Apr 25, 2008

“Taga-Baguio lang naman kayo a, ang akala ko piso lang ang ticket niyo.”

Some years ago, a member of our theater group was nervously seated inside the principal’s office of a school in Baguio . Though the principal hasn’t given him the exact number just yet, this particular transaction could be the group’s biggest marketing coup ever, for if having a half-filled Bulwagang Juan Luna of U.P.-Baguio, a theater with a maximum seating capacity of about 350, in the past already meant a successful marketing effort, the principal was counting by the thousands as she scanned the paper listing the school’s entire population.

Finally she looked up, and said to our member/actor/marketing assistant: reserve three thousand tickets for us. That was ten years ago, and tickets to our plays then were priced at P25.00, which apparently came as a shock to the principal. “P25.00 yung ticket? Taga-Baguio lang naman kayo a, ang akala ko piso lang ang ticket niyo,” the principal said before canceling her reservation.

Just a couple of months later, that same school sent their students to watch a play brought up from Manila with tickets priced at P100.00.

Stories of this sort are familiar to most artists in Baguio – when it comes to artistic talent, anyone and anything from Manila must be better than the homegrown variety. I can understand if the discrimination comes from a Manileño: growing up and having learned the craft from institutions in Manila, I have to admit I once harbored the same bias against anything and anyone coming from beyond the toll gates of North and South Expressways. That is until I met and interacted and worked with artists from the regions, and realized how wrong I was. And so I left Manila and moved to Baguio .

The late Santiago Bose, a Baguio-born and raised artist who consistently depicted his native roots in his works, an internationally-acclaimed and multi-awarded artist, was given the outstanding citizen recognition by the city posthumously. And only after a bit of lobbying for as one city hall employee remarked as I was handing her Bose’s curriculum vitae together with a book on him and a catalogue of his works, “sino ba ‘to?”

The Baguio Country Club imports theatrical acts from Manila , the city government awards major event management contracts to groups from Manila , a significant number of the creative outputs we see on local print and television and hear on the radio are done by Manila artists. More often than not, a local talent would only be hired when the budget won’t allow for the much more expensive Manila variety.

Once while performing a concert at the Art Park of Camp John Hay, a tourist asked us after the show which company we belonged to in Manila , and he was really stunned to learn that the performers were all homegrown talents. And so what happens to a lot of local exceptional artists? An extraordinary musical director with a degree in the arts is now back in school for a second course taking up nursing; several gifted performers are out of the spotlight and are instead awake all night facing the glare of a computer screen teaching some technologically-challenged American how to play a CD on his computer. That is, if they do decide to stay in Baguio . Otherwise, we lose them to advertising agencies, theater companies, repertories, publications, production outfits, etc. in Manila and beyond.

And yet, amazingly, and luckily, Baguio continues to produce competitive artistic talents despite the lack (if not complete absence) of support and opportunities in this “haven for artists,” and so the city continues to enjoy having world-class talents in its midst. Though they rarely get the support of the local government and the local corporate community, the city still enjoys the occasional outstanding exhibition or performance, every now and then a local literary effort is published and local compositions get recorded on CD.

And, if you’re still wondering why our local artists either leave their true calling if not the city altogether, wonder no more, for, afterall, “Taga-Baguio lang naman kayo a, ang akala ko piso lang ang ticket niyo.”

Apr 21, 2008

It's been hot in Baguio

Tiong San Department Store on Harrison Road on fire, with the fire-damaged University of Baguio in the background.

The conspiracy theories about the recent fires that hit the city are really amusing...

Apr 8, 2008

Last Order Sa Penguin

It's been a while since I last went to see a play, and a couple of weeks back, I got invites to two productions: SLU-CCA's Florante at Laura and Dulaang UP-Baguio's Last Order Sa Penguin.

The last production of Florante at Laura that I saw was Tanghalang Pilipino's staging of the musical a long time ago (that was the production with the famous "magkakaroon po ng isang linggong pagitan..." a week-long intermission between acts 1 and 2 because the music was not done in time for the opening, so on opening night the audience got to see act 1, and were asked to come back a week later for act 2).

