May 25, 2008

Make a u-turn or straight ahead.

A sign next to the Magsaysay flyover says, “To Baguio: Make a U-turn, Go To Trancoville Junction, Make Another U-turn, Proceed To Flyover Ramp.”

There are signs everywhere. Up on the sidewalks, on doors, motor vehicles: on windshields or bumpers, on paper or tarpaulin, on billboards: in neon, in color, or in black and white.

You’ve got nationwidest coverage? Sure. You‘ve got it all for me? Ok. Katas ng Saudi? Noted. Will I be there? I’m done with school, but thanks for the invitation. Kailangan pa bang i-memorize ‘yan? You’re right, no need to, and I’d have forgotten it had you not kept on reminding me all day that there’s no need to commit the crap you heap on my helpless ears all day to memory.

Sure, the stuffy central business district; with its roads filled with smoke-belching motor vehicles; its sidewalks crammed with people spitting, pissing, throwing up, loitering, littering and not minding whose toes they step on or shoulders they bump into; its once picturesque skyline now obliterated by giant commercial billboards screaming into our faces to buy this, switch to that, eat here, get drunk there, may be signs of a developed city. But from a different angle, these may be signs of a city painted all over with greed and shamelessness – a portrait of an abused city.

Perhaps the ever growing bank account of the city is a sign of progress. But what kind of future does the city face with it and is it worth it? The signs that say “Don’t Be A Scofflaw,” put up by a corporation with a legally questionable contract with the city government that was found to be illegally occupying public property and usurping the powers of several government entities, can still be seen all over the city. There are still signs proclaiming the city to be the cleanest and greenest in the country, next to piles of uncollected garbage. There are no parking signs next to parked cars, no loading and unloading signs next to jeepneys picking up and dropping off passengers.

What’s a row of bars infront of an elementary school a sign of? What’s a row of sleazy establishments near the city hall a sign of? What’s a police car passing through a red light a sign of? What’s the sight of elderly locals with baskets of vegetables and fruits being chased by the government in our streets where legitimate shops selling illegal merchandise thrive a sign of? What’s the plan to provide elected officials with brand new cars while the same elected officials often cite the lack of money as the reason behind the failure of the city government to efficiently deliver public service a sign of?

I’ve said it before, walking down Session Road, one only has to stop and look at the signs to know where the city has been, where it is, and where it’s going.

The sign may say, “To Baguio: Make a U-turn, Go To Trancoville Junction, Make Another U-turn, Proceed To Flyover Ramp,” or we can simply say, “Straight Ahead.”

Or maybe the sign could’ve stopped at, “Make A U-turn.” Looking at where Baguio is today, that makes sense.

*photo by Ric Maniquis

May 14, 2008

Ano'ng gusto mong gawin ngayon?

I buy goods from the grocery, I'm forced to cough up an extra 12% for every item (1.5k a week? So that's around 72k a year, of which something like P8,600 goes to the treasury) ...

I put gas in my car, same thing, I pay 12% in taxes (for an average of 1k a week, 4k a month, 48k a year, about P5,700 goes to the goverment)...

Somebody hires me for the services I can render, they automatically take away 10% from my professional fee... (if one's earning an avergae of 10k a month, that's 12k annualy para sa kabang bayan)...

I eat in a restaurant, 12% of the total cost is forced out of my pocket...

I buy pasalubong for my children, 12%.

I buy clothes, 12%.

I want cable, 12%.

I want electricity, 12% on top of other questionable charges the power companies force me to pay.

And to get away from it all, I watch a movie, and it's not 12%, it's 30%.

I brought my wife, who accidentaly slipped and hit her head on concrete, to the Baguio General Hospital to have her head checked, and perhaps x-rayed if necessary. We entered the emergency room, we approached what looked like a doctor and told him about the situation. He goes, "ahhh, sa surgery 'yan," and walks away. We then approached a nurse and told her about what happened. She goes back and forth between a clipboard with what looked like patient forms and her puch bag which had a really cute, colorful pad of post-its, and after deciding that it's the post-its for this particular case, she asked my wife for her name, age, address (and signature and drop in drop boxes), and what exactly happened. A resident arrived and looked at the tiny sheet of pink (or was it yellow?) post-it, and proceeded to ask my wife to start her story again from the top.

RL: ...and then I fell back and hit my head on the corner of a concrete step.

Doctor: Hmmmmm.

