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Celebrating Mass Onstage

Celebrating Mass onstage
HINDSIGHT By F Sionil Jose
The Philippine STAR 02/06/2005

This Sunday’s Hindsight is unabashedly self-serving, and I can justify it only because, objectively, it is interesting and newsworthy. When the Cultural Center of the Philippine’s Tanghalang Pilipino curtains open middle of this month to present Mass, I want to assure its audience that they will witness an original and exciting rendition of my novel Mass. It will be original in the sense that the musical Man of La Mancha is new, although it takes off from the Cervantes classic, Don Quixote.

The comparison may be presumptuous, but it is valid. First, the play is directed by veteran Chris Millado, but above everything else, the play is written by the brilliant young writer, Rodolfo Vera with whom this conversation is conducted.

Vera belongs to the vanguard of the Philippine stage, the bright playwrights who include Nicolas Pichay, Jun Lan, Vic Torres, Lita Magtoto, Jovy Miray, JB Capino, George de Jesus and Chris Martinez. These playwrights honed their skills with college presentations, their experiences enlarged by the turmoil of contemporary society. They are innovative, committed, disciplined.

Three seasons ago, the Philippine Educational Theater Association (PETA) approached me for permission to transform my novel Tree into a play. The script was written by Rodolfo Vera whom I never met. In the first place, I had ceased attending PETA plays way back when I got bored by their presentations, which were more propaganda than entertainment.

I was in San Francisco when I was informed that Tree would soon be staged; I had asked to see the script and it was sent to me at the last moment. I threatened to sue PETA if I did not see the play first and approved of it. I need not have worried. As it turned out, Tree, as directed by Chris Millado, with the major role acted by Fernando Josef, was very original and moving.

I asked the playwright Rody Vera if he wanted to see the setting of the Rosales saga. So, I took him to my hometown, Rosales, and to Ilocos. He wanted to do a multimedia presentation of the saga, and his rendition of Mass is the second of such effort.

Rody Vera has won many awards, has traveled extensively, including a stint at Bellagio in Italy. He was artistic director of PETA and worked with Asian drama groups. He has translated Shakespeare, Genet and other Western plays into Tagalog, aside from writing dozens of screenplays, radio and TV scripts and more than 20 original plays that have won Palanca, CCP and Centennial prizes.

It is a great waste that the excellent plays shown in Manila are not shown in the provinces. This should be remedied by the CCP, the National Commission on Culture and the Arts, and most definitely, the Department of Education and the Department of Tourism.

These institutions should bring the best to the provinces, particularly during town fiestas. Many years ago, I heard the violinist Gilopez Kabayao play before a Negros rural audience for which activity he was honored with the Ramon Magsaysay Award. Such effort should continue to brighten the lives of our folk and make them appreciate the best work of Filipino artists.

But back to the young playwrights whose views on the Philippine stage must be attended to because they are the future. Rody Vera is the finest among them and here are some of his views.

Philippine STAR: Rizal is my greatest influence. But Camus, Cervantes, Willa Cather and William Faulkner also influenced me. What are your influences?

Rody Vera: My first influence in theater is Reijoo de la Cruz, playwright director, who started writing plays in San Beda High School. His Tatlong Manyika, written in 1970, was performed by our class when I was in second year high. Then, Rene Villanueva. I met him when I was in PETA. Al Santos introduced me to concepts in expressionistic drama. Reijoo de la Cruz introduced me to the absurdists Eugene Ionesco, Jean Genet, Samuel Beckett. I became politicized with PETA. Bertolt Brecht taught me many things, since I never really got any formal education in the craft. I got steeped in the classics later when I started translating some of them. Caryl Churchill, Tony Kushner – the Language Playwrights are interesting.

All too often, our own lives are our own motivation as creative artists. What is your motivation as a playwright?

The stage has immense power in expressing and mirroring social realities. Theater as a collective endeavor has great impact on the intellect and in the visceral realms of the spirit.

Theater is also a wonderful space for asking questions, for challenging the complacencies of society. It is the bravest of the arts, for it isn’t afraid of making mistakes.

I often say that because we have no sense of history, we also have no sense of nation. Does history mean anything to you as a playwright?

I got from Brecht his concept of historicism, putting each moment in the theater in a historical context that subjects the relationships to the real workings of the world outside the theater. Brecht takes the theater out of the stage into our lives. By stripping illusion from the stage, the audience becomes more concerned with the historical decisions of the characters.

I always urge our creative artists to draw from our own folk tradition. Many do, but some ignore it completely. The stage today – what are its shortcomings?

Theater groups have focused too much on being professional, and less responsive to the needs of the artists and the society they serve.

Some have grown callous and stagnant by producing what they already know, afraid to probe into the unknown, unable to experiment. I lament the lack of enthusiasm of artists in exploring their craft. Artistic vision is forgotten.

They just keep doing what they have been doing for years. Actors wait for directors to tell them what to do in the name of professionalism. Directors lack the drive to get out of the infringement of conventions. Producers and theater groups merely hope for full house runs, never minding the spiritual and aesthetic impact that theater can have to an audience deadened by television and movie inanities. Writers become secretaries instead of being wellsprings of that vision sorely lacking among Philippine theater companies today.