I chose to go see Dulaang UP's production since it's a been a while since UP Baguio last staged a play, and also because I haven't been to Penguin (an artists' haven in Remedios Circle, malate) in a long time, I was in the mood for a little bit of nostalgia.

RL and I entered the theater and we were quite intrigued by the stage set-up: they didn't use the stage but instead set up platforms at the opposite end of the theater which became the main acting area. I was eager to see the reason for this, so we decided to sit on the actual elevated stage, which gave a better view of the set.

The house music helped put the audience in a lousy mood: loud and the music had nothing to do with the play being presented. Even our group at times commit this mistake: lousy front-of-house management... from the ushers to the seats to the house music, these should all prepare your audience for the story that's about to be told. Well, at least the technical people seemed to be enjoying themselves toying with the sound mixer. Anyway...

The set was a disappointment - a play about an actual existing place and you would think the production designer would give the actual Pengui Cafe a look-see. The set looked more like Perk Cafe in Baguio when it just opened in th mid-90's. No leather couches where the regulars never fail to claim for themselves: table 1=theater people, table 2=ballet philippines, table 3=photographers and writers, bar=visual artists, the rest of the tables for hangers-on, young artists and poseurs. As a young boy I slept on those leather couches as my mother discussed what art is with (the late) Santiago Bose and how deep is deep with (the late) Pepito Bosch. As a young artist I hovered from table to table depending on my reason for being there on a given night: all tables to land a gig (whether acting, production/stage management, and just about anything), table 1 if I'm coming from an opening night and I'm with my colleagues from Tanghalang Pilipino, table 2 if I want Guiller, a danseur, to treat me to a beer, table 3 to update my mom's friends about how she's been since she moved to the Caribbean, at the bar with Santi Bose to gossip about the people on tables 1 to 3...

There were art works on the wall, which weren't (art works, that is). I've seen a Bose exhibit there, an installation by Boy Yuchengco, photographs by Ronnie Lazaro, paintings by Nunelencio Alvarado, so the "paintings" on the set, which the characters in the play tore to shredsd with their biting criticisms, were quite out of place. Not to say that there weren't so-so art exhibited in Penguin, but those garbage on the walls were over the top. Again, maybe a look-see by the production designer could've helped him/her come up with a better set design.

The play is like an episode of the now-defunct sitcom, Friends. A couch in the center, a group of friends pour their hearts out giving the audience glimpses of the lives of Penguin denizens. Oh wait, make that roughly 6 episodes of Friends, at the end of two hours, when the stage lights went out and the house lights came on, we were quite shocked to hear the voice over announcing the intermission. the play ran for approximately 3 hours! But I could sit through 6 straight episodes of Friends... maybe the script would've done better as a sitcom: by the end of it one is left asking, "What's the point?" And Friends most of the time has a point.

Most of the actors were really effective: a gay guy forever waiting for his boyfriend to text him back, a young woman with issues about her live-in boyfriend, another young woman who's biggest issue in life is her relationship with a "jologs", a drug pusher, the pesky flower-vendor, and Marcell, the waiter..

The actor who played Marcell actually looked like Marcell, a waiter in Penguin back in the 90's. Which confused me: the play was dated: turn of the century, and there were no camera phones yet back then as far as I remember (or maybe I'm wrong, I'm a late-bloomer whenit comes to cellphones, I tried my best not to own one for the longest time).

The friends gather, they tell their stories, and order their drinks in between: A half red? A quarter white? Coffee? Beer? I found it quite amusing when the waiter returned with a half and a quarter glass of wine: who orders a half-glass of wine? In Penguin, a half or a quarter is a half or a quarter carafe of wine.

The actors who entered only in act two, they were the characters being talked about in act one, weren't able to maintain the energy and performance level of the actors already onstage - RL and I agreed that had the play ended with act one, it would've been a better production: leaving the rest to the audience's imagination.

The movements of the actors onstage didn't make sense a lot of times, the lighting and the blocking didn't seem to agree with one another, and at times took away from instead of enhancing a scene. And until the end I didn't see any justifiable reason for having the performance area at the back of the theater. In fact, since the director had his actors kneeling and sitting down most of the time, it would have been better if they used the elevated stage instead: 5 rows from the front and it was quite hard to see the action on stage already.