RL: (Waits a while for a reaction, a reply, a question, and getting none...) And then I felt dizzy for a moment and everything looked blurry for a while...

Doctor: Hmmmmm.

RL: (Does the same thing as above) And then a while ago I felt like vomitting, but I already took plasil and I feel a bit better now...

Doctor: Hmmmmm. So ano'ng gusto mong gawin ngayon?

RL: I don't know, maybe I could get my head x-rayed?

Doctor: Alam mo naman na ang ipapakita lang ng x-ray e kung may fracture o wala, hindi naman makikita ng x-ray kung my internal bleeding...

RL: Hmmmmm. (Waits for her to at least look at the bump at the back of her head while waiting for her recommendation... nothing.)

Karlo: (Walks towards RL and whispers into her ear)... I'd love to be the one, but I think it's better if it's you... can you ask her what her recommendation is then?

RL: So doc, what do you recommend instead?

At that point the aforementioned calculations suddenly crowded my head and I thought, damn, a good part of that money pays for this doctor's salary and this is what we get? Ano'ng gusto mong gawin ngayon?

I kill myself trying to put food on the table and pay that damn 12% tax forced on me because those damned people in government said the country needs it to better serve the people, and this is what we get? Ano'ng gusto mong gawin ngayon?

And I just hope that this resident did not go to U.P. as a student for that would mean that aside from paying for her salary now, I also paid for her education then, and this is what we get? Ano'ng gusto mong gawin ngayon?

When I heard her ask the question, in my head, I wanted to answer her: Ano'ng gusto kong gawin ngayon? I-untog yung ulo mo sa kanto ng sementong hagdanan, tapos sasakay ako sa time machine, tapos babalik ako nung 16 years old pa lang ako, at tatalikuran ko ang teatro at mag-aaral ako ng medicine, tapos magre-residente ako sa BGH, para pag nagpunta ka dito para ipacheck yung ulo mo, sasabihin ko sayo, Ano'ng gusto mong gawin ngayon?

May 11, 2008

Just like everybody else

Pwede na ‘yan – I used to tell members of our theater group how I hate those words. To me it means giving up on the chance to do something great, or at least worthwhile, and giving in to mediocrity. And when it comes to my craft – theater, it’s almost inexcusable, as the case may be in other aspects of life.

The cleanliness of the University of the Cordilleras campus has become legendary. People who have visited the school almost always mention how notably clean its surroundings are. A lot say that going to the bathroom in U.C. is like going to a 5-star hotel bathroom – sparkling, spotless, and surprisingly good-smelling considering how school bathrooms are notorious for being smelly and unsightly. I’ve always had run-ins with the person responsible for U.C.’s famed cleanliness, Ms. Beng Ledesma. Whenever I’m the one renting the school theater for one of my productions, my being a smoker places me in her list of undesirables and suspicious, and she hounds me: making sure I, or my co-workers, do not smoke where we’re not supposed to, and to make sure our make-up tissues and empty plastic water bottles are in the trash cans and not scattered all over the dressing rooms. She’s the one who inspects each and every chair at the school theater to make sure each one of the 500 chairs are clean and properly aligned. She’s the one who stays late to finish an evening performance to make sure her cleaners do their jobs the way she does them in her own home (this I learned from her son, Nico, who swears by her mom’s home’s superb sanitary conditions). I have seen janitors at other public places go through the motions of mopping or sweeping the floor, and I have seen Ms. Ledesma’s wards ensure that no dirt remains on the surface. I have seen other janitors indifferently operate a floor polisher, and I have seen how they sweat it out to make the floors gleam at U.C.

My point? Ms. Ledesma could’ve surrendered to mediocrity and go about her job the way everybody does: she won’t get fired, she won’t get demoted, she won’t get screamed at by the boss, she would’ve been fine without the extra effort, she would’ve been fine being just like everybody else.

Just like the policeman who turns a blind eye at the jaywalker or the erring taxi driver because it’s too much trouble to run after someone, especially when you have an over-the-top waistline, and that policeman will not get fired, he’s fine, just like everybody else.

Just like the teacher who goes through the motion of lecturing straight out of the textbook and does not exert any effort to inspire his students to gain wisdom instead of merely memorizing names, dates and places, in turn, we see students who celebrate hitting a mere 75% in an exam, and the teacher and the student are both fine, just like everybody else.