What we have are mediocre, safe, repetitious, outmoded vocabularies and dramaturgical strategies. What we have are theater seasons that don’t seem to create any significant usefulness other than feed the internal/parochial egoisms of professional theater companies that see themselves as pioneers of a tired, equally moribund aesthetic vision. In short, theater has become boring, not to the audience, but more sadly, to their own purveyors. Is it because social relevance, that catchword of the radical ’70s and ’80s, has been appropriated and turned into a legitimate, even a corporate advocacy. The poverty of theater is a poverty of philosophy. There was a time when Philippine theater drew its spirit from ideology.

Philippine theater now is waiting for a new generation, a new movement that will trigger a new enthusiasm. Many are confused about what globalization really means, what world class could really mean in our craft. Hopefully, this new and vibrant movement can come soon.

I was very impressed with your stage adaptation of my novel Tree for which reason I haven’t even bothered to look anymore at your script for Mass. The narrative line of the novel is linear. What made you select Mass for your next play?

When I wrote Tree, I included Pepe Samson in the script, hoping that this first script will give birth to adaptations of the other novels of the Rosales saga. I juxtaposed the narrator of Tree, a disillusioned man who returns to his hometown with Pepe, who is just about to leave his hometown, disgusted with everything about his poor condition.

Given this backdrop for Tree, it only seemed natural to do Mass next, also, stylistically, the collapsing of scenes and juxtaposition of characters are more explored in Mass than in Tree.

There aren’t many playwrights who work with our novels. But you managed to make something original out of Tree. What problems did you encounter transforming a novel into a play?

The novel always says much more as it can probe the inner workings of the mind of the characters. Theater can only be external and show positive action. It cannot portray someone as not angry and even the act of sitting down should elicit an action in itself, whereas the novelist can describe and create larger contexts as a reflection/meditation in response to a character’s situation.

It is this descriptive power of the novel that makes it difficult for the playwright to adapt the written work.

In short, the playwright is concerned with making the elaborate more compact without, however, losing much of the atmosphere, the metaphorical aspect, and the overall spirit of the novel. The playwright focuses on the dramatic arch, the story flow, and the development of the characters, but playwrights differ in ascertaining what constitutes the integral part of the novel that should be maintained and which might be superfluous for the stage. This is why each version will decidedly be different.

I have tried to make links, both dramaturgical and metaphoric, to scenes that seem unconnected. I try to go beyond the links that are based on plot and story and dramatize these other links instead. The result is a dreamlike structure that accommodates three scenes in one and arrives at a realization of these links at the end of the collapsed scene. I want the audience to understand my own reading of the novel as well, and not just portray the novel as the novelist had written it. This, I believe, is my contribution to the theater version. I don’t see any point in bringing the novel to the stage without my own reading.

You have worked abroad with drama groups. What insights did you get from Thailand, from Japan? Can you apply lessons from these encounters in the Philippines?

Similarities: I have learned that theater all over the world is on the brink of fading away and shall have to reinvent itself specifically to catch up with the changes within its own culture and to keep abreast of the modern/post modern technologies that have, by now, determined the most effective mediums of expression. Some theater groups have decided to embrace these, thus turning performances into so-called multimedia productions. Some have steadfastly remained faithful to the mode of the theater tradition.

The Japanese groups have had a strong theater tradition. And the modern tradition has been a direct offshoot from the traditional theater. While modern ideas have been influenced by the West, the theater artist reacts to the traditional mode and therefore has provided the continuity of this tradition.

In the Philippines, the traditional theater has completely had a full gap in relation to modern theater. The setup, the mechanics, the mode of production are completely different from the Philippine traditional theater. That is why the audience response, the economic conditions, and even the aesthetic sensibilities are radically different. This is one of the reasons why our theater is not as well-entrenched as it was before.

Discipline among the Japanese theater groups is also a deep-set value that goes as far back as the traditional theater forms like the Kabuki and Noh. This may be something that we might have to learn because this goes beyond the notion of professionalism, which for me has taken on an odious notion. Professionalism is touted as the key to world-class talent when I believe it is decidedly not. It is merely a superficial, and hypocritical attitude to discipline and commitment. Professionalism and commitment are two opposing notions.

This is a cliché but it still matters because so many of our creative people are merely derivative. What does being Filipino mean to you?

The Filipino as playwright is both a distortion and exciting to be. Distortion because the Filipino playwright is at a crossroads, between being able to reach out to the larger audience, i.e. the masses, who incidentally watch TV and the movies that we often find cheap, as well as advancing their own ideas about life and art – something that the ordinary Filipino viewer does find significant, compared to the dreamy, idealistic intellectual that he usually is.

How to fill this gap so that the Filipino playwright may represent himself as a writer with a wider audience and at the same time without compromising his own commitments to his craft and philosophy in life between folk/tradition/status quo and modernity, intellectual fulfillment and artistic refinement?

While we grapple with what it means to be nationalistic as well as world-class, the Filipino playwright, conscious of his being a Filipino, may not succeed being the playwright for the Filipino, and this is a challenge for me and other playwrights, I think: To keep searching for themes, as well as ways of expressing these themes that truly matter to him, as a Filipino and as a human being.

You are still a great distance away from being an octogenarian. But you have already amassed a lot of experiences, not to say trophies as well. What would you like future playwrights to know, to do?

First, learn the craft, and learn it well. And then, decide whether this can help them clarify what they deem most important. Each future playwright has every chance to define the direction of theater and drama in the Philippines.

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