Nonetheless, at the end of the at times agonizing 3 hours, I was quite glad to see Dulaang UP-Baguio on stage again... and if the actors who performed form their core group of performers, save for two or three who needed a good dose of basic acting, I'm quite excited to be there again on their opening night.

Photos of the performance right here.

Apr 7, 2008

Afternoon coffee: Sa Saliw ng Mga Gangsa

Years back, a friend offered for us to stay in her house for a few months while she traveled abroad. The house sat up on the left side of Asin Road, two bedrooms, an attic, and a porch encased in glass. A cup of Benguet brew at dusk on that porch once, I was treated to a magnificent performance: clouds from above and fog from below slowly blanketing the mountains in white, and in the distance was a wedding where the subtle symphony of gongs provided the perfect soundtrack to a perfect afternoon, and these words just came to me:

Unti-unting binabalot ng ulap ang kabundukan
Tila ba isang batang sa pagtulog ay kinukumutan
Kapaligiran ay tahimik, aking lang naririnig
Awitin ng mga ibong musika sa pandinig

I was writing a musical then, and these words eventually made its way in that play as a song. I was humming the tune in my head on my way to town this morning, making my way through the smog, the garbage and daredevil cab drivers, and I realized how not so long ago I fell in love with Baguio and chose to live my life here.

It wasn't too long ago when one can spend an afternoon on a knoll in Burnham Park with a book and the distant laughter of children playing, lay on the ground until the sun sets and take a walk through the park during magic hour, that magical moment between dusk and evening when the pine needles shimmer in the setting sun's golden light, or have a friendly game of darts, maybe a couple of hours of light banter, over a bottle of beer or a cup of tea, with a familiar face in a bar along session Road without worrying about getting caught in the middle of a mindless rumble between gangs made up of drunken minors raring to inflict harm on each other and innocent and complete strangers who simply happened to be there.

It wasn't too long ago when almost everyone didn't mind stopping in silence for a few minutes every afternoon when the bell tolls for the Angelus, and give or receive a friendly nod or smile to/from whoever is next to you, and you walk on afterwards with a feeling that somehow, no matter what's troubling you, everything is gonna be alright.

It wasn't too long ago when garbage was not an issue because the people cared enough for the city and nobody sneaked out in the middle of the night to dump plastic bags of trash in your neighbor's frontage.

I read somewhere about the economic miracles that Vladimir Putin did for Russia in the last decade, how he transformed a country on the verge of becoming insignificant in the world's affairs to one that is now once again among the world's superpowers - third to first world in the blink of an eye. No, I don't want to get into a debate about human rights and socio-economic policies, it's just amazing,that perhaps with determination and passion, how fast significant changes can be made in a society, maybe by its leader or its people, for better or for worse... and how fast we've transformed Baguio from being one of the most beautiful cities in the country into what it is or at least what it is fast turning into today: a decaying city. What was once the country's cleanest and greenest is now a city with a garbage and pollution crisis. What was once a city where everywhere is five minutes away is now city with a traffic problem. What was once a city where everybody knows everybody is now a city where crime is becoming a serious concern. All that in the last ten years or so.

I wonder if we, or our local leaders, perhaps together, can bring Baguio back to its pristine state just as fast?

By the time I finished my coffee that wonderful afternoon at the porch of my friend's house, just as the wedding party was ending and the sound of gongs was fading out and the sun disappeared in the horizon, I had finished the song:

Huwag ka sanang magbabago, o mahal kong Baguio
Malinis na hangin, magagandang tanawin
Kayong mga kabataan inyong pangalagaan
Itong munting paraiso, huwag niyong pababayaan

That cup of coffee, that sunset, those images, that afternoon will forever stay in my mind... and the song ended in a prayer:

Sa saliw ng mga gangsa 'di ko malilimutan
Mga kulay mong magaganda, kayumanggi at luntian
Kami'y nananalangin, Kabunyan kami'y dinggin
Kalikasan ay i-adya sa lahat ng masama

("Tales From A Hill Station", Cordillera Today, April 6, 2008 issue)