Just like the Senator, or the Councilor, who does not lift a finger to craft brilliant laws or ordinances that would significantly change the lives of his constituents, because just by merely being present in the chamber and raising one’s hand when it’s time to vote, by building waiting sheds and water tanks and painting his name all over it, he believes he’s already doing his job, and he’s fine, just like everybody else.

Just like the chief executive, of a country or of a city, who simply punches in in the morning, punches out in the afternoon, and in between signs checks for disbursement and motherhood statements and hallow executive orders, cuts ribbons at business launches, delivers forgettable speeches at conventions, sings the National Anthem on Mondays and goes on junkets on weekends – he’s fine, no impeachment nor recall elections, he’s doing his job and he’s fine, just like everybody else.

There are opportunities for greatness all around, we just take them for granted. It doesn’t matter whether you’re an ambulant vendor, a jeepney or taxi driver, a bank teller, a farmer, a garbage collector, a CEO, you can try to rise above the norm and maybe even be the best at what you do whatever it is that you do, and if we take grab those opportunities to go beyond the mediocre, then maybe we can make this world a much better place.

Or have really clean bathrooms, at least.

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

May 5, 2008

On the eve of Zari's birthday...

A few days ago I got a text from Zari: "Happy birthday to me." Thinking it was Zari-ese for, "you forgot it's my birthday!" I immediately replied with a greeting. And then she replied: "Sa Monday pa, excited lang ako." I was in the middle of running the opening ceremonies of that CPAs' convention at the Baguio Convention Center. That morning started out slow - arrived at 8am to get a headstart on the many things we still needed to do before the house opens at noon.

Focus lights.

Sound check.

Finishing touches on the set design.

Polish opening dance number.

Finalize backstage traffic.

One last runthrough of the sequence.

By 8:30AM I've had two cups of instant coffee, on top of the two mugs of our home brew earlier. I needed it, I had to stay up all night to finish editing that 9-minute video for the opening dance number. At 9:00AM MV arrived with his LCD projector, the one we're gonna use for the center screen (there are two other on either side of the stage). Idol's supposed to bring the extra two projectors, and he arrived half an hour later. Still no lights and sound crew in sight.

I start clipping the papier mache foliage in the back, moving the papier mache tree trunks here and there and the dancers started showing up one by one. It's almost 11:00AM, do you know where your crew is? No. Nah, I did, but I wasn't sure. I fire off text messages one after another: none meritted a reply. F. arrived at, though earlier than most, a wrong time, since I was ready to explode. I regret not having the ability to be pleasant that instant, the memory of the last time I wasn't in a holy mood was still fresh.

The sound guy is taking forever setting up six microphones on individual mic stands on stage. And the lights guy is running around like a headless chicken. I don't have a copy of the script, not even the sequence guide. I call for a company call.

The gyst of what I said is: If everybody else is preparing for the same show I'm preparing for, then that show should be ready in an hour, and I'm wondering why everyone seems to be taking their time and at the rateThey go back to their respective areas of responsibility with a bit more sense of urgency they're going, they're not gonna make it in time for my show. this time.

The rest of the staff arrives: I got my script, my sequence guide. I'm happy. These days, it takes so little to make me happy.

The client comes up to me and asks if we could take down the two extra sheets of greenery we hung at the back the night before... I looked and saw that he had a point, and said yes. He goes up on stage and starts taking it down, A. asks me if I knew about what the client's doing, I said yes, I did.

Finally, the set's ready, but focusing the lights took a while. As soon as I'm done focusing a set of lights and move on to the next, a spot light or two would go off for unknown reasons. They said it's the white lady that lives at the Convention Center (the one that was caught by a camera phone the previous night). I didn't know whether to climb up the ladder to check on the bulbs myself or to do a ritual to appease the soul of the lady. But after going back and forth the two light towers, we finally focused all the lights. And the set looked good - it looked so much better than how I saw it in my head when I put it down on paper. For how the set turned out, the staff's blood, sweat and tears weren't in vain. Let it be said, I appreciate it very much.

The next we knew, we had to open the house already. And the rest of the afternoon was like a blur: an opening production number, a prayer, a march, opening remarks, welcome remarks, the symbolic key to the city brought in by a guy on horseback, another dance number, and blackout.

There were mush less people the next day: a certified public accountants' national convention should be a walk in the park, though it took a while to get the walk-in-the-park rhythm going, we got it on the second day.

