Mother once mentioned of a cute girl’s popularity in the neighborhood as one who is definitely mute but whose cry can ruin anyone’s poultry business. Indeed, it’s funny to hear that it was my habit to cry aloud from morning until night of the next days and disturb thousand chickens. I wonder how the rest of the animal kingdom were disoriented by squeaky human speech while on the other side I can only imagine how my T’yang and T’yong were fuming prayers to let unbelievable silence leave me. I would love to think I was more of a thinking type of kid than the talking type, the non-verbal type of speech than the verbal.
Good thing the children and the community from long long time ago created Bahay-bahayan which provided another of those rare moments when something may be heard of from the cute tongueless girl besides her constant wailing. I remember as kids, we didn’t talk much which role to play. It was always almost automatic: we came as we were, throw our lines spontaneously, wore what we wanted and chose our hand props and accessories from the stuffs we actually ransacked and gathered although, yes, there were times when we quarrel out of insecurity for the dialogues and props that each of us poor kids really wanted.
It was either my friends would fill our makeshift house in a house or that I brought my treasures to their palace. I am not sure how many times I had become a father, a mother, a grandmother or a sister and brother but what I liked most in house chores was the cooking part because I was amazed every time gumamela leaves became oil in an old can of sardines. It was then our way of cooking rice, at least the boiling part was the same. And we also liked to cook crayons that become fire once added with saliva in its boiling point.
It wasn’t long however when father, mother, grandmother, grandfather, sister or brother transformed as a dog, a cat, a parrot, a piglet, a fox, a hen, a turtle, a monkey, a duckling, a rabbit, a bee, a mouse, a snake, a lion, an owl. When one started playing a fable character, nobody wanted to be human anymore. We would bully the kid who had no choice but to be a George or Jane in the jungle. As if the treasures we gathered were not enough, we would then find ourselves raiding some baul and sew our own clothes. Nobody wanted to be monotonous and boring. So we were really competitive in creativity.
Soon we would play our game in front of an audience, I mean real audience in our village with improvised boom mics that I thought Manila did not have yet during that time of mid-80s. Before the baile would start to occupy teens and adults in our village, there was first an hour of children’s showcase, which I realized then we were participating in an entertainment meant to gather the crowd. The plaza is fenced by coconut leaves, sometimes cogon or banana while the mobile sings Touch by Touch. Honestly, to reach the place which was like a mountain away from our house meant breaking curfew rules and going out of bed through the window of our bungalow.
One night, while I sunk in deep thinking as to how I can possibly show off the costume that I bragged about to other dirty nosed-kids, I heard an unusual whistle. Before I could stand to see what was with the moon and stars, my sister was too quick to do so as if to see a lover. So, I discovered she was not sad at all when our parents did not permit us to join the village dance. She had intricately set one of our blankets as a vine of escape from our room to the roof of the backdoor toilet in the ground and even took care of opening a part of its ceiling too so you can jump through the bowl and finally reach the door out. I silently followed her crawl and was convinced not to tell mother about it because I would benefit from the great passageway my lovely sister invented anyway.
Perhaps, theater came to me as a chance to break some norms so people could freely hear me speak more than two words in a day in a manner other than squeaky. In the stage, the village can freely see me dancing more than sitting in isolation with my paper dolls perhaps.
In one occasion, our group won medals and cash in the night’s competition. I excitedly greeted mother in the morning to show her the money only to be scolded because I could not tell her how, when and where I got it.
Nevertheless, I realized early on that theater is something that I would fall in love again and again. I could really be very shy but I should say performance has helped me a lot then and now to be gay and be expressive of what I think and feel.
In school, I was Annie dressed as sunflower in “The sun’ll come out tomorrow…” who popped out in all wings along with the rest of the orphaned sunflowers. In John Lennon’s Imagine, I became a candle too that turned to a living rosary. I was once Joey Ayala’s dancer in Karaniwang Tao, Asin’s green warrior in Masdan mo ang Kapaligiran and Mother Mary in the Beatle’s Let it Be. I was once born Anabelle Lee, Mary Aguirre, Psyche the Spirit Goddess, a wife in Why Women Wash the Dishes and oh one of the prostituted women in Miss Saigon who dominates the pole exhibition. Thinking back, I wonder why the hell we had Miss Saigon in grade school, did someone ever explain why a girl had to be a prostituted woman and why I was chosen to play the role. At least I had the early hint I am tone deaf for musicals but not with dance.
In my first year of high school with pretty nuns in blue, I dreamed of a Filipino version of St. Bernadette where I am the main character simply because then I found white and blue the coolest color on earth. The rest of the years were with Filipino classics. You may not know Reyna Valeria but she is the queen of three princes who turned to stone in the story Ibong Adarna. In another show, I was Balagtas’s Floresca. Tiya Isabel may not ring a bell too but she is one of Rizal’s woman characters in Noli Me Tangere-El Filibusterismo. Then one time I became Madame, another time Eleanor. Rereading Rizal now, I wanted to be Salome of the Elias and Salome uncut chapter.
Studying theater in college exposed me to different hats: an actor, a director, a technician, a carpenter, a designer, a manager, a utility maintenance, a reader, a speaker, a writer, a spectator, a critic. It’s an ensemble although collectivity in its real core may not be totally present in commercial outfits. I had experienced, suffice to say, persevered a process of developing one’s self and artistic skills the wrong way, I mean the practice of seniority and physical and mental violence in workshops and production proper wherein fixing torn costumes or carrying wardrobe and set would seem like the lowest job in the planet and that a flying shoes or an eraser kissing your cheeks or a pencil literally planted in your head do not at all hurt.
Collectivity and respect are very important in any art form and in any field I should say, matters that I found a home (not merely bahay-bahayan) in Advocacy Theater and Protest Art for the past five years. It’s far different when you study theater from the library, films, your professors or from fellow artists than when you stay with an urban or a remote community and be involved in the residents’ happiness and tears while gradually creating with them a world where no one needs to be hungry anymore, for example. It’s different to create something that challenges the senses and the nerve of time.
Here, in such theater, curtains are meant to open chronic and pressing issues that others would rather not talk about to obviously preserve their status quo in corruption, abuse of power and land oligarchy or simply to censor one’s self for some reasons like neutrality, a favorite alibi.
Whenever I’m onstage and offstage, I feel like everyone can hear me so naturally I make it my responsibility to place my bias where it is greatly needed: to show the roots of societal cancer and to help in answering its end. A street performance I saw one February night when Visayas Avenue in Quezon City was closed down for Kulturang Kalye led me to explore theater in labor, human rights, people’s democracy and peace based on justice. The group I later learned was Tumbang Preso now known as SINAGBAYAN or Sining na Naglilingkod sa Bayan.
From my Bahay-bahayan days and purok shows, I remain really shy but I think my understanding of life has grown deeper, my perspective wider especially that I’ve discovered a theater practice meant not to stop talking though performers have done their bow salute and the audience had given back their applause.