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Some Kind of Community Theater (Those Wild Theatrical Days in Naga City Part 3)

Benito Oira (who I fondly call Manoy Bantu, with deference to his being one of the old, true friends of my late brother, Manong Pempe) asked me last week if there would be a third part to my article on the theater days in our city. To that question, I said yes, without telling him how I plan to write on and on to as far as my memory can bring me. I think as a researcher, and imagine in the future students who would be curious about how the days of cultures and refinements (if there were any) were in the old city of Naga.

Every city dreams of having a community theater and, I am now proposing, how we almost achieved having one in the 70s and, you can say, up to the 80s.

I have no theory to back up my claim and I dare not talk of renaissance the way pundits often use the word now. The period of political unrest must have contributed much to the flowering of theater arts and other similar presentations. It could also be because there were in schools a great interest in theater both as advocacy.

The youth before the declaration of Martial Law, in particular, felt they found their voices against injustice and other social issues and they wanted to express them. And theatrical presentations presented as ideal instruments to do all this.

How did we go out of our school and do theater for the general public?

What I remember now is that it just happened.

The black comedy “Octavio Series,” for example, started performing in towns, pioneering (or daring with the consent of very liberal priests) the use of churches as theaters. In Magarao, where it first was staged, we had to cover the altar with a wide piece of cloth. Covered or uncovered, the old gracious church was a witness to the expletives that were flung around not for the sake of being obscene but for truth. Always for the truth.

In a way, we were continuing the tradition initiated by the Ateneo Cathedral Players under the Jesuits, who brought classics (some in translation) to several towns in the region. While these early memories of excellence proved to be a good public relations for our plays, it also posed a complication: we had to manage the expectations of the public in certain towns who still clung to the classics as the only pieces Atenean boys could and would perform.

In Magarao, we invited some of our friends who were not from Ateneo to join the play.

A case in point was the performance in a town in Partido. It was, like in Magarao, a fund-raising activity for their church (subtext: the actors never got paid except for the chance to travel and be treated like some local celebrities, or so we thought). To please some of the organizers from the town we conceded to their request to have an intermission number. For the gala night, it was to be a ballet! To the music of the James Bond film “Live and Let Die.”

When the rehearsal time came, which was the morning of the day before the performance, the organizers threw us a crisis: Can our group provide a danseur - a male partner - who, for those who knew ballet, would basically provide support for the female soloist? Of course, we can. Bebot Padrigon, the only actor in the group, willing to wear tights, became a ballet dancer overnight. You could imagine the scenario. I was the stage manager with the great Dan Eleazar and we were not looking at all during the performance.

During the rehearsal, the choreographer was there and he was taking care of the music, putting the 45rpm (a small vinyl containing one song per side), on the phonograph or record player. When the evening came, Dan Eleazar took over and set the speed of the player for a Long-playing record. This meant the music would slow down, causing the dancers (including Bebot Padrigon) to perform the dance in slow motion. We dared not touch it anymore fearing we would speed up the music and cause the sound to come across as the Chipmunks’ rendition of a James Bond theme.

Then the play began. Were the viewers not told that we were performing in the Bikol language the way they were spoken on the streets?

That day, in some communities in Bikol, it was informally announced that we, or at least, some of us, from Ateneo, have changed.

Let it be put on record that, however improvisatory Octavio Series appeared to the public or to some cultural workers, it had a director. It was Herminio “Minio” Brazal who directed the play. I still recall the directorial command of Minio: never play for laughs. It was then that the actors realized how playing their characters straight elicited more laughter than when they would play to the gallery. Take note: all the actors of Octavio Series were incurable scene stealers.

More on the communities of artists created between and among schools and semi-professional actors and radio players of those years.


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