J. didn't have to be there, but was there anyway to take photos and double as impromptu deputy stage manager. E. and D. assisted backstage. JC showed up and did a great job hosting the evening's program (with two song numbers that brought the house down, to E.V.'s virtuosity on the guitar).

As the thousands started leaving the theater when the house lights went on, I scanned the slowly emptying theater: on that same stage I've performed a monologue in Ilokano, directed the first musical I wrote, staged a Broadway hit, directed a beauty pageant, and planned to do a production later this year: Serapio in-the-round. That would have to be put on hold for a long while. The walk in the park was really exhausting, it would take some time to recover from it. And I will.

Aren't we supposed to go out with a bang? Zari asked me on the eve of her birthday - we were at a friend's son's birthday eating menudo and candied tamarind and chocolate cake.

Nah, I said, a period would do.

Today is Zari's birthday. Happy birthday, Zari! May this day be the beginning of something great for you (as I'm sure it will be).

*photos by Jojo Lamaria

May 4, 2008

Curtain Call


Looking back at over twenty years of life in theater, I heave a sigh, unsure whether its one of relief, happiness or to exorcise regrets and other demons. From performing in front of crowds aiming at bringing a dictatorship to an end in the streets of Manila, to the glitzy, chandeliered theater lobbies of the capital’s various cultural centers, to obscure towns in the boondocks and lowland town plazas, I have dedicated a good part of my life to telling stories on stage.

A good story hits you, and it won’t let you rest until you’ve shared it with others who share the same passion for telling stories, and you gather round over cups of strong coffee and cigarette smoke to plot how to share this story to a much bigger crowd. For weeks on end you get together, slowly bringing the characters of the story to life, painting backdrops and making hand props, sewing strange looking clothing, “…AND ONE MAN IN HIS TIME PLAYS MANY PARTS.”

The high of hitting upon a good idea and everyone agreeing that it is so, or of finally moving on to work on the next scene after struggling for so long with the previous one. The joy of putting that script down for the first time and delivering lines with your hands free making gestures to add color to the literature –
fingers slightly bent as you reach out to the light up ahead, arms spread out to let it all out, or wrapped around shoulders to keep it all in.

It has brought me hundreds of kilometers from where I learned about it and where I grew up to a highland oasis that I now call home. There are no fancy cocktails on opening night, just the excitement of finally completing the art process by presenting it to those who believe that the collaborative effort was worth taking time away from the rest of the world and sitting in the darkened hall of multipurpose building to listen.

After a decade or so since that very firs
t walk on part, it inspired to form a ragtag group of kindred souls, Open Space Projects, a group that struggled no matter what to get it to opening night every time that that one good story came along. The vision of the group can be expressed simply: A good story must be told, and told well, so let’s.

From rehearsals in the comforts of my living room to cold rainy nights in different covered areas of the city’s public parks, a theater brimming with students required to write a paper on the presentation, or one with more people onstage than in the audience, we journeyed from one good story to another.

The lives of the characters in the script intertwined with the life of each storyteller, and each storyteller’s life intertwined with another’s, where at times it forms a strong bond or, at other times, a tangled mess. We shared laughter, cried together, loved each other, and at times walked away from one another with nothing more than a shrug and a cold shoulder.

We’ve told the strange beautiful story of enduring love, of heroism, of a young girl’s tragic journey to seek her one true love, of passion, of children’s right to happiness, of one man’s dream to go beyond what society expects of him, of an actor’s nightmare, or an artist’s lament, and every single time we thought we all agreed: art for art’s sake.

But every now and then I wake up realizing that the group never changed from the day it was formed: it still stood firm for the principles on which it was built upon, but the individuals’ faces have changed time and again through the years: I did what I could to nurture the group and make it grow by taking care of every single person in it, and now I realize that that may not have been the right way: though the group endured, it stayed as it was and always has been: a ragtag group, and though the philosophy, the guiding principles, the aspirations of the group may satiate the souls its members, it won’t fill their stomachs, and choices and drastic decisions have to be made.

Open Space has a vision, nay, it is a vision, one that will remain for as long as there are those who believe in it. That vision does not have ups and downs, good times and bad times, unlike people. And if the people who make up Open Space aren’t there primarily for what it stands: then it ceases to be.

I say thank you to those who, at one time or another, then and now, journeyed with me and Open Space Projects. It’s been rough, but no regrets, it was good while it lasted.