eco-farm in Pangasinan. He worked for Edgar for a while, helping out with the delivery of bottled lemon grass tea, one of the farms products. He really seemed to enjoy being on his own, and earning his keep. I’d see him once in a while about town, a folder in hand that listed his itinerary for the day, and at times lugging boxes of the products. We’d always stop to talk a while, update each other with what’s happening in our respective lives. He said that he has decided to postpone college for a couple of years, until he’s earned enough to send himself to school. I was really impressed with Frank’s determination to overcome his personal hurdles.

A couple of months ago, while waiting for a cab in front of Brent where we picked up Leon after a soccer game, I saw Frank. I was really glad to see him, he looked really good, but together with that passion and kindness, and that certain sadness, in his eyes, I also saw weariness. In the last couple of years since that long goodbye, it was apparent that Frank has had to go through so much more. But, on the sunny side of Brent Road, we hugged and talked a while. He was finally able to save enough to enroll in college. He was really excited, and so proud, about it, and RL and I were really so happy for him. How I wished he were my son… I wanted to be even prouder than I was already for him. But then I thought, in way, he is. I told him that if he wouldn’t be very busy with school, and had some extra time on his hands, he might want to join me again in a production, be on stage again. We promised to keep in touch.

I was at an interview for some local TV talk show last night, the program aired right before the evening news. During a break, I heard a guy talking about the brother of a beauty queen from Baguio, some girl whose last name was Reiter, Riter, Rieter, who was found dead in his room an hour earlier. The neighbors heard a gunshot the night before, but didn’t think much of it. It turned out to be a suicide, and the young man wasn’t discovered until the day after. The name sounded familiar, but I didn’t much about it.

Later that evening, I was in a meeting in VOCAS, when RL forwarded this text from Grace Subido - “Hey karlo/rl. Grace Subido here. Hate to be the bearer of such sad news, but just heard that Frank Reiter killed himself. He’s at Paz daw. Thought you should know, he seemed happiest when he was with you guys.”

I was gonna run to Paz Funeral Parlor right away, but RL learned that his body is still awaiting autopsy – four hours after he was discovered in that room, they haven’t began the autopsy because they were still waiting for his parents.

I wanted to go see him right away, say goodbye right away, I wished there was some way to ask him why he did it, why taking his life served as the answer to whatever it was that bothered him.

Been thinking about him since I heard the news – I want to be angry at him for not considering other options, even simply running away from whatever drove him to point that gun to himself and pull the trigger.

I wish there was something I could’ve done to prevent this. For Frank, I would’ve been prepared to do anything. He had such great potential… such a waste of that potential, such a great waste.

When I see him later today, his eyes will be closed, those eyes that told so much will be forever closed now.

I will never forget Frank.

Oct 2, 2006

Loooonganisa

Oh My Gulay's chef, Marlon, got married yesterday at, where else, VOCAS. Officiated by Baguio Acting Mayor, Peter Rey Bautista, it was an intimate event, not too many people, just family and some close friends. Marlon asked me to take some pictures.

Got there 5 minutes before the 3pm scheduled start, and both the bride and groom weren't there yet. A couple of minutes later, Peter Rey walked in. I asked the waitress to offer coffee to him and his pal/aide/bodyguard. I was quite worried that he'd get bored waiting for the couple to be, afterall, he's still very young, and the young aren't exactly known for patience.

I walked up to him, and since I couldn't think of something to talk about that would be of interest to both of us, I asked him about something that at least he's knowledgeable about and has been bothering me since I got stranded on the wrong side of Session Road a few days ago: the longanisa brouhaha. Did it actually make it to the Guinnes Book of Records? "I don't know e, I think it might not make it kasi I think it had to be laid out in a straight line, and since it as done on Session Road, which was not long enough, the longest longanisa snaked up and down the road making it hard to make an accurate measurement," he said.

All that for nothing? Aw, come on. Holding up traffic and inconveniencing the public the whole morning must at least yield some substantial result - aside from having a longanisa sale that had this Ilocos pork sausage selling at half its normal price.

I was on my way to BHF Jewelry Shop that morning where I was supposed to return the LCD Projectpor we rented from Clint - one of his production assistants works there during the day. Right after passing Brent Road coming from Mines View, traffic has ground to a halt, and I had no idea why, until the driver said, "bwiset na longanisa pistibal, trapik tuloy." I got off and walked the last hundred meters or so to Session Road. The parade was in progress, and there it was in all its glory: the longest longanisa in the world held up by students parading down Session Road. And noone can cross the road, and BHF was on the other side of Session Road.

Stood there bored stiff (after staring at a few hundred meters of longanisa, it gets tends to get boring, not to mention unappetizing), I was getting impatient, until I saw what looked like the end of the parade. Waited it out a bit more until the last longanisa passed me by, followed by the main sponsor of the event, Mr. Alabanza of the famous Alabanza Meat Store, who I believe provided most of the butchered pigs, if not all, riding proud on an ATV. End of the parade, I asked the cope manning the cordon that prevented pedestrians from crossing if I could corss already, he said no. I asked why, when the parade was finished already. He just said, no, I can't cross yet. After walking the rest of the way to Session Road and hvaing waited more or less half an hour watching a pork sausage anaconda try to make its way to the Guinnes Book of Records, my patience was running low, and so, with then-arrest-me-if-you-have-to-but-I-really-have-to-get-to-the-other-side look in my eye, I ducked under the cordon and crossed the road, before the cop could approach me, abouit 30 other people followed me. So I made it to BHF, feeling so guilty at disrupting public order.

Mabel, Clint's produciton assistant, has been transfered to another branch. Damn it. I would have to talk all thew way back up to SM where Mabel has been reassigned.

And the Acting Mayor tells me yesterday that, nah, the feat might not make it to the Guinnes sBook of Records. All that hassle, all those pigs, for nothing? What a joke. A community, for lack of anything to be proud of, comes up with an idea so blah, mediocre - idiotic, even - spend so much time and energy and money for it, and then in the end, failure?

And that anaconda-longanisa feat was also supposed to be an event aimed at boosting tourism in the city. Duh. Does anyone actually think that having the longest longanisa in the world would make tourists troop back to Baguio? Tourists come to Baguio for the climate, the trees, the fresh air, the forests, the green covered mountains, the visitor-friendly atmosphere, the hospitable local community - all of which have been ignored, nay, ABUSED, by the city's powers that be for the longest time, and all they could think of to make for it to string up tons and tons of pork and parade it down Session Road and expose it to smog, dust and whatever else lurks in the heavily polluted downtown Baguio air?

I get to the SM branch of BHF Jewelry Shop. Mabel decided to take the day off a few minutes I got there.

What a lousy morning.